Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Why IndyCar Fans Should Watch the European Le Mans Series

The Road to Indy has been a successful ladder system for IndyCar but since the ladder system was officially established in 2010 IndyCar has not been the only series to benefit from the Road to Indy. The European Le Mans Series is littered with drivers from the Road to Indy. From Indy Lights race winners to occasional U.S. F2000 race starters with a few former IndyCar drivers also on the grid there are plenty of names IndyCar faces and those diehards who follow the development series would know.

With the European Le Mans Series season opener scheduled for this weekend I thought I would answer some questions about why an IndyCar fan should watch the European Le Mans Series this season.

Is There An American Who Raced in Pro Mazda and is Now a Great American Hope in LMP1 For the First Time in a Long Time?
Yes and while LMP1 does not participate in the European Le Mans Series, Rebellion Racing's Gustavo Menezes will moonlight in the team's LMP2 effort this ELMS season. Menezes made 28 starts in then-Star Mazda in 2011 and 2012 with his best finish being third at Iowa in 2011 behind Sage Karam and João Victor Horto. He finished eighth in the championship that year and ninth in 2012, one position ahead of Zach Veach.

Menezes had moderate success in Formula Three before he made the move to sports cars in 2016 and in his first year he won the FIA World Endurance Championship Endurance Trophy for LMP2 Drivers with Nicolas Lapierre and Stéphane Richelmi driving for Signatech Alpine. He won four races that year including the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Last year, he finished fourth in the championship but won at Austin and had five podium finishes with the team's worst class finish being fifth.

Menezes will drive the #3 Rebellion R13 in LMP1 with Mathias Beche and Thomas Laurent in the WEC this season but in ELMS he will drive the #31 APR-Rebellion Racing Oreca-Gibson with Harrison Newey and Ryan Cullen. Newey won the 2017-18 Asian Le Mans Series LMP2 title driving for Jackie Chan DC Racing x JOTA with Laurent and Richelmi as his co-drivers. Newly is also the son of Red Bull Racing chief technical officer Adrian Newey. Cullen spent two years in GP3 before switching to Porsche Supercup in 2015 where he has competed the last three years.

Is There An American Who Won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Could Have a Future in LMP1?
Yes there is. Will Owen won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a wet race during the Grand Prix of Indianapolis weekend in 2014. He moved up to Pro Mazda the following year and had three podium finishes before he finished fourth in the 2016 championship with eight podium finishes.

In 2017, Owen moved to European and to sports cars with United Autosports and he won on his ELMS debut at Silverstone. He would add another victory at Red Bull Ring and finish second at Algarve but finished second in the championship. On top of his ELMS success, Owen finished fourth in class in his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut.

Owen returns for a second season with United Autosports in the #32 Ligier-Gibson.

Does Will Owen Have a Co-Driver Who Won in U.S. F2000 and Finished Ahead of a Current IndyCar Rookie in that Championship?
Why yes he does! Wayne Boyd might be a name you recall. The Northern Irish driver ran the 2011 U.S. F2000 season with Belardi Auto Racing and he won twice that year, once at Milwaukee and once at Baltimore. Boyd finished third in the championship behind Petri Suvanto and Spencer Pigot but he finished six points ahead of Zach Veach. Boyd ran the final two rounds of the 2012 U.S. F2000 season with Belardi at Baltimore and Virginia International Raceway and he finished third and second in the two VIR races.

Boyd's career hit a bit of a snag but in 2014 he won the Walter Hayes Trophy and won the Formula Ford Festival the following year and he got his second break in ELMS driving in LMP3 for United Autosports in 2016 where he had three podium finishes. In 2017, Boyd returned to United Autosports LMP3 line-up and he won the finale at Algarve with Christian England and Mark Paterson.

The third driver in the #32 Ligier-Gibson also has a tie to the Road to Indy. Hugo de Sadeleer participated in the 2016 Chris Griffis Memorial Test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a U.S. F2000 car for Pabst Racing. Hailing from Switzerland, de Sadeleer was Owen's co-driver last year in both ELMS and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Is There an American That is Inexplicably in an LMP3 Car Despite Winning in Indy Lights and Won in IMSA's Prototype Challenge Class?
Is the Pope Catholic? Sean Rayhall should either be in an IndyCar or a DPi considering all that he has accomplished but the Georgia-native still finds himself in LMP3 but he will be defending a championship. He and John Falb took the ELMS LMP3 title last year as the all-American duo won twice in the #2 United Autosports Ligier-Nissan and stood on the podium in five of six races.

