Le Mans 24 Hours 2011; GTE Pro Preview

GTE Pro: Lotus join the big guns

The LMP1 battle for the overall crown may be the glamour race at Le Mans 2011 but ignore the GTE classes at your peril. The new 2011 GTE Pro and Am classes replace the GT1 and GT2 categories from last year.

GTE Pro accommodates the factory backed teams with new cars and any privateer efforts that dare to challenge them!
From the 18 cars in the GTE Pro class we have 6 marques represented with Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin, Corvette, BMW and Lotus all present.

Let’s deal with Lotus first. The new Evora GTE won’t win at Le Mans this year, but it’s fair to say that the Toyota/ Cosworth V6 engined machine has surprised many observers. This is a proper GTE machine – no half measures here – with Nicola Scimeca and co having designed a real racer. One of the pair of Jet Alliance run cars finished first time out at Spa and the other failed only when the team made what they now acknowledge was a silly mistake on the cooling front. With a reduction in weight doled out since then, the car will be faster but probably not fast enough. Lovers of difference in racing will be watching for the pair to mount a reliability run; Johnny Mowlem, James Rossiter and Jonathan Hirschi in the No.65 car would like to be dicing with Bruni and Lieb but will likely be unable to do so. The No.64 car meanwhile sees a more gentlemanly line-up (in racing background) with Martin Rich, Oskar Slingerland and John Hartshorne. If they finish we’ll rejoice with them, because that will mean that Lotus is really back!

Aston Martin is represented in GTE Pro by Team Jota AMR. The 2011 specification Vantage has proved troublesome at times but the car has been fast when reliable, fast enough to see Sam Hancock troubling the leading pack on pace. Rumours abound that the Vantage will revert to a 2010 specification V8 in search of reliability. If true, that could transform Jota’s prospects.Hancock is hungry for a good run after his late race disappointment in the factory Lola Aston Martin last year, whilst Simon Dolan is beginning to impress as he finds more and more pace on his climb up the sportscar racing ladder. Chris Buncombe joins the full season LMS pairing. He’s back at Le Mans for the first time since anchoring Binnie Motorsport to the LMP2 class win in 2007. If it comes down to an all-out sprint, we’d expect this team to be lapping just a little off the ultimate pace, but close enough to get in amongst the action if they can run a clean race and others don’t.

BMW Motorsport’s pair of M3 GT2s are run with the cunning fox that is Charlie Lamm at the helm. That made it all the more surprising that the team effectively blew their own strategy out of the water last year by running too fast at the Spa 1000kms. The ACO’s congratulatory telegram contained enough performance penalty measures to ensure their near also-ran status. In addition the spectacular looking Jeff Koons ‘Art Car’ suffered from too much time in preparing it for the gallery and not enough for the race, it seems. Those lessons have been learnt for 2011 with both M3s running well (but not spectacularly so) at Spa and no 2011 Art Car. Dunlop rubber is a key part of the BMW equation too and with both cars featuring full factory pro line ups and pace (proved in their 1-2 finish at Sebring) that belies the car’s more ‘Touring Car’ looks. The BMWs will be looking to win, and it would be a foolish punter that bet too heavily against them. Joey Hand was one of the stars of Sebring and is truly now breaking out onto the world scene. He shares the No.56 car with BMW old hands Andy Priaulx and Dirk Muller. This trio ranged against an equally high quality trio in the No.55 car; Jorg Muller anchoring a squad composed also of Dirk Werner and Augusto Farfus.

Corvette Racing will be looking to put the disaster of their GT2 debut for the C6.R behind them and will want to see more of the spice shown in Ollie Gavin’s epic duel with Jaime Melo last year repeated over the full race distance. There are changes in the team for 2011 – Manu Collard and Johnny O’ Connell are gone and Richard Westbrook and Tommy Milner step forward; Milner teaming up with Beretta and Garcia in car No.73, and Westbrook in No.74 with Gavin and Magnussen. Westbrook is just plain fast, and happier at Corvette than during his stint as a Porsche factory man, it seems. His team-mates Oliver Gavin and Jan Magnussen complete a truly world class line-up, a potential real crowd pleasing one at that. Milner too is rather fast and was a revelation at Sebring, where he battled head to head with the BMWs in a duel that was perhaps designed to show new employers and old that he’s worth the pay cheque. Antonio Garcia and the always affable Olivier Beretta will complete another impressive Corvette line-up. The Vette is well suited to the wide open spaces at Le Mans, but GTE is a tougher hunting ground than Corvette experienced in the final days of GT1; they’ll need all the legendary teamwork they can muster to give the drivers the best shot they can out on track. If they do, and if the cars stay out of trouble, we’re sure to see the V8 rumble right in the mix.

