L&T Motorsport

2017 Le Mans Preview: GTE Am

Le Mans may still be a week away but the anticipation and build up for the premier event of the sportscar racing calendar is well underway. Currently, the World Endurance Championship is producing countless exciting races, albeit races that are sometimes embroiled in controversy.

But the great perk of GTE Am is the fact it is what it says on the tin – an amateur, or at least pro-am. Consequently it is devoid of all the controversy in GTE Pro created by the fact all the GTE Pro teams are effectively run by global corporations (ie car manufacturers), which sometimes ruins a class that always produces thrilling racing.

GTE Am, inevitably, isn’t quite packed with the driving talent found in the Pro category. However, the 16 cars that will fight for Pro-Am honours are varied in their make and teams have tried hard to get the quickest combination of drivers available within the regulations. It seems there is a chance every car in the field could have more than just a nominal involvement in the racing for the twice around the clock race.

To find out the favourites for victory, read on, and watch out for previews of all four classes in the coming days!

Aston Martin

Three GTE Am entries have decided to utilise the Aston Martin this year, but the good news for the British marque is that 100% of those entries could compete form the win come race day! The car is a proven package, of course winning last years Pro class.

#90 | TF Sport | Euan Hankey (Sil), Salih Yoluc (Bro), Rob Bell (Pla)

TF Sport arrive at Le Mans in brilliant form with a driver line-up containing a rather rapid bronze driver and last years GTE Am polesetter. TF Sport lead the Euoropean Le Mans series after two rounds with this exact car and last year Hankey and Yoluc shocked everyone by being a frontrunner in a GT Open grid where they were expected to languish at the back of the field. At the test day though they did lose track time due to a broken water pump belt.

Yoluc is what really makes this car such a favourite for the race. when conditions are ideal his pace and confidence  is astonishing for a driver of his experience. Of course, he is still a bronze driver, so don’t expect him to charge down any pro drivers or set any lap records. However, every team must have their am driver in the car for at least six hours and those six hours should be very quick for TF Sport. The only problem is if anything goes wrong, or the id the weather intervenes, the Turk turns back into a ‘normal’ am driver.

Mclaren factory driver Rob Bell needs no introduction. The Yorkshireman is brimming with experience and speed, so expect him to keep up with the pro class when he’s driving the car. Hankey is no better than any other Silver driver in terms of pure driving ability. However, give him an enormous amount of credit for just how well he appears to have mentored Yoluc in the last few years.

Photo courtesy of TF Sport

#98 | Aston Martin Racing | Paul Dalla Lana (Bro), Mathias Lauda (Sil), Pedro Lamy (Pla)

I suppose if Rob Bell needs no introduction then I should write -250 words about this car! The trio are Le Mans stalwarts and it is rather helpful that this car is run by Aston Martin themselves. All three drivers primarily have experience on their side, so expect consistency.

The cumulative effect of that, the fact this car set the fastest time at test day, and the fact that this car leads the World Endurance Championship means the #98 will be a benchmark car, and of course a favourite for the win. I was only half joking when I said I wouldn’t need to write very much.

#99 | Beechdean AMR | Aston Martin Vantage | Ross Gunn (Sil), Andrew Howard (Bro), Oliver Bryant (Sil)

Andrew Howard’s Beechdean team finished seventh last year at Le Mans and will hope to improve this time. The problem for them is that they don’t have an ultra-rapid, ultra-experienced pro driver. All the work normally given to a pro driver will instead be given to 30 year old Ross Gunn. mind you, that may not necessarily be a bad thing, as there is only one way Gunn won’t be an Aston Martin Factory driver in a couple of years; becoming a factory driver for another marque.

Bryant and Howard are both experienced albeit unspectacular, and they will simply aim to consolidate whatever Gunn can do against the Pro drivers. Bryant in particular has a knack for being mechanically sympathetic while keeping a decent pace, so if GTE Am becomes a race of attrition this car could find itself fighting for the win.

Corvette

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#50 | Larbre Competition | Fernando Rees (Gol), Romain Brandela (Bro), Christian Philippon (Bro)

There is a lot to like about the only Corvette in the GTE Am field. It dons an art car livery, and ultimately, the fact it is unique (and loud, of course) will always attract fans. But considering the fact that this car will be in the hands of a Bronze driver for at least half the race it would seem the fans in the west of France shouldn’t get their hopes up for this car to be a frontrunner.

