The GTE-Pro field in 2017 is hard to project. Photo: Getty Images

Le Mans 24: 2017 GTE-Pro Preview

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If 2016’s GTE-Pro race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans centered on throwing back to the past with the victorious return of Ford, then 2017 is about pointing to the exciting future that is held for the class.

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Ford and Ferrari’s famous rivalry will once again play out at the Circuit de la Sarthe, but with Porsche reviving its factory GT effort for 2017 with its new mid-engined 911 RSR, plus the ever-present threats of Corvette and Aston Martin, it will by no means be a two-horse race – at least that’s the hope!

The class is stronger for Porsche’s fully-fledged return, and with BMW also set to join the fray from 2018, GTE-Pro continues to cement itself as one of the most competitive, challenging and interesting categories in global motorsport. The future is looking exceedingly bright.

It’s been a split start to the year in the FIA World Endurance Championship season. Ford took Silverstone off the bat, while Ferrari’s AF Corse squad enters Le Mans on the heels of its Spa win, the traditional Le Mans dress rehearsal. Thus far Porsche and Aston Martin have looked marginally behind.

Of course, things could yet shake up at Le Mans thanks to our old friend Balance of Performance. While efforts are set to be made to avoid the mis-step in 2016 that played to Ford’s advantage, it is likely to remain the big concern and talking point for the GTE-Pro field ahead of race day.

WEC: FORD, FERRARI SET TO CONTINUE FIGHT

Mueller, Bourdais and Hand took the 2016 win for Ford. Photo: Ford Performance

50 years on from its first victory, Ford’s successful return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2016 did much to stoke the fire within the GTE-Pro class against perennial rival Ferrari, who runs its AF Corse squad. All of the European full-season WEC runners will return for Le Mans, with Ford looking to bounce back from a winless start to the year. The same ringers from 2016 will be piloting the UK-run cars, with the exception of Pipo Derani, one of sports car racing’s brightest young talents, who is in the No. 67 Ford GT, and set for his final start with the team unless plans change.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 14: The AF Corse Ferrari of James Calado and Alessandro Pier Guidi drives during practice for the FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone on April 14, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

AF Corse looked very strong at Spa as its No. 51 and No. 71 Ferrari 488 GTEs ran pretty much nose-to-tail for the majority of the six hours.The No. 51 car’s revised lineup of Alessandro Pier Guidi and James Calado has usual Audi man Lucas di Grassi in as third driver; it’s an intriguing one that sees three good pieces on paper but hasn’t yet produced a collective Le Mans win yet. In the No. 71, it’s Sam Bird and Davide Rigon that picked up the Spa win, and will be joined by Miguel Molina here in his one-race step up from an AF-run Spirit of Race badged GTE-Am entry. However, Bird isn’t getting carried away, telling me last month that he wanted to wait and see just how competitive Ferrari was once Ford and Porsche had “thrown all the sand out”. More on BoP later.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 14: The Porsche GT Team 911 RSR of Richard Lietz and Fred Makowiecki drives during practice for the FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone on April 14, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

Of the other WEC runners at Le Mans, Porsche will be hoping to rekindle some of its old spark as the mid-engined 911 RSR hits the grid at the Circuit de la Sarthe for the very first time. Some of its drivers needs to step up and seize their opportunity. Remember Gianmaria Bruni will come on board for Porsche’s IMSA program from Watkins Glen later this month, his contract not allowing him to start until after Le Mans. Invariably that will force one of Porsche’s existing GTE drivers onto another project down the road, Estre already having been moved to WEC from IMSA.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 14: The Aston Martin Racing car of Nicki Thiim, Marco Sorensen and Richie Stanaway drives during practice for the FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone on April 14, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

Aston Martin Racing also comes into the race feeling quietly confident, even if its start to the season has been somewhat underwhelming with runs to sixth, seventh (twice) and eighth between its two cars. Experience will play a role here; Darren Turner is always a good bet to star at some point during the Le Mans week.

IMSA: CORVETTE, RISI COMPETIZIONE IN THE MIX?

Corvette and the U.S. Fords look to beat the WEC regulars. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Joining its pair of full-season WEC entries at Le Mans, Ford Chip Ganassi Racing will once again be fielding its two cars from the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, No. 68 and No. 69. IndyCar star Scott Dixon is fighting fit for the race despite his scary Indianapolis 500 crash occurring just over two weeks ago, while Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Tony Kanaan will be making his Le Mans debut in place of the injured Sebastien Bourdais.

Ford won’t be the sole IMSA representative in GTE-Pro, though. Corvette Racing once again boasts a strong two-car effort, now with some added Le Mans experience and prestige in the form of Marcel Fassler. He will join Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner in the No. 64 Corvette C7.R, while Jordan Taylor has moved into the No. 63 with Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia.

