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Le Mans

Le Mans 2018: GTE Preview

Le Mans 2018 GTE Preview

While the 2018 Le Mans 24 Hours may be packed with story-lines across all four classes, this year’s GTE battle looks more likely than ever to deliver the best racing in the field. Both GTE Pro and Am have numbers, quality teams and drivers, new cars and some of the best engine notes. They may not have the glamour of the LMP1 field, which features the likes of Fernando Alonso on his ‘triple crown run’ and Jenson Button making his LMP debut, or the sheer numbers that LMP2 has, but it does have 17 factory entries, and 13 further privateer outfits set to do battle, door-to-door, for 24 hours.

GTE Pro is, as it has been for the past few years, made up of pure factory teams. Manufacturers are taking the GTE Pro class increasingly seriously now, and that’s evident in the size of some of these efforts. Porsche and Ford are bringing four cars each to Le Mans and Ferrari is bringing three, while Aston Martin and BMW are debuting their new cars and Corvette is putting a huge amount of resources into what could well be the final run for its hugely popular C.7R.

It is near-impossible to call a winner, even this close to the big race, with so many cars and no weak driver crews. This really is, the most stacked GTE Pro field we’ve ever seen. The question is, who has the edge? Back for a third year, with a quartet of cars, Ford would like to think it has as good a chance as any. After dominating the field during its debut year in 2016, somewhat controversially, and finishing a surprise second in 2017 after the chaotic ending to the race, the ‘Blue Oval’ is back for a third crack at winning on the hallowed French ground.

Ford at Le Mans

It is incredible to think that the Ford GT is the second oldest car in the field at this point, only the C7 in its current form has a longer history. It still looks arguably the most modern of the six cars in the class and just keeps on earning silverware wherever it goes. Once again Chip Ganassi’s UK team will join forces with the US outfit at Le Mans, creating what is one of the strongest GT crews in the world. The car’s ability is obviously a major factor, but a big part of Ford’s successes stem from the perfect blend of experienced drivers such as three-time World Touring Car Champion Andy Priaulx and multiple Champ Car winner Sebastien Bourdais, as well as younger talent like Billy Johnson and former LMP2 Le Mans class winner Harry Tincknell. There is no weak link in the team’s 12-driver stable, and the car continues to be almost bulletproof. If the Balance of Performance is as solid as it was last year, and all the marques are in with a shout, expect Ford to be right there, and ready to take a second Le Mans win.

Le Mans

Porsche on the other hand, is searching for its first Le Mans class win since 2013 in GTE Pro, a result which the brand feels is long overdue, especially considering the successes at the top end of the field in LMP1 in recent years. The current 911 RSR though is an absolute monster, which is ready to win, and win now. If Porsche can break through, it may prove to be a very popular victory with fans, as the mid-engined, four-litre, flat-six in the car houses is a screamer. With four entered in Pro (two running retro liveries, that look stunning), Porsche, to celebrate its 70th anniversary, are going for the ‘loud and proud’ approach. To boost its chances of a win, the two additional cars re from its IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship programme, which bolsters its already spectacular driver line up from the FIA WEC, with the likes of overall Le Mans winners Nick Tandy, Earl Bamber, Romain Dumas and Timo Bernhard.

AF Corse meanwhile, has adopted a similar strategy to Porsche, but instead just adding one extra Ferrari 488 GTE. All three running with the 2018 Evo kit. Ferrari is another brand starved of Le Mans wins in recent years, it’s last coming in 2014. It will be hoping that its championship-winning form from last year’s FIA WEC campaign carries over into this year’s race, which is coincidentally the second round of the 2018/19 season.

Corvette Racing, the last of the brands using tried and tested machinery, has its trusty pair of IMSA C7.Rs entered. In what could well be the swan-song for the car, Pratt and Miller’s experienced outfit will be gunning for its ninth class win at Le Mans this year, and, as you’d expect, it has a real chance. The past couple of seasons, the C7.R has won races and titles in the USA, but fallen short on French soil. In 2016, the team were unable to unlock the pace of the car due to the Balance of Performance situation and last year, a titanic battle in the final laps with the winning Aston Martin ended in tears, with the leading ‘Vette limping across the line after multiple offs and tyre troubles when Aston Martin Racing’s Jonny Adam made his move. This time around, they’ll hope it can be different. Don’t count them out!

