Rafael Nadal gets 86th edition of 24 Hours of Le Mans race underway

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LE MANS, France (AP) — Tennis great Rafael Nadal played the role of official starter on Saturday to get the 86th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans classic endurance race underway amid light rain.

Former Formula One champions Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button are among 180 drivers in the crews of three.

Alonso, racing for Toyota, is competing in his first Le Mans as he bids to match British driver Graham Hill’s feat of completing motorsport’s unofficial Triple Crown, including wins at the Monaco Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500.

The Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK Ford GT of Andy Priaulx, Harry Tincknell and Tony Kanaan drives during the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

Hill, a two-time Formula One champion like Alonso, managed the feat when he won at Le Mans in 1972.

Button, who is racing for SMP, is also making his debut in Le Mans in the highest category, LMP1.

Alonso’s hybrid car started from pole after teammate Kazuki Nakajima qualified fastest. Their crew is completed by Sebastien Buemi. The other Toyota is crewed by Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez, and one of the two cars is favored to win.

The Toyotas quickly settled into a fight for the lead as the track was declared wet. Buemi set the early pace and was leading by 19.978 seconds after completing 17 laps of the circuit in the first hour.

Three-time Le Mans winner Andre Lotterer had to bring his Rebellion car back after losing the nose in a collision at the start.

AJ Foyt Racing promotes Benjamin Pedersen from Indy Lights to IndyCar for 2023 season

Benjamin Pedersen AJ Foyt
AJ Foyt Racing
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Benjamin Pedersen is the first driver to land a promotion from Indy Lights into IndyCar for next season as AJ Foyt Racing confirmed Wednesday he’ll be part of its 2023 lineup.

Pedersen, a 23-year-old dual citizen of Denmark and the United States, spent last season running the full Indy Lights schedule for HMD Motorsports. Linus Lundqvist, his teammate, won the Lights title, and Pedersen finished fifth in the final standings. Pedersen earned his only win earlier this month when he led every lap from the pole at Portland.

Pedersen also ran four races for HMD in 2021 with back-to-back runner-up finishes in his debut. Pedersen landed on AJ Foyt Racing team president Larry Foyt’s radar through a “trusted colleague” and Pedersen spent most of last season shadowing the IndyCar team.

His promotion to IndyCar comes ahead of all four drivers who finished ahead of him in the Indy Lights standings, including champion Lundqvist.

“We are really looking forward to having Benjamin as part of the team,” Larry Foyt said. “His enthusiasm is infectious, and he is 100 percent committed to IndyCar, AJ Foyt Racing, and doing the best he can to win races.

“It’s been great to have him embedded with the team this past season, and everyone is excited to hit the ground running when testing begins. It is also great to have a multi-year program in place, which will help him and the team grow together.”

Foyt did not announce a car number for Pedersen. Kyle Kirkwood spent his rookie season driving AJ Foyt’s flagship No. 14 but Kirkwood is moving to Andretti Autosport. The team has not yet announced if Dalton Kellett will return for a fourth season, and a third car for Tatiana Calderon was pulled from competition after seven races because of sponsorship non-payment. Shutting down Calderon’s team removed the only semi-regular female driver from the IndyCar field.

Pedersen, however, was signed to an agreement Foyt said “spans multiple seasons as the team plans to develop the young rookie and is aligned to a longer-term plan for AJ Foyt Racing.”

Pedersen was born in Copenhagen but raised in Seattle and currently lives in Indianapolis. He said his time shadowing the IndyCar team has given him a jump on his rookie preparations.

“I’ve spent a lot of time this season with AJ Foyt Racing learning the ins and outs of making the jump to IndyCar and it’s been really nice to do that in conjunction with my Indy Lights season,” Pedersen said. “IndyCar has been my target goal since I started open wheel racing in 2016. The racing, atmosphere, fans, events, tracks, etc. are all awesome.”