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Le Mans 2019: Preview

Le Mans 2019; it is time for the ‘Super-Season’ finale

After 62 hours of racing across seven rounds, the FIA WEC 2018/19 ‘Super Season comes down to this; the finale at the 87th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours. This season has had everything; close racing, drama, controversy, stars in fast cars, new machinery, dominant performances and it all ends here at Le Mans 2019.

It is easy to overlook Le Mans 2019 as the end of the current FIA World Endurance Championship season, as the Le Mans 24 Hours is an international mega-event and in many ways still stands alone. But much of the teams and drivers within the record 62-car field will be fighting not only for their places in the history of this great motor race, but for points and titles. Quite how the race will pan out with teams factoring in all important hauls of points, is a real unknown. But it can only add to the drama and intrigue that goes with Le Mans 2019.

So just how has the ‘Super Season’ panned out? and what can we expect out of the title battles? Well it all started in May of 2018, at the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, which was a race that, looking back, served as a real taste of what was to come. LMP1, understandably, has been dominated from the off by the sole remaining factory team in the class, Toyota Gazoo Racing. It’s pair of thoroughbred, near bullet-proof TS050 HYBRIDs, driven by six world-class drivers, this year including Fernando Alonso, have been winning convincingly. And aside from a slip up at Silverstone where both Toyotas were excluded post-race, it has been one-way traffic.

Now, the debate surrounding Toyota’s dominance has been somewhat all consuming throughout the season, but the reality is, that whatever the ACO and FIA do to balance the cars (and it’s efforts thus far have been far from perfect), the non-hybrid privateer cars are just not ready yet to go toe-to-toe with Toyota’s tried and tested, cutting edge machines. Rebellion, SMP, DragonSpeed and ByKolles’ efforts haven’t been in vein, and at times the sheer determination from all parties has been nothing short of admirable, but they’d need a lot more development time and money to sniff wins regularly.

Le Mans 2019

That is not to say that Le Mans 2019 can’t throw up surprises, because it Le Mans often does; just ask Toyota, which until last year had a history of spectacular blunders to its name. The 2018 Le Mans 24 Hours almost went ‘too’ smoothly for the Japanese marque, which in search of its first Le Mans win was able to take a controlled approach, with no other brands throwing huge resources at the event. Le Mans 2019  may prove to be different though, as the privateer cars have had a season’s worth of work completed on them, which will help in the reliability department. And it’s been a cocktail of fragility, along with costly driver errors, that have prevented some of the races from being more competitive. If a couple of the chasing pack can keep it clean, and Toyota hits any sort of trouble, then it will be game on. If not, it will be an inter-team battle between the No.7 and The No.8 to decide which trio is crowned World Champions and Le Mans winners. The battle for third place therefore, will be the one to watch in the class. Unless of course, reliability issues hit Toyota as they did at Spa, where the No.7 spent time in the garage with an electrical issue.

The LMP2 category on the other hand has been far more entertaining on track, as Jackie Chan DC Racing and Signatech Alpine have been locked in a season-long battle for the title lead. As it stands it’s advantage Alpine. For Alpine’s trio, consistency has kept them in it. Nicolas Lapierre, Andre Negrao and Pierre Thiriet won the class at Le Mans last year and have been on the podium at every other race. JCDC’s No.38 crew of Gabriel Aubry, Stephane Richelmi and Ho-Pin Tung, meanwhile, trail by just four points after wins at season opener at Spa, Silverstone and Shanghai as well as a second-place finish at Fuji. The big blow came at Sebring, where they could only muster a sixth-place finish after a troubled race on grueling Floridian circuit. At Spa too, in the weather chaos they wouldn’t finish ahead of the Alpine. Can they bounce back at Le Mans 2019, and for one last time pull a win out of the bag and win the title? It’ll be a story line well worth following.

Elsewhere in the full-season WEC LMP2 field, while there are no other contenders for the championship. There is the intrigue of DragonSpeed’s Pastor Maldonado and Anthony Davidson-led ORECA, which has finished on the podium the last three races and looks primed for a big result after a maiden win at Spa, and the new-look No.37 JCDC squad. A mid-season driver crew change for the No.37 car has eliminated it from the title race, but the addition of Briton Jordan King, American IMSA ace Ricky Taylor and super Gentlemen driver David Heinemeier Hansson to the field means further depth for the class. And it’s a class which oozes quality and now features 20 cars at Le Mans 2019 since the late surprise announcement that two extra garages will be built for the race.