Porsche has had a torrid start to 2011 – with no GTE Pro cars in ILMC and a pair of disasters in the opening rounds of the LMS for their leading teams too. Le Mans sees the cream of their attack fielded, with no fewer than five 997 GT3 RSRs on the entry; all by teams with race and championship winning form. IMSA Performance Matmut is a hardy annual at Le Sarthe and indeed has won the GT2 class as recently as 2007. Patrick Pilet is the Porsche factory man here once again and he’s joined by the team’s LMS GTE AM duo, team Principal Raymond Narac and quick co-driver Nicolas Armindo. The No.76 car has real potential but somehow this team seems to attract bad luck. There’ll be no shortage of pace but there will be no mercy either from the remainder of the stellar GTE field if the No.76 car has time in a gravel trap or the garage.

Flying Lizards Motorsports are one of the crowd favourites wherever they race, their Porsches always immaculately prepped and raced hard. They’ve been an ever present at Le Mans since 2005, but the race has not been kind to them of late; a single podium-finish (third in 2005) the only silverware they’ve taken back across the Atlantic. 2011 sees the team fielding a pair of Porsches, one in each of the GTE classes, and you should expect something very special on the visual front! The Pro class car is anchored as always by Jorg Bergmeister, one of the very, very best, and seemingly never better than when paired with fellow factory man, the rapid and enthusiastic Pat Long. Lucas Luhr’s early career was managed by the Porsche factory machine and he’s back in a 911 for Le Mans, the Porsche Audi summer exchange programme seemingly in full swing and Lucas back at Le Mans for the first time since 2009. If their luck holds the No.80 car will be in the mix.

Prospeed Competition is the odd one out amongst the Porsche teams in GTE Pro; the No.75 car featuring just one factory-blessed driver in the young and rapid Marc Holzer. He already has endurance racing honours to his name and will be joined once again by his 2011full season Le Mans Series driving partner, the evergreen Marc Goossens. Goossens has been relishing the challenges of 2011, but so far this is another Porsche team that has had plenty of luck and all of it bad! They’re joined by Le Mans rookie Jaap van Lagen, and the ex Porsche Supercup and Lada WTCC man will need to curb his excesses if he’s to make the contribution that’s going to be required.

Felbermayer Proton field a trio of cars, one under the Proton Racing Moniker in ‘Am’ and the other two here in ‘Pro’. The No.88 car has an unexpected line-up, the team having taken the commercial route to filling the seats in a car we’ve been used to seeing occupied by factory talent. That’s not to say that Nick Tandy, anchoring the squad, will be tardy – far from it; he’s impressed mightily in Supercup, but will need to show both speed and tactical awareness in this altogether different discipline. Bryce Miller moves from his family-owned team in ALMS to Le Mans with plenty of endurance experience. His early exit aboard the JMW Aston last year will still sting in the memory, he’ll want to bring the No.88 car home this year and this is a team that has every chance of doing just that. Abdulaziz bin Faisal has had success in one make Porsche racing in the Middle East, but this is a very different discipline – a win here would be extraordinary, a podium unlikely but far from impossible.

Finally for Porsche, the Champions return, but it’s a very different picture in 2011 from their year of almost unparalleled triumph in 2010. The No.77 Felbermayer Proton car is, to all intents and purposes, a factory car. The driving line up of Marc Lieb, Richard Lietz and Wolf Henzler bows to nobody on this grid in terms of speed and endurance achievement. Their luck thus far this year though has been utterly awful, caught up in the Paul Ricard start fiasco and then effectively out on Lap One in Spa following contact in traffic. Le Mans remains as the one 2010 honour that they can now realistically defend – their response is likely to be well worth watching!

