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Le Mans 24 Hours Preview, Part 3: GTE Pro

With factory efforts galore, and the return of Risi, will GTE Pro be the class to watch this year?

With the announcement in recent days of the departure of the factory programmes of BMW and Ford from the FIA WEC, indeed the end of the Ford factory-backing for the GT altogether, 2019 could well be the high water mark for some time for the premier GT class at the Le Mans 24 Hours.

And that high-water mark is at flood level proportions with 17 cars providing a truly world-class field, not a weak link amongst them in a battle that is anticipated once again to provide one of the spectacles of the race.

Aston Martin (2), BMW (2), Corvette (2), Ferrari (3), Ford (4) and Porsche (4) look set to continue their regular brand of wheel to wheel, door to door and pretty much everything to everything duelling on a course that suits these cars beautifully.

As for the storylines, there’s Corvette’s 20th anniversary, celebrations too from Ford and Aston Martin, and of course Ford (again) and BMW looking to go out with a bang as Porsche’s WEC crews duke it out to determine which will be the WEC GT World Drivers Champions.

This battle will run, and run!!

AF Corse

#51 | Ferrari 488 GTE Evo | WEC | James Calado, Alessandro Pier Guidi & Daniel Serra | Test Day time: 3:54.497 (8th GTE Pro)
#71 | Ferrari 488 GTE Evo | WEC | Sam Bird, Miguel Molina & Davide Rigon | Test Day time: 3:54.103 (4th GTE Pro)

The Ferrari 488 GTE is an accomplished car. In the hands of AF Corse it’s won races around the world and collected the FIA WEC World GTE Manufacturers and Drivers’ Title. But one thing it hasn’t done is win Le Mans.

Each year since the debut of the 488, AF Corse just hasn’t been able to put it all together and take a win. This year, the Italian outfit hope they can turn its downturn in form around.

It’s been a strange season in the WEC. If the season ended today, the #51 488 would finish a distant third in the GTE Pro standings behind the two Porsches. For James Calado and Alessandro Pier Guidi, aside from a nightmare during the first round of the season, consistency has been the key to their successes, with a win, a second place and three fourth places helping them earn the ‘best of the rest’ title behind the two 911s. For Le Mans, they’ll be joined by Daniel Serra, who back in 2017 was part of Aston Martin’s GTE Pro-winning crew, making for a dangerous trio.

The #71 on the other hand, has had a torrid time. Sam Bird and Davide Rigon’s best result this season is a third-place finish at the opening round of the ‘Super Season’ last year. Since then it’s been a poor campaign, with a string of poor results, and the highest finish of sixth. With the help of rapid Spaniard Miguel Molina, they’ll be hoping to turn things around. There’s no better place to bounce back at than Le Mans.

Corvette Racing

#63 | Corvette C7.R | IMSA | Antonio Garcia, Jan Magnussen & Mike Rockenfeller | Test Day time: 3:54.001 (1st GTE Pro)
#64 | Corvette C7.R | IMSA | Marcel Fassler, Oliver Gavin & Tommy Milner | Test Day time: 3:54.036 (3rd GTE Pro)

Could this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours be another memorable one for Corvette Racing? The team certainly hopes so! The American marque is celebrating its 20th anniversary of racing at Le Mans, in what looks to be the final trip to France with the C7.R.

As usual, the team brings with it a crew of highly experienced drivers, its full-season IMSA pairings of Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen in the #63, and Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin in the #64. They are joined by ex Audi LMP1 drivers Mike Rockenfeller and Marcel Fassler, who have plenty of appearances with Corvette at big races under their belt at this point.

The Test Day for the team went well, with the #63 leading the way in the Pro class and the #64 ending up third. But times don’t matter much at this stage, especially as the pace at this year’s test was noticeably slower than last year.

The key is how the BoP affects the team during race week. As it stands the C7.Rs are set to run marginally lighter than last year, and at first glance appear to be more competitive on pace. It can change quickly though. Should the BoP not favour one or two manufacturers significantly, then Corvette has a real shot here. The car has nothing more to prove, neither does the team.

A victory here, the team’s ninth at Le Mans, would be a perfect swansong for its rumbling V8 before the C8.R era begins.

Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK

#66 | Ford GT | WEC | Billy Johnson, Stefan Mucke & Olivier Pla | Test Day time: 3:54.460 (7th GTE Pro)
#67 | Ford GT | WEC | Jonathan Bomarito, Andy Priaulx & Harry Tincknell | Test Day time: 3:54.032 (2nd GTE Pro)

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of this final stand for Ford’s GT programme at Le Mans, it must be said that all four factory cars look stunning in their ‘celebration liveries’. There will be much debate between fans over which one looks the best, but the simple answer is that all of them look splendid, from afar and up close.

