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Le Mans Preview, Part 1: GTE Am

Variety, strength and unpredictability

This year’s 16-car GTE Am division may be the best ever. Packed with teams from the WEC, ELMS, IMSA and Asian LMS, a variety of machinery and even a tyre war, it could be the class to watch at times during the race.

There is a dominant chassis though, in numerical terms, with the first year of the Ferrari 488s eligibility in the class proving fruitful for Michelotto as no less than eight of them are entered in the currently burgeoning category.

Nevertheless, the squadron of Aston Martins, Porsches and the Art-Car Corvette add spice and intrigue. Last year Scuderia Corsa took a comfortable win in the class, though it looks like it won’t be as easy this time round.

Here’s a look at GTE Am, car-by-car:

#50 | Larbre Competition | Chevrolet Corvette C7.R | Fernando Rees, Romain Brandela, Christian Philippon | Test Day Time: 3:58.302

Larbre Competition brings a Corvette to the Am division for a seventh consecutive year, and once again will prove to be a fan favourite, who over the years have witnessed some spectacular efforts from Jack Leconte’s team. This time round though the biggest headline is likely the car’s livery. The Art-Car concept is by no means new, but Larbre’s striking livery for Le Mans feels fresh, and in person looks stunning.

The Corvette C7.R is a capable machine, both reliable and in the right hands quick, but having two Bronze-rated drivers in the car makes it hard to see the #50 finishing particularly high up the order. Fernando Rees, who up until last year raced with Aston Martin Racing, is rapid though, knows the team well from his pre-AMR days and at the team’s ELMS Monza warm-up race put a cat amongst the pigeons in his debut in the car. In Qualifying the Brazilian could well turn heads.

#54 | Spirit of Race | Ferrari 488 GTE | Thomas Flohr, Francesco Castellacci, Olivier Beretta | Test Day Time: 4:00.213

For Spirit of Race read AF Corse, the Swiss flagged entity simply a matter of fiscal efficiency rather than any major change behind the scenes.

The #54 Spirit of Race Ferrari is a Thomas Flohr-funded crew, the Swiss stepping up from competing in the GT3 Le Mans Cup last year. Flohr is improving as a Bronze, but still has a way to go before challenging the Paul Dalla Lana’s of this world. The Bronze driver’s contribution though will have to play a part, the Am drivers must drive 6 hours of the race, a long time to play a positive, or a negative part in the overall pace.

It does take time though. Partnered with Francesco Castellacci and Olivier Beretta, who has six class wins at Le Mans and a further five class podiums, he’ll learn a lot in his first attempt at Le Mans.

Castellacci, in his second full season of WEC racing after a season with Aston Martin in 2015, is on double duty, adding pace, and helping Flohr with adapting from GT3 to GTE, both key roles in a class that is regularly much more pure in Pro-Am terms than the LMP2 offering.

So far this year in the WEC, the #54 Spirit of Race 488 has shown flashes of brilliance, but with Miguel Molina in the car, who for Le Mans is racing with AF Corse in GTE Pro as a third driver. To stay in the championship hunt, the team currently fourth in Am, scoring points is vital here.

#55 | Spirit of Race | Ferrari 488 GTE | Duncan Cameron, Aaron Scott, Marco Cioci | Test Day Time: 3:58.804

The second Spirit of Race entry is the full season ELMS GTE runner which usually sees Clearwater-tied Matt Griffin partner Aaron Scott and Duncan Cameron. It hasn’t been the best of starts to a season for the crew, with a rare retirement at Monza after an engine failure proving costly to its points haul from the pre-Le Mans running.

ELMS concerns though are a distant prospect here, Duncan Cameron is a well-rounded Am who now has plenty of Le Mans experience.  Aaron Scott meanwhile has usually impressed greatly in his ELMS outings with the team, taking the car to the front and often keeping it there.  Then there’s Marco Cioci, hot blooded and just downright fast. He’ll be a major asset here in an effort that could do very well.

There is a notable adjustment to be made for the race though, as in the ELMS, Spirit of Race runs on the spec Dunlop tyre. For Le Mans, it has opted to switch to Michelin.

#60 | Clearwater Racing | Ferrari 488 GTE | Richard Wee, Hiroki Katoh, Alvaro Parente | Test Day Time: 4:05.248

This year Clearwater Racing is bringing two cars to Le Mans, after an impressive debut in 2016, making use of its invite after winning the Asian Le Mans Series GT class.

