The third part of my Rolex 24 preview looks at the ultra competitive GTLM class. The premier GT class for GTE spec cars are filled with high level manufactures and some of the highest quality GT driving talent in the world.
With five different makes competing for glory, we may well see a repeat of last years climatic finish where the two factory Chevrolet Corvette’s were separated by less than a second at the flag. Of all of the classes this may well be the hardest class to predict a winner, such is the closeness of the different cars thanks to the balance of performance within the series. Let’s preview the relative merits of each of the contenders in this class.
#3 Pratt @ Miller Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C7.R: Antonio Garcia/Jan Magnussen/Mike Rockenfeller
This #3 entry was the crew which narrowly missed out last year, losing by less than a second to their team mates after 24 hours of flat out racing. The highly experienced and successful team proved they were the class of the field, something that with a winter of updates they hope to replicate this weekend.
After a 1-2 finish last year they have retained their usual bevy of factory drivers, keeping their existing line up of Antonio Garcia, Jan Magnussen and Mike Rockenfeller. The full season pairing of Garcia and Magnussen are both highly experienced with this GTE spec C7.R, but have retained their consistent speed over a stint which is so crucial in Sportscar racing. On loan Audi factory driver Mike Rockenfeller is hugely experienced and the perfect driver to complement Magnussen and Garcia. He has experience of the Corvette from last year so should need little time to readjust back to the American muscle car.
You can count on the Pratt @ Miller team being highly organised as every other team in the class will be thanks to their factory links. Winning this class against such quality opposition will come down to strategy and ensuring no mistakes are made throughout this race. Whilst it would be impossible to predict a repeat of last years perfect result, if the team can stay out of trouble expect them to be right at the front in the final hours battling it out for victory.
#4 Pratt @ Miller Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C7.R: Oliver Gavin/Tommy Milner/Marcel Fassler
For this #4 Corvette Racing entry 2016 proved a near perfect season. Full season drivers Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner were victorious at both the Rolex 24 and Sebring 12 Hours, on route to the GTLM class title. Whilst these kind of seasons are usually once in a career, why should they not go into this season hoping for the same success?
Gavin and Milner are a formidable partnership with both well versed with the C7.R. They, much like many other in this class, are very good GT drivers who are very unlikely to make mistakes or put in a risky passing move. Marcel Fassler completes the line-up, and is the perfect team mate for them to have. The ultimate team player and hugely talented Swiss driver has experience of the Corvette from last year and the on-loan factory driver will be hoping for another Rolex watch come Sunday afternoon.
With such professional teams and drivers the race will come down to the best strategy calls and staying out of trouble. Purely based on last season this entry could be considered the favourites going into the race, but almost anything could happen in this class once the race gets going.
#19 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM: Bill Auberlen/Alexander Sims/Augusto Farfus/Bruno Spengler
After a learning year with the new M6 GTLM machine in 2016, the long established BMW Team RLL will be hoping for at the very least a class podium this year. This was the entry that finished fifth in class last year, although with a further year of development they will be looking for more than this for their weeks effort.
The importance of this race is clear from the fact BMW has assembled it’s premier GT drivers from across the world to take part in this race. Joining the newly paired Bill Auberlen and Alexander Sims, both very good GT drivers in their own right, are BMW DTM factory drivers Augusto Farfus and Bruno Spengler.
Both Farfus and Spengler are regulars at this race and therefore will need little time to adjust to the car, especially when their talent is also factored in. All four drivers in this car are very quick and experienced GT racers and whilst some may question Sims considering this is his first race in the GTLM spec M6, his recent success with the GT3 version shows he has considerable talent and may well prove the surprise of the weekend in this class.
#24 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM: John Edwards/Martin Tomczyk/Nick Catsburg/Kuno Wittmer
The other of the two car BMW RLL effort is this #24 car, which will be hoping to improve on a poor showing last year. They retired in a scary manner when one of the front wheels dislodged just at the braking point for turn one. Of course they will hoping they can remain reliable this year with a years worth of experience with the car, however more than that, they will hoping to be right in the thick of the battle for the class lead throughout the race.