Le Mans

So that leaves BMW and Aston Martin; two brands that have a long, history in sports car racing. Both head to Le Mans with high expectations this year, and new cars that during their pre-season development work already look like race winners. BMW’s M8 may well have the advantage off the bat, after running at both the Rolex 24 and Sebring prior to Le Mans with its parallel IMSA programme. The car, which sounds great in the flesh, and is built like a tank, is likely to capture the imagination of the fans trackside. The brand, which let’s not forget hasn’t had a big result at Le Mans since the turn of this century, comes with an experienced team running its factory operation – MTEK – and a set of drivers more than capable of going toe-to-toe with the GTE Pro regulars. In amongst its crew, watch out for DTM champion and Martin Tomczyk and Spa 24 Hours winners Alex Sims and Philipp Eng; they know how to win big races.

In a class like this though, a driver is only as good as its car. But BMW has ensured that the M8 was put to the test, with multiple runs at a variety of circuits, and in a variety of conditions. So far it appears to be both reliable and fast, almost winning at Sebring in only its second race start. While it remains to be seen whether the Bavarian brand, this early in its programme, can take a big win against such stiff competition, they certainly can’t be counted out.

Le Mans

It is much the same story for Aston Martin Racing, which starts 2018 with far more factory support from Aston Martin and a brand new, stunning-looking Vantage. The new Vantage, replacing the previous model which remarkably, raced for 13 years, helps usher in the new era for the brand in motorsport. Aerodynamically it’s far more aggressive, the new turbo-charged Mercedes engine is touted as a revelation in drivability terms and just about every other system in the car is new and upgraded too. The driver-crew has seen a refresh also, with former BMW driver Maxime Martin, and all round rapid Britain Alex Lynn joining the team. The big issue here is that so far this season, the Vantages have struggled mightily. In both pace and reliability, it’s been way off, and at the Test Day, Marco Sorensen has forced the team to build up a brand-new chassis for the race after a heavy impact on the run down to Indianapolis during the morning session. Even with the other car managing a full day of running, the signs aren’t good; the No. 97 was just under five seconds off the pace. Now, this is GTE Pro, and things can change quickly, so don’t count them out just yet.

So far, it looks as if Porsche and Ford have the upper hand. At the Paul Ricard Prologue, the season opener at Spa, and the Le Mans Test Day, both marques have looked to have the pace required to win Le Mans. In a Balance of Performance world, and with the politics that come with it, it may be a smokescreen. There are rumours that only Porsche and Ford have shown their true hand thus far, though it’s impossible to know. Let’s hope that means next week we’ll see a close race, with the other marques able to go toe-to-toe, rather than a lop-sided affair.

In GTE Am meanwhile, 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 is 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.

Who are the favourites? Despite having its running cut short due to engine damage, the 2017 WEC GTE Am championship-winning No.98 Aston Martin Racing Vantage of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda is both in-form after winning Spa and due some good luck at Le Mans after falling short so many times. The old Vantage, let’s not forget, won the GTE Pro race overall last year, so still has life in it.

Le Mans
The three Dempsey Proton Porsches too should be considered contenders, the 911 RSR is likely the chassis to have, and all three sets of drivers entered containing a mix of experienced drivers and young hot-shoes. Watch out for Matteo Cairoli (last year’s surprise package), Julien Andlauer (fastest at the test) and the ageless Pat Long, the foundation of this ambitious three-car effort.

Another contender comes in the form of the the Clearwater Racing team, which surprised everyone back in 2017, winning on its debut in the FIA WEC. Matt Griffin, Keita Sawa and Weng Sun Mok work so well as a team, and the crew behind the scenes always turn out an immaculate (chrome liveried!) Ferrari. TF Sport too, could well prove to be a force. The British team, stepping up from a successful 2017 spent in the European Le Mans Series, almost won at Spa in its first-ever appearance; Euan Hankey, Charlie Eastwood and Salih Yoluc combining for a near-perfect drive in the Ardennes. TF Sport has won both big races and championships before, and all three drivers are more than capable of going toe-to-toe with the best in the class. Watch this space!

