2017 has been a kind year to American racer Sean Rayhall in racing terms. The multiple trips to Europe this year to compete in the European Le Mans Series with United Autosports have been worth it.
With just four hours of racing left in the 2017 season at Portimão this weekend, Rayhall is on the verge of a first LMP3 title, racing with long-time friend John Falb, who has turned into one of the fastest LMP3 amateur drivers thanks to his coaching.
The American duo hold a strong 19-point lead in the class points tally over Y.Racing YMR’s Ligier, but Rayhall is certain that the ELMS finale will be anything other than a walk in the park if he is to take the P3 crown.
“It won’t be an easy ride in the final round,” he said to DSC. “LMP3 in the ELMS reminds me of back in the day when I used to battle in PC with Colin Braun, Renger van der Zande and Jack Hawksworth over in IMSA and you had a really stout grid. All the silver drivers here are extremely talented and quick, so I feel every week it’s like IMSA when PC was good and healthy.
“The Bronzes are all really performing well, so it makes it really tough.
“Prototype Challenge was really good. 2014 was the healthiest year of the series, got a couple of wins, and this is a good move over to Europe.
“Winning the title would mean the world to me here. This whole year has been like the year 8Star was in the championship hunt in PC in 2014. But I wasn’t in the hunt personally, as I started the season with a different team.
“So I haven’t been in a title race like this since 2013 (when he won the Cooper Tires Prototype Lites Championship with Comprent Motorsports). It’d be nice to have a championship, and be known as an American that can win in Europe. It would be one of the biggest accomplishments in my career.”
It’d be nice to have a championship, and be known as an American that can win in Europe
A big part of his success this year, Rayhall believes, is down to the relationship he and Falb have developed over the past four years. This seson they’ve won two races, scored a further two podiums and had it not been for a post-race penalty, would have won a third race too.
Like United’s other title and race-winning crews in LMP3 over the past three years, they’ve become a formidable force very quickly and, with consistency, have put themselves in position to win it all in their first year racing together in the series.
“United has done a great job with him (John Falb). I’ve worked with him since 2013, and now four years later I’ve seen his progression, I’ve seen his data, and it’s right there. He’s really come a long way. I’m more proud of him than me winning these races over here.
“To work with a guy like John from 18-years-old, he’s seen me mature as a person, and I’ve seen him mature as a driver.”
It was an interesting decision from both of them, to run a campaign in Europe, as opposed to closer to home in the States.
The travel is tough, but with the options in the USA not as defined or established in LMP3 terms, and the calendar that the ELMS offers, Rayhall feels it’s a big move for his career to get experience racing across the pond.
“You get noticed racing in the ELMS’ LMP3 class. I get calls every week from team owners in the states who pay attention, and they now know that I have experience at Spa, Red Bull Ring, Silverstone, and I have trophies from some of the key places too. It’s a healthy series and in the industry it’s in the spotlight at times. Because of that, as an American, I want to do the travel as it’s worth it. Going forward ideally I’d like to do IMSA and ELMS like last year.
“It’s hard to get into a routine though. When I race in the ELMS, each meeting I’ll fly from the States, land on the Thursday, go to the track jet-lagged, go work out in a gym for an hour to get rid of it, then I sleep and go back to the track on Friday early morning to hit the ground running. It’s a tough deal for us Americans coming over, but it’s worth it as it’s as competitive, I think, as the IMSA Prototype class.
“It says a lot about the ELMS, that it has an appeal enough to make me want to do it from so far away. That’s not to say that the USA doesn’t have good prototype racing though. There’s that new IMSA Prototype Challenge series, which is going in the right direction, as it’s affordable, and allows amateurs to bring fast guys to race with them.
“But LMP3 in Europe is great right now. You’ve got Ligier vs Norma, though the Norma is a bit quicker, better going past GTs, so there’s a little bit more horsepower required for Ligier’s LMP3s to close the gap to LMP2 and help us out in traffic. Do you speed just the Ligier up though? I’m interested to find out what they do.
“What I like about the Ligier though, is how drivable it is, it has an advantage there.”
Looking further ahead, Rayhall’s main aim is to become a factory driver in IMSA. But running in ELMS again is more likely in his short-term plans, with a part-season programme in IMSA to keep him busy.
“I’d like to do ELMS again next year. LMP2 is an option, but LMP3 is more likely. For John and I, LMP2 is a small option in the back of our heads. I think IMSA- wise it could be interesting, I want to do the full NAEC in a good car at least.
I’d like to do ELMS again next year. LMP2 is an option, but LMP3 is more likely
“That’s the end goal for 2018, NAEC and this. Le Mans is also top on my list, as I’ve done every big race in America. But right now I’m at a point in my driving career where I have to win titles like the LMP3 title this year to get a foot in those doors.”
For now though, the focus is clearly on tackling the Algarve circuit, staying out of trouble and becoming a champion.