For those of you track-side at Le Mans 2019 it is the GTE ranks, that will provide much of the excitement and drama, and for good reason, as both GTE Pro and Am are stacked with quality entries and are likely to play host to the closest racing. GTE Pro this year has had it ups and downs, and its fair share of drama up and down the field, but it’s been Porsche that has led the way with consistency. The German marque, against such stiff competition has taken control of the Drivers points battles and sealed the Manufacturers’ title at Spa. The foundations for its success have been laid throughout the season, thanks to its two screaming-mid-engined 911 RSRs taking wins at Le Mans, Fuji and Sebring, and scoring further podiums at every round. While the other teams have struggled to find any form, Porsche’s GT Team has been at times dominant, which is more than just impressive in a Balance of Performance-controlled formula. Michael Christensen and Kevin Estre in the team’s No.92 911 RSR have been the stars here, and head to the finale with a 36-point lead over their teammates in the No.91.

Le Mans 2019

Le Mans is its own race though, and all the other factories will be gunning for glory. After a slow start to its life as the flagship model, Aston Martin will hope its Vantage AMRs can challenge for their first win at La Sarthe, as too will BMW with its M8 GTEs. The older Ford GTs and AF Corse-run Ferraris too will of course be in the mix here, and have to fight not only their full-season competition, but the annual slew of IMSA guest entries (including of course two thunderous Corvettes) that will also be throwing the kitchen sink at Le Mans 2019.

GTE Am on the other hand, is a tighter points battle after seven of the eight races this season. It has been a roller-coaster in the pro-am division of GTE, with some of the best door-to-door action we’ve seen of any class, and a sprinkling of controversy to keep it all interesting. It looked almost certain that the No.88 Dempsey Proton Racing Porsche was going to march to the title, after winning Le Mans and Silverstone last year and scoring well at Spa, but at Fuji, it all changed. A huge penalty was handed to the team for a data logger infraction in Japan with the WEC opting to dock the team all its points. This hammering of the reset button for the class vaulted WEC debutant Team Project 1 into the title lead. It’s drivers Jorg Bergmeister, Patrick Lindsey and Egidio Perfetti have been strong all year, and as a trio getting stronger. They’ve shown consistency with four podiums and a win at Fuji. And even when the team had its backs against the wall at Sebring, after a huge fire in the pre-event test forced it to freight a spare car from Europe on short notice during race week, they still finished third. Another big result here would seal it, but after a slip up at Spa closed the points gap, of the five teams mathematically still in the fight, Spirit of Race and Aston Martin Racing in particular will be keen to win big in France and bring the end of the season to a fitting crescendo. There will be drama, especially as GTE AM is 17-cars strong for Le Mans 2019, thanks to the additional guest cars from Asia and Europe.

LMP1 Standings
1st.
No. 8 Toyota TS050 HYBRID – Fernando Alonso, Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima: 160 points
2nd. No. 7 Toyota TS050 HYBRID – Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopex: 129 points
3rd.  No. 3 Rebellion R-13 Gibson – Thomas Laurent, Gustavo Menezes and Mathias Beche: 99 points

LMP2 Standings
1st
  No. 36 Signatech Alpine A460 – Nicolas Lapierre, Pierre Thiriet & Andre Negrao: 143 points
2nd No. 38 Jackie Chan DC Racing ORECA – Ho Pin Tung, Gabriel Aubry and Stephane Richelmi: 139 points

GTE Pro Drivers Standings
1st
No.92 Porsche 911 RSR – Michael Christensen and Kevin Estre: 140 points
2nd No.91 Porsche 911 RSR – Gianmaria Bruni, Richard Lietz: 104 points
3rd No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari 488 – James Calado, Alessandro Pier Guidi: 98.5 points

GTE Am Drivers Standings
1st:
No. 56 Team Project 1 Porsche, Jorg Bergmeister, Patrick Lindsey and Egidio Perfetti: 130 points
2nd No. 54 Spirit of Race Ferrari, Thomas Flohr, Francesco Castellacci and Giancarlo Fisichella: 119 points
3rd No. 98 Aston Martin Racing Vantage, Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda: 87 points

Written by Stephen Kilbey
Photography by Dailysportscar.com

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

LMGTE Am Le Mans 2016 Preview

Countdown to Le Mans: GTE Am preview

10 Things To Watch For In GTE Am At Le Mans 2016

The 2016 GTE Am class at Le Mans, consists of a healthy 13 entries, in a class which has created so many story lines for the race in recent years. Four marques are represented in the field, with the six full-season WEC entries being joined by four ELMS cars, an IMSA Ferrari and two Asian-based teams. The SMP Racing Ferrari which won the class last year isn’t present, but the teams and drivers present are unlikely to disappoint fans of the private runners in the GTE ranks.

Here’s 10 key storylines to follow in this year’s race:

1. Johnny O’Connell’s return 
Johnny O’Connell was once a mainstay at Le Mans with Corvette Racing, winning his class four times, three of them with the American factory team, but has been an absentee since 2010. It’s clear that he’s coming back to try and put one last win on his career résumé before he hangs up his helmet. Driving for Team AAI in its second trip to the race with last year’s GTE Pro class-winning C7.R alongside Oliver Bryant and Mark Patterson, a good result could well be on the cards.