Risi’s No. 82 Ferrari 488 GTE takes checkered flag in 2016. Photo: Risi Competizione

Risi Competizione also joins the overall Ferrari effort at Le Mans with its No. 82 488 GTE that is looking to bounce back from retirements in both Long Beach and Austin. Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander will be joined by new arrival and past Risi Le Mans winner Pierre Kaffer for 2017, the aim being to go one better than 2016’s second-place finish in class.

WILL BALANCE OF PERFORMANCE REAR ITS HEAD AGAIN?

The changes made to BoP on the eve of last year’s race left a sour taste in the mouths of many following the GTE-Pro class, appearing to give Ford a boost that it didn’t really appear to need.

In a bid to avoid a repeat of the controversy at WEC races 2017, the FIA and ACO announced earlier that BoP would be worked out using an automated, mathematical system from the Nürburgring onwards. For Le Mans, though, it remains open to human error, and decisions can still be made all the way up to the eve of the race.

The first tweak to be made came following the Le Mans test, with Corvette being pegged back after posting the fastest time of the Le Mans test. The likes of Ferrari and Ford remain untouched for now, though.

While further edits to BoP are set to follow through the week, one would imagine it unlikely to follow the same controversial route it did last year. Hopefully the FIA and the ACO will have learned from the fall-out and strike a good balance to ensure we have a fair, open fight in GTE-Pro.

PREDICTION: LIKE BOP, A HARD ONE TO PEG

While the drivers in GTE-Pro are anticipating an open fight between all of the manufacturers, for me, it boils down to three real contenders: Ford, Ferrari and Corvette. Porsche and Aston Martin feel the “surprise” picks if you like (more here from Mobil 1 The Grid on both LMP1 and GTE-Pro classes).

All three have been impressive in the early part of the year on either side of the Atlantic, and trying to pick between them is tough. AF Corse’s display at the Spa WEC round was particularly impressive, showing relentless pace and reliability for six straight hours.

So really, it may come down to how BoP plays out, the answer to which we may not get until qualifying when the pecking order really comes to the fore.

But to pick one car: I will say the No. 69 Ford GT with Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook and Scott Dixon. Ford looked good at Daytona, and it is a very balanced line-up. For Dixon, it would be a Le Mans victory at the second attempt, only adding to the accolades and success he has known through his illustrious career.

Andretti Autosport endures tough Road America outing

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All four of the Andretti Autosport drivers encountered significant problems during the Kohler Grand Prix, and none of them were able to salvage finishes inside the top ten as a result.

Most notably, Takuma Sato endured the most difficult weekend of the four-car armada after suffering a pinched nerve in his neck on Saturday, which forced him to miss the morning warmup.

And things didn’t get any better during the race, as a lap 28 spin exiting the Kink saw him lose a lap and forced him to play catchup even more than he already was. Although Sato managed to finish the race, hardly insignificant given his neck injury, he did so in 19th after starting 20th in what proved to be his worst race since winning the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

“It was a tough weekend and tough race,” lamented Sato. “I injured my neck during practice Saturday morning. We started in the back row, tried to make a push up, but I caught an accident. The engine was stalled and I wasn’t sure if we could continue, but the safety crew came and fired up the engine, so I came back to the pit, buckled again and I was able to keep going. In the end we made the finish, but we need a better weekend.”

His teammates did not fair much better. Alexander Rossi, who qualified a disappointing 15th, ran a four-stop pit strategy, and while he cycled into the top five at one point, an issue with the front wing saw him fall to 13th at the finish.

Alexander Rossi was fast Road America, but an issue with the front wing dropped him back in the field at the end. Photo: IndyCar

“I think we started with a good strategy, going for a four-stop race after starting 15th, but it all caught up to us on that first yellow,” Rossi explained. “Luckily, we had already gained track position and speed running on open track. We had an issue with our front wing, which ironically or not, is the same issue we finished the race with here last year, so we definitely need to figure out exactly what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay, too, had strong pace, even leading the Sunday morning warmup and running inside the top ten late in the race. But, contact with Charlie Kimball while battling for sixth broke the front wing on the No. 28 DHL Honda, and Hunter-Reay languished in 14th at the checkered flag.

Ryan Hunter-Reay was was 14th at the checkered flag after battling inside the top ten late in the race. Photo: IndyCar

“Charlie (Kimball) made a late block and took off my front wing. I had a good race going until Charlie moved out late like that, it’s just really unfortunate,” Hunter-Reay said of the incident.

Meanwhile, Marco Andretti battled a litany of problems, ranging from throttle issues to a broken pit speed limiter, which resulted in a drive-penalty for speeding during a round of pit stops. Andretti was a lowly 18th at the finish.