While the #61 488 is a full-season WEC entry, the second car is a one-off, utilising last season’s #71 GTE Pro car with an intriguing lineup of PWC champion and McLaren factory driver Alvaro Parente, Super GT GT300 star Hiroki Katoh and Clearwater Blancpain Asia driver driver Richard Wee.

Competing with a new Ferrari 488, with aid from AF Corse, can this entry be a dark horse? Certainly Parente, who has Le Mans experience with RAM Racing, is likely to be up at the sharp end when in the driving seat, the Portuguese one of the fastest GT drivers in the world at the moment.

#61 | Clearwater Racing | Ferrari 488 GTE | Weng Sun Mok, Keita Sawa, Matt Griffin | Test Day Time: 3:59.276

Clearwater’s sterling debut at Le Mans in 2016, qualifying on Pole Position, before finishing fourth, was one of the more positive long-lasting memories in the GTE ranks from the race. Back for another year, and a full WEC campaign to surround its Le Mans programme, puts the team in a stronger position than last year. As a team it has already shown off its potential with the new Ferrari 488 too, winning its WEC debut at Silverstone in dramatic fashion.

Driver wise, Matt Griffin is one of the most consistent, and fastest GT racers in the world, Mok Weng Sun is consistent and reliable, and Sawa is quietly one of the better Silver drivers around. A good showing in Qualifying, and contending at the head of the field in the race is the expectation. The rewards will also be greater in 2017 too, with WEC points at stake for a good result.

Make no mistake, Clearwater’s #61 should be among the favourites if they can keep the grey car on the grey stuff.

#62 | Scuderia Corsa | Ferrari 488 GTE | Cooper MacNeil, Bill Sweedler, Townsend Bell | Test Day Time: 3:58.599

Last year’s Am winners Sweedler and Bell return to Le Mans with American team Scuderia Corsa, this time joined by IMSA regular Cooper MacNiel and have every chance of taking on the field again. Scuderia Corsa are one of many well-run Ferrari teams on the grid at Le Mans this year, with both of its entries featuring drivers in the upper echelon of GTE talent, the team handled by a blend of Scuderia Corsa and Kessel Racing personnel

Sweedler and Bell race well as a pair together, Sweedler particularly notable as one of the best Ams on the entry. MacNeil as an addition in the seat taken by Jeff Segal last year is a capable Silver, who as recently as 2014 scored a top 5 finish in GTE Am at Le Mans with ProSpeed. His form can though be erratic, if his head is where it needs to be then this is likely to be a real contender.

At what turned out to be a very successful Test Day for the trio, they completed 74 laps combined and ended the day with the class’ fourth fastest time.

#65 | Scuderia Corsa | Ferrari 488 GTE | Christina Nielsen, Alessandro Balzan, Bret Curtis | Test Day Time: 4:00.120

Scuderia Corsa’s second car is just as strong. Christina Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan, who are reigning IMSA GTD champions, along with Bret Curtis has the potential to fight for a podium this year.

Danish driver Nielsen makes her second appearance at the race after a somewhat unhappy debut last season with Formula racing. In Blzan though she has a racing soul-mate, the working relationship between the pair is exceptional and together they will provide the required blend of pace and consistency to run with, or even ahead of, the pack.

Bret Curtis will be looking to wipe away the memories of a non start after an accident in practice in 2014, though he did race back in 2012 with a Prospeed Porsche.

#77 | Dempsey Proton Racing | Porsche 911 RSR | Christian Ried, Matteo Cairoli, Marvin Dienst | Test Day Time: 3:58.449

It’s been a far better season for Proton’s WEC effort so far. The trio of Ried and Porsche juniors Cairoli and Dienst has proven to be quick, with Cairoli in particular impressing consistently with his pace. The car may be the weakest in the field now, being the 2015-spec 911, but the Proton team is well run enough to continue to score good results as opportunity to purchase the 2017 911 RSR for Am competition next year closes in. The choice across all four Porsches of sticking wioth Dunlop rubber here too gives us a real tyre war.

Thus far the 2015 911 though has been off the pace in the WEC, relying on issues for others to contend, the tricky task of balancing 2016 Ferraris and Astons agains a 2015 Porsche proving an enigma.

