Star-studded driver line-ups and works racing teams have become customary in the World Endurance Championship’s GTE Pro class, and 2014 was certainly no different. What the class lacks in diversity, it more than makes up for in talent. Once again, Porsche Team Manthey were on the entry list with two full works 911 RSRs piloted by all-works driver teams, while Aston Martin Racing were back with two V8 Vantages. Reigning champions AF Corse, a factory Ferrari team all but in name, also returned to defend their title with two full-season 458 Italias.
The driver entry list was certainly worth of a world championship, with Porsche enlisting support from experienced ALMS drivers Nick Tandy and Patrick Pilet to compensate for the loss of the likes of Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb to the LMP1 programme. Porsche also succeeded in pinching perhaps GT racing’s hottest property at the moment, Fred Makowiecki, much to the chagrin of the Aston Martin Racing squad where the Frenchman had raced in 2013. The loss of Fred Mako will have hurt at AMR, but with Darren Turner, Stefan Mücke, Alex MacDowall and Fernando Rees, they still had a wealth of talent on which to draw – particularly in the Turner/Mücke #97 car.
AF Corse reshuffled its driver line-up somewhat, with Kamui Kobayashi returning to F1 and Giancarlo Fisichelli only enlisted for the Le Mans 24 Hours. Gianmaria Bruni would line up to defend his drivers’ title in the #51 car alongside Toni Vilander, while Davide Rigon – promoted from AF Corse’s GTE Am squad – partnered former GP2 star James Calado in the sister #71 entry. Another Ferrari squad took the grid at the first round in Silverstone in the form of British team, and reigning ELMS GTE champions Ram Racing. Unfortunately, the privateer entry piloted by Matt Griffin and Alvaro Parente would be short-lived, with budget issues seeing the team wind up the shutters after Le Mans.
For most of the season, it appeared as if the Ferrari 458s had the edge on overall pace, but a much improved performance by the Porsche Team Manthey squad after 2013 pushed the Italians very close indeed. A late pit call at the rain-disrupted Silverstone race in April cost Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander a certain podium, but they more than made up for it with victories at Spa and then at an astonishingly closely fought 24 Hours of Le Mans. Porsche had continued their form from late on in the 2013 season and took victory at the first round at Silverstone, but were unable to repeat their 2013 success at La Sarthe (a one-two finish).
Le Mans delivered perhaps one of the most memorable GT battles of the past decade, with the lead changing hands on multiple occasions over the course of the stints. At the half-way stage, the top three were covered by just twelve seconds – a testament to the closeness of the racing throughout the 24 hours. Aston Martin Racing had put a difficult start to the season behind them, and were given performance breaks in the run-up to Le Mans to level out the playing field. In fact, Darren Turner, Stefan Mücke and Bruno Senna looked set to contest the class victory, only for a problem with the front steering rack to put paid to their chances. It was the #51 AF Corse piloted by Bruni, Vilander and Fisichella that would eventually prevail at Le Mans.
Victories at the Circuit of the Americas and Sao Paulo in the autumn will have come as some comfort to Aston Martin Racing, but that long-desired GT manufacturers championship remains elusive. The double points awarded to the #51 AF Corse Ferrari put that entry in a commanding position in the manufacturers’, teams’ and drivers’ titles, but a second victory of the season for the #92 Porsche at round six in Shanghai put Patrick Pilet and Fred Makowiecki, as well as the Porsche Team Manthey squad, just about within reach of Bruni and Vilander.
A nail-biting victory for the #51 car in the Bahraini desert – just 1.5 seconds ahead of a hard-charging Turner-driven Aston Martin at the flag – gave Ferrari and AF Corse a richly deserved third successive victory in the GTE manufacturers’ and teams’ titles and Bruni’s second world drivers’ title in a row. With the #51 Ferrari the class of the field in 2014, the title haul was no less than AF Corse deserved. A brief look at the drivers’ championship table, however, shows how invaluable the experience of Bruni and Vilander really was, with the #51 crew finishing 72 points ahead of the sister entry.
Porsche and Aston Martin will have to step up their efforts in 2015 if they are to knock AF Corse off their perch. But with rumours circling of a return of Ford to GTE racing in a GT40 derivative in 2016, half a century after their last victory at La Sarthe, and rumours circling of potential programmes from other manufacturers, 2015 may be their last chance of a clear shot.
Image Source: Walter Schruff