Le Mans: GTE stunners and spoilers

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Some classes are more wide open than others in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans field. Here’s a look at likely contenders for the GTE-Pro and the GTE-Am class victories:

FULL ENTRY LIST

GTE-Pro: Porsche and Ferrari have the slightest of edges over Aston Martin, with Corvette lurking with its new C7.R.

  • AF Corse Ferrari: The No. 51 (Gianmaria Bruni/Toni Vilander/Giancarlo Fisichella) edges the No. 71 (Davide Rigon/James Calado/Olivier Beretta) on pace and experience, and overall in GTE-Pro, it’s hard to find a better driver lineup than the No. 51. But will the F458 Italia have the outright pace?
  • Porsche Team Manthey: Both the No. 91 and 92 lineups are stacked, as are the 991-spec 911s. Frederic Makowiecki has the ability for a star turn in the No. 92 after departing from Aston Martin, and co-driver Marco Holzer is another one to watch. The No. 91 features the more veteran trio of Patrick Pilet, Jorg Bergmeister and Nick Tandy, although Tandy’s in only his second Le Mans, and first in a factory seat.
  • Aston Martin Racing No. 97: Just the Darren Turner/Stefan Mucke/Bruno Senna car has a shot this race, and a win would make three different manufacturers on top in GTE-Pro in as many FIA World Endurance Championship races this year (Porsche and Ferrari have split the first two).
  • Corvette Racing: Either of the two new C7.Rs seek a bounce back from a miserable 2013. Staying out of the garage remains key as ever and the Corvette contingent isn’t exactly sure where it stacks up on straight line speed. But the veteran savvy and winning legacy of the team endures, and will no doubt keep at least one of the two cars in contention until the morning.

Ram Racing’s No. 52, in the team’s Le Mans debut and the Craft-Bamboo No. 99 AMR entry are seriously unlikely to fit into the equation.

GTE-Am: Like LMP2, hard to project an exact winner, but a Ferrari’s a good bet with 11 of the 19 cars entered in class.

  • Ram Racing No. 53: As solid a lineup as can be assembled within the GTE-Am regulations. Johnny Mowlem, Mark Patterson and Archie Hamilton are a podium-contending trio.
  • Krohn Racing: A bit of a Jekyll and Hyde at Le Mans in terms of performance and reliability; Krohn was the last and latest entry into this year’s field but could well finish strongly if they stay out of trouble.
  • AF Corse No. 61, 81: The two WEC-entered AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italias have better lineups than the primarily gentlemen No. 60 and 62 cars. The No. 81 includes rising star Sam Bird and must be watched closely.
  • JMW Motorsport: The mix of the JMW squad with Flying Lizard elements (Thomas Blam and Eric Ingraham for strategy plus Spencer Pumpelly and Seth Neiman driving) is a good one. Podium’s very much possible for the No. 66, ironically, Pumpelly’s old number at TRG back in the day.
  • Prospeed Competition: Both the No. 75 and 79 are the 2012-spec 997-based 911 GT3 RSR, which is one of the most proven GTE cars at Le Mans. Markus Palttala is the driver to watch in the No. 75; the No. 79 features Jeroen Bleekemolen.
  • Dempsey Racing/Proton Competition: Both the No. 77 and 88 are the newer 2013-spec 991-based 911s, and either’s a podium contender. Dempsey Racing is particularly motivated to podium, if not win, after just missing out in 2013.
  • 8Star Motorsports: Decent lineup of Frankie Montecalvo, Gianluca Roda and Paolo Ruberti could be a podium contender.
  • Aston Martin Racing: A win for the No. 95, the all-Danish crew of Kristian Poulsen, David Heinemeier Hansson and Nicki Thiim is the emotional favorite a year after Allen Simonsen lost his life in that car. The sister No. 98 of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Christoffer Nygaard is also as strong a lineup as can occur within the class.

Of the rest, I’m not expecting too much from Team Sofrev ASP, both older Imsa Performance Matmut cars and the Team Taisan and SMP Ferraris. Yes, the No. 76 Imsa car won last year in GTE-Am, but much for 2014 will be determined on how well Nicolas Armindo can bring along the other two in that car.

NHRA: Antron Brown on verge of earning 50th career Top Fuel win this weekend at Phoenix

Photo courtesy Toyota Racing
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When you’re used to winning championships – like three in the previous five seasons – any other season finish is disappointing.

That’s kind of how NHRA Top Fuel dragster driver Antron Brown looked at his fourth-place showing in the 2017 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

“At the end of the day, we had a very competitive season last year and made it to 10 final rounds,” Brown said. “But we got into the Countdown (NHRA’s six-race playoffs) and our timing was off.

“We struggled with a lot of problems we don’t usually have. Now it’s time for a new chapter for this team and time to get better. This is a new beginning for us and it’s going to be fun and exciting and we’re coming after them.”

Antron Brown hugs the NHRA Top Fuel championship trophy after winning it in 2016. (Photo by David Allio/Icon Sportswire)

Brown had a good start to 2018, reaching the semifinals before losing to Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tony Schumacher in the season-opening Lucas Oil Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.

“We had a great performance at Pomona and I couldn’t be more proud of what our Matco/Toyota guys did,” Brown said. “Now we are going to Phoenix where we’ve won three times (2009, 2012 and 2014, and was runner-up in 2011) and we’ll just try to hit it hard and get a fourth.”

Next up on the NHRA 24-race national event circuit is the second race of the season, this weekend’s NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in suburban Phoenix (Chandler, Arizona).

Brown has definite plans to make it four wins in Phoenix. And if he does that Sunday, he’ll set a significant career milestone: it would be his 50th career win driving a Top Fueler and the 66th win overall (he won 16 races in Pro Stock Motorcycle before shifting from two to four wheels).

In so doing, Brown would become only the fourth Top Fuel driver in NHRA history to hit the 50-win mark. The others are Tony Schumacher (83), Larry Dixon (62) and Joe Amato (52).

This will be the second time Brown has been racing in Phoenix this month. He was part of the preseason test there for Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock cars a week before the season began.

“Testing went really well there,” said Brown, leaving him optimistic that he can reach victory circle once again. “I love going back to Phoenix.”

Brown has been the most dominant driver in NHRA Top Fuel competition since 2012, winning more than twice the number of races (34) than the next most successful Top Fuel driver (16 by Schumacher) in that time period.

He also has a 71 percent overall win percentage, which exceeds both eight-time Top Fuel champ Schumacher and 16-time Funny Car champ John Force.

“I’m just pumped up, feeling like we’ve got some unfinished business from last year,” Brown said. “We had a good outing but didn’t close the deal, so this year, we’re looking forward to getting back there and getting off to a great start.”

NOTES: Brown will serve as honorary pace car driver for the March 4th Pennzoil 400 NASCAR Cup race at Las Vegas. He’ll be joined by teammates Matt Hagan and Leah Pritchett in a weekend full of activities that they’ll all be involved in.

“I’m really excited,” Brown said. “It’s going to be my first experience as a pace car driver, and I’m just super stoked to go out there and drive the Camry pace car for Pennzoil and start those NASCAR boys off the right way. Throttle down, pedal to the metal. I just want them to get off to a great start.”

Brown has won four times at The Strip, the drag strip adjacent to Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“I couldn’t be more excited to have the opportunity,” he said. “It’s an honor to be out there with such talented drivers, and I know I’m going to really enjoy watching our NASCAR counterparts.”

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