Le Mans 24 Hours Preview, Part 3: GTE Pro

What happens when Ford, BMW, Porsche, Aston Martin, Corvette and Ferrari factory teams race in the same field at Le Mans? We’re about to find out!

This year’s GTE Pro field is absolutely stacked, new cars, new stars, and 17 entries make this arguably the most interesting, can’t-miss category in the race, with six factory teams set to go hammer-and-tongs all week.

The key though, as ever, will be BoP. 2016 was a very controversial year for GTE and its BoP formula, after Ford dominated the field, prompting a seismic change in the system used. It proved to be a positive change in 2017, the race using a separate system, the Le Mans-specific BoP making for an incredible race in which all the factories involved were able to fight up front.

What sort of race will 2018 bring? It’s hard to say at this point, especially after the disparity on display at Spa in the WEC season opener, where Ford and Porsche had a clear upper hand. Whether politics were indeed at play there, there were some miscalculations, in part due to the new machinery in the class, is a question without an answer. A senior source from a manufacturer explained to DSC that only Ford and Porsche had ‘agreed’ to push to the limits of their cars pre-Le Mans, though whether that’s true or not remains to be seen.

With that in mind, we all hope that what we see at Le Mans, the most important GTE race of the year, is close, hard-fought racing, between some of the world’s best drivers, in some of the world’s greatest looking, and sounding cars.

If that happens, this this has the potential to be an all-time classic.

AF Corse
#51 | Ferrari 488 GTE EVO | Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado, Daniel Serra | Test Day time: 3:54.672 (13th in class)
#52 | Ferrari 488 GTE EVO | Toni Vilander, Antonio Giovanazzi, Pipo Derani | Test Day time: 3:54.278 (12th in class)
#71 | Ferrari 488 GTE EVO | Davide Rigon, Sam Bird, Miguel Molina | Test Day time: 3:54.137 (9th in class)

Back at Le Mans for a third time with the 488 (in 2018 EVO-spec), AF Corse will hope to score the car its first Le Mans win. That, in turn, would quench the thirst from Ferrari, which hasn’t won the top GT class at Le Mans since 2014.

To do that, AF Corse, like Porsche and Ford, feels that strength in numbers is the key to victory in what should be a close fight between the factories this year. The Italian team brings a third car to the race, with three big names aboard: Toni Vilander, Antonio Giovanazzi and Pipo Derani.

Vilander has years of experience, and is still among the quickest drivers who compete in GTE regularly, and Derani has Le Mans experience in GTE from his Ford campaign last year. Giovanazzi is the only question mark here. The former GP2 ace is quick but lacks the GTE experience that his colleagues bear.

The other two cars meanwhile feature strong hands. The #51 has the full-season pairing of Pier Guidi and James Calado (the reigning GTE Pro World Champions) plus 2017 Le Mans GTE Pro winner Daniel Serra. That is a scary trio!

Then there’s the #71, with full-season men Davide Rigon and Sam Bird sharing with Miguel Molina. The #71 was fastest of the three 488s at the Test Day and after a good run in the season opener, this crew will be as hungry as ever to not only continue as the fastest AF Corse trio but the emerge as the fastest in the class too.

The question is, therefore, the car. Thus far, the EVO package hasn’t proven to be a big step up (though the sample size is small). Ford and Ferrari both created Evo kits for their GTE cars ahead of this season, though only AF Corse opted to use it with the hope of gaining an advantage. The aim, was to address some reliability niggles, create an increase in downforce and a reduction in drag. The BoP process though, has blunted the downforce edge, removing the planned diveplanes from the front corners of the car.

At Spa, the #71 snuck onto the podium, but that result doesn’t reflect the weekend that the team had, the car over two seconds off in Qualifying and finishing the race a lap down. It was a similar story at the Test last weekend, the #71 again the fastest, but ninth in the GTE Pro rankings. It was encouraging, however, to see that the car was only 1.5 seconds off, the BoP seemingly closing the gap a little.

It will be interesting to see then, where the team end up during the race week proper.

Corvette Racing
#63 | Corvette C7.R | Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia, Mike Rockenfeller | Test Day time: 3:54.217 (11th in class)
#64 | Corvette C7.R | Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner, Marcel Fassler | Test Day time: 3:54.719 (10th in class)

Corvette is one of just three manufacturers this year to head to La Sarthe with two cars, but the 2018 Pratt and Miller effort is nevertheless still as strong as ever in such incredible company.

Will this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours turn out to be the final for the C7.R, which has enjoyed years of success in IMSA to this point, as well as a Le Mans win back in 2015? That’s not clear. It is though, closer to the end of its life-cycle than the start.

To many, it will still feel like a relatively new car, but Chevrolet’s V8-powered C7, in reality, is now the oldest horse in the stable. At this point, it’s fair to say that the team has extracted the maximum potential out of the car, but that’s not to say that it’s not capable of winning races in the final stages of its life as a factory car.

And after last year’s last-lap dramas Corvette will hope that it can give the car one last hurrah before the next model – which to this point is still very much under wraps – debuts.

