The first of DSC’s four Le Mans previews is of the 2016 GTE Am class, which consists of a healthy 13 entries, in a class which has created so many storylines for the race in recent years.
Four marques are represented in the field, with the six full-season WEC entries being joined by four ELMS cars, an IMSA Ferrari and two Asian based teams.
The SMP Racing entry which won the class last year isn’t present, but the teams and drivers present are unlikely to disappoint fans of the private runners in the GTE ranks.
#50 | Larbre Competition | Chevrolet Corvette C7-Z06 | Michelin | Yutaka Yamagishi, Pierre Ragues & Jean-Phillipe Belloc
What should have been the car which saw Paolo Ruberti continue the search for a first Le Mans class win has now become a bit of a mystery. With Ruberti out after a hefty testing shunt left him needing surgery, there’s a big pair of shoes to fill from the team’s chosen replacement Jean-Phillipe Belloc.
The Larbre team, in its second year with the C7, finished the Test Day running with the quickest time from call-up Nick Catsburg, but Belloc got the nod, the Frenchman always Jack Leconte’s favoured choice meant he was unable to join Yamagishi and Ragues.
Catsburg effectively ruled himself out of contention in more than one public statement after Test Day, leaving Belloc to fill the vacancy, though he too was quick in the car during the Test.
So far in the WEC this year, Larbre has been quiet, but finished on the class podium at both Silverstone and Spa. The Corvette C7 runs well at La Sarthe, and with an extra year of running with the car under its belt Larbre has potential silverware in France for the first time since it won the class in 2011.
#55 | AF Corse | Ferrari 458 Italia | Michelin | Duncan Cameron, Matthew Griffin & Aaron Scott
AF Corse have a real shot at winning both GTE Pro and Am this year, and the #55 458 bearing the Italian team’s name is a big part of that.
The car now carries an identical dark green with white roof livery to Cameron’s new Ferrari 488 GT3.
Matt Griffin is the big name in this entry, and the rapid Irishman is still in pursuit of a maiden class win at La Sarthe, and with 2015 Blancpain Endurance Pro-Am Cup winner and rapid Gentleman driver Duncan Cameron and successful national racer (and Le Mans debutant) Aaron Scott he has a chance.
While Scott hasn’t competed in the 24 hours before, he has had experience driving at the circuit before, when he took part in the 2014 Le Mans Legends support race peddling a Spice SE86.
#57 | Team AAI | Chevrolet Corvette C7-Z06 | Michelin | Johnny O’Connell, Oliver Bryant & Mark Patterson
AAI’s entry into this year’s race may well turn out to be the story of the class. The Taiwanese team impressed last year in its Le Mans debut, getting one of its Porsches to the finish sixth in class, and this year comes to the race with an entirely new package, a Corvette C7.R, this the very car that took the GTE Pro win for the factory team last year.
Driving the car is the combination of American/ South African and serial motorsport retiree Mark Patterson who last competed at the race in 2014 with Ram Racing, British GT race winner and Le Mans rookie Oliver Bryant and Corvette veteran Johnny O’Connell making his Le Mans return.
It’s the first appearance in the race for O’Connell since 2010, the four-time Pirelli World Challenge champion and four-time Le Mans GT class winner searching for one more win in what must be the final period of an illustrious career.
The team will have to do a lot of learning on the job once again though, as it only received the car just before the test, so will need to make the most of all the track time it can get before the race begins.
#60 | Formula Racing | Ferrari 458 Italia | Michelin | Johnny Laursen, Mikkel Mac Jensen & Christina Nielsen
Formula Racing comes to Le Mans this year with an ELMS GTE title to is name after winning it last season. The 458 is the Dane train in the race, with a trio of very competitive Danish drivers.
The main storyline to follow is Christina Nielsen’s debut at the race. She won her class at Sebring earlier this year, finished second in the 2015 IMSA GTD championship and in the process has become one of if not the most notable women in motorsport of recent years. She’ll be looking to score a finish, with a podium in focus too as Nielsen attempts to become the first daughter of a Le Mans podium finishing driver to repeat the feat (Christina’s father is ex three time GT podium finisher Lars Erik Nielsen)
Mikkel Mac has starred in the ELMS’ GT ranks in the past couple of years with the team, and is definitely one to watch on his debut at the race, while Laursen should be one of the better gentlemen drivers in the class on pace.