Marco Andretti battled a host of problems during the Kohler Grand Prix. Photo: IndyCar

“We started eighth, but ran into throttle problems. We went off track on the first stint because the throttle stuck wide open. We came into the pits to try to fix it and got hit with a pit lane speed violation because my pit lane limiter wasn’t working. We still weren’t getting full throttle – I was barely hitting sixth gear,” he lamented afterward.

Sato remains in the top five in the championship, now sitting fourth, 56 points behind leader Scott Dixon. Rossi sits ninth, with Andretti and Hunter-Reay 13th and 15th respectively.

 

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Kimball, Chilton quiet but solid at Road America

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While Scott Dixon scored victory for Chip Ganassi Racing, two of the team’s other drivers enjoyed quietly solid days at the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America.

Charlie Kimball, in need of a strong finish after being stricken with bad luck so far in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, scored his best finish of the year with a fine run to sixth place. While he was never a part of the battle for victory, he was “best of the rest” for most of the day and enjoyed a solid, mistake-free run.

“Overall a really solid day for the Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing team,” Kimball said afterward. Though he admitted tire management in the race’s third stint hampered his efforts, he was more than pleased with the end result.

“That third stint, I don’t think I managed the Firestone alternates as well as some of the guys around me,” Kimball revealed. “You saw that with (Will Power) with a better in and out lap. That was disappointing, because I think we could have maybe had a shot at a top five. Overall though, to fight off some competitors for that last stint after the final yellow felt good and it felt good to bring it home in sixth for the guys. Kind of a semi-trouble free weekend and pretty happy with it.”

Teammate Max Chilton, too, scored a solid ten finish, the Briton finishing ninth. However, unlike Kimball, Chilton lamented not being able to finish higher on a circuit where he feels very comfortable.

Max Chilton during qualifying for the Kohler Grand Prix. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s not how we wanted it, especially after how quick we were (in the morning warmup),” said Chilton, who started seventh and was second fastest in the morning warmup. Like Kimball, he struggled with tire management, and an untimely caution when he was on the primary black tires put paid to his chances of a better finish.

“Something just wasn’t working for us. On a set of reds, we were struggling massively and then we went to the blacks, which would’ve been alright, but then the safety car came out and everyone else had longer life on the reds and I was struggling again.”

With the Kohler Grand Prix in the books, Chilton currently sits 11th in the championship, three points behind tenth-place Ed Jones, while Kimball remains 18th, 72 points outside the top ten.

Mahindra to give M4Electro Formula E car public debut at Goodwood

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Mahindra Racing will debut its new car for the fourth Formula E season, the M4Electro, at the famous Goodwood Festival of Speed later this week as part of a bid to beat the existing open-wheel electric record for the hillclimb.

As part of its preparations for season four of Formula E, set to start in Hong Kong at the beginning of December, Mahindra has already hit the track with the M4Electro in private testing.

Full-season drivers Felix Rosenqvist and Nick Heidfeld have both completed running in the car, while Indian actress Gul Panag has also taken part in a test.

Heidfeld will give the M4Electro its first public outing at Goodwood and look to become the first driver to hold two records at the hillclimb.

The German driver holds the overall hillclimb record of 41.6 seconds at Goodwood, set back in 1999 in a McLaren MP4/13 Formula 1 car.

“We’re excited to bring Nick and the M4Electro to Goodwood in a bid to set the fastest open-wheel electric record on the hillclimb,” Mahindra team boss Dilbagh Gill said.

“We are always looking to push the boundaries as a team and we couldn’t think of a better way to introduce the season four challenger to fans and automotive enthusiasts alike than at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.”

Qualcomm named title partner for New York Formula E race

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FIA Formula E has announced that technology company Qualcomm will be the title partner for the upcoming New York City ePrix as the all-electric series gears up to hit the United States in three weeks’ time.

New York City will play host to its first motorsport event in Red Hook on July 15-16, acting as the penultimate round of Formula E’s third season.

Qualcomm has been a key partner for Formula E since the series’ inception in 2014, and will now act as the New York race’s title partner after acquiring the naming rights, as announced on Monday. The event will be formally called the ‘Qualcomm New York City ePrix’.

“As one of our founding partners – and now for the first time a race title partner for one of the most anticipated races of the season – Qualcomm Technologies’ continued support and commitment to Formula E has been instrumental,” Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag said.

“We share many of the same values in the field of innovation and technology transfer, which we’ve already seen with unique wireless charging concepts.

“I’m looking forward to making history in New York by bringing Formula E to the Big Apple for the first time – it’s going to be an unmissable event.”

Derek Aberle, president of Qualcomm Incorporated, added: “Qualcomm inventions enable widespread innovation, just as motorsport fuels the evolution of the automotive industry.

“Formula E, including this Qualcomm ePrix race in New York City, is a great testbed for our automotive breakthroughs such as wireless electric vehicle charging.

“We look forward to continuing our collaboration with Formula E to promote the benefits of the latest vehicle technologies as cars become more connected, autonomous and electric.”