The 86th 24 Hours of Le Mans
While the Indianapolis 500 is considered the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” the annual 24 Hours of Le Mans is another classic event steeped in tradition and prestige.
Fitting nicely in the gap left by INDYCAR and the FIA Formula One World Championship, Le Mans will be held this coming weekend at at France’s Circuit de la Sarthe. Many of the world’s best drivers from various disciplines of motorsport will be present for the 86th running of the endurance race with the green flag dropping at 9:00 a.m. Eastern time here in the States.
At Open-Wheels.com, we like to follow the stars of the Verizon IndyCar Series as they attempt other forms of racing and the events that they like to enter. Earlier in the year we covered the Rolex 24 at Daytona and this weekend we will keep tabs on our American open-wheel notables as they compete overseas.
For this preview, we will note recent Verizon IndyCar Series names that fans will recognize and the various cars and classes they are competing with. You can also check out some of the helpful links at the top of the story for a full-fledged spotter guide, entry list and schedule of events!
Let’s meet the teams our drivers will be representing at this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The LMP1 class features a few fringe IndyCar drivers that have participated in IndyCar in the past few years. The most notable of them are Fernando Alonso, the 2017 Indianapolis 500 rookie of the year and a rumored 2019 entrant in the IndyCar championship if McLaren decides to up their ante in American open-wheel racing.
Additionally, four-time IndyCar race winner Mike Conway will be racing an LMP1 machine on the same team as Alonso as he joins the fray with Toyota Gazoo Racing while Russian driver Mikhail Aleshin makes his fourth Le Mans start with SMP Racing.
Check out the LMP1 notables with IndyCar ties below.
No, he is not a current Verizon IndyCar Series participant, but many fans are yearning for the moment “Fred” returns to the States for another shot at the Indianapolis 500 (and maybe more in 2019).
As McLaren attempts to keep the two-time world champion happy despite a dismal season in Formula One, the British racing team has loaned Alonso out to Toyota Racing for this year’s Le Mans. The reason Alonso famously skipped the Monaco Grand Prix in 2017 to race Indianapolis was part of his pursuit of racing’s triple crown – featuring Monaco, Indy and Le Mans.
If Alonso could take victory at Le Mans this weekend, it would certainly “Justify” a return to Indianapolis in the near future to complete that triple crown and place him among the all-time greats in motorsport history.
To date, Graham Hill is the only driver to accomplish the feat. Hill won Indianapolis in 1966, Le Mans in 1972, and captured Monaco five times between 1963 and 1969. Juan Pablo Montoya is the only active driver with wins in at least two legs of the Triple Crown, winning Indianapolis twice (2000 & 2015) and Monaco in 2003.
Montoya is competing in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans in the LMP2 class for United Autosports, the team that Alonso drove for at the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Alonso will be part of the two-car Toyota team that is one of the favorites for victory this weekend. In testing on June 3, the Spaniard topped the time sheets with a best lap 3 minutes, 19,066 seconds. It was nearly a full second better than the next-fastest Toyota driver, his teammate Kamui Kobayashi.
Look for Fernando in the No. 8 Toyota Gazoo Racing machine with teammates Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima. The trio actually took victory in the first FIA World Endurance Championship event this season when they captured the win at the 6 Hours of Spa on May 5.
It will be Alonso’s first career start in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Another familiar face in the IndyCar scene will be racing for Toyota this weekend in France: former Ed Carpenter Racing driver Mike Conway.
The 34-year-old Conway hasn’t raced in IndyCar since 2014 but remains a fan-favorite amongst American open-wheel racing supporters. Conway has gotten off to a nice start in sports cars this season despite contesting just two of the five Weathertech SportsCar Championship rounds thus far.
A runner-up finish at January’s Rolex 24 at Daytona was followed by a 3rd place run at Sebring’s famous 12 hour race for the English driver. Both events were contested with Whelen Engineering Racing, whereas Conway will be running with Toyota Gazoo Racing for the 4th time at Le Mans.
In four career starts, Conway was excluded from the results in 2013 while he placed finishes of 6th in 2015 and 2nd in 2016 with Toyota.
Last year Conway’s car made it 154 laps into the event before a clutch failure relegated the team to a 54th place finish. They had started the event on the pole with the quickest qualifying time.
The No. 7 Toyota Gazoo Racing team will be composed of Conway plus the previously-mentioned hot shot Kobayashi as well as Jose Maria Lopez. Look for this team to be a real challenge to the Alonso-led No. 8 Toyota group.
Ah yes, the Russian daredevil that still commands our attention: Mikhail Aleshin. While he didn’t pick up the greatest results in a short IndyCar career to date, Aleshin has always been an entertaining soul to watch race and it wouldn’t hurt to have his courage and bravery back on the American open-wheel tour.
Aleshin is driving for SMP Racing, the same group that backed his efforts in IndyCar while competing with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. At 31 years of age, Aleshin has 38 IndyCar starts to his name and picked up podiums at Houston in 2014 and Pocono in 2016. He even won the pole at that Pocono race two years ago.
