Le Mans 24: GTE-Pro car-by-car preview

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GTE-Pro might be the show at this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. With Balance of Performance a hot topic to coincide with varying pace levels – most manufacturers didn’t show their full hand at the Le Mans Test Day – as well as the overflow of story lines aided by Ford’s return plus a bevy of new cars, GTE-Pro is a fascinating class to watch.

Ford vs. Ferrari. Ford vs. Corvette. Then Porsche and Aston Martin poised to play spoilers.

It’s hard picking a favorite from the 14-car field. Here’s how the field shapes up:

51-Bruni/Calado/Pier Guidi, AF Corse, Ferrari 488 GTE (M)

Much is different about the usual AF Corse leading contender – the 51 car has only Gimmi Bruni with usual co-drivers Fisichella and Vilander at Risi. The lineup’s new, the car’s new –quick at the outset but hit a bit with BoP coming into Le Mans. Pier Guidi has a welcome and deserved opportunity in a top-flight Ferrari for his Le Mans debut. A win may not be on the cards for the new 488, but damn if this crew doesn’t go down fighting in win contention.

71-Rigon/Bird/Bertolini, AF Corse, Ferrari 488 GTE (M)

The new Rigon/Bird pairing come into Le Mans having dominated the GTE-Pro season to date, but again, whether that will continue comes down to the BoP hit for Ferrari. Bird will still fly on pace – pun completely intended there – and Bertolini gets a well deserved call-up to AF after winning in the GTE-AM class with SMP last year.

63-Magnussen/Garcia/R. Taylor, Corvette Racing, Corvette C7.R (M)

Starting will be the first portion of mission accomplished for the No. 63 Corvette crew after a mechanical failure forced Magnussen into a crash pre-race last year. This car led the Test Day and will be a strong contender this year once again, provided it starts, in search of team’s 100th win for the Corvette Racing program. It will be good to see Ricky Taylor make another start with the factory program, his first at Le Mans and third overall at the race.

64-Gavin/Milner/J. Taylor, Corvette Racing, Corvette C7.R (M)

The defending GTE-Pro class champions are strong contenders to pull a repeat this year, and like their sister car, would deliver the 100th win for the Corvette Racing program. For good measure, Gavin and Milner are two-for-two in the major IMSA enduros this year, having won at both Daytona and Sebring – and both have played a role in ensuring Corvette has won its last five major enduros at Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans.

66-Pla/Mucke/B. Johnson, Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK, Ford GT (M)

Le Mans veterans Pla and Mucke are joined by one of just two Americans – Johnson – in the No. 66 car as Ford looks to deliver a win 50 years after the GT won in 1966. It’s great to see Pla in a front-line factory effort; it’s great to see Mucke back to health after his heavy accident in Spa; it’s great to see Johnson, integral in the Ford GT’s testing and development, rewarded. Perhaps not the sexiest of lineup story lines but should be a solid contender.

67-Franchitti/Priaulx/Tincknell, Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK, Ford GT (M)

The “UK crew” in Ford’s four-pack of entrants is the first to have delivered the George Howard-Chappell-led FIA WEC outfit a podium overseas, with second at Spa. Likeable trio with Franchitti and Priaulx both back after Le Mans for the first time after extended absences (Franchitti since 2013 in a Level 5 LMP2 car, Priaulx since 2011 in a BMW) and Tincknell actually the most recently experienced, and a past class winner in LMP2.

68-Hand/Mueller/Bourdais, Ford Chip Ganassi Team USA, Ford GT (M)

The “66 cars” in U.S. terms gets the 66 renumbered to 68 for Le Mans. All three of these drivers are Le Mans veterans but have been absent for several years, owing to their respective full-season commitments that have kept them Stateside. Hand’s been fortunate to get to embrace the Ford history courtesy of a pre-event trip to Dearborn; Bourdais has the local history of being from Le Mans and come up short several times of a class win.

69-Briscoe/Westbrook/Dixon, Ford Chip Ganassi Team USA, Ford GT (M)

Briscoe and Westbrook will always have the distinction of taking the U.S. 67 – now 69 in Le Mans numerology – to Ford’s first win back since the GT’s race debut earlier this year. A two-hour race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is a far cry from the 24-hour race this year and for not just this car but the rest of the Ford arsenal, the lessons learned in five months will be key to any success this year. Dixon, a Le Mans rookie, will take his first laps at the track on Wednesday.

77-Lietz/Christensen/Eng, Dempsey-Proton Racing, Porsche 911 RSR (M)

Simply hasn’t been the start or form we’re used to seeing from Proton, Porsche, and the Lietz/Christensen pairing – Lietz of course having won last year’s GTE-Pro driving title. And in a deep 14-car GTE-Pro field where now this isn’t the only Porsche, instead one of three with the Manthey-entered 911 RSRs being added, odds of success remain tougher still for what is now the oldest car in class.

82-Fisichella/Vilander/Malucelli, Risi Competizione, Ferrari 488 GTE (M)

Risi makes its most welcome return to Le Mans for the first time in six years with a new car and two-thirds of a past GTE-Pro winning lineup in Fisichella and Vilander. In Malucelli, they have one of the class and race’s biggest question marks. If the Italian is a cleaner package compared to his nightmarish form and role in Daytona and Sebring accidents from 2014, this car has a chance. If he isn’t, this car isn’t – simple as that.

91-Pilet/Estre/Tandy, Porsche Motorsport, Porsche 911 RSR (M)

Tandy gets a chance to add a GTE-Pro class win to his overall win of a year ago but it wouldn’t quite carry the same magnitude. Meanwhile Pilet remains one of Porsche’s steadiest, fastest hands and Estre will make his first Le Mans start with Porsche after running in an LMP2 Ligier JS P2 Honda last year. The likable and fast Estre though must avoid mistakes, which have bit him a couple times in recent endurance races.

92-Makowiecki/Bamber/Bergmeister, Porsche Motorsport, Porsche 911 RSR (M)

Like Tandy, Bamber has a shot to win his second class in as many years but out of the overall spotlight. In Mako and Bergmeister, Bamber has two far more GT experienced teammates to learn from in terms of how to race GT at Le Mans. Far from the favorite and probably not the outright fastest, but both this crew and the No. 91 will give it a fight.

95-Thiim/Sorensen/Turner, Aston Martin Racing, Aston Martin Vantage V8 (D)

It’s weird seeing Darren Turner as part of the “Dane Train” 95 car but owes to similar heights along with Thiim and Sorensen – even with Thiim’s memorably goofy and wild blonde hair. But there’s more than just a new lineup to adapt to; there is also the new car color, the new aero on the rear and the new tire, Dunlop, replacing the Michelins. Got a bit of BoP break leading into the race and will hope to be more competitive.

97-Stanaway/Rees/Adam, Aston Martin Racing, Aston Martin Vantage V8 (D)

Aston Martin’s younger and primarily shorter driver trio is now paired in the second of two Vantages in GTE-Pro. Stanaway is a very quick set of hands and Rees and Adam provide a similar level of quality experience. Is this car the quickest, though? Perhaps not. In a deep GTE field this isn’t the likeliest of win contenders, and should be shooting for a top-five and respectable points.

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
McLaren Racing
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As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Formula E team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”

 

James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship car from Mercedes-EQ. – McLaren Racing

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – McLaren Racing

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”