That lap will be remembered for a long, long time. When the clocks stopped at 3m14.791s for Kamui Kobayashi in qualifying for the Le Mans 24 Hours, the Toyota driver gained himself a place in the record books and, surely in years to come, sportscar racing folklore.
The stars aligned for the fastest ever lap of the Circuit de la Sarthe in any configuration. There was a tail wind down the long Mulsanne Straight and a head wind into the Porsche Curves. And the Porsche Carrera Cup support event had laid a friendly layer of Michelin rubber.
Kobayashi still had to do the job, however. But then that's what he did all year aboard the #7 Toyota TS050 HYBRID. The shame for the Japanese driver was that the speed and consistency didn't yield a World Endurance Championship victory for any number of reasons that reached a freakish zenith at Le Mans.
Kamui Kobayashi on his record pole lap
"I didn't expect that lap time and afterwards thought, that's amazing. We were thinking of a 3m15s. But when the car is good you can do it.
"I was quite conservative in the first sector. But I knew then what the car could do, so I pushed a bit more in the second sector and it was looking good. I think the third sector was brilliant.
"I would have to say that if I had the same opportunity in exactly the same conditions I could be faster by being more aggressive in the first sector. But I think being conservative at the start of the lap was actually the right decision."
Kyle Busch won’t want to reflect on his 2017 NASCAR Cup season, coming agonisingly close to a second title.
Busch had the favoured car in the new-for-2017 Toyota Camry but lost to Furniture Row’s Martin Truex Jr’s consistency – which also shares a substantial technical alliance with Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing.
He and Truex were a class above the rest late on in 2017, and if not for Joey Logano’s constant blocking at Homestead Busch could have pounced on the slower Truex and won the title.
However what is certain is that too often Busch missed out at crucial moments. There were the bizarre multiple hits with the wall at Charlotte, just as Truex started to look less dominant and Busch had a winning streak in the playoffs.
Toyota could remain ahead of the curve in 2018 and Busch has shown he was just as quick to adapt to the stage format as Truex, so it’s not inconceivable that there will be a repeat head-to-head.
Busch at his best
Busch managed to be the only driver to consistently beat away Truex in the playoffs and hit his stride as the post-season got under way.
He grabbed the headlines with a win at Loudon with a clean sweep of the weekend, but his pace and form had started to show a race earlier at Chicagoland.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver lapped 26 of 40 cars after a disappointing qualifying and won the first stage, but was hit with a penalty that sent him down to a 15th placed finish.
His pace was rewarded at Loudon with that dominance before Busch starred with a stunning late pass on the impressive Chase Elliott to win at Dover.
Those three weekends led to talk he was now the championship favourite, but his error-strewn race at Charlotte ended with him needing medical attention and handed momentum back to Truex ahead of the round of 12.
There were times when Bruno Senna looked in another class to the rest of the LMP2 pack in the World Endurance Championship in 2017. Judging what's going on in the secondary prototype class isn't always easy given the tyre strategies the teams employ to make their four and a half sets last through the race, but the Brazilian was undoubtedly the stand-out driver in the class.
The ex-Formula 1 driver gave a hint of what was to come early doors at Spa, followed it up with a strong performance at the Le Mans 24 Hours and then got better and better as the Rebellion team got to grips with its ORECA-Gibson 07. His pace was the crucial component in his championship victory together with Julien Canal.
Senna looked like a driver who was at home in his surroundings during 2017. He reckons he's now driving better than ever, and it's difficult to doubt him.
Lando Norris took the plaudits for his Formula 3 European Championship title this year, but how does he rate his main rival, Joel Eriksson?
“I think he’s very good,” says Norris of the Swede, who finished runner-up with Motopark. “He struggled a bit on qualifying pace but race pace is always very good. He’s very clean, he’s very close, just like the Red Bull Ring [scene of their famous battle that resulted in Norris having to wait until the Hockenheim finale to wrap up the title].
“I don’t think there’s many drivers who would kind of give you that much respect and think like a racing driver basically. He’s one of the few who you’re able to race against so closely. Obviously in the end it was me who made contact with him! But I didn’t take him out of the race or damage anything from his side, so I was fine with that. He’s definitely fun to race against.”
As a bloke, Eriksson is one of the most well-rounded in the paddock, as Norris discovered.
"The more I got to know him, the more respect I’ve had for him, because he’s such a nice guy,” he says. “There are some people who you can talk to sometimes but you just don’t get along, and then you have some people – like him, and my team-mates and others – who you can speak to and get along very well, then when you get on the track you have a lot of respect for each other.
“You know that whatever you give to the other guy, he’s going to have to give back to you, and you kind of just have a mutual respect. There’s few drivers, and he’s one of them, you have that with.”
With Norris on the conveyor belt to F1 as McLaren’s reserve, Eriksson seems to be heading towards the DTM with BMW, but the Brit believes that his peer could do the job at the top level.
“I don’t see why not,” says Norris. “If every F1 team had to put a young driver in for a test session or whatever, or more opportunities were given to young drivers, he’d definitely be deserving of a drive with a team. There’s not many people who have the speed he has, and also the racecraft and respect.”
