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Le Mans 24 Hours Preview, Part 1: GTE Am

Could the best racing come from GTE's 13-car Am class this year?

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With the Le Mans Test Day now behind us, the countdown to the 86th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours has now reached its final stages.

DSC’s proud tradition of producing one of the most in-depth previews to the race continues now, with a four-part piece, covering every car from every class, team-by-team. What can we expect from this year’s race? Who are the favourites? What storylines should you be keeping an eye on?

Find out all that and more, right here, starting with Part 1, which covers all the runners and riders in the hotly-contested, 13-car GTE Am class.

This year, there’s a few notable additions and omissions. The class, as in recent years, is hotly-contested and oozing talent. While we do have the addition of the new Porsche 911 RSR to the mix, what’s not on the entry are any Corvettes, meaning the entire class is made up of Ferrari 488s, Aston Martin Vantages and Porsche 911 RSRs. There’s also no Dunlop representation this year, all the teams opting for Michelin. There’s still variety, but maybe not as much as we’re used to.

Nevertheless, with a wide array of top pro drivers, budding young talents and well-versed gentlemen drivers, GTE Am promises to be worth following throughout the 24 hours.

Spirit of Race
#54 | Ferrari 488 GTE | Thomas Flohr, Francesco Castellacci, Giancarlo Fisichella | Test day time: 3:56.269 (2nd in class)

One of the really positive surprises of last year’s FIA WEC season was seeing the improvements made by Thomas Flohr throughout the season, growing into someone capable of challenging for podiums and wins amongst his peers.

This year, he returns with Castellacci, with former F1 driver Fisichella drafted in to drive in place of Miguel Molina. It’s hard to see this line-up having a Cinderella-like performance here, and be in the running for the class honours, but certainly, in the race for WEC points, they could well hold their own.

It just remains to be seen whether or not the 488 GTE proves to be the car to have. At Spa, the Porsche looked to have the raw performance, the Astons looked good over longer runs and the Ferraris fell somewhere in between. Over the course of 24 hours, it’s not yet clear which chassis has the upper hand. If it’s Ferrari, then if Flohr keeps it clean and Castellacci and Fisichella combine to lap consistently up against the frontrunners then this entry could well turn out to be a dark horse.

Team Project 1
#56 | Porsche 911 RSR | Jorg Bergmeister, Patrick Lindsey, Egidio Perfetti | Test day time: 3:59.233 (10th in class)

New on the scene, but not new as a team, Project 1 has impressed so far in its transition from single-make Porsche competition, to the WEC. Round 1 didn’t go to plan, the team enjoying a great start running up front, before technical issues and an incident later in the race ended its chances of a good finish. But there were plenty of positives to take from the performance.

Driving the team’s single 911 RSR at Le Mans is its full WEC crew of Jorg Bergmeister, Patrick Lindsey and Egidio Perfetti. Bergmeister and Lindsey have plenty of Le Mans experience between them, and that will go a long way in helping Perfetti get up to speed.

Is the biggest question mark, therefore, the team itself? Adapting to 6-hour races from short sprints is one thing, but 24-hour races are another. And adding to the team’s challenge, an off by Bergmeister cost the team valuable track time in the morning of the Test Day. So there’s still plenty of work left for the team to do.

Keep an eye on this effort though, as we know the car is up to the task and that the team is fully aware of how important a good result at Le Mans could be for its title hopes down the line.

Clearwater Racing
#61 | Ferrari 488 GTE | Matt Griffin, Weng Sun Mok, Keita Sawa | Test day time: 3:56.627 (3rd in class)

Last year’s surprise package in the WEC, Clearwater Racing, returns to Le Mans for its third consecutive run at La Sarthe.

This year the Singaporean team has scaled back its effort to a single car for the big race, but with the same drivers and the chemistry as it had for its 2017 WEC campaign, it’s hard not to get excited by the potential this effort has; and indeed its signature chrome paint scheme, which does, as ever, look superb!

Is Clearwater the favourite in this company? Not necessarily, though the gentlemen in the line-up, Mok, has proven in the past two years that he can be one of the fastest Ams around La Sarthe at times.

If he has a good weekend, and the Ferraris can keep pace with the slew of 911 RSRs, then watch out. Surely this fan-favourite could find its way onto the podium?

MR Racing
#70 | Ferrari 488 GTE | Motoaki Ishikawa, Olivier Beretta, Edward Cheever | Test day time: 3:58.925 (9th in class)

MR Racing is another team new on the block in the WEC’s Am class. The Japanese-flagged effort had a great run at Spa, finishing fifth in its debut in the series, but they’ll know that Le Mans is going to be a different challenge.