Anyway, the programme. Ford has announced that this is indeed it, the final race for the WEC squad after three seasons of competition. It is a real shame to lose a manufacturer like Ford, which has put a ton of resource into its effort and been involved in so many memorable moments during what may be looked back on as the ‘Golden Era’ for GTE racing.

As for which car looks stronger from the two fielded by Team UK, it’s been pretty even, though the #66 is the only one to have won a race this year, back at Spa last year. Both crews are experienced, and shouldn’t be overlooked. Pla and Mucke had a strong start to the season, while Priaulx and Tincknell have found the podium on three occasions.

Billy Johnson, who was part of the #66’s triumph at Spa in 2018 is back and hopes to have his best showing at Le Mans, while Bomarito makes his Le Mans debut with Ford, and his first start at the French classic since he raced an SRT Viper back in 2013. He has experience racing the Ford, and perform well at Sebring when he raced with Priaulx and Tincknell in the 1000 Miles (finishing third). He will be hungry for a victory after so many winless years competing in IMSA with Multimatic/Mazda.

Ford Chip Ganassi Team USA

#68 | Ford GT | IMSA | Sebastien Bourdais, Joey Hand & Dirk Muller | Test Day time: 3:54.784 (11th GTE Pro)
#69 | Ford GT | IMSA | Ryan Briscoe, Scott Dixon & Richard Westbrook | Test Day time: 3:54.718 (10th GTE Pro)

Le Mans isn’t the final outing for Ford’s IMSA crews, as they still have the remaining IMSA races still to run before the ‘Blue Oval’ exits GTE racing as a factory. But that doesn’t mean these drivers will be any less motivated than their WEC counterparts, as another win at Le Mans is still a huge achievement and would bookend Team USA’s service at Le Mans nicely after the #68 won back in 2016 in the car’s La Sarthe debut.

The same set of drivers as in 2018 returns, with GT verterans Hand, Westbrook and Muller racing alongside IndyCar stars Bourdais, Briscoe and Dixon. All six will hope that BoP allows them to compete up front, after a Test Day which saw them finish up mid-pack.

There are so many unknowns heading into this race, but you’d have to say that the IMSA Ford crew have to be among the favourites here, after winning at Le Mans in the past, and the big IMSA races at Daytona and Watkins Glen.


#81 | BMW M8 GTE | WEC | Nick Catsburg, Philipp Eng & Martin Tomczyk | Test Day time: 3:56.415 (16th GTE Pro)
#82 | BMW M8 GTE | WEC | Antonio Felix da Costa, Augusto Farfus & Jesse Krohn | Test Day time: 3:56.742 (17th GTE Pro)

After only one season in the FIA WEC, this is it for BMW Team MTEK’s GTE Pro effort. A programme, running parallel with Team RLL’s IMSA’s commitments brought with it so much promise, but could well bow out with no landmark results following a rather quiet and disappointing campaign.

Ernest Knoor’s MTEK team have worked incredibly hard all season long to bring the fight to the established factories in the GTE Pro class, but a couple of podiums may well be the only rewards. It’s a shame, as a 10-car GTE Pro class has provided much entertainment during a season which has featured a rather forgettable set of races for the overall wins in LMP1. But boardroom decisions are boardroom decisions, and BMW’s priorities have shifted elsewhere.

At Le Mans, the team’s final outing, it brings with it six capable factory drivers. But one of the downfalls for BMW has been consistency across its driver squads, and yet again the Bavarian brand has chosen to change its line-up ahead of a big race. Should the BoP not prove to be too much of a hindrance, then a result can be achieved here, as the M8 GTE is a reliable car that in the right conditions can challenge on pace.

It’s hard to expect too much from this effort though, as outside of its flashes of competitiveness at Sebring and Fuji, where the team took podiums, there hasn’t been much to write home about. The M8s look in need of a BoP break too, as they were also off the pace at the Test Day, coming in over two seconds off the fastest time.

Risi Competizione

#89 | Ferrari 488 GTE Evo | IMSA | Pipo Derani, Jules Gounon & Oliver Jarvis | Test Day time: 3:55.298 (15th GTE Pro)

Risi Competizione’s return to the GTE Pro class at Le Mans comes after running the Keating Motorsports effort in GTE Am last year. It’s been a strange couple of years for Guiseppe Risi’s team, which hasn’t been able to put together a full programme with a GTE car, but its lack of continuity shouldn’t be a reason to overlook this effort though. It has history at the great race, winning its class multiple times and challenging Ford for the win back in 2016.

Its three drivers make for an intriguing prospect, with current IMSA DPi drivers Pipo Derani and Oliver Jarvis set to race with Bentley Boy Jules Gounon. They will be up against it, in both resources and numbers, but we all know that this fan-favourite, the only privateer team in the class, can spring a surprise, especially with a car as capable as the 488 GTE Evo.