Le Mans
Last year’s Le Mans winner JMW Motorsport meanwhile, may have a bit of a struggle this time, in its quest to repeat its 2018 feat. This year, its driver line-up isn’t quite as star-studded, though Cooper MacNeil and Jeff Segal both have plenty of Le Mans experience to draw from. That’s not to say after 24 hours, it couldn’t be at the head of the field, but this time around there’s no expectation of a run like last year.

So both GTE Pro and Am promise much for next week’s Le Mans 24 Hours. Close racing and stories throughout each field will unroll before our hours as the clock ticks by. The best place to be is track-side with Travel Destinations so you don’t miss any of the action!

Written by Stephen Kilbey
Photography by Dailysportscar

FIA WEC

FIA WEC 6 Hours of Spa Preview

Looking Ahead to the FIA WEC  6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps

After months and months of intrigue and speculation, the FIA World Endurance Championship’s 2018/19 ‘Super Season’ is finally here. This weekend, the teams and drivers will head to Spa-Francorchamps to kick off the season with the traditional Le Mans dress rehearsal in the Ardennes Forest. But with so much new technology up and down the order, just what can we expect? Will it deliver and what should we be keeping an eye on as the countdown to the 86th edition of the Grand Prix D’Endurance enters its final stages?

Up at the front, the LMP1 class looks completely different, and far bigger, than it did in 2017. In fact, what we have, for better or for worse, is the biggest LMP1 field in the FIA WEC’s six-year history. It is packed with privateer cars, fresh and still unproven, and just two hybrid entries from Toyota after Porsche’s withdrawal. But don’t let the lack of factory competition for the Japanese marque put you off. This is very much a David vs Goliath situation, and there is still far more questions than answers at this time.

FIA WEC

Toyota’s big news story this year, isn’t concerning the car. Instead, the headlines surround the driver crew which will feature two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso. It is no secret he’s coming this year, and it is no secret that he is taking on the FIA WEC as part of a ‘Triple Crown’ run. But just how will he fare? Well, we don’t know yet, but what we do know, is that his supreme talents in an F1 car aside, when he stepped into an IndyCar last year he was quick straight away. You would also think that his performance at Daytona this year (for his sportscar debut) would give a good indication. But his car wasn’t up to the task, resulting in a rather quiet run to the finish for the Spaniard. Time will tell just how quickly he can adapt to what is a very different style of driving required in LMP1 H.

Can Toyota’s pair of mildly-revised TS050 HYBRIDs be challenged by the slew of private competition? In truth, especially at this stage, it seems unlikely. There is still plenty of creases to be ironed out in the class’ EoT (Equivalence of Technology), and in the new cars themselves. So we may have to wait a little before we see the true potential of SMP and DragonSpeed’s BR1s, CEFC TRSM’s Ginettas, ByKolles upgraded CLM and Rebellion Racing’s R-13s. The FIA WEC Prologue though, was if nothing else, encouraging; Toyota setting its fast times running outside the rules, leaving some hope for a competitive race at the start of the season.

FIA WEC

Who should we be looking to at this stage to challenge for the final podium spot? SMP Racing and Rebellion Racing look to hold the advantage at this stage in the pace department. The Russian BR1 AER’s look quick, and at the Prologue they didn’t suffer any major troubles. Not surprising, as the car, designed by Dallara, has had the most running of the new breed, and has a good set of drivers to get the most out of its cars. This will include Jenson Button this year, but unfortunately not until after the Spa round.

Rebellion meanwhile, was unable to get its pre-season test programme underway before the Prologue, due to the lead time from ORECA of its new Gibson-powered chassis. The team, has been out testing since the trip to Paul Ricard, but its R-13s are still very new. The pace appears to be there, so it’s all down to durability this weekend in Belgium if the Swiss-flagged effort is to leave with silverware at this early stage. Elsewhere, ByKolles, DragonSpeed and CEFC TRSM showed flashes of what is to come in France, but there is still a long way to go for all three teams. The focus at this stage is very much on using Spa as effectively as possible as preparation for Le Mans, which is going to be a far harder, but more important task in the long run.