Thankfully the team can rely on the experience that Berreta can draw from to help both Cheever and Gentlemen Ishikawa perform at the highest level possible throughout.

In a class as deep as GTE Am this year, it’s hard to see MR Racing coming away with any sort of stunning result this early into its programme, but finishing well among the WEC runners and scoring valuable points is a realistic goal. The 488 GTE is certainly up to the task, this effort’s ceiling will, therefore, be dictated by just how consistently its driver-crew can perform throughout the 24.

Dempsey Proton Racing/Proton Competition
#77 | Porsche 911 RSR | Matt Campbell, Christian Ried, Julien Andlauer | Test day time: 3:55.970 (1st in class)
#88 | Porsche 911 RSR | Matteo Cairoli, Khaled Al Qubaisi, Giorgio Roda | Test day time: 3:56.946 (4th in class)
#99 | Porsche 911 RSR | Pat Long, Tim Pappas, Spencer Pumpelly | Test day time: 3:57.515 (5th in class)

Christian Reid’s Proton outfit is one of the biggest in the field this year, the team bringing a trio of 911 RSRs to the Am class, with some head-turning crews.

While the 911 RSR looked to be the car to beat throughout the Prologue and during Practice and Qualifying at Spa, the team was unable to even finish on the podium, despite having a car on Pole. That being said though, it has plenty of experience at Le Mans, and should be looking to challenge up front.

Choosing between the three line-ups is tough, as all have strong drivers among them. The #77 features the interesting combination of Australian up-and-comer Matt Campbell, the steady hand of Christian Ried and new Porsche Junior driver Julien Andlauer (who ran impressively at the test, setting the class’ best time). The #88, the second WEC car, features Porsche young professional Matteo Cairoli, who impressed mightily throughout last year, Khaled Al Qubaisi and Giorgio Roda. Points are of course important to both of these crews, but it is early in the season and the task at hand will surely be to challenge for podiums and above here.

The third Porsche from the team is a guest entry, an all-American line-up as part of a partnership with Black Swan Racing, spearheaded by Patrick Long who’s back for his 15th straight Le Mans start and is gunning for his third class win and first since 2007. He’ll be joined by Black Swan team owner Tim Pappas, making his first Le Mans start and Spencer Pumpelly. It’s a notable line-up and one which could well prove to be put a cat amongst the pigeons in this company.

Ebimotors
#80 | Porsche 911 RSR | Fabio Babini, Christina Nielsen, Erik Maris | Test day time: 4:00.673 (12th in class)

Ebimotors is another team new to Le Mans this year, though it comes to the party with a real chance of coming away with a big result. The Italian outfit, which GT Open observers of recent seasons and those who watched the Le Mans Cup last year will be familiar with, has stepped up to GTE this year and is competing in the ELMS full time.

Thus far it’s been a very fruitful start to the season, the team finishing third at both Paul Ricard and Monza to put itself second in the standings behind JMW Motorsport, a team we’ll look at in a moment.

At Le Mans though, its driver line-up is different, the only ELMS regular making the trip being the ageless Fabio Babini, who lest we forget was a Le Mans class winner back in the early 2000s with Seikel Motorsport. He’ll be joined by Christina Neilsen, who has had an enormous amount of success racing in IMSA’s GTD class in recent seasons (winning the class title the last two years), and Erik Maris, who DSC readers will know from his Le Mans starts with Oak Racing. Babini and Nielsen make for a very intriguing combination here. If Maris can find a little more speed then Ebimotors could leave with a good result.

Test Day didn’t go well for the team though, it must be noted, the team having to change the engine and gearbox, costing it a lot of track time; not ideal in your first year at the event.

The crew will be hoping that it’s reliability woes are already out of the way.

JMW Motorsport
#84 | Ferrari 488 GTE | Liam Griffin, Cooper MacNeil, Jeff Segal | Test day time: 3:57.781 (7th in class)

2017 GTE Am winner JMW Motorsport is back again, but with a new trio of drivers in its 488 GTE.

This year, British GT regular Liam Griffin will race with Cooper MacNeil and 2016 GTE Am winner Jeff Segal. It may not have the punch that having Dries Vanthoor and Will Stevens did last year, but Segal and MacNeil both have multiple Le Mans starts under their belts and work well together.

There’s a lot of unknowns here, though hard to see this as a winning line-up, especially as Liam Griffin has limited experience in the 488 GTE (though he does have a Le Mans start with Beechdean AMR), but Jim Mcwhirter’s crew run cars so well that getting to the finish and having a trouble-free run shouldn’t be an issue.