Ousted from IndyCar halfway through the season in 2017, Aleshin has found work in this year’s FIA World Endurance Championship driving for SMP. At the season-opening 6 Hours of Spa, Aleshin and his team placed 5th and was the lowest of the finishing LMP1 teams.
In three career 24 Hours of Le Mans starts, Aleshin has picked up overall finishes of 33rd in 2015, 11th in 2016 and 33rd again in 2017. Each year the effort has been with SMP Racing with his team finishing 37 laps off of the pace each of the last two years.
There may be hope in sight for the Russian driver this year, though, as 2009 FIA Formula One world champion Jenson Button will be part of the SMP entry while Vitaly Petrov will round out what will be – at the very least – an exciting trio to watch over the weekend.
Juan Pablo Montoya
The sole recent IndyCar connection to the LMP2 class comes in the form of Juan Pablo Montoya, the experienced Colombian with already two out of the three Triple Crown legs complete following his victories at Indianapolis (2000 and 2015) and Monaco (2003).
While Fernando Alonso has received the brunt of recent Triple Crown talk, Montoya is the only active driver to be a step away from immortality. A three-time winner of the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Montoya is far from a rookie in endurance racing despite this being his first Le Mans start.
Montoya will be driving for United Autosports, self titled as the “UK’s fastest growing motorsport team.” Last year the team finished 5th in class at Le Mans and will take a two-car stable to the French circuit in 2018.
The two teams are broken up into the No. 22 entry of Philip Hanson, Filipe Albuquerque and Paul Di Resta, as well as the No. 32 crew of Montoya, Hugo De Sadeleer and William Owen.
Many IndyCar fans were disappointed to see Montoya excluded from the Indianapolis 500 this past May, they have reason to back him in June.
While there have been 7 drivers to win at least two legs of the Triple Crown, Montoya and Hill are the only two that have won both the Indianapolis 500 and Monaco in the same career.
A.J. Foyt won Indianapolis four times and captured Le Mans in 1967 with Dan Gurney but never competed at Monaco.
Keep an eye on Montoya as a sleeper to jump in and steal the spotlight from Alonso if he can pull off the unthinkable on Sunday. He is truly a once-in-a-generation talent and we need to enjoy his final years of competition.
GTE Pro Class
With only Montoya as IndyCar’s link to the LMP2 class, we move onto the GTE Pro class. It is actually the class with the most IndyCar-linked drivers as Ford Chip Ganassi Racing brings four recognizable names to the table this weekend in a three-car effort.
Current full-timers Scott Dixon (hot off of his win at Texas this past weekend), Sebastien Bourdais and Tony Kanaan will be spread across the triple-entry team while Ryan Briscoe will join Dixon on the No. 68 team.
The 2018 sports car season for Chip Ganassi has been highlighted by a 1-2 effort in the Rolex 24 at Daytona back in January. Briscoe, Dixon and Richard Westbrook just edged Bourdais, Dirk Muller and Joey Hand as the two team cars remarkably finished on the same lap after 24 hours of running.
Lets take a look at the individuals themselves.
While he has come close many times, Sebastien Bourdais has yet to win the race that is housed in his own back yard. The Le Mans native appeared for the first time in the historic event back in 1999 and has six top-10 finishes to date. While many of those finishes came in frustrating fashion, Bourdais was able to cash in on his latest trip to Le Mans.
In 2007, Bourdais was part of the Peugeot factory team that took the pole award alongside teammates Stephane Sarrazin and Pedro Lamy. On the opening lap of the race, a slide through wet weather conditions cost Bourdais a place to one of the Audi teams who would eventually go on to win the event. The Peugeot had to be parked during the final minutes for a mechanical while in contention.
Returning in 2009 again with Peugeot, Bourdais and company picked up another pole position and ran a relatively clean and strong race. Again, the pairing finished runner-up and was one lap down to the leaders – the sister Peugeot team.
For the third time in four years, Borudais and Peugeot again picked up the pole position for Le Mans in 2010. This would be the most heart-shattering start of them all as Pedro Lamy was piloting the car when just 38 laps into the event, a suspension failure ended the team’s run before Bourdais had even jumped in the machine.
After finishing 35th in 2012, Bourdais finally tasted victory at Le Mans in 2016. When Chip Ganassi renewed the Ford GT program at the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans, Bourdais was tabbed to run with Joey Hand and Dirk Muller in one of four team cars.
Starting 34th overall, the trio would climb all the way to 16th in the final overall standings and placed 1st in the GTE Pro class to cap a triumphant career for the decorated Bourdais.
This year, Bourdais is back with Muller and Hand and will certainly be a contender for the GTE Pro class victory once again.
At age 36, Briscoe is about to embark on his fifth career Le Mans start and third run with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing. A seven-race winner in the Verizon IndyCar Series between 2008 and 2012, Briscoe hasn’t been in an IndyCar since 2015 but is still recent enough to warrant consideration on our list.
Dipping his toe in the sports car world back in 2015 with Corvette Racing in the GT Le Mans category, Briscoe became one of the first drivers signed to run on Ganassi’s renewed Ford GT team for 2016. After finishing 2nd in the WeatherTech Sports Car Championship in the GTLM class in 2016, the team backed that effort up with a 4th place championship result in 2017.
