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Le Mans 24 Hours: Race Preview Part Two, LM GTE Pro

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AF Corse

Amato Ferrari’s Ferrari-blessed squad has been the Prancing Horse’s flag-carrier for years now and with good reason.

A team that looks after well over 100 GT cars for one-make, single-class and mixed-class racing around the globe could easily fall into a habit of underperforming, but not this team – it’s consistently world-class in this company and a double world championship winner in the team, manufacturer and driver stakes with the Ferrari 458 Italia.

#51 Ferrari 458 Italia
Gianmaria Bruni
Giancarlo Fisichella
Toni Vilander

World Champions twice over and winners here last year. There’s little to point a finger at here as a weak point and plenty to suggest the #51 car as a favourite.

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Bruni and Vilander are a fabulous pairing and Fisichella, when on form, fits well into the AF Corse mitten, too. Their blend of speed, an ability to go wheel-to-wheel with anyone on the grid and race smarts will serve them well.

The regular full-season FIA WEC duo took the win at Silverstone and should have doubled up at Spa but suffered a penalty for a pit-stop fumble that dropped them off the podium. It will take a surprise at the very least for this crew not to be on or very close to the podium.

#71 Ferrari 458 Italia
Olivier Beretta
James Calado (Le Mans race rookie)
Davide Rigon

The second car in the AF Corse Pro stable features the full-season WEC talents of Davide Rigon and James Calado – the Brit set to make his Le Mans race debut after a huge practice shunt last year put him out of the event.

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The pair have been making huge progress in both speed and consistency in recent months, now providing true support, and at times a racing challenge, to the lead car.

They’re joined by elder statesman Olivier Beretta, the Monagasque set to take part in his 20th Le Mans 24 Hours with a finishing record that rivals any on this grid: six class wins and a further four class podium finishes.

To add to that total though, he’ll have to curb some of the excesses that have characterised his racing of late. Temperament can be key here too!

Corvette Racing

GM’s factory effort with the spectacular Corvette C7.R will be looking to add an eighth win to the racing record of the Pratt & Miller Corvettes over the past 14 years. Only one win has come the team’s way since their switch to GTE, though, and that was back in 2011.

The preparation for this year’s race should provide a rather more level playing field than we’ve seen in some recent years – the America-only nature of the Corvette campaign (with the exception of Le Mans) having given the balance-of-performance techies a headache in the past.

In theory, the Vette’s big V8 should be the thing to have around Le Mans and we’ve seen time after time that the cars are capable of duking it out with the best that Europe can throw at the task. Is this going to be Corvette’s year?

Well if it is, they’re going to have a hell of a fight to get there!

#63 Chevrolet Corvette C.7R
Ryan Briscoe
Antonio Garcia
Jan Magnussen

The TUSCC championship leaders, joined by their successful Sebring and Rolex 24 third man Ryan Briscoe, arrive on a high and will be looking to lay down a marker in early running for sure after failing to get amongst the class leaders at the Test Day.

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The phrase “there are no weak links” is going to get dull in this class, so suffice to say that Magnussen, with eight class podiums (including four class wins and one overall podium), has a 50% strike rate of taking home silverware at Le Mans – a feat almost matched by Garcia (four class podiums in nine starts, including three class wins).

IndyCar star Briscoe meanwhile has only one Le Mans start to his name here, but arrives this year having played a part in those Corvette wins at both Daytona and Sebring. A win here would make for quite a Triple Crown!

#64 Chevrolet Corvette C.7R
Oliver Gavin
Tommy Milner
Jordan Taylor

Corvette season form in recent years seems to have revolved around luck – usually a lack of it, and usually focusing around one of the cars throughout a season. Oliver Gavin must be getting bored of that phenomenon, but 2015 seems to have shaken the trait!

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The tall Englishman certainly wants to see it change at Le Mans, where in 14 starts he has seven podium finishes in class (four of them class wins) but none of them since 2008! That belies an approach to the great race that has entertained consistently for that decade and a half. Gavin is amongst the ‘raciest’ of racers and is joined in 2015 for the fourth consecutive Le Mans by Tommy Milner – one of the quiet men of the squad, but utterly competitive and focused nonetheless.

Jordan Taylor joins the duo this weekend after his second-place finish in the ‘other’ factory Vette last year and once on track will quietly file away his ‘wacky funster’ image and don his race face.

The two young Americans are both super-quick, while the Corvette looks the part, sounds the part and seems long overdue another major result here. They’ll be in the mix.

Porsche Team Manthey

Porsche’s effort this year with the 911 RSR necessarily takes on a slightly different look as the overall factory effort shifts to accommodate the third LMP1 car.

That has meant two of the GT factory drivers moving to the #19 car with a third as reserve driver (Sven Muller is prepped and ready to act as a GT reserve should Fred Mako be required).

The 911 RSR may not be ultimately the fastest car out there, but through strategy and sustained pace the Porsches are usually there or thereabouts. And it’s as much on the pit wall as out on track that this race can be won.

#91 Porsche 911 RSR
Jorg Bergmeister
Michael Christensen (Le Mans rookie)
Richard Lietz

Young Dane Michael Christensen is teamed with Porsche factory veterans Bergmeister and Lietz in the #91 911 RSR.