However, nothing is that simple. Of course first it is worth mentioning that as far as Pro drivers go, Fernando Rees is pretty good. The Brazillian gained a reputation as a quick, reliable driver while driving for Larbre in 2011 and 2012. After a relatively successful time as an AMR driver he returns to Larbre. Phillipon and Brandela have both had times when they have raced pros, and it would not be unfair to rank either of the Frenchmen as silvers. The Corvette is a great car as well. Watch out for this car, it may not just be a visual spectacle.

 Porsche

Porsche Bring four very strong entries to Le Mans, three of which are run by Proton Racing. however, The 2015-spec 911 isn’t quite as quick as the other cars.

Image may contain: car and outdoor

Picture courtesy of Proton Racing

#77 | Dempsey Proton Racing | Christian Ried (Bro), Matteo Cairoli (Gol), Marvin Dienst (Sil)

This car is one of the most watchable GTE Am cars. Why? In short, young Talent. Marvin Dienst was the 2015 German Formula 4 champion, and he has impressed in his switch to GT racing. mind you, he has been completely upstaged by Cairoli. The 20 year old Italian is a Porsche Junior, and has impressed every time he’s raced this season. There was his excellent pace in Dubai, his impressive qualifying lap at Daytona and now consistently being rapid in the WEC. Just like Gunn, the only way Cairoli will not become a Porsche factory driver is if he becomes a factory driver for someone else instead.

The problem is the 2015-spec 911 just is not a very quick car. So the trio will hope to capitalise on mistakes from other teams instead. The other factor that could throw this car into contention is weather. If the rain comes down the Porsche suddenly transforms into the fastest GTE car there is, due to the stupendous amount of traction gained from the rear wheels being pushed onto the track by the engine. It helps that the Am driver Christian Reid possesses vast swathes of experience. The more chaotic this race becomes, the more likely it is that this car will compete at the front.

#86 | Gulf Racing | Ben Barker (Gol), Mike Wainwright (Bro), Nick Foster (Sil)

Gulf Racing have had a poor start to their WEC campaign, mostly down to their ageing Porsche. Miked Wainwright isn’t the most competent of Am drivers, but he is getting more consistent thanks to more experience every time he takes to the track. How well Gulf does depends a lot on Ben Barker. He will have to be very proactive in training Wainwright and rookie Foster in tackling Le Sarthe, while finding a perfect setup and qualifying the car, oh and of course he will probably drive a good 10 hours of the race. Who said being a racing driver was easy?

The problem is this car has very few perks over other cars when it comes to pace. The #86 car will just have to sty in the mix until the morning and hope they come off best from a racer of attrition if they want a good result.

#88 | Proton Competition | Klaus Bachler (Gol), Stephane Lemeret (Sil), Khaled Al Qubaisi (Bro)

It’s the same old story for this car, with a lack of pace produced by the car itself. However, Al Quabisi was in the form of his life last year, Lemeret is still fresh from his Asian Le Mans victory, and Klaus Bachler is a Porsche specialist – a very quick one as well! This is probably the fastest of the quartet of Porsches when it comes to raw pace.  If there is a dry race, then this car could be a beneficiary.

#93 | Proton Competition | Pat Long (Pla), Abdelaziz Turki Al Faisal (Sil), Mike Hedlund (Bro)

This car has a very interesting line-up. Long is a very quick driver who knows Porsches inside out. He makes his 14th Le Mans start, so he has no lack of experience. Al Faisal has no lack of experience either, as the Saudi Arabian makes his 6th start. He is not quite the world class driver Long is, but he is fast and consistent nonetheless. Mike Hedlund is quick for an amateur and considering his experience the American has as much experience as he has enthusiasm for taking part in his first ever race at Le Mans. He knows the circuit due to taking part in the Roadto Le Mans last year.

Ultimately the main aim for this car will simply be to remain pointing in the correct direction for most of the race, then making a break whenever Long gets on board. If they play their cards right they should be able to get a good result.

Ferrari

Eight Ferraris head to the west of France, with a quick car and a good chance of any one of them winning.

Picture courtesy of Dailysportscar

#54 | Spirit of Race | Thomas Flohr (Bro), Francesco Castellacci (Sil), Olivier Beretta (Pla)

This car, run by AF Corse/Spirit of Race, has at points been exceptionally rapid during the WEC season. Sadly for them this has for the most part been at points when Miguel Molina is at the wheel of the car. The problem is the Spaniard has impressed so mightily he’s been called up to GTE Pro for Le Mans. Luckily for them he’s replaced by stalwart Olivier Beretta, who knows Ferraris inside out and has five class wins and another six podiums at Le Mans.

