It would be easy for Marcel Fassler to consider his Corvette drive at Le Mans this year as a sort of consolation prize, a lifeline after he and co-drivers Benoit Treluyer and Andre Lotterer had their smooth career trajectories upended by Audi’s sudden LMP1 exit at the end of 2016. But although the Swiss veteran had no more idea than anyone else at the time that last year’s Le Mans 24 Hours would be his last in an Audi prototype, he quickly adjusted to the new reality and is looking as happy as ever to be at La Sarthe in mid-June.
“I’ve had a warm welcome back here again,” he said ahead of Thursday night’s pair of qualifying sessions, “we’ve had good preparation for the race, there was a good test at Elkhart Lake to get used to the Le Mans aero package and I did some simulator time as well. Even if the lap times are longer than LMP1, the car is no easier to drive and the level of competition in GTE Pro right now is super-high.
“A win in this class means no less than the overall victory, so I really hope I can experience this. As a driver, the satisfaction is at least the same as for LMP1. The media puts more emphasis on the faster cars in LMP1, but I think the GTs should have more attention, there’s five brands, the competition is high and the quality of drivers involved and the racing that results is excellent.”
Fassler says he wasn’t immediately beating down Corvette’s door when he found out Audi was pulling out. “I didn’t immediately feel pressure to be back with Corvette, I was just going to let things happen,” he told us. “I knew Corvette is normally sorted pretty far in advance for Le Mans, so it was a nice surprise to have them ask in January if I wanted to do it. This happened in January before Daytona, I had no discussions before that. I immediately asked Audi if there’d be any issue, and they gave me the go-ahead.”
One big change since the last time Fassler went round Le Mans in a GT car is the significant speed increase of 2017’s new generation of LMP2s, something he says makes traffic management much easier. “In general it’s good for LMP2s to have more top speed, in the past it was too similar to what the GTs could manage. Now even the amateur drivers can pull away from us on the straight, even if they’re not as quick through the slow corners, so it’s helpful.”
So does the end of Audi’s programme also spend the end of Fassler’s time driving prototypes? Is it GTs from now until he hangs up his helmet? “I’m not thinking so far ahead at the moment, but I’ve always loved GTs and always said I’d continue with them when I stopped doing LMP1. Something I would like to do is DPi in the States, I’ve always loved racing in America so if there’s a chance to do that I won’t say no.”
In addition to IMSA races and Le Mans with Corvette, Fassler is keeping an eye in with Audi by racing in the Blancpain Sprint Series, sharing an R8 GT3 with Dries Vanthoor (also here at Le Mans in the JMW Ferrari). It’s fair to say it’s been a challenging season so far, but Fassler feels progress is being made. “It hasn’t been easy, the tyres are very different to what I’ve experienced before,” he explained.
“The biggest issue is to understand how they’re working. I think Zolder last time out showed we’re closing on the frontrunners. I’m having to relearn everything, it feels like doing a giant slalom using downhill skis! It’s not been easy for me to just jump in, there are some good line-ups of drivers who are really experts at the series, so I had a lot to learn.”