The 24 Hours of IndyCar

Posted by Declan | 5/12/2010 | 1 comments »
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Marshall Pruett's latest Triple Stint column is a must read this week. In particular his chat with ex Champ Car pilot and current endurance superstar, Simon Pagenaud, is well worth checking out. Pagenaud was somewhat of a victim of the open wheel merger in early 2008 when he lost his team Australia ride. Gil de Ferran was quick to spot his potential and he was signed to drive for the Brazilian's fledgling ALMS LMP2 team. He quickly built a reputation as a fast and consistent pilot and soon parlayed his efforts into a Le Mans deal with the Pescarolo team running a private Peugeot 908. 2010 sees him move to the full factory Peugeot team in Europe which he will dovetail with his season-long ALMS commitments to Patron Highcroft Racing.

Pagenaud also believes his time in prototypes will be invaluable as and when the IndyCar Series regulations open up in 2012 and beyond.

“That is what I am hoping for. I think, in a way for me, ChampCar stopped and I couldn't go to IndyCar at the time with a good opportunity, so it was a great thing for my career because then I looked at sportscars and had a fantastic chance with Gil de Ferran and Acura. It was for me the time to polish my driving, but also to work with everybody as a team to improve the car, improve the tires, improve traction control, improve the engine; I got to work on pretty much every part of the car. So I grew up very much as a technical driver. I wouldn’t have been able to develop myself as well if I would have been in spec series.

“I think I was really lucky. Maybe this sounds crazy to an IndyCar driver, but for me, the education with a fast prototype is a lot more than what a driver can get with a spec car in open-wheel. For the future, if IndyCar is looking to go away from spec cars, indeed it could be really, really interesting for me because I've got all these tools with me now and would be a good asset for any team.”

The diesel powered Peugeot 908 will give Pagenaud every chance of winning at Le Mans in 2010

I wrote about the obvious benefits of racing in a state of the art sportscar last year and how Marco Andretti, in particular, could benefit from prolonged exposure to so much power combined with huge amounts of downforce. Pagenaud's opinions about the benefit of endurance racing got me thinking about the real reasons and the potential benefits of Marco's first attempt at Le Mans this June. He has signed to race in one of the Rebellion Lola Judd prototypes in the LMP1 class.

To get a better idea of what he can expect and how the experience can help him as an IndyCar driver, I decided to consult his Rebellion team mate at La Sarthe, Guy Smith, a man with Indy Lights (twice a race winner in 1998) and Champ Car experience which goes along nicely with his victory for Bentley at Le Mans in 2003.

Smith agreed with Pagenaud insofar as the level of technical input is much greater in contemporary sportscar racing than is the case in the IndyCar Series. "[In IndyCar] Right now the adjustments you can make are very small, everything is about fine tuning the car." From the moment he gets to France, Marco will be working with Lola on the chassis, Michelin on the tyres and Judd Engine Developments on the 700HP V10 engine. "He'll will have to develop the whole package and he will have to learn how to get the best from the whole car", Smith added.

Coming from a spec series and, effectively, a spec ladder system means that Andretti has never had to fully develop a whole car as such and has almost exclusively driven cars with less horsepower than grip. Developing a feel for the car is crucial especially as longer stints at Le Mans can see a driver use the same set of tyres for anything from one to four 45 minute stints. "In 2003 we were quadruple stinting tyres and if you went out and did a blindingly fast time in your first stint and 'rooted' the tyres, you had a long way to go before you could change them" warned the Yorkshireman. He stressed the value of tyre management and how it can improve an IndyCar drivers performance, "That is something Dario and Dixon are able to do over the course of a race and hopefully doing [Le Mans] will be a valuable lesson for Marco." A perfect example of this is Marco's aggressive performance in the early laps at St Petersburg in comparison to Dario's charge at the finish.

Tyres are far from the only variable over the course of 24 hours. Smith is heading into his seventh Le Mans and has experienced almost everything the car and track can throw at a driver. "What [Marco] has to learn is how to cope with a changing car. The car is usually a 'bag of nails' by the end. The brakes don't work, you can't see and the engine sounds rough. You get to a point where the car feels like it is at 80 or 90% but you still have to drive it as hard, sometimes you have to drive at what feels like 110%! The car might be mega at night but crap in the day, good in the wet and not so good in the dry, but either way, you still have to drive it!"

The Englishman spends a lot of time in the USA as he is a factory driver for the Dyson Mazda team in the ALMS. Subsequently he gets to spend quite a lot of time with a number of his compatriots in IndyCar. After it was announced that Andretti would be joining the Rebellion squad at Le Mans, Smith sought the opinion of one of Marco's rivals in the series. "Dario loves the prototypes because of the downforce and he reckons Marco's "big cojones" will be a real help to him in the high speed sections [at La Sarthe]. [Dario] also thinks he lacks a bit of feeling on road courses and particularly at street events where there is generally less grip." Smith agrees with that assessment based on seeing Andretti up close in the ALMS in 2008. "Marco was blindingly fast at Sebring but he struggled at Lime Rock where you rely on more mechanical than aerodynamic grip."

The utterly beautiful Bentley Speed 8 that took Smith to victory at Le Mans in 2003 (Pic: www.7extrememotorsports.com)

If the Lola is reliable, Andretti will gain a colossal amount of race experience and seat time at the event. Smith believes it can only benefit his open wheel career, "he'll do the equivalent of five IndyCar races and come back to the IndyCar Series a complete and more rounded driver." Smith went on to suggest that, "he can learn more in 1 weekend than he did all of last season!"

Much like the Indianapolis 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is an ongoing itch that the whole Andretti dynasty feel the need to scratch. Realistically however, the Rebellion team have little chance of overall victory. Their petrol powered LMP1 is simply no match for the impending diesel onslaught from reigning champions Peugeot and their German rivals, Audi. Smith stresses that there is a need to approach the event with eyes open and a cool head. "Marco will need to manage his own expectations, we're not going to beat the diesels and we are really fighting against the Aston Martins for a top 5 finish on Sunday."

Andretti is the remarkable position of being able to compete in two of the 'Big 3' global races in the space of two weeks and in doing so will gain an enormous amount of invaluable experience that can only serve to make him a more consistent driver and, potentially, a formidable IndyCar force over the next decade.

1 comments

  1. Savage Henry // May 12, 2010 5:58 PM  

    A lot of people on the message boards talk about the need for IndyCar to add more races to get more exposure. On the flip side, I think having some gaps in the schedule could help the series by allowing drivers to drive in some of the other high-end events globally.

    Since Randy Bernard has indicated that they want to market the series as the fastest, most versatile cars and drivers in the world, having a 24 hours of Le Mans winner in the paddock will only help that. Also, having the IndyCar drivers competing (and hopefully winning) the V8 Supercar race at Surfer's Paradise could add to that.

    That would not be possible with a 35-race NASCAR schedule. I kind of like the tag line of "the best, most versatile drivers in the world choose to race in IndyCar" tag line. The 24 Hours of Le Mans is a globally known name, even for those who have never watched a race in their lives. Having an IndyCar driver win the thing brings some cross-over benefit, in my opinion.