Having to spend a season in a holding pattern before a Formula 1 drive became available proved little obstacle for Pierre Gasly – indeed, he may have emerged from Super Formula as a better driver.
“It was in a way a really tough challenge,” he says, “because in March when I came here it was my first time in Japan, my first time in the car. I’d done as much preparation as I could, and talked to Stoffel [Vandoorne] and [Loic] Duval to understand the car.”
Gasly struggled for race pace in the hot conditions that prevailed in the opening rounds, but his season began to click with fifth place in round four at Fuji, then back-to-back wins at Motegi and Autopolis put him into title contention.
“It’s like a big Formula Renault 3.5, with a lot of downforce and good tyres with no degradation, so you could really push. After a couple of weekends we found some things to get more performance, and I worked really hard with the team – it’s the most I’ve been involved in the technical side, so it was a good experience for me.”
The cancellation of the final double-header at Suzuka left him the runner-up by half a point.
George Russell romped to the GP3 title, winning the third-tier category with one round to spare ahead of his ART Grand Prix team-mates Jack Aitken, Nirei Fukuzumi and Anthoine Hubert.
But, after the first round of the season, he was just sixth in the standings after making a pair of poor starts at Barcelona. The issue was Russell had yet to adapt to the GP3 car’s hand clutch system, which he reckoned cost him two places off the line in both races in Spain.
“We knew our main issue was the starts and going to Budapest [to test] really paid off for us,” he explained at the Red Bull Ring after taking the first of his four poles and four race victories.
Russell’s Austrian success was the start of a purple patch in form that resulted in further wins at Silverstone, Spa and Monza.
He is likely to graduate to Formula 2 in 2018.
Russell on his title-winning season
What was your highlight of the 2017 GP3 season?
Potentially it was the qualifying session in Spa: I felt like that was a real great performance from all of us in the team. We absolutely dominated the session, although we only put it on pole by three tenths, we were completely down the road throughout the whole run.
What was your lowest moment?
The lowlight was definitely Budapest, when we started second on the grid and we didn’t even get to start the race.
When did you start believing you could win the title?
Quite early on. After Barcelona’s ‘disappointment’ let’s say, we had the test in Budapest between the first and second round. I set myself the goal [to] put it on pole every single race from then until the end of the season.
How was your relationship with ART and your team-mates this year?
It’s helped to have three extremely fast and intelligent team-mates. We all got along very well this season and we have all come together after every session to talk with the engineers and to push the team further forwards.
How did your work with Mercedes help in GP3?
Being part of their team and spending time in their debriefs with Lewis [Hamilton] and Valtteri [Bottas], just seeing how they analyse data and feed back to the team. From that side that really helped me. I also did four days of F1 testing this season with Mercedes, two in the 2015 car and two in the 2017 car. I picked up a lot about how to use the Pirelli tyres – how to look after the temperatures – as we all know tyre management is quite crucial in GP3, Formula 2 and Formula 1.
Free from the added pressure of an Audi LMP1 programme, the absence of which explains his drop in places since last year, di Grassi’s solo Formula E focus paid dividends as he stole the title from arch-rival Sebastien Buemi.
Much was made of Buemi being absent from the New York double-header and his torrid final weekend in Montreal, but di Grassi was his usual persistent self as he dragged his Abt Audi Sport car to often unlikely results.
Di Grassi’s new team principal Allan McNish points to two examples of his abilities.
In Hong Kong and Mexico, di Grassi pit with damage early on and then swapped cars under a safety car before mid-distance – somehow earning a second and a win.
In Montreal, on the Saturday, di Grassi qualified on pole and controlled the race from start to finish as Buemi imploded. “Those were the two standouts,” says McNish. “His ability to get the job done – when we thought it was all lost, and when the real pressure was on.”
Audi Formula E team principal, Allan McNish on di Grassi
What were Lucas’s highlights last season?
One thing was to make an impossible strategy work, that’s his biggest single driving asset. The second was that after two near-misses in the championship, going to Montreal knowing you’ve got to be at 100% and the team has to be at 100%, especially against Sebastien who is a strong character with a good car, to be able to deliver that Saturday, especially qualifying, it showed a strength of character and mind. That’s not easy to do because we saw how easily it can go wrong. He’s probably learned quite a lot from the previous two years.
How well did he respond to the 2016 defeat?
The driver’s got to get it out of his mind when things don’t go 100%. The fact is, teams are made up of humans and they make mistakes. I think he’s realised that with Audi stepping in there was an element of support there that would be able to fight against the different competition that’s coming. The second factor is at the end of the day, it works. The team gave him a car to finish at the front every season so far, there’s a lot to be said for that consistency. Lucas is aware of that. I wasn’t surprised he felt it was the right place for the future.
What’s he like within the team?
He’s a very strong character. He’s a pushy character, and I’m not saying that in a bad way – I don’t think I was a shrinking violet in a team. I don’t think you can be. You’ve got to force things, you’ve got to push your corner, you’ve got to highlight areas you can improve. Lucas definitely does that, there’s no question. He’s given them a benchmark of where they need to get to. You know when it comes to a race he’s going to get the maximum of what you’ve got the majority of the time. Because he’s quite clever and aware of what’s required in Formula E I think he was able to guide the team quite well.