Strength in numbers is, of course, important in the current climate of factory GTE competition, but in this case, at the very least, Corvette Racing’s driver line-up is world class. The two full-season IMSA pairings are present and joined by ex-Audi factory talent for this year’s 24.

Garcia and Magnussen haven’t won at Le Mans since 2009 (back in the GT1 days!), and will hope that with the help of Mike Rockenfeller, who is back racing in the GT ranks at Le Mans for the first time since 2005 with this programme, they can return to the top step of the podium.

The other car sees Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin join forces with Marcel Fassler, the line-up which won the 2016 Rolex 24 and came so agonisingly close to winning Le Mans last year.

Both are quality trios, with no real weak links, and that will go a long way in ensuring that the C7.R’s run at La Sarthe this year is a memorable one.

Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK/USA
#66 | Ford GT | Stefan Mucke, Olivier Pla, Billy Johnson | Test Day Time: 3:53.052 (4th in class)
#67 | Ford GT | Andy Priaulx, Harry Tincknell, Tony Kanaan | Test Day Time: 3:53.008 (3rd in class)
#68 | Ford GT | Joey Hand, Dirk Muller, Sebastien Bourdais | Test Day Time: 3:53.064 (5th in class)
#69 | Ford GT | Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook, Scott Dixon | Test Day Time: 3:53.476 (6th in class)

Back for a third year, and again with a quartet of cars, Ford appears to be on track to fight for a second Le Mans win with the current GT. After dominating the field during its debut year in 2016, somewhat controversially, and finishing a surprise second in 2017 after the chaotic ending to the race, the ‘Blue Oval’ is back for a third crack at winning on the hallowed French ground, and with a stunning set of drivers once again.

It’s incredible to think that the GT is one of the oldest cars in the field at this point, only the C7 in its current form has a longer history. That being said though, it still looks arguably the most modern of the six cars in the class, and just keeps on earning silverware wherever it goes. Once again Chip Ganassi’s UK team will join forces with the US outfit at Le Mans, creating what is one of the strongest GT crews in the world.

Which trio is the strongest of the four? Honestly, it’s almost impossible to separate them, especially as the #66 crew of Billy Johnson, Stefan Mucke and Olivier Pla proved that they can be a winning combination at Spa last time out. Honestly, all four crews are without weak-links, and easily capable of winning.

The changes here are the return of Sebastien Bourdais (who was injured last year and missed Le Mans), and the addition of Tony Kanaan to the #67 crew. Kanaan raced with Ford last year, but in place of Bourdais, Pipo Derani in the #67’s third seat. Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell with Kanaan is a mouth-watering prospect, as the two Britains are in the form of their lives and Kanaan will be, as expected, capable of being both fast and consistent.

The real question here is therefore whether or not the team’s pre-Le Mans form will continue, as the car has looked incredibly quick so far, but a pre-Le Mans week BoP change could reverse the team’s prospects and expectations.

BMW Team MTEK
#81 | BMW M8 GTE | Martin Tomczyk, Nicky Catsburg, Philipp Eng | Test Day Time: 3:53.946 (8th in class)
#82 | BMW M8 GTE | Augusto Farfus, Antonio Felix Da Costa, Alex Sims | Test Day Time: 3:55.910 (15th in class)

Of the two new chassis in GTE this year, BMW’s M8 looks to be the stronger one. The car is already a proven workhorse after running at both the Rolex 24 and Sebring prior to Le Mans with its parallel IMSA programme. The car, which sounds great in the flesh, and is built like a tank, is likely to capture the imagination of the fans trackside, and could spring a surprise in its Le Mans debut.

The brand, which let’s not forget hasn’t had a big result at Le Mans since the turn of this century, comes with an experienced team running its factory operation – MTEK – and a set of drivers more than capable of going toe-to-toe with the GTE Pro regulars. However, neither the team or its driver crews have much experience to draw upon (just three of them having previous starts: Farfus, Sims and Eng); make no mistake, the coming week will be a learning experience for most involved.

Tomczyk, Catsburg and Eng will race the #81, only Eng having a Le Mans start under his belt. All three though, are highly experienced in GTs, Catsburg and Eng both proving their worth, winning the Spa 24 Hours with BMWs (Catsburg with the Z4 in 2015 and Eng with the M6 in 2016).

Sims, Farfus and Da Costa meanwhile, will share the #82. Sims won the Spa 24 with Eng and has become one of BMW’s best assets in the driving ranks, Farfus has N24 wins to his name and Da Costa, while being a relative newcomer to the GT scene, is extremely quick.

In a class like this though, a driver is only as good as its car. BMW has ensured that the M8 was put to the test in the pre-season, with multiple runs at a variety of circuits, and in a variety of conditions. So far it appears to be both reliable and fast, almost winning at Sebring in only its second race start.

So, while it remains to be seen whether the Bavarian brand this early in its programme can take a big win against such stiff competition, they certainly can’t be counted out if the BoP swings back in its favour. The team managed to rack up 1,200km of running in the Test Day, and while the times weren’t a million miles off, there still looks to be a performance gap heading into Le Mans week.

