The GTE Pro class once again returns with a very high quality field, filled with factory manufacture entries made up of the best GT teams and drivers in the world. The entire class is made up of five different factory teams and 13 cars making up this incredible closely fought class. Let’s take a look at the class contenders.
#51 AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE: James Calado/Alessandro Pier Guidi/Lucas Di Grassi
AF Corse are the worlds leading Ferrari GT team and with factory support once again return after a tumultuous 2016 battle with Ford. Last year the team suffered a down year yet based on the early 2017 WEC form the AF Corse team are back to their best. They currently sit only two points behind the leading Ford.
James Calado leads this entry, and has developed into a very quick GT racer over the past few years. Along side him there has been some major change on the driving front, with leading driver Gianmaria Bruni defecting to Porsche for this season.
To replace him Ferrari selected Alessandro Pier Guidi, a very quick driver who has proven himself with various customer programmes. Although he is a Le Mans rookie with professional drivers it doesn’t take them long to adjust to new circuits. The only question mark could be how long it takes him to reach the consistently flat out pace needed to win this class.
Completing the line-up for Le Mans is former Audi LMP1 factory driver Lucas Di Grassi. The Brazilian is a very quick professional driver, however this is only his second ever GT race and therefore he will need time to adjust to the Ferrari 488 GTE. This entry has three very quick drivers, the only question mark is their relative lack of experience compared to their rivals.
#63 Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C7.R: Jan Magnussen/Antonio Garcia/Jordan Taylor
The Corvette racing team return for yet another crack at the Le Mans 24 Hours, having shown great form in the American IMSA WeatherTech series. They have proven themselves against the best of the highly competitive IMSA GT class, and always challenge the best of the WEC GT classes when they meet at Le Mans.
This #63 car in particular has enjoyed a very strong start to the season, with full-season pairing Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia already winning twice including the Sebring 12 Hours. They lead the GTLM class and both drivers are clearly in excellent form this season. They are both very quick drivers who have plenty of experience with the Corvette racing team, and they always provide stern competition for their rivals.
This year the team are joined by Jordan Taylor, who so far has been in sparkling form in the IMSA series. Along with brother Ricky they have won the first five rounds of the IMSA series including landmark races such the Rolex 24 Hours and Sebring 12 Hours. He has plenty of experience with Corvette racing and won the GTE Pro class for Corvette in 2015.
#64 Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C7.R: Oliver Gavin/Tommy Milner/Marcel Fassler
The #64 entry from Corvette racing has so far not had as good a season as the sister #63 entry, but to discount a Corvette racing entry would be foolish considering their incredible record of success in this race. They have won their class eight times since the turn of the millennium,
Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner have formed a very strong partnership, having won this class twice since their partnership began in 2011. The duo are very strong and despite having a poor season by their standards they have still won an IMSA race this year, showing their strength. Joining them for Le Mans is Audi LMP1 refugee Marcel Fassler, who despite a long lay off is no stranger to the Corvette.
He last drove for the team in their GT1 spec Corvette in 2009, and will likely need little acclimatisation returning to the car. The team may not have the pre-race headlines as the media focus more on the Ferrari Vs Ford battle from last year, however this will suit the GM boys just fine. Corvette racing can never be discounted at Le Mans, despite having been slightly pegged back for race week in a balance of performance tweak.
#66 Ford Chip Ganassi UK Team UK Ford GT: Stefan Mucke/Olivier Pla/Billy Johnson
The first Ford GT entry numerically speaking is this #66 car, and so far this season it appears as if the Ford GT cars may struggle at Le Mans. The team stole the headlines last year with a debut class victory, despite it being achieved in controversial circumstances.
So far in the WEC this #66 car scored a class podium at the last race at Spa, however this team finished the Le Mans test day last week with the slowest time in class. Of course reading too much into test day times is unwise as teams will always want to not show their full pace until qualifying.
As for the drivers the team have retained the same line-up as last year, with Stefan Mucke, Olivier Pla and Billy Johnson. Both Mucke and Pla are seasoned sportscar racers who are well proven at this level. American Billy Johnson has adapted well after making a name for himself in American GT racing, and with this being their second year they should be hoping to improve upon their fourth place finish from last year. This of course is dependant on the team vastly improving upon their test day performance.
