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Le Mans 24 Hours Preview: Part 1, GTE Am

17 cars, championships and trophies up for grabs, Aston vs Ferrari vs Porsche vs Ford!

GTE Am fields a high-quality 17-car entry in 2019 at Le Mans with no shortage of storylines to savour, with four marques represented, including a world first as Ben Keating enters the first current generation Ford GT in private hands against the massed ranks of Ferraris (8 x 488 GTE), Porsches (6 x 911 RSR) and the pair of last generation Aston Martin V8 Vantage GTE’s.

More than any of the other classes GTE AM is truly a gathering of the clans, FIA WEC, ELMS, IMSA and Asian Le Mans Series entrants gather uniquely in this class!

Look out too for an array of Le Mans-specific special liveries with Team Project 1, Kessel Racing, JMW Motorsport and the Keating Ford all confirmed with eye-catching colours for the great race in 2019.

Spirit of Race

#54 | Ferrari 488 GTE | WEC | Francesco Castellacci, Giancarlo Fisichella & Thomas Flohr | Test Day time: 3:56.935 (3rd GTE Am)

It’s been a pleasant surprise to see the WEC Spirit of Race crew emerge as a contender during this season. Since the Dempsey Proton crew was docked all its points last year, Castellacci, Fisichella and Flohr have represented the biggest threat to Project 1 taking the title.

They’ve done it without winning races, instead, with consistency, with two-second place finishes and a pair of fourths to lay the foundations for a title challenge. Heading into race week at Le Mans, they sit 23 points off the lead. Project 1 would have to have a poor run for this to swing Spirit of Race’s way, and that’s why we like endurance racing because the unexpected does happen more often than in most forms of motorsport.

At the Test Day, the crew were fast too and will head to race week confident. Can they pull off something special here? If Flohr stays out of trouble and Fisichella and Castellacci are as quick as ever, then it’s certainly possible!

Team Project 1

#56 | Porsche 911 RSR | WEC | Jorg Bergmeister, Patrick Lindsey & Egidio Perfetti | Test Day time: 3:59.418 (15th GTE Am)

It really has been quite a debut season for Team Project 1. The German Porsche one-make specialist is now firmly a part of the endurance family, sits atop the points standings with just one race to go in GTE Am.

The team received help in the title race from the Dempsey Proton penalty last year, but its run has nevertheless been impressive. Consistency has been the key for Project 1, with five straight top-three finishes (including a win at Fuji) during the middle portion of the season to put it in the driving seat for the championship.

Patrick Lindsey, Egidio Perfetti and Jorg Bergmeister’s 23-point lead is comfortable, but by no means insurmountable if poor luck strikes. Should the team have a clean run here though, expect it to be in the running not just for the GTE Am title, but the class win too, as this is one of the better-balanced driver line-ups in the class. The Test Day saw the team end up at the tail end of Am in the times, but that’s no reason for concern at this stage.

Also of note, the team’s Porsche 911 RSR won’t be in its usual yellow and black paint scheme. But, it shouldn’t be hard to spot, as it’s running a striking new livery for the ‘Super Finale’ (above).

Car Guy Racing

#57 | Ferrari 488 GTE | Asian Le Mans | Kei Cozzolino, Takeshi Kimura & Come Ledogar | Test Day time: 3:57.335 (4th GTE Am)

Car Guy’s debut at Le Mans could turn into one of the feel-good storylines at the race. The Japanese team, based at the Fuji Speedway, heads to France having dominated the Asian Le Mans Series field over the winter. Racing in the GT3 class, Car Guy won all four races during the 2018/19 season and as a result, stormed to the title and earned an invite to the race.

At Le Mans, Kei Cozzolino and Takeshi Kimura continue racing as a pair for the team, without their partner in crime James Calado, who is on AF Corse GTE Pro duty. Instead, they’ll rely on another talented GT driver, who also took part in the Asian Le Mans Series over the winter (albeit in LMP2), Frenchman Come Ledogar. The former McLaren factory driver should prove to be a worthy stand-in for Calado in what will be his second Le Mans start.