Weather, as always though could prove interesting, and the Proton team is up for the fight, 2015 ADAC F4 Champion Dienst is definitely being groomed as a future GT prospect.  This trio is a dark horse for a good result.

The key here will be scoring WEC points, as with 33 from Silverstone and Spa, the #77 crew is still very much in the title fight, as it currently sits third. It must be noted, that as usual Le Mans offers double points for the WEC teams.

#83 | DH Racing | Ferrari 488 GTE | Tracy Krohn, Nicolas Jonsson, Andrea Bertolini | Test Day Time: 3:59.174

Back for another year together at Le Mans, their 12th in a row, Tracy Krohn and Nic Jonsson are bringing the Krohn green livery back to the the GT ranks, this time with a 488, after racing in LMP2 the past two seasons.

Along with the mercurial and amiable Andrea Bertolini, the DH Racing Ferrari, run by AF Corse, and earning their place here as 2016/17 Asian LMS Champions, could be one to watch during the race, as Jonsson is a fast, steady hand. In the past Krohn and Jonsson have podium’d together, but the last time that happened was back in 2012, which in GTE terms, was a long time ago. The 488 is a strong car though, so it wouldn’t be impossible for them to achieve that feat again should it turn into a race of attrition.

Krohn and Jonsson’s limited running in it though, could prove to be a weakness, as they haven’t had a full ACO-rules sportscar programme to help them prepare this year. As always much will depend on the form and fortune that comes the way of the tall Texan.

#84 | JMW Motorsport | Ferrari 488 GTE | Rob Smith, Will Stevens, Dries Vanthoor | Test Day Time: 4:00.523

The team’s beloved Ferrari 458 is now retired with honours after a spectacular win in its final ELMS race and now Jim McWhirter’s team returns to Le Mans after missing last year’s race uninvited by a selection committee with a short memory!

The team fields their new Ferrari 488, still in JMW’s trademark yellow, with an interesting looking line-up.

Rob Smith is the sole full-season ELMS man aboard, he is another of that group of drivers for whom simply being in the race fulfils a lifelong racing ambition. Happily for the team his form has never been better, good pace, and great consistency.

Will Stevens has made it clear that he sees his future in a factory seat in sportscars, with GT racing providing the best option for that at present.  Test Day saw him, and WRT Audi team-mate Dries Vanthoor both on track at Le Mans before flying back to Belgium to take a race win in the Blancpain Sprint Series.  This though will be his first GTE race, all of his other WEC and Le Mans running coming, with impressive form, in LMP2.

Dries Vanthoor is the younger brother of Porsche factory man Laurens and is showing signs that he’ll be as much of a force to be reckoned with in the future.  The well drilled Stevens/ Vanthoor combo could be a real asset here.

The downside is the newness of the car to the team, but if that doesn’t prove an issue then the JMW squad might very well be in amongst the leading runners in the class.

#86 | Gulf Racing | Porsche 911 RSR | Ben Barker, Mike Wainwright, Nick Foster | Test Day Time: 3:59.582

Gulf Racing has had a difficult start to 2017, with a two-year-old Porsche, in amongst a tough WEC Am class. Drivers Ben Barker and Nick Foster are quick, but team owner whilst Mike Wainwright is not the fastest of the Bronze drivers his consistency is  vastly improved recently with the active assistance of Ben Barker. At Le Mans, having him as a steady hand could prove essential, especially with Foster still getting up to speed with tackling La Sarthe; this his rookie year in the WEC.

So far this season Gulf finished fourth at Silverstone, but an issue late in the race at Spa cost them any points in Belgium. It’s not going to be an easy ride at Le Mans. Staying focused, finishing the race and picking up valuable points, will be the aim here. Last year Gulf Racing finished fifth in Am, there’s no reason a similar result can’t be achieved this time around.

#88 | Proton Competition | Porsche 911 RSR | Klaus Bachler, Stephane Lemeret, Khaled Al Qubaisi | Test Day Time: 3:59.277

A late change for the team saw the initially named Nick Yelloly out and Klaus Bachler, a long-time team favourite, in alongside Belgian veteran Stephane Lemeret and the returning Khaled Al Qubaisi.

Bachler is a Porsche specialist, capable of class contending speed and an obvious choice to anchor this effort.  Al Qubaisi stepped back from a full season effort this season due to business commitments at home in Abu Dhabi but that happened at a point where his form had never been better, WEC race winning form and a podium at Le Mans last year is a mighty calling card, he’ll be an asset here on his fifth consecutive start.