#61 | Clearwater Racing | Ferrari 458 Italia | Michelin | Mok Weng Sun, Keita Sawa, Robert Bell
Clearwater Racing is a very welcome addition to the Le Mans field this year, after winning the Asian Le Mans Series GT championship in 2015 with a McLaren 650S GT3.
The team is without a McLaren this year, not just at Le Mans, but in Asian Le Mans too, and brings an ex AF Corse GTE Pro Ferrari 458 to the race in its signature head-turning chrome livery.
Driving for the team are three capable drivers, with Rob Bell the most notable of the three. Bell needs no introduction, as a highly successful McLaren GT factory driver, who has had seven appearances at the Le Mans 24.
Mok Weng Sun and Keita Sawa meanwhile will be familiar to anyone who follows GT Asia. Sun has won the championship three times in 2011, 2012 and 2014, while Sawa’s performance in the Absolute Bentley in this year’s opener showed off his great mix of speed and consistency.
#62 Scuderia Corsa | Ferrari 458 Italia | Michelin | William Sweedler, Townsend Bell & Jeff Segal
With one of the two all-American lineups in the race, Scuderia Corsa’s 458 is looking to compete at the sharp end of the Am class in 2016 after showing what it was capable of last year. The outfit won the GTD championship in IMSA and finished the running at the Le Mans Test Day third fastest.
Driving for the team in its second crack at the race is the same trio as last year of Bill Sweedler, Townsend Bell and Jeff Segal. Bell is one to watch, having so much experience at the top of American motorsport, competing in the 100th Indy 500 last month and finishing just out of the top 20 after leading the race strongly.
Last year at the race the team finished third in Am after a very solid run to the flag, and they’ll be looking to challenge for the podium again when they take on the race this time around.
#78 | KCMG | Porsche 911 RSR | Michelin | Christian Ried, Wolf Henzler & Joël Camathias
This year has been a strange one for the KCMG squad’s sportscar programme. After a tour de force at Le Mans last year, winning the LMP2 class convincingly and narrowly missing out on the FIA WEC LMP2 title after a shunt at Fuji set it back, they elected to run only in GTE Am for the full season in order to secure a Le Mans entry.
At the big race KCMG is running in LMP2 once again, and down in the GTE Am ranks has its Proton-run Porsche with a very capable trio of Christian Ried, former class winner and Porsche factory driver, Wolf Henzler and Joël Camathias making his first appearance since his drive with JWA Avila back in 2012.
After finishing off the podium in both WEC outings so far this season, KCMG could do with a good double-points result at Le Mans to keep them in the championship fight going into the second leg of the season.
#83 | AF Corse | Ferrari 458 Italia | Michelin | François Perrodo, Emmanuel Collard & Rui Aguas
AF’s second car in Am is the full-season WEC entry of Perrodo, Collard and Aguas that has already asserted its intentions, winning at Silverstone and finishing second at Spa.
2016’s twice-around-the-clock French classic is set to be Collard’s 22nd straight Le Mans appearance, and his fourth straight in Am. It’s an incredible feat, from the Frenchman, who has become a true mainstay of the event and a figurehead of the paddock.
Last year the trio finished fourth in class, before finishing on the podium at all but one of the remaining WEC rounds last year, showing what Collard, along with Aguas and a quickly improving Perrodo are capable of.
#86 | Gulf Racing UK | Porsche 911 RSR | Michelin | Michael Wainright, Adam Carroll & Benjamin Barker
The only all British lineup of drivers in Am this year comes from Gulf Racing UK, which has impressed in its commitment to ACO racing, stepping up from the ELMS this year and into the WEC.
So far this year the team hasn’t achieved the results it hoped for going into the season, retiring from Silverstone after being hit by Brendon Hartley and finishing a distant fifth at Spa. But, with its Porsche, which in reliability terms is very well proven, a good finish at Le Mans would be the perfect opportunity to turn the season around.