As for Cozzolino and Kimura, they’re both new to Le Mans and racing the GTE-spec 488 (run by AF Corse). But if their performance over the winter is any sort of indication, they still have the chance to spring a surprise in their first attempt.

Kessel Racing

#60 | Ferrari 488 GTE | ELMS | Claudio Schiavoni, Sergio Pianezzola & Andrea Piccini | Test Day time: 3:57.733 (5th GTE Am)
#83 | Ferrari 488 GTE | ELMS | Rahel Frey, Michelle Gatting & Manuela Gostner | Test Day time: 3:58.626 (9th GTE Am)

A two-car effort from Le Mans debutants Kessel Racing in their first year of GTE competition has ruffled a few feathers. The Swiss team has been to Le Mans before, and with success, they were the technical force behind Scuderia Corsa’s first class victory some years ago.

Now though there is a different plan. The #60 Ferrari comes courtesy of title-winning success in the 2018 Michelin Le Mans Cup, whilst the all-female-crewed #83 arrives via a hook-up between the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission and the ACO.

Both Ferraris are full-season ELMS entrants and both feature new for Le Mans colour schemes as Kessel wait to see whether their requests for at least one FIA WEC entry for 2019/20 has been confirmed!

In competitive terms, the #83 scored a well-fought podium in their first GTE outing at Paul Ricard whilst the #60 has had a less pacey road to Le Mans, interrupted a couple of weeks ago with a big accident in testing at Monza.

Andrea Piccini is the paceman here and watch for Rahel Frey and Michelle Gatting in the #83.

Clearwater Racing

#61 | Ferrari 488 GTE | WEC | Luis Perez Companc, Matteo Cressoni & Matt Griffin | Test Day time: 3:56.928 (2nd GTE Am)

It’s been a strange season for Clearwater Racing, which has thus far failed to find the top step of the podium in its second (and likely final) WEC campaign.

This year’s Le Mans 24 Hours sees the team race with a different driver line-up, as only Matt Griffin has seen out the season. Weng Sun Mok decided to call it a day after the Asian rounds last year, and as a result, his driving partner Keita Sawa’s season came to a premature end too.

In their place since have been Luis Perez Companc and Matteo Cressoni. So far they’ve had a forgettable trip to Sebring, the car terminally damaged before the race, but a more encouraging run in the weather chaos at Spa, finishing third in class.

What’s the outlook for Le Mans? Potentially a darkhorse candidate should Griffin be on form and Cressoni and Perez Companc run fast and error free. A top-five finish in this company would be a worth swansong performance from the Singaporean team, which has been a model member of the paddock since stepping up to the WEC back in 2017.

WeatherTech Racing

#62 | Ferrari 488 GTE | IMSA | Cooper MacNeil, Rob Smith & Toni Vilander | Test Day time: 3:56.862 (1st GTE Am)

WeatherTech Racing’s effort this year is an intriguing one. Cooper MacNeil, back for a fifth shot at Le Mans glory, brings with him 2017 class winner Rob Smith and two-time GTE Pro Le Mans winner Toni Vilander. This crew could be a dark horse at Le Mans this year, as all three drivers have plenty of experience at La Sarthe and know the 488 well.

The trio, who had to make journeys from Detroit (in the case of MacNeil and Vilander) and Paul Ricard to make it in time for the track action, ended up topping the class in the times. The ultimate pace was around a second off last year’s test day, so very little should be read into it.

However, seeing the #62 at the head of the times came as a reminder that the winner of this year’s race may not come from the ELMS or WEC ranks, as there’s an interesting selection of cars from outside the two most densely populated GTE grids in the world on the entry.

WeatherTech Racing’s Ferrari is a brand new chassis and is being prepared by 2016 GTE Am winner Scuderia Corsa. Watch out for this one!