#67 Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK: Andy Priaulx/Harry Tincknell/Pipo Derani
Heading into Le Mans it’s clear based on form this #67 Ford GT is the best performing of the four Ford’s entered this year.
The team currently lead the WEC class points after winning the opening round at Silverstone, and they appear to be riding the crest of a wave right now. Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell are a formidable partnership, with both revelling in their second season with the GT programme. This should not be surprising for a duo who have been multiple WTCC champion in Priaulx and an established LMP2 Le Mans winner in Tincknell.
Completing the trio this year is another LMP2 standout in Brazilian Pipo Derani. He has had two races to get adjusted to the GT, ensuring by race week he should be fully up to speed with the GT. Based on pre-race form if any Ford is going to be challenging for the class victory once again this year, it should be this #67 entry, which would make up for the teams poor fortune in the race last year.
#68 Ford Chip Ganassi Team USA Ford GT: Joey Hand/Dirk Muller/Tony Kanaan
The #68 Ford has suffered some pre-race drama leading up to the race, as they team have had to find a late replacement for Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais.
Bourdais is out for the season with injuries suffered in qualifying for last months Indy 500, with the team choosing to bring in fellow Indycar racer Tony Kanaan. The Brazilian is not a complete novice having driven the car at this years Rolex 24, however this will be his debut at Le Mans and he did not drive at the test day as he was racing in Indycar at Detroit.
His lack of experience at Le Mans will be the big question mark for this entry, although with such a quick professional driver this shouldn’t take too long. The regular pairing are Joey Hand and Dirk Muller, both of whom have performed well this season in the IMSA WeatherTech series. They won the opening Rolex 24 this year and were the class winners at Le Mans last year.
With such an impressive role call of results over the past year it could be foolish to look past this team as contenders, however it appears that to win the race again this year will be a lot tougher. Along with this how long it takes for Kanaan to reach the ultimate pace will be a factor in how competitive they will be in GTE Pro.
#69 Ford Chip Ganassi Team USA: Ryan Briscoe/Richard Westbrook/Scott Dixon
The Ford quartet is completed with this #69 entry, the second of the teams IMSA entries. Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook are the full season pairing and currently sit fifth in the IMSA standings, and will be hoping they can improve upon this at Le Mans.
Both are very good drivers who can provide consistently fast stints, and both are also known for being very economical with their racing. This could prove crucial as Le Mans often comes down to fuel economy and to be able to save a pit-stop or consistently go a lap longer than your rivals is a massive advantage over 24 hours.
Lining up alongside the trio is another driver known for being excellent with saving fuel, Indycar legend Scott Dixon. Whilst he is still suffering some minor injuries from his massive Indycar crash, he has some experience of the car and will prove competitive despite his injuries. Whilst this entry may prove slightly overlooked by outsiders, if Ford can run competitively any one of their four entries can be running at the front in the race.
#71 AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE: Davide Rigon/Sam Bird/Miguel Molina
The #71 AF Corse Ferrari has enjoyed a very good start to the season, winning in the WEC last time out at Spa. They are only two points behind the leading #67 Ford, as they look to be in great contention for a class win this year.
Le Mans was not kind to them last year and this will be something they are looking to improve upon this time out. Both Sam Bird and Davide Rigon are now established Ferrari GT specialists who are combining very well this year. Stepping up to GTE Pro for Le Mans is Miguel Molina, a new Ferrari works driver for this year.
He has impressed this season with Spirit of Race in the GTE Am, and should prove fast with the step up to AF Corse. Becoming a Ferrari factory driver is a big achievement and shows the talent he has. Much like with Kanaan the only question mark is whether he can consistently run at the limit, which is needed to be competitive in this class. For Molina this should prove easier however as he has been racing a similar Ferrari all year.
#82 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE: Toni Vilander/Giancarlo Fisichella/Pierre Kaffer
Last year it was not the mighty AF Corse team which led the Ferrari charge to class victory, it was the smaller privately entered Risi Competizione team based in America.
Although the team ended up on the wrong side of the bitter GTE Pro battle last year, they return once again looking once again to lead the Ferrari charge. This will of course prove a lot harder this year with AF Corse unlikely to have another down year and the natural development that comes from the factory outfits. Risi is the only genuine privateer in this class, making their achievement last year all the more remarkable.