Team AAI at Le Mans 2016
2. Welcoming a tyre war
We have a tyre war in both GTE classes, which is a welcome storyline in the race with Aston Martin’s pair of Vantages running Dunlop rubber and the rest on Michelins. For Aston’s headline WEC championship-leading #98 crew, a result could swing the whole year their way given the right conditions, as so far this year they’ve been extremely competitive, winning at Spa and finishing second at Silverstone.

3. Last year of the 458?
The Ferrari 458 Italia has been a fan favourite since its inception, with its screaming V8 engine and its striking looks, but this could well be its final ride at La Sarthe. With the turbo-charged 488 already in use in the Pro class, it’ll be the car of choice for the smaller teams very soon, leaving the 458 relatively redundant and potentially out of competition in ACO series’. Thankfully there’s still five on the entry at this year’s race to help you make the most of its potential swansong year.

Ferrari 458 at Le Mans 2016
4. Neilsen looking to make history
Danish female driving talent Christina Neilsen is looking to make history this weekend, as the only female driver to have won her class at both Sebring and Le Mans. After Jackie Ickx and his daughter Vanina both raced at Le Mans Neilsen is also only the second woman to take part in the race as the daughter of a former Le Mans starter. Her father Lars-Erik Nielsen took part in the race in the early 2000s and if Christina scores even a podium finish she and her father will both have achieved that honour.

5. Collard’s 22nd Le Mans
Manu Collard has become a figurehead in the Le Mans paddock over the years, competing in the race for over two decades driving for in just about every class and for fan favourite teams including Pescarolo Sport. Nowadays the Frenchman shares his driving duties in the WEC with François Perrodo and Rui Aguas in an AF Corse-run Ferrari 458, but has just as much potential to win his class at Le Mans as he did in the prime of his career.

6. Dalla Lana to looking for redemption
After crashing out of the GTE Am class lead in the final hour of last year’s Le Mans 24 Hours, Canadian gentlemen driver Paul Dalla Lana is looking to bounce back in 2016 and standon the podium.
Dalla Lana has worked so hard to improve his race-craft ten fold over the past couple of years, and it’s shown with him entering round three of the season in the WEC championship lead. After the heartbreak of 2015, a podium or win for himself and teammates Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda in the #98 Aston Martin would be well deserved.

Aston Martin Racing at Le Mans 2016
7. Red hot rookies
Both Clearwater Racing and Formula Racing are racing at Le Mans this year for the first time, and as reigning champions of their respective series. Clearwater impressed last year winning the GT class in the Asian Le Mans Series with its McLaren 650S GT3, while Formula Racing claimed top honours in the ELMS GTE ranks. It’s going to be interesting to see how they both get on in their first runs at La Sarthe, and strong driver sets for both they could spring a surprise or two by Sunday morning.

8. Gulf Porsche back at Le Mans
After years of multiple cars showing up at Le Mans sporting the iconic Gulf oil colours, 2016 sees just one.  Gulf Racing UK’s Porsche 911 RSR looks splendid, and will be a fan favourite not just for being the first Gulf Porsche for ten years at the race; the last being Ice Pol Racing’s GT3 RSR in 2006, but also because the team has an all British lineup of drivers, with former A1GP champion Adam Carroll being joined by Ben Barker and Mike Wainright. After a tough start to the WEC season the team will also be highly motivated to get its year back on track, with the double points on offer for the runners.

Gulf Racing UK at Le Mans 2016

9. American invasion
2016 is turning out to be quite a landmark year for Americans at Le Mans, with the return of Ford, GTE Am features the only two all-American driver lineups in the race. Both Scudera Corsa’s Ferrari and Proton’s WeatherTech-backed Porsche combine for six of the American drivers in a year which sees 20% of the entry list made up of US-based teams. Leh Keen, Cooper MacNeil and Marc Miller will drive the Porsche, while Jeff Segal, Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler are due to share the 458.

10. Larbre’s third seat
What should have been the car which saw Paolo Ruberti continue the search for a first Le Mans class win has now become a bit of a mystery. With Ruberti out after a hefty testing shunt left him needing surgery, there’s a big pair of shoes to fill from the team’s chosen replacement. The Larbre team, in its second year with the C7, finished the Test Day running with the quickest time from call-up Nick Catsburg, but whether he’ll join Yamagishi and Ragues remains to be seen as Jean-Phillipe Belloc also joined the team for the Test Day as a potential candidate for the third seat. Catsburg has effectively ruled himself out of contention in more than one public statement since Test Day, Belloc meanwhile looks likely to fill the vacancy, he too was quick in the car during the Test.

Larbre Competition at Le Mans 2016

Preview written by Stephen Kilbey
Photography: Dailysportscar