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Le Mans Preview, Part 2: GTE Pro

Lots of question marks in GTE's factory dominated class

After last year’s controversial GTE Pro race at Le Mans, which saw Ford and a sole Risi Ferrari dominate the field, with Ford in particular proving bullet-proof on pace, reliability and consistency throughout. It left many disappointed, and has as a result has prompted the ACO to change the Balance of Performance system for this year’s race, as in 2016, it proved un-fit for purpose in keeping the field close.

It remains to be seen how effective to will be, especially with the Test Day ending with a spread of over three seconds between the fastest Corvette and the slowest Ford. Though there is reason for optimism, as you’d expect the ACO and FIA to have learn’t a lot from the 2016 events.

Either way, it will be a fascinating race, with five factories bringing their best machinery and driver talent to Le Mans, with the aim of scoring the ultimate prize in GTE racing:

#51 | AF Corse | Ferrari 488 GTE | James Calado, Alessandro Pier Guidi, Lucas Di Grassi | Test Day Time: 3:55.827

Interestingly, both AF Corse Ferraris head into the endurance classic at Le Mans on equal points (36), and firmly in the WEC championship hunt, just two points off the leading Ford (#67).

The 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours was one to forget for AF Corse, with both 488s hitting trouble early on. The car is a different animal now though, far more reliable, and with race-winning speed.

Driving the #51 is James Calado, with Alessandro Pier Guidi in Gianmaria Bruni’s old seat. The Italian is one of the very best in GTE racing on the speed front, but it is his Le Mans debut this year, so he’ll have to feed off his teammates to ensure he’s at the top of his game. Lucas Di Grassi is in the third seat, the Brazilian having a great season with Audi last year, before the programme ended.

Di Grassi took part in the shootout to decide on Bruni’s replacement, and while he didn’t receive the full gig, has been chosen to represent AF Corse at the biggest race of the year. All eyes will be on him, in his first Le Mans in a GT car, (and we believe only his second ever GT race, after the 2012 Nurburgring 24 Hours in a Mclaren), to prove he can perform at the same high level he has in prototypes.

The question mark, as with everyone, is BoP. The Ferraris were close to the ultimate pace at the Test Day, and with a Le Mans-only separate BoP, that’s all we have to go on other than pace last year.

The Ferrari has been a revelation this year in terms of its ability to shrug off some BoP adjustments, if the process though produces even close to a level playing field in the class the Ferraris will surely be in the mix.

#63 | Corvette Racing | Corvette C7.R | Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia, Jordan Taylor | Test Day Time: 3:55.064

The first of Corvette Racing’s Le Mans crew is the #63 of Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Jordan Taylor. Taylor is in the form of his life over in IMSA, having won every race this year with Cadillac and the evergreen duo of Magnussen and Garcia, who are still winning races with Corvette, Magnussen in particular proving mighty this season.

It has to be said though that Magnussen and Garcia haven’t won at Le Mans since 2009, the final year of GT1, which will become a source of motivation for both. A win would therefore be the perfect way to bounce back from recent form.

Having a drama-free Test Day was also an encouraging sign, with the fourth fastest time at the end of the day putting the #63 in good shape for race week.

#64 | Corvette Racing | Corvette C7.R | Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner, Marcel Fassler | Test Day Time: 3:54.701

As it stands, it’s advantage Corvette heading into the race, after Oliver Gavin set the fastest time at the Test Day. Last year, Corvette Racing as a whole were unable to compete with Ford and Ferrari, but with the new BoP system for Le Mans, its chances of fighting for the win should be higher.

As a team, Pratt and Miller’s Corvette team is world-class, and over the years have proven that with its eight Le Mans class wins.

On the driver front, Oliver Gavin, who is still as talented as he’s ever been, and Tommy Milner, who is searching for his third Le Mans class win with the team, return. The key difference here is Audi LMP1 racer Marcel Fässler joining the team again as the third driver alongside, Gavin and Milner in the seat filled by Jordan Taylor last year (who now moves into the #63). The missing driver is Ricky Taylor, who will race in LMP2 this year with Keating Motorsports.

Fassler has proven himself in GT machinery before, and with Corvette too, last racing at Le mans with the team in 2009, the final year of the GT1s. The Swiss is hugely adaptable, as one of the very best LMP1 drivers in recent years amnd also proving a force to be reckoned with in Audi’s GT3 programme this year too.

Another note from the Test Day is the reminder we received about the serviceability of the C7.R. One of the elder statesmen in the class (now in its third year), the crew performed an engine change on the #64 in 91-minutes in the afternoon on Sunday. It was an impressive feat, and it’s that sort of engineering prowess that can prove to be the difference between winning and losing at Le Mans.