Existing BMW GT driver John Edwards is partnered this year by factory driver and recent GT convert Martin Tomczyk, a driver whose pedigree has been forged into the ultra competitive German DTM championship, therefore it will likely not take him long to start posting fast times in the car. Nick Catsburg and Kuno Wittmer are great additions to the line up as both are very quick GT drivers. Catsburg is another driver who has excelled with the GT3 spec M6 and Wittmer is a former GTLM champion and will be no slouch with the M6.
#62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE: Giancarlo Fisichella/Toni Vilander/James Calado
The sole Ferrari in the GTLM class this year is the stalwart Risi Competizione entry. Whilst they are only competing with one car they have proved themselves one of the quickest and most consistent teams in this class over the previous few years.
With so much experience on this team it’s rare to see them make a mistake, one of their keys to success. The new 488 GTE has proved very competitive in the World Endurance Championship and this success should filter over to the U.S if this team can have a clean run.
Full season Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander are well versed with IMSA racing and are two of the fastest Ferrari GT drivers in the world. Completing the factory driver line-up is Brit James Calado, a recent convert to GT racing who came on leaps and bounds in his second season last year. If he can keep improving he will be this teams secret weapon throughout the race.
#66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT: Joey Hand/Dirk Muller/Sebastien Bourdais
A lot changed in the space of a year for this Ford GT programme. This time last year they were making their debut on their return to international Sportscar racing, unsure of their true potential in comparison with their rivals. The Rolex 24 presented itself with the inevitable teething issues for the team, however six months later they were celebrating success at the Le Mans 24 hours.
A year on and after their Le Mans success they will be hoping to secure another prestigious title with the Rolex 24 trophy. The Chip Ganassi team have a tremendous record of success with this race, and have retained their stellar driver line up to further enhance the team. All three drivers in this car are experienced GT racers who can produce consistently quick stints throughout the race. Joey Hand and Dirk Muller have good working relationship after being team mates last year, whilst Indycar racer Sebastien Bourdais is very quick and has great experience of Sportscar racing, both here and at Le Mans.
#67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT: Ryan Briscoe/Richard Westbrook/Scott Dixon
The second of four Ford GT’s entered this year is this #67 entry, which shares the burden of expectation with the other three Ford’s entered. The team improved rapidly throughout 2016 and many would rank them as the likely closest challenger to a repeat of a Corvette 1-2 this year.
The car has proved remarkably fast, although balance of performance tweaks after the test day may not suit the car on the Daytona circuit. With the very professional Chip Ganassi team running the cars they have one of the best teams in the paddock behind them, and the three drivers in this car are highly professional racers.
Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook are the full season pairing, being joined by long term Indycar racer Scott Dixon. Westbrook has a wealth of experience both in Europe and America, whilst still retaining his outright speed.
Briscoe has recently transitioned from Indycar to Sportscar racing, and has adapted well in recent seasons, especially to the new Ford GT. Having a driver the calibre of Dixon to complete the line-up is a huge plus for this team over its rivals. He is a multiple Indycar champion and despite being a Sportscar novice, adapted well to GT racing last year. With a year of experience behind him anything is possible for both him and this team.
#68 Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK Ford GT: Billy Johnson/Stefan Mucke/Olivier Pla
Along with their usual two car IMSA series effort, the Chip Ganassi team have been joined for this marquee event by their counterparts competing in the WEC. The teams are the same barring personnel, although the IMSA team may have a very slight edge simply because of their expanded experience within the series, although this is unlikely to have an effect on the overall result.
This team struggled to adapt to the WEC in their first season, with a best result of fourth at Le Mans the Nurburgring. This season everyone linked with the programme will be hoping for improvements, so for this entry a podium would likely prove a good result for this team depending on the circumstances in the race.
The trio is the same as last year, making things easier in comparison to teams with new driver line-up’s for this weekend. Both Olivier Pla and Stefan Mucke are world renowned established Sportscar racers so expect them to be on top form for the race, whilst American racer Billy Johnson has adjusted well to international GT racing and will only make improvements with every passing season in the car.