Porsche GT Team
#91 | Porsche 911 RSR | Richard Lietz, Gianmaria Bruni, Fred Makowiecki | Test Day time: 3:52.647 (2nd in class)
#92 | Porsche 911 RSR | Michael Christensen, Kevin Estre, Laurens Vanthoor | Test Day time: 3:53.877 (7th in class)
#93 | Porsche 911 RSR | Patrick Pilet, Nick Tandy, Earl Bamber | Test Day time: 3:52.551 (1st in class)
#94 | Porsche 911 RSR | Romain Dumas, Timo Bernhard, Sven Muller | Test Day time: 3:54.782 (14th in class)

Porsche, out of LMP1, but doubled down in GTE, is searching for its first Le Mans class win since 2013 in GTE Pro, a result which the brand feels is long overdue, especially considering the successes at the top end of the field in LMP1 since that last victory.

The current 911 RSR is an absolute monster, which is ready to win, and win now. The mid-engined, four-litre, flat-six the car houses is a screamer and is popular with the fans and team members alike.

For this year’s Le Mans, the team, like Ford, is bringing its IMSA entries along to bolster the effort. Two of the cars –the ones from the WEC – are running retro liveries, that in person look stunning, and will be easy to spot. The IMSA cars meanwhile are running the standard Porsche livery, so they, in turn, will be easy to recognise. It’s a nice contrast, to see a bit of Porsche’s past mixed with its modern-day image as part of the brand’s 70th-anniversary celebrations.

Looking at the driver roster, hard to pick between the four crews since all of them pack real punch. The #91, with Lietz, Bruni and Makowecki will attract the attention of many fans, as it includes Bruni for the first time at Le Mans as part of Porsche’s factory effort. And yes, he’s still quick, putting a late flyer in at the end of the Test Day to go second in the class. Make no mistake, he will be eager to beat the Ferraris in the field here!

The #92 meanwhile, sees Michael Christensen racing alongside the almost fantasy-like duo of Kevin Estre and Laurens Vanthoor, who to many were the best GT3 drivers around before they jumped into full-time GTE racing. Interestingly, this is only Vanthoor’s third Le Mans start, and first in GTE. His two previous appearances came in LMP2: once in Oak Racing’s Ligier in 2015 (alongside Estre) and once in Michael Shank’s Le Mans debut back in 2016.

Then there are the IMSA trios, with Patrick Pilet (fastest at the Test) joined by 2015 Le Mans winners Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber in the #93, and 2016 Le Mans winner Dumas racing alongside 2017 Le Mans winner Timo Bernhard and young hot-shoe Sven Muller. For this sextet, big wins are ten-a-penny!

This really does look like it could be Porsche’s year. All signs point towards it being there or thereabouts in raw pace terms, and that coupled with the car’s reliability, and technical know-how behind the scenes puts the boys from Stuttgart in the driving seat for a memorable race.

Aston Martin Racing
#95 | Aston Martin Vantage AMR | Marco Sorensen, Nicki Thiim, Darren Turner | Test Day time: 3:59.614 (17th in class)
#97 | Aston Martin Vantage AMR | Alex Lynn, Maxime Martin, Jonny Adam | Test Day time: 3:57.488 (16th in class)

Back as reigning champion, and with a brand new car, Aston Martin Racing is hoping to usher in a new era at this year’s 24 Hours, which is just the second race for the new Vantage AMR. But if what we’ve seen from the car’s public appearances so far this year are to be believed, it could be a long week for the team.

Pre-season testing, from what we’re told, went extremely well, the team undertaking its most extensive programme ever with multiple 30-hour tests and plenty of track time for all six of its drivers. But the pace once the team got going at Spa, and at the Le Mans Test Day, was way off the competition (almost five seconds adrift last Sunday). Some suspected that games were being played, though AMR insisted they were pushing as hard as possible with the BoP its car was handed.

From the outside, it certainly looked like a thoroughly miserable time for the British marque last weekend though, especially after it emerged that the team will have to build up a brand new chassis in time for scrutineering to replace the #95, which was damaged beyond repair after Sorensen’s big hit.

With a system that in theory means intentionally trying to influence Le Mans BoP at Spa and the Test day shouldn’t be possible, so it’s hard to judge what we’ve seen. The car thus far has at least proven to be most reliable though, which will go a long way in securing a positive result for the car in its debut, regardless of its raw performance levels.

If AMR can compete up front, then its drivers will certainly be up to the task. In the #95 we have the two Danes, Sorensen and Thiim, partnered with 2017 Le Mans winner Darren Turner, while in the #97 newcomers Alex Lynn and Maxime Martin will drive with Turner’s 2017 teammate Jonny Adam. All six are top draw.

The key storylines here, the new car’s progress aside, will surely be just how well Sebring 2017 winner Alex Lynn performs in his first GT race at Le Mans, and how Maxime Martin adapts to his new surroundings, racing against his old marque BMW.

Le Mans 24 Hours Preview, Part 3: GTE Pro