And so to Ferrari, with no fewer than six new 458s in the hands of four different teams.
No Risi Competizione this year, but Giuseppe’s crew will be on hand to assist the new Luxury Racing outfit who field a pair of Ferraris in their first year at Le Mans. There’s no shortage of ability then in the garage and, in the No.59 car in particular, that theme is continued on the driving front. 1998 overall race winner Stephane Ortelli anchors this effort and he’s still a talent to be reckoned with. So too is Fred Makowiecki, winning races now and surely a GT racing star for years to come. He’s been off the radar of many, but that won’t be the case for long! But perhaps the strongest ace in the pack is the presence of Jaime Melo. If anyone knows how to win in a Ferrari, it’s the hugely rapid, hugely experienced Brazilian; and his guiding hand could well be the crucial factor here. The No.58 car, meanwhile, has a more Pro-Am feel. Anthony Beltoise provides the fire in the belly here, with F1 and GT1 veteran Jean Denis Deletraz eager to prove that the fire still burns too in his Swiss furnace. Francois Jakubowski is the third man and perhaps would be happier in the ‘AM’ class, but a new and professional team is a good thing to see as the sport struggles out of recession.

One phrase sure to be heard on Radio Le Mans in relation to the GTE contest is ‘Tyre Wars’, and with good reason; the Ferraris feature three major makes amongst their numbers. Hankook is represented once again by the very able Hankook Farnbacher team, the No.89 car took podium honours last season both here and at the Nurburgring with their ‘old’ 430 and have already gone one better than that with the new 458 in a VLN race. Dominik Farnbacher and Allan Simonsen vie with Rob Bell for the honours as fastest non-factory men in the Ferrari camp and both simply relish the challenge ahead. They’re joined once again this year by Grand-Am GT front runner Leh Keen. This team is one to watch, particularly if we get changing weather conditions where the Hankooks shine.

Dunlop’s representative in the Ferrari ranks is JMW Motorsport, Jim McWhirter returning to the prancing Horse after a 2010 dalliance with Aston Martin. Rob Bell will be in amongst the lead pack aboard the No. 66 car and Tim Sugden again provides experience in depth, too. The selection of Xavier Maassen was something of a surprise here, though. It will be interesting to see how this very different looking line-up gels over the week of the race.

AF Corse fields a pair of 458s after a bewildering early season reshuffle between 458s, 430s, ‘Pro’ and ‘Am’. The No.71 car will feature Rui Aguas, together with NASCAR luminaries Michael Waltrip and Robert Kauffman. That’s a line-up that rather feels like a run to finish than to challenge on ultimate pace, but, as last season’s Spa 24 Hours showed, the result after 24 hours could be an impressive one. By contrast, the team’s lead No.51 car features a stellar line-up, all capable of duking it out with anyone else on the GTE entry. Gianmaria Bruni, Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander are a well matched and very able team – the cachet of F1 glamour around this team will draw attention, but it’s the potential pace we should be looking for and there is no shortage whatsoever of that in prospect. Bruni should be in anyone’s global top five in GT racing. Fast and strategically aware, his 2011 season started in an uncharacteristically unfocussed fashion (maybe a result of the rapid development cycle for the 458?). We’ll see – he and Fisichella won last time out and they’ll be very much in the mix again. Fisichella is beginning to enjoy this sportscar racing lark; he’s found his smile and he’s finding pace too. He might just be a figurehead for whatever comes next for Ferrari, but for the present he’s right in the thick of their 2011 efforts. Vilander is, in many ways, the forgotten man in the Ferrari family, but he’s amongst the most able of the lot – expect him to show blinding pace and almost unfeasible consistency. The affable Finn could be the race-winning factor.

Expect the leaders to be from the pack of Ferrari 458s & the BMWs. But the winner? We’ll have to wait and see.

Graham Goodwin
Graham is the editor of www.dailysportscar.com
Graham has participated in the Radio Le Mans Audio previews with John Hindhaugh.