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.