After a mammoth multi-discipline programme in 2016, the cheeky-chappy Swede scaled back his efforts to just the four different types of car in 2017 – majoring on a Mahindra Formula E campaign alongside a rookie Super Formula effort, and adding his Le Mans 24 Hours debut in LMP2 and the FIA GT World Cup in Macau to the list as well. Everywhere he went, he excelled – no mean feat given he was attacking disciplines with unique characteristics and challenges.
Rosenqvist is a showman, a take-it-to-the-limit kind of driver that gets people excited. In his home country he is thought of as a modern-day Ronnie Peterson – to which his manager, ex-Formula 1 driver Stefan Johansson, says he has “no doubt he belongs in Formula 1: of all the drivers in Sweden, he’s by far more deserving”.
“He’s got bundles of talent,” says Johansson. “But he’s got that mental attitude and capability of figuring out what you need to do to win. That’s what makes him so great.”
Rosenqvist on what he learned in 2017
"I was just focused on FE and I wanted to do something else, I was looking at opportunities, and Super Formula came along. I wasn’t expecting much. The team I joined had been struggling the year before, so I thought I’d do it to get experience and try to work out of it. It worked out a lot better than I thought – one of those years where I didn’t have any good qualifyings but in the race we had a mega car. It was quite surreal that we were in contention for the title. That was a very good experience.
"With FE, I wasn’t expecting to finish third before I signed. But when you have the speed and see that it’s there in qualifying and the race, you know you have an opportunity and need to push for it. My development curve was very steep in the beginning. It was a few mistakes here and there. I think when I joined the championship my outright pace was better than at the end of the year.
"In the end I learned how to manage the speed. That’s what you learn as the year goes on. In the beginning you’re just a rookie, you go for pole. It’s all about managing it and the risk calculation. I was already quite close to the limit and when I wanted it a bit too much that’s when those mistakes came. I was a bit unhappy with myself that they came in the last two weekends because I was not really a rookie anymore. That’s the only thing I’m disappointed with."
Trevor Carlin has had a lot of future superstars come through his Formula 3 team, and he reckons 2017 European champion Lando Norris is a match for any of those who have won races and/or titles over the past 19 years.
“It’s always subjective, because it’s different years and different cars and different performances,” says Carlin. “But obviously for us you’ve got Narain [Karthikeyan], who was our first winner – he could do amazing things when he wanted to. Taku [Takuma Sato] was ‘no attack, no chance’. He was driving with Diamond Racing when we first saw him and we said, ‘He has to be our next driver, because he’s Narain Mk2,’ and he proved to be even better than Narain.
“Our list is endless – our best qualifier up until Lando was James Courtney, who had a run of 12 out of 14 pole positions in 2002, but unfortunately he only turned four of them into race wins. We like to blame it on colour-blindness at the starting lights! Alvaro Parente, he just rocked up, no fuss, no trouble. And then you get to the big guns – with Daniel [Ricciardo], JEV [Jean-Eric Vergne] and Lando.”
|Alan van der Merwe||10||2002-03|
Does Carlin believe Norris has similar qualities to such as Ricciardo, Vergne or Sato? “Oh yeah, identical qualities. You can rely on them to, every time they do a lap, they go P1 or P2. Every time, every session, every track, in any conditions. And if you make it a wet track it’s just guaranteed top of the pile. As a team it’s manna from heaven. You know whatever you do doesn’t matter because whatever he does is going to sort it out. Only time will tell where he fits in the overall ranking in global racing, but in my ranking he’s right there, no doubt at all.”
Norris has also been a massive boost for the Carlin team, which bounced back from a poor 2016 season. “Everybody’s motivated by a winner, and when you get someone who gives you the absolute best he can every time he drives the car, then you always want to give him the best car,” explains Carlin. “He doesn’t complain, doesn’t moan, he just points out what he could do with having something better – you give it to him and he goes faster.”
Together with that, Norris has an unusually high awareness of when he hasn’t been perfect, meaning a constant striving to improve. “The poor kid is his own worst critic and, considering there’s a lot of people out there who want to slag him off, for him to be his own worst critic sums things up really,” says Carlin. “He can just do it, but he’s not satisfied when he’s not P1 – he’s not satisfied with himself or us. He’s just got it.”
Is Mike Conway still improving as a sportscar driver? On the evidence of the 2017 season, the answer is most definitely yes. The 34-year-old, now in his third full season with Toyota in the World Endurance Championship, was a match for any of his team-mates aboard a TS050 HYBRID and eradicated the mistakes of previous seasons.
Conway was generally on a par with Kamui Kobayashi aboard the the #7 Toyota and often faster. The Japanese driver made the headlines at the Le Mans 24 Hours this year, but it was the Briton who was the faster on the averages. In fact, until his TS050 retired from the race, Conway was the fastest Toyota driver of all ahead of Sebastien Buemi.
The travesty for Conway was that he didn't add to his tally of WEC victories in 2017. As well as the one that got away at Le Mans, Conway and his team-mates had the pace to beat the sister car both at Spa and Shanghai.