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Bergmeister will be contesting his 14th consecutive Le Mans 24 Hours, with a single class win in 2004 and a trio of second-place class finishes, the most recent in 2013, to his name.

Lietz meanwhile has raced at Le Mans for the past eight years, with a trio of class wins to his credit. He finished third last year for the factory team and won in 2013.

Both are still super-committed, and while Lietz is probably now the faster of the two, at Le Mans it’s consistency that really counts – not just in clear running, but in traffic, darkness, bad weather and any combination of the above!

Christensen meanwhile is in his first season as a full Porsche factory GT driver and is already part of the game plan. He’s raced in the WEC to podium success and was entrusted with double duty across both factory GT cars in TUSC on a weekend when the factory’s resources were stretched very thin.

#92 Porsche 911 RSR
Wolf Henzler
Frederic Makowiecki
Patrick Pilet

The #92 car is another GT entry with a stellar cast list.

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Wolf Henzler joins the regular WEC crew of Mako and Pilet – the French duo likely the quickest Porsche double act of the moment.

Mako seems to bring out the best in his countryman: Pilet has a single podium finish at Le Mans to his name at present, but that might change this year.

Mako himself has two podium finishes in four starts and has the advantage of knowing the competition well, too. His first two Le Mans were in Ferraris, followed by a single-season spell with Aston Martin.

There’ll be plenty of discipline in this team – it’s a factory Porsche effort, after all. But if a push is required there’s plenty of talent on tap here, too.

Aston Martin Racing

“We need two strong all-Pro teams”. That was the assessment post-2014 season in the WEC from AMR as to what it could do to move up the order.

It’s entered 2015 with three! The 2015 Vantage GTE is a fast and sonorous beast, able to mix it with anyone in the pack, but the results this season have again been mixed. In truth, that came down to luck at Silverstone – the race-winning Ferrari pitting as a caution came out and leapfrogging the rest of the field.

#95 Aston Martin V8 Vantage GTE
Christoffer Nygaard
Marco Sorensen (Le Mans rookie)
Nicki Thiim

The ‘Dane Train’ effort from Jan Struve’s Young Driver outfit moves up from its 2014 WEC LM GTE Am title-winning campaign to full Pro status.

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Nicki Thiim stays aboard and is a very quick young man indeed. He is again running a parallel campaign in the Carrera Cup Deutschland as well as outings in GT3 Audis – a man in demand with good reason.

Christoffer Nygaard moves back to the all-Danish squad after a year in the Paul Dalla Lana car in GTE AM. He’s been around the AMR family for five years now and this race matters a great deal to a man who was a key part of pulling the Danish effort together in its darkest hour just two years ago. He’s also perfectly capable of very good and very consistent speed.

The new boy this year is Marco Sorensen, who’s dovetailing a season in GP2 with his WEC programme with AMR and is rapidly getting up to speed in a GT car.

As a combo, the trio are gelling well, but with competition at the level it’s at this year, it’s an uphill task for the Danes.

#97 Aston Martin V8 Vantage GTE
Rob Bell
Stefan Mucke
Darren Turner

The lead AMR car will feature an as-yet-unseen ‘Art Car’ livery for the race.

Joining the regular-season duo once again is McLaren GT factory man Rob Bell – another GTE driver with extensive experience of much of the machinery being fielded by the opposition. Rob is long overdue a good result at Le Mans: fourth in class in a JMW Ferrari his best finish to date.

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The Mucke/Turner combo has been a feature of Aston Martin’s Le Mans racing efforts for half a decade now, with Mucke’s best two finishes (third in class in both 2012 and 2013) both coming alongside AMR’s longest-serving driver. Mucke is, quietly, one of the very fastest GT drivers out there, with the fiery behaviour from his earlier career now an ever-more-distant memory.

Darren Turner has been ever-present in Aston Martin Racing’s Le Mans efforts – indeed he has only scored one of his seven podium finishes with another marque, and that was a third for the Ferrari 550 Maranello GTS effort, which was run by Prodrive, too.

That total of seven podiums includes two wins and DT is hungry for more. He’s as fast as ever at 41, was fastest in GTE at the Test Day and is respected by his peers as a firm but very fair opponent. This car, if the race runs at pace, is Aston’s best shot.

#99 Aston Martin V8 Vantage GTE
Alex MacDowall (Le Mans rookie)
Fernando Rees (Le Mans rookie)
Richie Stanaway (Le Mans rookie)

All three of the #99 crew are racing rookies at Le Mans (and the car will revert to Gulf livery from Hanergy for the race).

Richie Stanaway is added to the #99 crew for 2015, as the car comes under the full AMR banner with Craft Bamboo having departed to the WTCC.

The young Kiwi is a star in the making, highly valued by AMR and already adding fire in the belly to the #99 effort. He arrives at Le Mans after a first race win in GP2 at Monaco.

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Fernando Rees and Alex MacDowall should have raced here last year, but a massive practice shunt from the Brazilian in the Porsche Curves put the #99 car out.

Rees though has been a revelation this season: he drove the race of his life at Spa to fend off the close attentions of others to retain the lead until finally passed by the (later penalised) Gimmi Bruni.

MacDowall’s confidence in the rear-wheel-drive Aston grows by the day. He has speed to find but it’s coming and coming fast.

Don’t count this effort out if this becomes anything other than an all-out sprint.