Does the Grid Have a Driver Who Previously Won a Pole Position in His IndyCar Career and Had an Indianapolis 500 Ride For This Year Only to Lose it Over a Controversial Partner Who Once Murdered Someone?
Would you believe that it does? Tristan Gommendy was set to attempt the Indianapolis 500 with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in partnership with former Larrousse F1 founder Didier Calmels. However, that deal fell apart and Gommendy is left with an LMP2 ride in the #39 Oreca-Gibson for Graff with co-drivers Alexander Cougnard and Jonathan Hirschi.

Gommendy has been a sports car regular since his one year in Champ Car in 2007. He has two ELMS overall victories and he has twice finished second in the LMP2 class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, including last year.

Is There an Indy Lights Winner Who Should Still be in Indy Lights on the Grid?
Damn straight and it is a shame Nico Jamin has left the North American ladder system. Jamin finished seventh last year in the Indy Lights championship after having a wishy-washy year. He won three races and had five podium finishes but those were canceled out with Jamin having five results outside the top ten. Outside of Indy Lights, Jamin swept the IMSA Prototype Challenge Series LMP3 weekend at Sebring last year and then swept the Pirelli World Challenge GTS races at VIR in a KTM X-Bow.

The 2015 U.S. F2000 champion will drive the #29 Oreca-Gibson with Nelson Panciatici and Pierre Ragues in an all-French driver line-up for the French team Duqueine Engineering. Panciatici and Ragues were co-drivers last year in three WEC races for Signatech Alpine in LMP2 and they finished third in class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Is There a Frenchman Who Won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the Grid and Is He Driving for a World Cup Winning Goalkeeper and Monaco Grand Prix Winner?
Amazingly, yes! Timothé Buret competed in the 2015 Pro Mazda season for Juncos Racing and finished fifth in the championship. His lone victory was during the Grand Prix of Indianapolis weekend but he had eight podium finishes from 16 races and finished ahead of current Indy Lights driver Patricio O'Ward and Will Owen finished two positions behind Buret.

After one year in Pro Mazda, Buret jumped up to Panis Barthez Competition's LMP2 program in ELMS. Buret raced with the 1998 World Cup winner Fabien Barthez and Paul-Loup Chatin in 2016. The trio started on pole position at Red Bull Ring but their best finish was seventh on four occasions. Last year, Buret and Barthez had Nathanaël Berthon as a co-driver for five of six races and had two top five finishes and started on pole position in the finale at Algarve.

Buret has two new co-drivers in the #23 Ligier-Gibson and they are notable names. Julien Canal and Will Stevens will join Buret at Panis Barthez Competition. Canal has three class victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and he was the 2015 Endurance Trophy for LMP2 Drivers champion. Stevens competed in 18 Formula One grand prix with Caterham and Marussia. In 2016, Stevens won twice in the LMP2 class in the WEC races at Fuji and Shanghai for G-Drive Racing. He also finished second in class at Le Mans that year. Stevens won in the GTE-Am class at Le Mans last year with JMW Motorsport.

What About Canadians? Are There Any Canadians We Should Know Mostly From Pro Mazda Success?
Of course there is something for those North of the Border. Garett Grist won six races between U.S. F2000 and Pro Mazda from 2013 to 2015. Grist finished third in the 2015 Pro Mazda championship behind Santiago Urrutia and Neil Alberico. In 2016, he started in Pro Mazda with Juncos Racing before taking a midseason promotion to Indy Lights with Team Pelfrey. In nine Indy Lights starts Grist's best finish was seventh on three occasions.

Grist made a transition to sports cars last year and ran three IMSA races in the Prototype Challenge class. He finished second at Sebring and third at Mosport. Grist will forever be a part of the final PC winning team as he won at Petit Le Mans with Tomy Drissi and John Falb in the #26 BAR1 Motorsports Oreca.

Grist will be in LMP3 driving the #3 Ligier-Nissan for United Autosports with Matthew Bell and Anthony Wells.

If There is a Canadian, Is There a Mexican Driver Who Won in Pro Mazda in ELMS?
There is something for all of North America as José Gutiérrez will be in the #40 G-Drive Racing Oreca-Gibson with James Allen and Enzo Guibbert.