While LMP1 may hold the most interest to those in the stands, let’s not forget that there is plenty to look for in the other three classes too. GTE Pro is stacked. Now with the addition of a full BMW factory effort, the category is 10-cars strong, and oozing talent. While little has changed at Ferrari, Porsche and Ford in the off-season, that is by no means a bad thing. With the added value of BMW’s new M8 GTE and Aston Martin’s new Vantage, with fresh driver crews, there’s going to be a real fight for the podium spots this year.

FIA WEC

Both new cars set to grace the class have been out testing for months now, and have completed some serious mileage. Both cars look strong, not bullet proof, but certainly further down the line in their development than you might expect considering neither have a FIA WEC start to their name.

Aston Martin’s driver crew sees two newcomers set to debut at Spa; Maxime Martin, who’s astonishing performance at the 2013 Nurburgring 24 Hours still lives in the memories of many, and Alex Lynn, who’s won races in GP2, LMP2 and in DPi. Both are rapid, and are already up to speed with the car and their new surroundings. BMW meanwhile, will start the season with a quartet of FIA WEC new-boys: Martin Tomczyk, Nicky Catsburg, Tom Blomqvist and Antonio Felix Da Costa. There’s no weak link there, it is hot-shoe central in the BMW garage!

FIA WEC

Then there is both the LMP2 and GTE Am classes which are set to deliver quality racing all season long, as they did in 2017. LMP2 has variety, with a Dallara P217 from Racing Team Nederland (driven by none other than Dutch hero Jan Lammers at Spa and Le Mans) and a Ligier JS P217 fielded by Larbre Competition. That means  we don’t have an an ORECA spec-class, instead we have a division with three of the four LMP2 global chassis present, and two tyre brands, with Michelin entering the class to go head-to-head with Dunlop.

FIA WEC

DragonSpeed’s 07 Gibson may well prove to be the class of the field. At the Prologue it ran fastest, courtesy of a rapid lap by the polarising figure that is Pastor Maldonado, the Venezuelan signed up for his sportscar race debut at this weekend too, with Mexican Roberto Gonzalez and Frenchman Nethanael Berthon.

FIA WEC

GTE Am meanwhile, may have been consistently the best class on the wheel-to-wheel racing front in 2017, and that could well be exacerbated this season, as the car count has grown significantly to nine cars, up from five last year. There is plenty of familiar faces in the class too. Aston Martin Racing return as champions with the same line-up and the older, rumbling V8-powered Vantage, Clearwater Racing looks to be everyone’s favourite team again with its all-chrome Ferrari 488, and the ageless Jorg Bergmiester rejoins the series with Team Project 1 – the most successful Porsche one-make team, which expands its programme with a debut FIA WEC run this year. As unpredictable as ever in 2018/19, GTE Am should continue to throw some real surprises throughout the season. At the moment, going on the form from the Prologue, which saw the new Porsche 911 RSRs in the class look clearly faster in pure lap time, it’s advantage Stuttgart. But with BoP set to be tweaked throughout, nobody is crowning any winners just yet.

So sit back, and enjoy the ride. This weekend, the FIA WEC, with its new look grid and new calendar is back, and some might say, better than ever. The new era, starts now.

Written by Stephen Kilbey
Photography by Dailysportscar

Le Mans 2018; The GTE Pro Battle

Whilst much of the chatter around the prospects for Le Mans 2018 endurance racing season has focused on the heavily revised FIA WEC calendar, and the comings and goings in the prototype marketplace, there’s an underlying story that deserves every race-goers full attention even before we find out who will be racing for the overall win.

GTE Pro is set to be a barnstormer!  New cars, star drivers, new teams and much more besides.