Briscoe will have a quick piece under him this weekend in France as the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing sports car operation begins to round into shape in year three of the program. The team that Briscoe is a part of is leading the WeatherTech Sports Car Championship’s GTLM class after four races in 2018, picking up a win and two podium finishes.
In four Le Mans starts, Briscoe’s last two runs have been much more enjoyable than the last two trips to France. In 2013, Briscoe ran with Level 5 Motorsports in an HPD ARX-03b-Honda machine that was listed as “not classified” following 242 laps of action. This was because the team could not complete 70% of the winner’s distance in the event, finishing 106 laps down to Audi Sport Team Joest.
For 2015, Briscoe had teamed up with the ever-potent Corvette Racing outfit with Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia serving as teammates.
Despite a promising start to the week, the No. 63 Chevrolet Corvette C&.R would not see the green flag as the team had to withdraw from the event due to unrepairable damage caused by a crash in an evening qualifying session.
Bringing back the famous Ford GT with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2016, the trio of Briscoe, Scott Dixon and Richard Westbrook brought home a 3rd place finish in the GTE Pro class and completed a whopping 340 laps over the 24-hour period.
Last year the team remained intact and they placed 7th in class, 23rd overall with 337 laps completed.
Briscoe will again be teamed up with Dixon and Westbrook this week and should be a force to be reckoned with, as is the case with most teams our IndyCar friends are competing on.
Entering this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans as the defending Verizon IndyCar Series race winner, Scott Dixon has plenty of reasons to be giddy this summer.
In typical Dixon fashion, he has weathered a rocky start to the IndyCar championship and now finds himself 23 points up on challenger Alexander Rossi in the standings. Known for his slow starts and hot summer runs, this year’s IndyCar slate is playing right into the four-time champion’s hands.
As for Le Mans, Dixon travels to France with the same record the last two years as Ryan Briscoe (3rd in 2016 and 7th in 2017) but this Ford Chip Ganassi operation is as well-oiled and ready for battle as it has ever been.
With Briscoe and Richard Westbrook full-time in the car, their pairing with Dixon’s once-in-a-generation talent will almost surely result in a Le Mans GTE Pro class victory in the very near future.
In all honesty, the challenge could realistically be in-house as Ganassi will roll out four Ford GT entries for the GTE Pro division.
If he could capture victory at Le Mans, Dixon would join just Graham Hill and A.J. Foyt as drivers to win the Indianapolis 500 as well as the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
It is unlikely you will see the New Zealander attempt the Monaco Grand Prix to then fulfill the motorsport Triple Crown, but being in the same breath as Hill and Foyt is magical enough.
Realistically, Dixon has just as good a shot to grab that second leg of the Triple Crown as Fernando Alonso does, so keep an eye on this No. 68 Ford GT on race weekend.
Finally, we come to T.K. At age 43, Kanaan is making just his second start in the historic 24-hour race following a 6th place run in the GTE Pro class in 2017 with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing.
Teamed up last year with capable sports car handlers Dirk Muller and Joey Hand, Kanaan will move over to “Team Britain” in 2018 as he welcomes in Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell as teammates.
In the same boat as Dixon, Kanaan could begin to cement his status as a racing immortal with a victory this weekend at Le Mans to go with an Indianapolis 500 victory from 2013.
Even with his departure from Chip Ganassi’s IndyCar program over the offseason, that relationship has been maintained for this event and adds to the Chipster’s “Murder’s Row” of open-wheel talent here in France.
On May 5, Kanaan participated in the FIA World Endurance Championship’s opening round at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps. After 26 laps the No. 67 team with Kanaan, Priaulx and Tincknell were involved in an accident that ended their day prematurely, missing out on a valuable opportunity to glean some important data from the 6-hour race.
Kanaan has run six times in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, so he isn’t completely green to 24-hour endurance races. Driving for Tom Gloy Racing, Kanaan got his start at Daytona in 1998 and placed 3rd in the GT1 class with Robbie Buhl and Mike Borkowski.
It would be 15 years before he returned to the event wit Dener Motorsport in 2013 as part of an all-Brazil line-up featuring Rubens Barrichello, Felipe Giaffone, Nono Figueiredo and Ricardo Mauricio. That team did not fare as well in with a Porsche program that would come home 28th.
Starting in 2014, Kanaan started driving for Ganassi’s sports car program and the track record speaks for itself. In a run with Scott Dixon, Kyle Larson and Marino Franchitti, Kanaan’s first outing with the team netted an 8th place finish in the prototype class.
The very next year, the same line-up returned with Jamie McMurray swapping seats with Marino Franchitti in what would be a winning combination. The four-man team captured overall victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona with an astounding 740 laps completed in a Riley-Ford combination.
Kanaan ran in the prototype class once more in 2016 driving for Ganaasi and placed 7th before piloting Chip’s Ford GT to a 5th place run in the GT Le Mans class last year.
Like we said before, it is a who’s who of open-wheel talent in the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing stable for this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans and Kanaan’s team will be a threat just like the others.
Images courtesy of Sky Sports and Christopher Owens/INDYCAR Media.