Lemeret arrives as reigning Asian Le Mans GT drivers champion as part of the DH Racing Ferrari effort.  he’s a fast and steady driver, but a Le Mans rookie.

#90 | TF Sport | Aston Martin Vantage | Euan Hankey, Salih Yoluc, Rob Bell | Test Day Time: 3:59.140

Reigning British GT champion TF Sport heads to Le Mans for the first time this year, and with real potential to star in Am. The team leads the GTE class of the European Le Mans Series after the opening two races, and looks capable of matching up with the best that the combined Le Mans grid has to offer.

Salih Yoluc, who has been mentored by Euan Hankey in recent seasons in GT Open and the Michelin Le Mans Cup, has been impressive and looked better than ever so far this year, making for dangerous trio when partnered with Hankey and McLaren works driver Rob Bell (who set Pole in Am at Le Mans in 2016 with Clearwater).

Yoluc will make history as the first ever Turkish driver to start the Le Mans 24 Hours

The 2016-spec Aston Martin which it brings to Le Mans has little to prove, after winning titles in the WEC last year. The only hiccup of note is that the team lost a lot of track time at Le Mans during the Test Day in the Morning session, after the car was damaged after being recovered on circuit due to a broken water pump belt. There will be plenty of time for Yoluc to get more laps in during race week though.

#93 | Proton Competition | Porsche 911 RSR | Pat Long, Abdelaziz Turki Al Faisal, Mike Hedlund | Test Day Time: 4:00.556

The third (numerically speaking) of the Proton run cars has an excellent blend of experience and enthusiasm aboard.

Patrick Long is on the Le Mans entry for a 14th year and has a pair of class wins on that record, together with class podiums in the past two year.  He’s a driver of high quality in his own right and the ideal man to add a blend of pace and balance to a Pro-Am squad.

Fellow American Mike Hedlund makes his debut at the race, but not on the circuit, he drove a United Autosports Ligier LMP3 in last year’s Road to Le Mans support race.  An über-enthusiast he’ll be soaking up every second of the experience, but has enough time in race cars to know that his focus here needs to be piun sharp.

Abdulaziz Al Faisal makes his sixth Le Mans start, back to a Porsche after three years in Ferraris.  He’s a quick and steady driver that is exactly what is required for the 24 Hour discipline.

The team will run a conservative race, playing no doubt to Pat Long’s inherent pace.  If the cards fall their way don’t count this one out for a very good finish.

#98 | Aston Martin Racing | Aston Martin Vantage | Paul Dalla Lana, Mathias Lauda, Pedro Lamy | Test Day Time: 3:58.250

Aston Martin Racing’s #98 Aston is arguably the class favourite for Le Mans. Heading into race week with both the WEC points lead (by five points) and the fastest time at the Test Day, Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda will be looking for no less than a win and an extension of its WEC points lead, after falling short at Le Mans for so many years now.

The 2016 Vantage is strong, the team is well run, integrated within the enormous AMR garage that includes the brains of its Pro cars and all three drivers amount to one of, if not the strongest combinations in the field.

Is this the year that Dalla Lana, Lamy and Lauda take the crown?

#99 | Beechdean AMR | Aston Martin Vantage | Ross Gunn, Andrew Howard, Oliver Bryant | Test Day Time: 3:58.885

Back for a second go at Le Mans, Andrew Howard and the Beechdean AMR crew will be looking to improve upon their seventh place finish last year. With Oliver Bryant – who drove the Team AAI Corvette in ’16 for his debut, and up-and-comer Ross Gunn (making his debut this year) team owner Andrew Howard has a good chance to doing just that.

Gunn in particular is a driver to keep an eye, the young Brit, who spring-boarded into AMR factory driver contention after winning the British GT GT4 class a couple of years ago, has regularly shown incredible pace and race craft despite limited GTE experience.

So far in the ELMS season, Beechdean sits third in the GTE standings in a bid to defend their 2016 title after finishing on the podium at both Silverstone and Monza. It won’t be easy to continue that streak at Le Mans though, as the 16-car Am class is jam-packed with talent. The combination of Dunlop tyres, the 2016-Vantage and a hungry lineup could see them mix in at the front-end.