MR Racing

#70 | Ferrari 488 GTE | WEC | Olivier Beretta, Eddie Cheever III & Motoaki Ishikawa | Test Day time: 3:58.048 (8th GTE Am)

A full season FIA WEC entry but in truth, this is one that is unlikely to trouble the podium.

Gentleman driver Ishikawa has struggled thus far to find the necessary pace and whilst Cheever (son of ex F1 driver Eddie) is finding the pace, and the team (supported by AF Corse) has the services of the most experienced Le Mans racer on the grid, Olivier Beretta. This looks like a mountain to climb! A run for a finish looks the best option here.

Beretta meanwhile will make his 23rd consecutive appearance at Le Mans, a record that includes six class wins and a further five class podium finishes.

Dempsey-Proton Racing / Proton Competition

#77 | Porsche 911 RSR | WEC | Julien Andlauer, Matt Campbell & Christian Ried | Test Day time: 3:57.781 (7th GTE Am)
#78 | Porsche 911 RSR | ELMS | Vicent Abril, Louis Prette & Philippe Prette | Test Day time: 3:58.524 (11th GTE Am)
#88 | Porsche 911 RSR | WEC | Matteo Cairoli, Satoshi Hoshino & Gianluca Roda | Test Day time: 3:58.866 (14th GTE Am)
#99 | Porsche 911 RSR | ELMS | Niclas Jonsson, Tracy Krohn & Patrick Long | Test Day time: 3:59.774 (17th GTE Am)

Dempsey Proton Racing’s WEC season has been nothing short of a roller-coaster. It’s been littered with race wins and triumph but was let down by the hammer blow from the officials, who docked the team all its points after Fuji for data tampering.

Since visiting Japan, the #77’s form has continued, and remarkably, with wins at Shanghai, Sebring and Spa, they can still win the title at the finale if things go their way.

The points gap to Project 1 is a near-insurmountable at 30 points, but after winning five of the seven races this year, can you rule Campbell, Andlauer and Ried out? No. They’re the favourites and they keep finding a way to win. So could this turn into a real showdown?

There’s far more to the Proton team than just its #77 though, as it is fielding four cars in the race, more than any other team in Am. The #88, which is the team’s other WEC entry, hasn’t found quite the same form with a rotation of drivers through the season. But Matteo Cairoli is still one to watch for, as one of the fastest youngsters on the grid.

The other two cars from ELMS berths, and are a mixed bag. The #78 could be one to watch, with an all-Monegasque trio of former Bentley boy Vincent Abril and the father-son combo of Louis and Phillippe Prette. All three are new to the race and the 911 RSR, but they could come on strong if they adapt fast.

Then there’s the #99, which is this year’s ‘Krohn green machine’. Tracy Krohn and long-standing partner Nic Jonsson return for a 14th straight Le Mans 24 Hours, joined by Porsche factory driver Patrick Long. Expect little from this one, as Krohn and Jonsson are new to the 911 RSR, and outright speed won’t be there. A clean run to the end would be an achievement to these servants of the race’s privateer ranks.

JMW Motorsport

#84 | Ferrari 488 GTE | ELMS | Rodrigo Baptista, Wei Lu & Jeff Segal | Test Day time: 3:58.855 (13th GTE Am)

JMW won GTE Am as recently as 2017, and are as prepared as ever for another attack on Le Mans this year, with a yellow camo livery, which upon close inspection, includes some stunning detail.

This is, like last year, more a commercial effort for Jim McWhirter, so there isn’t as much expectation surrounding it. But, all three drivers have plenty of GT experience under their belts. All three drivers have been competing (and taken wins) recently in the increasingly slim World Challenge America field, Baptista with K-PAX and Lu and Segal paired up in a TR3 Ferrari.

The question is, just how will success in World Challenge translate to Le Mans? Segal, for instance, is the only driver of the three with a Le Mans start under his belt. With a clean, consistent run, JMW could challenge towards the front-end of the field, as it always runs its cars well. But in truth, there are a lot of unknowns surrounding this one.