The Test Day didn’t go to plan. The team, which is using a brand new 488 chassis, lost track time due to its drivers having to make the late dash to the circuit after their Saturday races. Even when the car did hit the circuit it suffered sensor issues which meant just 44 laps were completed during the day, the fewest in the class.

Race week does provide plenty of track time though, and despite Jarvis and Gounon being new to GTE racing, they are both more than capable of getting up to speed quickly.

Porsche GT Team (WEC)

#91 | Porsche 911 RSR | WEC | Michael Christensen, Kevin Estre & Laurens Vanthoor | Test Day time: 3:54.279 (6th GTE Pro)
#92 | Porsche 911 RSR | WEC | Gianmaria Bruni, Richard Lietz & Fred Makowiecki | Test Day time: 3:55.156 (13th GTE Pro)

What a season it’s been for Porsche GT Team in the FIA WEC. Its 911 RSRs haven’t always been the fastest in the field, but they’ve found a way to keep finishing on the podium and winning races. The Manufacturer’s title race is over, Porsche sealing the deal at Spa, extending its huge margin to 93 points over Ferrari. The only thing left to settle is the Drivers’ title, and that’s a fight between the two Porsche crews, with Estre and Christensen currently leading Bruni and Lietz by 36 points.

The pressure is therefore off for the Stuttgart mark. It won Le Mans last year, and has a heap of silverware to its name. The only thing left would be to win Le Mans again, and it would be unwise to bet against them.

As usual, it has brought along two really talented drivers to fill the third seats, with Laurens Vanthoor due to drive the #91 and Fred Makowiecki named in the #92. There are no weaknesses here. Expect another strong showing from these two screaming mid-engined 911s.

Porsche GT Team (IMSA)

#93 | Porsche 911 RSR | IMSA | Earl Bamber, Patrick Pilet & Nick Tandy | Test Day time: 3:54.233 (5th GTE Pro)
#94 | Porsche 911 RSR | IMSA | Mathieu Jaminet, Sven Muller & Dennis Olsen | Test Day time: 3:54.996 (12th GTE Pro)

Adding to Porsche’s WEC crews are the pair of CORE autosport examples from IMSA. After a tough debut for CORE in GTE Pro at Le Mans last year, one car retiring, the other finishing down the order, it will hope for a change in fortune this time.

And there’s every chance that can happen, as so far in the WeatherTech season, Porsche’s IMSA GTLM crews have mirrored those in the WEC winning three of the four races so far this year.

For Le Mans, former LMP1 drivers Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber will race with Patrick Pilet in the #93, and an intriguing combination of Mathieu Jaminet, Sven Muller and Dennis Olsen will drive the #94. It’s a good mix of youth and experience.

After racing in corporate colours last year at La Sarthe, this time they’ll be competing in the Brumos tribute liveries they ran at Sebring and Daytona, which should prove popular with fans.

Aston Martin Racing

#95 | Aston Martin Vantage AMR | WEC | Marco Sorensen, Nicki Thiim & Darren Turner | Test Day time: 3:55.237 (14th GTE Pro)
#97 | Aston Martin Vantage AMR | WEC | Jonny Adam, Alex Lynn & Maxime Martin | Test Day time: 3:54.583 (9th GTE Pro)

Aston Martin’s prospects for this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours are almost an unknown. The new Vantage GTE AMR has produced the goods this season, with wins at Shanghai and Spa last time out, but when it has had its off days, the team has faded away during races. Sometimes it is the conditions, sometimes mechanical issues, sometimes tyres, but the rank-and-file WEC races have proven to be a real challenge for the team, and they head to Le Mans with nothing to play for in the points standings.

As for Le Mans? The team’s huge victory in 2017, with the previous generation Vantage seems like a distant memory now, but this time around there’s renewed optimism. The team is used to the car now after having to debut at Le Mans last year just two races into the season and its driver crews are capable of winning in this company.

Thiim and Sorensen won earlier in the season, and they’ll be joined by Darren Turner once again, for what will be his 17th consecutive Le Mans start. Lynn and Martin meanwhile, appear to be hitting their stride as a pairing and will race alongside 2017 GTE Pro winner Jonny Adam, who has been switching between racing in Pro with AMR and Am with TF Sport this season.

The only disadvantage AMR has if the BoP keeps the pack close, is in numbers, because the car is durable. Like Corvette, MTEK and AF Corse, they’re racing at Le Mans with two cars, while Ford and Porsche run with four apiece. In modern-day sportscar racing, where even small errors or issues can cost you a chance at winning, strength in numbers can and often does prove to be a huge factor.