#69 Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK Ford GT: Tony Kanaan/Andy Priaulx/Harry Tincknell
The #69 team are the second of the WEC entries guesting at Daytona, hoping to claim class victory for the Ford GT programme. Despite not being regulars on the IMSA scene, with a car as quick as the Ford GT and a team like Ganassi running the outfit, this team should have a very good chance of victory.
The notion is only further enhanced by the driver line-up assembled. Tony Kanaan is the third driver, although to have a driver of his talents join the outfit is only a massive positive for this car. He has prior experience with this programme from last year and will always put in fast times no matter what car he is driving.
The full season WEC line-up is the two Brits, Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell, both at different stages of their Sportscar careers. Priaulx is vastly experienced and is now a proven commodity in GT racing and is showing why he was a multiple world champion touring car racer previously. Harry Tincknell has recently established himself as a major young Sportscar prospect after his showings with first the Jota LMP2 team and now this Ford GT programme. He adjusted very quickly to GT racing last year and despite lacking major experience of this race, don’t expect that to stop him from impressing all weekend.
#911 CORE Autosport Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR: Patrick Pilet/Dirk Werner/Richard Lietz
2017 has seen a renewed effort from Porsche with their international GT programmes, with widescale change for this coming season. They have developed a new 2017 spec 911 RSR, with for the first time in history a mid engine 911. Whilst this may anger purists they clearly feel this is their best route to victory at the ultra competitive GTE platform.
Along with a new spec 911 they have also significantly changed their GT driver roster. Both Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy have been promoted to the LMP1 programme after their impressive performances over the past few years, with several top quality drivers coming in. For this #911 entry the sizeable change is somewhat lessened, with the same CORE Autosport team running the Porsche North America operation, along with several long term factory drivers in the line-up.
Both Patrick Pilet and Richard Leitz are long term Porsche factory GT drivers, and have consistently proven their talent at this level. With these calibre of factory drivers it’s very rare to see them make a mistake or post anything other than quick laptimes throughout stints. The only other new element aside from the car is the teams third driver, the recently signed Dirk Werner.
He has been a consistent thorn in the side of Porsche with the factory BMW Team RLL programme these past few years, but has now switched allegiance to the Porsche marque. He will have had plenty of testing to adjust to the newer 911, although the mid-engine concept should make it easier to learn in comparison with the previous rear-engine format I expect.
#912 CORE Autosport Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR: Kevin Estre/Laurens Vanthoor/Frederic Makowiecki
The second Porsche entry is very similar to its sister car, with two experienced Porsche GT drivers joined by a newly signed one. Porsche only employ the very best as factory drivers, something that is consistent with both their LMP1 and GT programme. They have retained Frenchmen Kevin Estre and Frederic Makowiecki, both of whom are supremely talented racers who can be relied upon to perform at the highest level for 24 hours.
These two are joined by new signing Laurens Vanthoor, a supremely talented rising star of GT racing, having established himself as arguably the fastest GT3 driver in the world with parent group stablemate Audi. With the withdrawal of their LMP1 programme Vanthoor has switched over to Porsche, a brand at the moment with greater chance of promotion. Adjusting to different cars are never usually an issue for drivers of immense talent, so getting up to speed during the week should not be difficult for Vanthoor. Learning the intricacies of the Daytona circuit may take longer, with this being his first time competing at this race.
Porsche are always contenders in sportscar racing, the only question mark may surround the new spec 911. Although it will have been tested extensively, testing cannot replicate the rigours of a 24 hour race, and the team may encounter issues they had never previously seen. If they can stay reliable they will be in contention for the victory, but will they be able to stay out of trouble?
That wraps up my preview of the GTLM class, one that should provide plenty of excitement and intrigue for the entire 24 hours. It will be hard to top the close racing and drama of last year, however don’t discount similar action. Predicting a winner in this class is impossible it will simply come down to who executes and reacts with their strategy the best with so many variables.
I would like to say a huge thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed it, any comments would be hugely appreciated. I have to also give thanks to the brilliant Motorsport.com for their high quality photos in this article, everyone should visit their site for the latest news and photos from across the globe. Follow me on Twitter @brfcjordan95.
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