Keating Motorsports
#85 | Ferrari 458 GTE | Ben Keating, Jeroen Bleekemolen, Luca Stolz | Test day time: 3:57.572 (6th in class)

Ben Keating’s effort at this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours is an intriguing one. Partnered with Risi Competizione, and with Jeroen Bleekemolen and Luca Stolz on board, this could well prove to be a front-running effort.

The Risi Competizione side of this effort will, as ever, be top drawer, Guisseppe Risi’s team always turning out an immaculate car, and performing well during long-distance races.

The driver-crew too has a lot of potential, Keating and Bleekemolen as a duo sharing a lot of recent success over in IMSA. Stolz meanwhile, is a highly talented GT driver, who competes regularly up front in the highly-competitive GT Masters field.

After last year’s forgettable showing at Le Mans with a Riley Mk.30 in LMP2, Keating will be looking to bounce back here, and is fresh from a fourth-place finish in GTD at Daytona and a podium finish at Sebring. With no points standings to worry about, and little to lose, surely this effort could be in the running for a podium or more?

Gulf Racing
#86 | Porsche 911 RSR | Mike Wainwright, Ben Barker, Alex Davison | Test day time: 3:58.894 (8th in class)

Back for its third consecutive year at Le Mans, Gulf Racing will be aiming for a signature result here on the 70th anniversary of the Gulf Ford GT40’s overall Le Mans win.

While the results in the ELMS and WEC appearances by the team so far haven’t shown it, the team has shown real potential for a breakout result. This is in part due to the improved form of Mike Wainwright, who at times, has shown a real step up in pace.

Unfortunately, one of its flashes of bad luck came in the WEC season opener, when the car’s chances of a high-placed finish ended at the start of the race. Wainwright had to take evasive action to avoid a spinning car at Les Combes and as a result, went into the barriers.

At Le Mans, should all three drivers keep it clean there’s a real chance of taking home a big haul of points and maybe even some silverware. Barker is one of the best drivers in the class, Wainwright has more experience at Le Mans than a lot of the gentlemen drivers on the entry and Davison appears to have made a smooth transition into the line-up. Watch out!

TF Sport
#90 | Aston Martin Vantage | Salih Yoluc, Euan Hankey, Charlie Eastwood | Test day time: 3:59.566 (11th in class)

TF Sport’s WEC debut couldn’t have gone much better last month at Spa. The British team, which has risen from national level to the global stage with relative ease and lots of success, has already emerged as a potential GTE Am title winner in the ‘Super Season’ after narrowly missing out on the win in Belgium.

It’s safe to say that while its trio of drivers may not have global recognition amongst sportscar fans, they do have a ton of talent, and are more than capable of running at the head of this field if the BoP allows them. Hankey was superb in the Ardennes tracking down and fighting the experienced hand of Pedro Lamy at the end of the race. Charlie Eastwood too, despite his limited experience in a GTE car. Then there’s Yoluc, who continues to improve and nowadays can tango with the best Ams in the field.

Make no mistake, TF, in its second year at Le Mans, could very well be one to watch. The only question mark is the car, but let’s not forget that up against the same set of machinery, the aging Vantage won the Le Mans 24 Hours last year in GTE Pro, and finished 1-2 at the Spa opener in GTE Am.

Aston Martin Racing
#98 | Aston Martin Vantage | Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy, Mathias Lauda | Test day time: 4:01.224 (13th in class)

The reigning GTE Am WEC champions are back in the #98 Aston Martin Racing Vantage, and looking to finally break through and score their first Le Mans victory as a trio. It’s been a tough few years for Paul Dalla Lana, Mathias Lauda and Pedro Lamy, who have always had the pace to take a class win at La Sarthe, but have always come up short.

This year things are slightly different though, as the trio head into the race having won the GTE Am title last year, and won the first race of the season at Spa in convincing fashion. This run of form can obviously come to an end in a heartbeat, but it must be pointed out that this is arguably the strongest they’ve looked heading into the Le Mans 24 Hours.

As a trio, the chemistry and talent required to win is there, when Lamy, Lauda and Dalla Lana are firing on all cylinders and the car’s BoP keeps them in the hunt, there’s little anyone can do to stop them.

Will this finally be the year that the long-standing GTE Am trio takes the big prize at Le Mans? They’ll hope that the team’s shortened Test Day, after an off damaged the car’s engine and limited them to just 20 laps, isn’t a sign of things to come. Because if they can avoid any unforced errors, and luck is on their side, it’s tough to bet against them.