Le Mans 2018

For Le Mans 2018 there’ll be two new factory backed cars to add to the already established Ferrari 488 GTE and Ford GT, both of which still feel like the new kids on the block, by next season, in Pro, they’ll be the oldest cars from the FIA WEC ranks and only the Corvette C7.R is older. The first newcomer is the brand new Aston Martin Vantage GTE. The British marque gave its current car the best send-off possible this year by winning GTE Pro at La Sarthe after a dramatic finish. The new car, which has yet to be formally unveiled, has been out testing over the past month with some of Aston Martin Racing’s factory driver stable. It’ll look very aggressive with hints of the über-Aston Vulcan, sound aggressive thanks to its Mercedes turbo-charged V8 engine, and should be in immediate contention for a good finish at Le Mans if the scale of the upgrades reported by those who have driven it, are to be believed.

Le Mans 2018

BMW meanwhile, brings the other new bit of kit to Le Mans 2018, its M8 GTE, which sees the Bavarian marque return to the French endurance classic for the first time since 2011. Last time round, the world-famous Schnitzer team ran the programme – which saw two M3 GT2s take on the race – this time, it’s MTEK, who move over from DTM competition to take on the full WEC, and of course Le Mans 24 Hours.  The team has been practicing – hard! MTEK have had a full pit set-up to play with, with constant pit-stop and problem solving drills, for months, months before receiving their first M8! The new M8 is a looker, and under the hood is set to stun! It features a c.500bhp twin-turbo four-litre V8, with a cylinder block and cylinder head identical to the road going 8 series engine. It’s a light car too, weighing in at just under 2,700 pounds, the reduction in weight achieved through the extensive use of ultra-light CFRP components. BMW has never won at Le Mans in the GTE era, in fact the last BMW to win a class at the race was back when it won overall in 1999! The MTEK crew will be looking to right that in 2018.

Having BMW along for the ride at Le Mans 2018 means that at the very least, GTE Pro is slated to feature two car factory teams from Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin, Ford, Corvette and BMW, that’s without the potential for Ford to bring its other two IMSA-regular GTs, a third Porsche 911 RSR joining the fight plus the likelihood of a third Ferrari from the IMSA ranks too.

Le Mans 2018

Of the current crop of runners, there’s plenty to look forward to also. The 2017 Porsche 911 RSR is back for its second season; its screaming engine note, the team’s selection of world class drivers and year of running under its belt could well see the German team take its first GTE Pro win since 2013. Gianmaria Bruni will surely feature, a key signing from Ferrari last season alongside established GT racing superstar Laurens Vanthoor – with a number of the marque’s LMP1 refugees also likely to be involved including Britain’s Nick Tandy. Ferrari’s rapid Brits will be on hand too with James Calado and Sam Bird both on race winning form in the super rapid turbocharged 488 GTEs.

Le Mans 2018

Then there’s Corvette Racing, the Pratt and Miller-run American crew, which are always a fan-favourite, will race with the C7.R for the final time. The new car is quietly in development, and could well be a radical change for the American manufacturer. Fans will be urged to enjoy the C7.R one last time though, the attention firmly on its Le Mans and IMSA-winning GTE monster, which will be gunning for its second GTE Pro class title.

Being confident beforehand though, will be hard. This year’s new ‘Automated Balance of Performance’, with Le Mans-specific balancing proved a raging success, with a close race up and down the field in the GTE ranks, all the marques able to gun for podium spots. Gone it seems, are the days when the BoP ruined teams’ chances before the on-track action started on the Wednesday, and behind us, is the 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours, where Ford dominated the field after revealing its true hand in Qualifying.

And all of that is before we look to GTE Am where a gaggle of new cars are set to feature, the 2017 Porsche 911 RSR, and the Ford GT are now eligible for the Pro-Am class in 2018 with Porsche sales already confirmed.

Le Mans 2018 will be loud, it’ll be close and it should be thrilling for 24 straight hours. The GTE Pro race at Le Mans in 2018 could be one of those ‘I was there’ contests, which will be looked at as one of classic bouts in a golden era for sportscars.

Book here to be at Le Mans 2018

Written by Stephen Kilbey
Photography by Dailysportscar