Castellacci will have his work cut out with more than just actually driving the car. Thomas Flohr is not a particularly experienced Am driver, and although he is constantly improving, he will need a lot of coaching to get up to speed. This is what Castellacci will have to do. However, if Flohr does take to Le Mans and a good result isn’t out of the question.

#55 | Spirit of Race | Duncan Cameron (Bro), Aaron Scott (Sil), Marco Cioci (Gol)

This team has not had the greatest of starts to their season in ELMS, and they will be without Matt Griffin. In comes Cioci instead, a fiery, feisty and downright rapid Italian who is also a Ferrari specialist. Aaron Scott is a quick driver as well, and if anything he has impressed more than his illustrious Griffin.

Duncan Cameron is a confident, talented Am driver who is now approaching ten years of retirement from actual work and just being a racing driver instead. He actually possesses the most Le Mans experience of the trio as well. This car is doubtlessly a potential winner.

#61 | Clearwater Racing | Weng Sun Mok (Bro), Keita Sawa (Sil), Matt Griffin (Gol)

Based on previous experience this car has to one of the favourites. Last year the car had a remarkable debut, taking pole position in the hands of Rob Bell. Clearwater subsequently decided to enter this car for the whole season. They went on to win, albeit rather fortuitously, their debut at Silverstone.

Griffin is always a pleasure to watch. He just pushes as hard as he possibly can, relentlessly setting quick laps. He will be a real asset if Clearwater want to win this race. Keita Sawa is a less known silver driver, but having watched him in GT Asia he is very competent. Mok Weng Sun doesn’t lack in experience, so expect him to be quick and reliable.

All these factors combine to make a car that has a very good chance indeed of success.

#62 | Scuderia Corsa | Cooper MacNeil (Sil), Bill Sweedler (Bro), Townsend Bell (Gol)

The reigning Le Mans winners return to the twice around the clock race with a good chance of victory, after setting an impressive time during test day. There is not much that needs to be said about this car. Bill Sweedler is one of the best, most experienced am drivers in GTE Am which is always a real asset. Cooper Macneil is a very capable Silver driver. He finished in the top five in 2014 in GTE Am so he should have experience as well.

The problem with MacNeil is he has a tendency to be quite hot headed and he does have his off days sometimes. If that is the case then it will become more difficult for this car to succeed. Bell, on the other hand, is level headed and always unspectacular, so he can be expected to deliver.

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Picture courtesy of Clearwater Racing

#65 | Scuderia Corsa | Christina Nielsen (Sil), Alessandro Balzan (Gol), Bret Curtis (Bro)

The ‘other’ Scuderia Corsa car is just as strong. Balzan and Nielsen are IMSA GTD champions, and they have always worked very well together. The pair have experience, consistency and pace. They will be joined by Bret Curtis who doesn’t have the happiest of experiences from Le Mans. He crashed his car in 2014 leading to a on-start, although he did get a full run in back in 2012.

The car didn’t exactly light up the time sheets at the Le Mans test day, but this car should be reliable and dependable, particularly if the GTE Am race does turn into a race of attrition.

#83 | DH Racing | Tracy Krohn (Bro), Nicolas Jonsson (Sil), Andrea Bertolini (Pla)

Krohn and Jonsson make their 12th consecutive Le Mans start together. This is their first appearance in GTE Am in a while though, with them racing in LMP2 for the last two years. The problem they will have is they simply lack any GTE Pro experience, so they may struggle to get up to speed.

This won’t be the case for Bertolini, who is always quick, but he might sacrifice some driving time so Krohn and Jonsson can gain experience. Jonsson should not be underestimated. He is a fast and reliable driver, and Krohn is not bad for an Am either.

#84 | JMW Motorsport | Rob Smith (Bro), Will Stevens (Pla), Dries Vanthoor (Sil)

This is one of the most likeable teams on the grid. They retired their Ferrari 458 by winning in ELMS and they now return to Le Mans for the first time since 2015. The great news for them is that this team seem to be in very good form.

Rob Smith is one of the main reasons for this, as he is quick and consistent for an am driver. He is a massively enthusiastic driver and is doubtlessly looking forward to Le Mans. Stevens hasn’t really taken all that well to GT cars, but he seems convinced it is where his future lies. Vanthoor is a future start, and this is his first Le Mans appearance. It will be interesting to see how he copes.

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