#66 | Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK | Ford GT | Stefan Mucke, Olivier Pla, Billy Johnson | Test Day Time: 3:58.181

Last year’s Le Mans saw Ford apparently struggle for pace at the Test Day, before dominating the competition during race week. Will that happen again? Time will tell. From what we can tell so far though, is that Ford really do appear to be in trouble this time around. Their pace at the Test Day was way off, the blame apparently laying on the turbo pressure change in the Le Mans BoP.

Has it made seven seconds of difference over last year’s lap times? A year further into the car’s development and refinement? That’s the big question.

The #66 appeared to suffer the most at the test, emerging the slowest in the class, over three seconds off Oliver Gavin’s Pro-topping time. Pla, Mucke and Johnson could do with turning things around during the race, to give their WEC title challenge a boost.

It’s also going to be an important race for Billy Johnson, as Le Mans is his last currently announced chance to race the GT this year, the Multimatic man has lost his CTSC drive thanks to a now Platinum driver ranking, he’ll want to show what he can do in this hallowed company.

#67 | Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK | Ford GT | Andy Priaulx, Harry Tincknell, Pipo Derani | Test Day Time: 3:57.881

The #67 crew head to Le Mans as the WEC GTE Pro points leaders, with Andy Priaulx, Pipo Derani and Harry Tincknell enjoying a successful run at Silverstone to start the year, continuing the car’s turnaround after a tough first half of 2016.

Priaulx is in the form of his life, this after winning multiple WTCC titles, Tincknell continues to be the model of a factory driver and Derani is already up to speed racing in the GT after making a name for himself in prototypes, Pipo one of an astounding four Brazilians coming to the GTE Pro class as class rookies this year (with di Grassi, Kanaan and Serra).

The main concern is the Test Day pace, though the #67 was second quickest of the four Fords. Whether or not they have something up their sleeve or not for race-week remains to be seen.  In many ways they team are damned if they do improve, and clearly out of contention if they don’t after the controversies of 2016.

After a delay kept them out of race contention in 2016 though the #67 crew will be keen to get as close to the sharp end as they possibly can.

#68 | Ford Chip Ganassi Team USA | Ford GT | Joey Hand, Dirk Muller, Tony Kanaan | Test Day Time: 3:58.011

The talk of the town for the #68 is the last-minute driver change which has resulted in Tony Kanaan scoring his first Le Mans drive. The IndyCar star, is filling in for Sebastien Bourdais who injured himself during Indy 500 Qualifying. It’s not an easy role to fill, as the lateness of the call-up has left him with limited time to prepare. He also missed the Test Day too due to a clash with the Indy race at Detroit.

He isn’t new to racing the GT though, as he competed with the Ford team at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona earlier this year and did an admirable job.

Le Mans is very much a different animal though, so there will be a steep learning curve here. He is however partnered with the 2016 Pro winners, Joey Hand and Dirk Muller, who have just as much chance of competing for the win this time round, both are on fine form after winning at Daytona this year too.

Again, as for all the cars in this class, BoP will be the first key in a multiply locked box of possibilities!

#69 | Ford Chip Ganassi Team USA | Ford GT | Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook, Scott Dixon | Test Day Time: 3:57.536

The last of the Fords to talk about is the #69,  the second of the IMSA GTs entered. The trio of Westbrook, Dixon and Briscoe is another one of quality for the American marque. As it stands in IMSA, Briscoe and Westbrook are fifth in the points tally, their position bolstered by a second-place finish at Long Beach.

If the speed isn’t there for Ford, maybe efficiency will be? Westbrook and Briscoe may well be the best bullet in the gun in that case, after their incredible fuel-saving run at Laguna last year which scored the car its first ever win.

At the Test Day, the duo finished with the best time from the four Fords, though they completed the fewest laps among the quartet, with a total of 57 after the eight hours of running.

Dixon is still nursing a sore foot after his massive Indy 500 shunt but is apparently feeling fit enough to play a full part in proceedings.

#71 | AF Corse | Ferrari 488 GTE | Davide Rigon, Sam Bird, Miguel Molina | Test Day Time: 3:55.385

Sam Bird and Davide Rigon have impressed since being partnered together last year at AF Corse. The duo narrowly missed out on the Pro title last year, taking the fight to the wire at Bahrain, and so far this year look to be in title contention again. Joined by DTM racer Miguel Molina, who has been racing with Spirit of Race in the WEC’s Am division, then surely a good result at Le Mans is more than possible?

Molina, despite his limited GTE experience, has been quick, and has adapted to the 488 quickly, as proven by his incredible performance at the Silverstone opener, which ended in tears on the last lap when the clash with Pedro Lamy ended with him getting stuck in the gravel and retiring.