Carroll is über quick, Barker is too but needs to get up to speed with racing at Le Mans with prototypes flying past him after his prior experience winning the 2014 Porsche Carrera Cup GB race at the circuit.
Mike Wainright’s experience at the race from 2011 in a class filled with rookies should give him a bit of a leg up as he continues to work hard to find speed and consitency
After years of multiple cars sporting Gulf blue and orange, Gulf Racing is also the only car running the iconic colours this time round; that is is doing so on a car that suits the livery beautifully is bound to see the #86 with plenty of adopted friends. Notably, it’s the first Gulf Porsche at Le Mans for 10 years, the last being Ice Pol’s 911 RSR back in 2006.
#88 | Abu Dhabi-Proton Racing | Porsche 911 RSR | Michelin | Khaled Al Qubasi, David Heinemeier Hansson & Patrick Long
Like Gulf Racing, Abu-Dhabi Proton could do with a good result at La Sarthe to get its season on track, after finishing fifth at Silverstone and sixth at Spa. And there’s no reason why they can’t do that, with the experience of Porsche factory driver Long leading the way, one of the fastest men in the world in a Porsche.
Heinemeier Hansson has pedigree in both the WEC and at Le Mans, the Dane won the WEC Am class title convincingly with Aston Martin Racing in 2014, including a Le Mans class win in the process. Al Qubaisi meanwhile, finished second in the class that year, and with two Dubai 24 wins under his belt knows what it takes to do well in a 24-hour race.
#89 | Proton Competition | Porsche 911 RSR | Michelin | Cooper MacNeil, Lehman Keen & Marc Miller
A WeatherTech Racing Porsche is once again at Le Mans but this time in conjunction with Proton, not ProSpeed, with the other all-American crew of Leh Keen, Cooper MacNeil and Marc Miller looking for silverware.
Gold-rated Keen is the standout here, and is should be right at home in the 911, while MacNeil finished Le Mans in both 2013 and 2014 with Larbre and the WeatherTech ProSpeed effort and Miller made his debut at the event last year in the Riley Viper. Miller is no stranger to long distance races though, winning his class in the 2007 NASA 25 Hours of ThunderHill in a Mazda MX5, he’s a fan favourite in the States and will go down well here with the traditionally fun loving crowd.
A mistake-free run from this car could see this crew up a decent result.
#98 | Aston Martin Racing | Aston Martin V8 Vantage | Dunlop | Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy & Mathias Lauda
After a heartbreaking end to the 2015 race, with Dalla Lana crashing out of the lead with under an hour remaining, the #98 crew will be hungry for a trophy.
The Canadian gent has come on in leaps and bounds, even more so since last year’s disappointment, so paired with Lamy and Lauda should be considered amongst the favourites in the class for a podium finish.
The #98 leads the class in the WEC going into the race, after a second at Silverstone, a win at Spa and a pole position which puts the Aston a single point clear of the #83 Ferrari.
It’s the first trip to Le Mans for the factory entered Vantage running on Dunlop tyres, so the weather during the race could be a crucial factor for them in achieving a good result, especially in mixed conditions
#99 | Aston Martin Racing | Aston Martin V8 Vantage | Dunlop | Andrew Howard, Liam Griffin & Gary Hirsch
A car with a Beechdean livery will be at Le Mans for the first time since Nigel Mansell and his sons competed in LMP1 back in 2010. This time its with Andrew Howard driving with his team that has been highly successful in British GT over the past few years, and they’ll be hoping the effort goes rather further!
Howard brings former BTCC driver and British GT regular Liam Griffin to the race for his debut, after running well in the WEC for two flyaway rounds last year. Swiss driver Gary Hirsch makes up the trio, and has plenty of Le Mans experience and the 2015 ELMS title to his name.
The team had a tough Test Day, finishing with the slowest time and with Griffin having an incident which cut its running short in the afternoon. But going into race week the British squad hopes to have had all its major issues prior to the competitive on-track sessions.