The team return with the 488 GTE and two thirds of the driver line-up, showing that for the team they are sticking with the same personnel and equipment that worked last year. Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander are very quick professional GT drivers for Ferrari and have had plenty of success at this level. The only variable they have changed is Pierre Kaffer, a proven sportscar driver who has some experience of Ferrari from competing with AF Corse in 2014.
#91 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR: Richard Lietz/Fred Makowiecki/Patrick Pilet
Despite having a highly successful LMP1 programme the Porsche brand are still taking their GT programme very seriously. They have followed Ford’s lead and gone with the mid-engine layout considered by some sacrilege given the 911’s iconic rear-engine history.
So far the car has proved reliable which is always the first goal with a new car. It’s shown flashes of promise but aside from a class podium at the opening WEC race it has not seriously challenged at the front end. Whilst this may be a concern the car was much closer to success at the Rolex 24 in America, with the car proving the class of the field in wet conditions. During the 24 hours if the conditions turn wet they could well come up trumps.
The trio of Richard Lietz, Fred Makowiecki and Patrick Pilet are all very quick pro’s who have a world of experience with Porsche. They are well versed with the fast and consistent pace needed to win in the WEC, and after a below par 2016 they will be looking to return to the front this year.
#92 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR: Michael Christensen/Kevin Estre/Dirk Werner
This #92 Porsche team have endured a difficult start to 2017, something they need to turn around at Le Mans with double points on offer.
With strong reliability from the new car and strong test day pace, perhaps the team have turned the corner in time for the biggest sportscar race of the year. Of course test day pace is hard to read too much into, but if it turns out to be representative they will definitely be up from during the race.
Kevin Estre, Michael Christensen and Dirk Werner are all Porsche factory drivers for a reason, they are seriously quick and very consistent over a stint. New signing Werner has a half year now to get fully acquainted with the 911 RSR, meaning the team will be at full strength going into the race.
#95 Aston Martin Racing Aston Martin Vantage: Nicki Thiim/Marco Sorensen/Richie Stanaway
Last years GTE Pro title winners have struggled so far, currently sitting joint sixth in the WEC standings. Much like the teams GTE Am entry they have endured bad luck at Le Mans in recent years, so this year the team need their bad luck to turn around more than ever.
The famous Dane train of Nicki Thiim and Marco Sorensen have proven themselves very quick at this level, you have to be to become class champions. Kiwi Richie Stanaway is the teams third driver, and has proven a quick convert to GT racing after a promising single seater career was derailed through the cliché lack of funding.
#97 Aston Martin Racing Aston Martin Vantage: Darren Turner/Jonny Adam/Daniel Serra
The #97 Aston Martin has suffered much like it’s sister entry this year, so will be looking for a similar upturn in form at Le Mans.
With an excellent and highly professional Aston Martin team running the two cars, the talent of the two trio of drivers will play a large factor in the team achieving a good result this year. Long time factory driver Darren Turner is a proven commodity at this level, evidenced by the fact he’s been an Aston Martin factory driver since the programme inception in 2005.
Jonny Adam has become a rising star of the Aston Martin programme in recent years and has quickly established himself as very quick in the Vantage. The third driver is Le Mans rookie Daniel Serra, who has previously been the Dunlop tyres test driver and a leading light in his native Brazil’s Stock Car series.
His inexperience at Le Mans may require some time to get over but with an abundance of track time across the week this shouldn’t be an issue. He has driven plenty of miles in the car developing the teams Dunlop tyres, but will he be able to produce consistently quick lap times in the race? This is the only question mark for the team but he is clearly a quick and experienced driver so it will be a surprise if he cannot provide the lap times quick enough to remain in contention.
This wraps up my previewing looking at the GTE Pro class. This year the level of completion has once again increased with every car in this class, such is the quality of the entries in this class. The fight for class victory will make this race a 24 hour sprint, which for the fans will provide plenty of exciting battles.
I would like to say a huge thank you to LAT Images for the incredible photos that grace this blog, and to Dailysportscar.com for providing research material for this article. A final thank you has to go to anyone reading this, I hugely appreciate it. Find me on Twitter on @brfcjordan95 and the next post previewing the LMP2 class will be posted soon!