Le Mans: GTE Key News and Notes

1 Comment

As the battle between the production titans raged on at the front of the field throughout the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the race to win the GTE Pro and GTE Am classes was also very hotly contested.

Ultimately, the win in GTE Pro went to Ferrari’s AF Corse team with the No. 51 car, piloted by Gianmaria Bruni, Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander. However, the two lap margin of victory was rather generous following a supreme fight through the night between the No. 51, the No. 97 Aston Martin Racing car, and the No. 74 Chevrolet Corvette, with just three seconds separating the top three at points.

The AF Corse team managed to stay out of trouble, though, and led home the No. 73 Chevrolet Corvette of Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Jordan Taylor. Last year’s class winner, the No. 92 Porsche Team Manthey car, completed the GTE Pro podium. Ferrari F1 driver and this year’s race starter Fernando Alonso took to Twitter to send his congratulations to the AF Corse drivers.

For Aston Martin, it was another difficult race at the Circuit de la Sarthe. The No. 97 was in the mix to claim class victory after Bruno Senna put in a superb overnight stint to lead ahead of Vilander and Tom Milner in the No. 74, with the latter eventually being classified in fourth place in class. Eventually, Aston Martin came unstuck again due to a loose steering pipe. Senna made his frustration clear on Twitter, but vowed to return in 2015 for a third shot at endurance glory.

In the GTE Am class, it was an emotional victory for the No. 95 Aston Martin Racing car. The all-Danish troupe of Kristian Poulsen, David Heinemeier-Hansson and Nicki Thiim dominated proceedings to win just a year after their teammate, Allan Simonsen, died on lap two of the race. A late technical scare on the car threatened to hand the win to Porsche, but the team soon fixed the issue and brought the car home.

Patrick Dempsey’s third attempt at Le Mans did not go entirely to plan. The Grey’s Anatomy star put in a solid performance behind the wheel, but after setting his sights on a podium finish in the GTE Am class, fifth place will have come as a bitter disappointment for his No. 77 Porsche team and co-pilots Joe Foster and Patrick Long.

On the same weekend as the World Cup began, a former winner was trying his hand in the most famous motor race. Fabien Barthez played an instrumental part in France’s victory at the 1998 tournament, playing in goal, but was forced to settle for ninth place on his debut at Le Mans in the No. 58 Team Sofrev car alongside Anthony Pons and Soheil Ayari.

An honorable mention has to go to the No. 79 Prospeed Competition car, which was fored to switch to GTE Pro at the last minute due to the withdrawal of its bronze-rated driver. Despite only having two drivers, the car ran well to finish fifth in class with Jeroen Bleekemolen and Cooper MacNeil sharing duties behind the wheel.

Backing up its class victory in GTE Pro, AF Corse secured a podium finish in GTE Am with the No. 61 car finishing third behind the No. 88 Proton Competition Porsche.

However, the early leader in the GTE Am class for AF Corse, the No. 81 car of Sam Bird, Stephen Wyatt and Michele Rugolo, got caught up in the incident between the No. 3 Audi and the No. 8 Toyota during the first rain shower on Saturday afternoon.

Just as it was a classic race at the front of the field in the LMP1 class, the GTEs certainly put on a show. The three GTE Pro cars dancing in the dark down the Mulsanne straight will remain as one of the greatest sights from this year’s race, and for the Danes in the No. 95 Aston Martin, this might just be the sweetest victory of all.

The FIA World Endurance Championship now begins its summer break, with the next round taking place at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin on the 20th September.

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

Follow @KyleMLavigne