24 Hours of Le Mans 2015: GTE-Pro Preview

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What GTE-Pro lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality: nine cars spread across four factory teams almost exclusively comprising works drivers. The GTE machines are so finely balanced that every single car is genuinely in with a shot at victory. Expect frantic wheel-to-wheel, door-banging action in the closest class at this year’s race.

AF Corse – Ferrari F458 Italia

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#51 – Gianmaria Bruni (ITA), Toni Vilander (FIN), Giancarlo Fisichella (ITA)
#71 – Davide Rigon (ITA), James Calado (GBR), Olivier Beretta (MCO)

The Ferrari F458 Italia is undoubtedly one of the most successful GT cars in the WEC over the past four years. Since its debut in 2011, it has won the GTE-Pro class – invariably in the hands of Bruni, Vilander and Fisichella – twice at La Sarthe and recorded countless other class victories in the WEC and elsewhere. AF Corse, almost a de facto Ferrari works team, won the first round of the season at Silverstone and would have triumphed at round two in Spa if it hadn’t been for a penalty after a pitstop infringement.

The #51 car, piloted by Bruni, Vilander and Fisichella, must be considered the favourites to take their third victory together at Le Mans (2012, 2014). The #71 is not short of class victories either, with Olivier Beretta having six to his name alone. The Monagasque driver is a proven race-winner and his experience will do younger drivers Rigon and Calado the world of good.

Corvette Racing – Chevrolet Corvette C7R

18444778292_8b190bd111_k#63 – Jan Magnussen (DNK), Antonio García (ESP), Ryan Briscoe (AUS)
#64 – Oliver Gavin (GBR), Tommy Milner (USA), Jordan Taylor (USA)

Corvette Racing are back at Le Mans with their new-for-2014 C7R and are hungry for a first win at the Circuit de la Sarthe since 2011. The Corvette squad compete in the Tudor United Sportscar Championship for the rest of the year, so it will be interesting to see how 5.5 litres of American muscle will measure up against the best Europe has to offer. With no championship points up for grabs, Corvette will be going all-out for the win.

The #63 car won the season-opening 24 Hours of Daytona in January and the 12 Hours of Sebring in March so is in fine form going into this weekend’s race. Magnussen and García have seven Le Mans class wins between them. In the #64 car, Jordan Taylor jumps over from the Wayne Taylor Racing Dallara Corvette DP, in which he has also won in this season’s Tudor United Sportscar Championship (at Long Beach).

Porsche Team Manthey – Porsche 911 RSR

18454002245_92809434d1_k#91 – Richard Lietz (AUT), Michael Christensen (DNK), Jörg Bergmeister (DEU)
#92 – Patrick Pilet (FRA), Frédéric Makowiecki (FRA), Wolf Henzler (DEU)

The Porsche GT programme may have suffered somewhat over the past year and a half with the focus on Porsche’s much-vaunted return to prototype racing. The 911 RSR began life with a bang, taking a one-two at the 2013 24 Hours of Le Mans and winning at Daytona, Sebring and Petit Le Mans in the inaugural Tudor United Sportscar Championship. It failed to truly realise its potential in the FIA WEC last season, and so Porsche will be looking to up their game for the big one.

Porsche will still field an almost all-star cast of works drivers, with rookie Michael Christensen joining the #91 car to fill LMP1-bound Nick Tandy’s boots. Jörg Bergmeister and Richard Lietz complete a formiddable  team. In Patrick Pilet and Fred Makowiecki, the #92 contains two of the fastest GT drivers in the world today, but neither have enjoyed class success at Le Mans. German Wolf Henzler, the only driver in the #92 trio to have won in class at La Sarthe, switches to the Porsche factory GT team from the Falken Tire Porsche Team.

Aston Martin Racing – Aston Martin Vantage V8

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#95 – Marco Sørensen (DNK), Christoffer Nygaard (DNK), Nicki Thiim (DNK)
#97 – Darren Turner (GBR), Stefan Mücke (DEU), Rob Bell (GBR)
#99 – Fernando Rees (BRA), Alex MacDowall (GBR), Richie Stanaway (NZL)

Aston Martin Racing arrive at La Sarthe with perhaps their strongest chance at GTE-Pro class victory in recent years. Last year’s two-car effort has been bumped up to three, with the all-Danish #95 crew making a well-earned step up to the Pro class after dominating GTE-Am. The V8 Vantage GTE is a tried-and-tested race winner and performed impressively at last weekend’s Test Day, topping the time sheets in the afternoon session. After an almost endless series of bad luck at Le Mans, no one would begrudge an Aston Martin victory – and it’s certainly all to play for in GTE-Pro.

In terms of driver talent, Lotus test driver Marco Sørensen has joined Nygaard and Thiim in the Danish AMR, while Rob Bell is loaned once again from McLaren for Le Mans to partner Darren Turner and Stefan Mücke in the #97 car. Fernando Rees, Alex MacDowall and Richie Stanaway will be high on confidence in the #99 machine after their victory at Spa-Francorchamps. Stanaway is also fresh off a victory at the GP2 sprint race at Monte Carlo.

Images: WEC-Magazin (Walter Schruff)