Again though, the Test Day wasn’t kind to the three Ferraris in Pro in outright pace terms. How much of an effect the BoP will have on Ferrari’s chance to win is an unknown for race-week, which will almost certainly prove to be a deciding factor.

#82 | Risi Competizione | Ferrari 488 GTE | Toni Vilander, Giancarlo Fisichella, Pierre Kaffer | Test Day Time: 3:55.847

After taking the fight to the Fords last year, Risi Competizione returns to Le Mans in confident mood.

For the race, it will call on the experienced trio of Toni Vilander, Giancarlo Fisichella and Pierre Kaffer to once again throw the cat amongst the pigeons as the only fully private effort in the GTE Pro class.

The 488 GTE, in its second year at Le Mans, should only prove a stronger product, though the class is expected to be more competitive, with Porsche’s new weapon, and AF Corse unlikely to have such a tough outing like last year.

Nevertheless, Risi is a team capable of winning the class,  an incredibly well run team, with strategic nous to give away, and with nothing to prove after its performances over the years.

#91 | Porsche GT Team | Porsche 911 RSR | Richard Lietz, Fred Makowiecki, Patrick Pilet | Test Day Time: 3:54.996

The new Porsche 911 RSR hasn’t scored a breakthrough result just yet, but it’s very early days. The new Porsche follows the lead set by Ford last year in exploiting the rule book to the max, with an aggressive aero package and already famously, a mid-engined layout, the first for a 911 badged Porsche since the old GT1 cars of the late 1990s.

While its outright speed hasn’t been there it has proven reliable, both in the WEC (aside from Silverstone) and IMSA, the car almost winning on its debut at Daytona after showing excellent pace when the weather took a turn.

Le Mans would be the perfect place for it to hit its stride, and with six capable drivers, it can do just that. Lietz, Pilet and Makowiecki are all very experienced in GT racing and are among the best in the Pro class this year.

#92 | Porsche GT Team | Porsche 911 RSR | Michael Christensen, Kevin Estre, Dirk Werner | Test Day Time: 3:54.999

Last in the title race, the #92 needs to achieve a good result at La Sarthe to avoid its championship challenge being over by the end of the next week. The #92 retired at Silverstone after a fire, the only black spot on an otherwise laudable durability record in its first six months of competition for the new 911 RSR.

Christensen, Estre and Werner may be the better trio overall, though Estre, while often the quickest driver in his field, has made some significant errors at the bigger races.

At the Test Day, the Porsches looked set to finish 1-2 atop the GTE Pro standings, until Gavin pipped them at the very end. The speed, and 159 laps combined, puts the new 911s in good stead for their Le Mans debut. A good finish would go a long way in putting to rest 2016’s forgettable performance by Porsche.

#95 | Aston Martin Racing | Aston Martin Vantage | Nicki Thiim, Marco Sorensen, Richie Stanaway | Test Day Time: 3:55.251

Off the back of last year’s impressive end to the season for Danes Thiim and Sorensen, it’s been a slow start to the 2017 season thus far. Both Astons have had quiet outings at both Silverstone and Spa to kick off the year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they should be counted out at Le Mans, the differing BoP for the big one might well prove to be in their favour.

The reigning GTE Pro champs will be more eager than ever to win Le Mans, partly because AMR has come so close over the years, and also because a good result at the double points round could well turn their season around. They currently sit joint sixth with their teammates in the #97 in the title race with just 12 points.

The third driver in the car is Richie Stanaway. Le Mans marks his final announced appearance of the year for the team, the Kiwi always quick, he’ll need to be in this company.

#97 | Aston Martin Racing | Aston Martin Vantage | Darren Turner, Jonny Adam, Daniel Serra | Test Day Time: 3:55.266

Much the same projection applies to the #97 as the #95. A good result at Le Mans for Darren Turner is long overdue, and Jonny Adam is more than capable of helping deliver that. The question mark is rookie Daniel Serra.

The Brazilian knows the Vantage, and crucially the Dunlop tyres, well, after helping develop the 2017 rubber. While he has little experience racing in GTE, he’s had plenty of track time and due to the nature of his role at Dunlop (a development driver), he has the ability to drive for long periods of time, consistently.

Depending on the conditions the Dunlop tyres could make a huge difference, so having Serra embedded with the team could prove an advantage in that department also. His pace is known to be very impressive – now we need to see it in racing conditions.

Aston Martin Racing last won in the lead GT class at Le Mans in 2008. This year it once again has a shot at the victory, though the Vantage’s life-cycle is nearing its end. Can it keep up with the newer kit for one more year, and hand AMR one last chance at a worthy swan-song for its long-standing GTE racer?