Gutiérrez won one race in two Pro Mazda season with Juncos Racing. He won the 2014 season finale at Sonoma while his teammate Spencer Pigot took the championship that year. In 2015, Gutiérrez's best finish was second at St. Petersburg and he had six top five finishes. Ironically, Gutiérrez's teammates at Juncos Racing in 2015 were Garett Grist, Timothé Buret and Will Owen.

Gutiérrez ran seven races in IMSA's Prototype Challenge class in 2016 and won in class at Petit Le Mans. He competed in IMSA's prototype class last year with PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports and he made his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut driving for G-Drive Racing in LMP2 but the car finished 17th in class.

Allen won the final two ELMS races last year driving for Graff. Guibbert won twice in LMP3 driving for Graff in 2016 and he had two podium finishes driving in Graff's sister LMP2 car to the one Allen's contested.

Is There Something for Indy Racing League Nostalgics? Maybe a Driver Who Made Three IRL Starts But Never the Indianapolis 500?
There actually is! Niclas Jönsson raced at Las Vegas in 1999 and in the first two races in 2000 a Walt Disney World Speedway and Phoenix. However, Jönsson has become more known for his sports car exploits and his time with Krohn Racing and once again Jönsson will drive for Krohn Racing in the #83 Ferrari with Tracy Krohn and Andrea Bertolini.

Is There Anyone Else We Should Know Who Has Ties to the Road To Indy?
Yes! André Negrão ran in Indy Lights two years ago and had five podium finishes on his way to finish seventh in the championship that year with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. He raced in the WEC last year in the LMP2 class with Signatech Alpine and he won at Austin. Negrão remains with Signatech Alpine and Pierre Thiriet will be his co-driver in the #36 Alpine A470-Gibson.

One Final Question Most IndyCar Fans Are Wondering... Where is Francesco Dracone? 
He is here! The lovable Italian back marker has found his footing in an LMP3 entry. He will share the #18 Ligier-Nissan for BHK Motorsport with fellow Italian Jacopo Baratto.

Who Else Should I Be Watching For?
There a lot of other notable names on the ELMS grid.

Bruno Senna will share the #22 United Autosports Ligier-Gibson in LMP2 with Phillip Hanson as Filipe Albuquerque has IMSA duties but the Portuguese driver will be Hanson's co-driver for the final five ELMS races. DragonSpeed will field the #21 Oreca-Gibson for Ben Hanley, Henrik Hedson and Nicolas Lapierre. Both teams are American teams.

Le Mans winner Loïc Duval leads an all-French line-up featuring François Perrodo and Matthieu Vaxivière in the #33 TDS Racing Oreca-Gibson. Memo Rojas continues in ELMS driving for IDEC Sport in the #28 Oreca-Gibson alongside Paul-Loup Chatin and Paul Lafargue.

Racing Engineering, the team that Alexander Rossi drove for when he finished second in the GP2 Series championship behind Stoffel Vandoorne in 2015, moves from Formula Two to the European Le Mans Series and it will field the #24 Oreca-Gibson for Olivier Pla, Norman Nato and Paul Petit.

Will The European Le Mans Series Clash With My IndyCar Viewing?
It shouldn't.

Both series race this Sunday April 15th but the European Le Mans Series season opener from Circuit Paul Ricard starts at 6:00 a.m. ET while the IndyCar race from Long Beach will not start until 4:30 p.m. ET.

The good news is the Grand Prix of Indianapolis takes place on Saturday May 12th while the second round of the ELMS season takes place the following morning on Sunday May 13th at 8:00 a.m. ET from Monza.

IndyCar is off on Sunday July 22nd meaning you can invest your full attention into the third round of the ELMS season from the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, Austria and that race is at 8:00 a.m. ET.

Another clash is avoided in August as the Silverstone race will be on Saturday August 18th at 9:00 a.m. ET, the day before the IndyCar race from Pocono.

The final two ELMS races take place after the IndyCar season finale at Sonoma. Spa-Francorchamps hosts the penultimate round of the season on Sunday September 23rd at 8:00 a.m. ET with Algarve hosting the season finale on Sunday October 28th at 9:00 a.m. ET.

If you are an IndyCar fan and want to branch out into other forms of motorsports but are afraid of not knowing enough to follow along the European Le Mans Series is for you. There are plenty of notable names and the series goes from one phenomenal track to another. Give it a shot.