Keating Motorsports

#85 | Ford GT | IMSA | Felipe Fraga, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating | Test Day time: 3:59.725 (16th GTE Am)

Keating Motorsports’ Wynn’s liveried Ford GT is likely to attract the most attention in the class this year and for good reason. It’s the first customer Ford GT to be raced, and it’s colour scheme is one of the finest in the field.

Le Mans will be the team’s first with the GT, but it is a car that has a real pedigree, as it’s the chassis that scored the GT’s first ever win back in 2016. The team has had limited testing time heading into race week, but once up to speed, Bleekemolen and Keating should be one of the strongest one-two punches in the class. Add into that Fraga, who is quick but new to Le Mans, and you have the potential for this effort to challenge for a podium or win.

At the Test Day, the outright speed wasn’t there, but Bleekemolen didn’t spend much time in the car, instead, it was a day for Fraga and Keating to get acclimatised. By race time, if BoP permits, all three should be ready; and let’s not forget, if this car scores a big result it could lead to more races for the GT in the aftermath of the factory’s exit from IMSA and the WEC.

Gulf Racing

#86 | Porsche 911 RSR | WEC | Ben Barker, Thomas Preining & Michael Wainwright | Test Day time: 3:57.749 (6th GTE Am)

2018/19 has brought with it another challenging season for Gulf Racing, its new Porsche unable to find the podium at any of the races thus far. As usual, the team’s chances hinge on Mike Wainright’s performance. One of the more experienced Ams in the field, on a good day he can put them into a position to score a podium (they have two fourth-place finishes this year), but when he’s not having a good weekend there’s little Barker and Preining can do to pick up the slack.

Qualifying is the team’s time to shine here, with both Barker and Preining capable of producing good times. Porsche junior Preining has had a quiet, but strong first year in the WEC and this experience of Le Mans for a second time with the team should bode well for his future. Barker, on the other hand, is a known quantity, and at times one of the fastest men in a Porsche anywhere in the world.

The question is, can the team have a clean race and end the season on a high?

TF Sport

#90 | Aston Martin Vantage GTE | WEC | Charlie Eastwood, Euan Hankey & Salih Yoluc | Test Day time: 3:58.843 (12th GTE Am)

TF Sport, in its first season of WEC competition, racing the oldest car in the field, heads to Le Mans with a shot at both the GTE Am win and the title. With a 26-point deficit to overcome, it’s going to take a lot for Eastwood and Yoluc to claim the title. But a win and some poor luck striking the other contenders could turn the title race on its head at the finale.

The Vantage GTE, in what looks to be its final race in WEC competition, is still capable of scoring big results, though it hasn’t taken a win since Spa last year. TF is also still searching for its first win in WEC competition, after coming achingly close four times this term (with second place finishes). Will this be the time? Yoluc, Eastwood and Hankey (who hasn’t completed the full season) would like to think so.

Tom Ferrier’s team always operate at a high level, and in this case, will be eager to give the old girl a good send off before it switches to the new model for next season.

Aston Martin Racing

#98 | Aston Martin Vantage GTE | WEC | Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy & Mathias Lauda | Test Day time: 3:58.292 (10th GTE Am)

The 2018 6 Hours of Spa, the last time the #98 crew won a race, seems like a long time ago, because it was… It’s been a challenging season for GTE Am’s perennial title contenders, but this time around its chances of a title have faded, and as a result, the 2017 class champions will most certainly have to give up their title.

They will hope that they can bookend the ‘Super Season’ with another win though, as thus far a victory at La Sarthe has eluded Dalla Lana and co, after coming achingly close on multiple occasions in recent years.

As a trio, on their day they can still beat anyone, but consistency hasn’t been there this season; you don’t know what you’re going to get from this effort one weekend to the next. If the stars align though, they can challenge, and like TF will hope to end the old Vantage’s service in style.