Le Mans 24: 2017 GTE-Am Preview

(Photo by Dean Treml/Red Bull via Getty Images)
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The GTE-Am class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans has thrown up several surprises in recent years as the least heralded of the four classes, but one where variety has been the spice of life.

ENTRY LIST

Scuderia Corsa won it last year, giving Giacomo Mattioli’s American team its first win at the French classic and a signoff win for the venerable Ferrari 458 Italia. Prior to that, SMP Racing (Ferrari), Aston Martin Racing’s “Dane Train” (AMR), IMSA Performance Matmut (Porsche) and Larbre Competition (Corvette) had won in the previous five runnings.

Only five of the 16 cars entered in class come from the FIA WEC and that makes the additional entries the more intriguing ones who can look to win the category.

WEC: CAN ASTON’S NO. 98 FINALLY PULL IT OFF?

The clear favorite among the full-season five in this category is the No. 98 Aston Martin Vantage of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda, who’ve won seemingly everything within the FIA WEC in recent years except the series’ crown jewel of Le Mans. Dalla Lana’s heartbreaking accident in the final hour two years ago stands as the closest this trio has come to breaking through. Frankly nothing less than a win will suffice for what’s been far and away the head of class in GTE-Am.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 14: The Clearwater Racing Ferrari of Weng Sun Mok, Keita Sawa and Matthew Griffin 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 four, question marks exist. Clearwater Racing overachieved this race last year with pole by Rob Bell and with a lineup of Matt Griffin, Keita Sawa and Mok Weng Sun in the No. 61 Ferrari 488 GTE, they have a decent if not stellar lineup. Neither Porsche 911 RSR is the newest spec for class; the No. 77 Dempsey-Proton Racing trio has a pair of podiums to kick off the year but Porsche young guns Matteo Cairoli and Marvin Dienst are inexperienced at Le Mans. Gulf Racing’s No. 86 Porsche hasn’t looked a contender all season. The Spirit of Race No. 54 Ferrari has the mercurial Olivier Beretta in for Miguel Molina this race and the two Silver or Bronze drivers alongside aren’t the strongest.

It feels that if a win will come from the WEC quintet, the best odds here come from the No. 98 Aston, with the Clearwater Ferrari or Dempsey-Proton Porsche next best contenders.

ELMS/ELSEWHERE: LOTS OF SOLID ADDITIONS

Mattioli, Segal, Sweedler and Bell. Photo: Scuderia Corsa

Scuderia Corsa leads the way with now two Ferrari 488 GTEs, one of which having been upgraded from GT3-spec to GTE for this race and the second an outright new chassis. NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler now have Cooper MacNeil alongside in the WeatherTech No. 62 car. It’s a car that has two genuine ams, which makes outright pace hard to come by, but the experience of the combined trio may pay dividends. Bell and Sweedler are two-for-two in Le Mans podiums thus far.

The sister No. 65 car may be the better bet with full-season teammates Christina Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan making their first Le Mans start together, Nielsen back with her normal team after running with the Formula Racing squad last year. Third driver Bret Curtis is respectable on his day, and that’s the key to this car is seeing how the American gets on.

There’s four other Ferrari 488s to note as well. Clearwater’s second car has Alvaro Parente in its lineup; Duncan Cameron’s Spirit of Race green machine has a capable trio led by Marco Cioci; Tracy Krohn and Nic Jonsson return the “Krohn Green” to its perhaps rightful home of a GTE Ferrari with DH Racing and third driver Andrea Bertolini; JMW premieres its new 488 with an intriguing trio of Robert Smith, Will Stevens and Dries Vanthoor, younger brother of Porsche factory ace Laurens.

Two other Astons join the one factory car. Le Mans debutantes TF Sport have assembled a solid group with a win and a second in its first two ELMS races, with Rob Bell now alongside the newer pairing of Salih Yoluc and Euan Hankey. That’s a better bet than the Beechdean AMR entry in its second Le Mans, although Ross Gunn and Oliver Bryant seem poised to impress.

Porsche adds a pair of extra cars from Proton Competition, both with very solid lineups if not the out-and-out fastest car in the field. Americans Patrick Long and Mike Hedlund, the latter in his Le Mans debut, join Abdulaziz Al Faisal in the No. 93 911 RSR with Klaus Bachler, Stephane Lemeret and Khaled Al Qubaisi in the traditional Proton No. 88. Both cars are podium contenders.

Lastly the lone Corvette in the class, the now art car-liveried No. 50 Larbre C7.R for Fernando Rees, Romain Brandela and Christian Philippon, is a true wild card. Rees, outside of AMR, will be the car’s undoubted pacesetter with two Bronze-rated drivers alongside. The car does have one warmup act last ELMS race at Monza, but isn’t expected to be top of the heap in class.

PREDICTIONS: THE ASTONS VS. THE FLEET OF FERRARIS

Something has to give as the No. 98 Aston seeks its elusive Le Mans victory, and to do so, will have to beat the fleet of Ferrari 488s in that car’s first year in the GTE-Am class.

The thing about Ferrari is there are simply so many bullets they have in the gun, with at least six of the eight Ferraris realistic win contenders in my estimation.

The TF Sport Aston has been a strong debutante in ELMS but Le Mans is a tougher animal to handle.

The Porsches? I’m not sure any of them has the ultimate pace within this category to pull it off, although they tend to be reliable.

I think this year the No. 98 Aston finally topples the Ferraris though and gets on the top step of the Le Mans podium.

Tom Blomqvist keeps eye on IndyCar during impressive rise: ‘ I would love to give it a go’

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In between two of his latest superstar-driver-in-waiting performances, Tom Blomqvist walked through the Daytona International Speedway garage in anonymity.

“Nobody knows who the (expletive) I am,” he said to a team member with a laugh (and without a trace of being miffed), evincing the cheeky humor of someone born in England, raised in New Zealand and also of Swedish descent.

The lack of recognition in the garage might have been because he was clad in a relatively nondescript shirt, hat and sunglasses instead of a colorful firesuit covered by sponsor logos. But he also was on the way to a Friday race eve media availability where his entrance was greeted by only one reporter (after a few minutes).

During a news conference a day earlier, he sat patiently on the dais while his Indy 500-winning teammates and car owner fielded nearly all the questions – even though Blomqvist had turned maybe the most impressive lap of the month to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position in the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category.

The Meyer Shank Racing driver still might lack the attention commensurate with his already world-class CV (which expanded Sunday with his second consecutive Rolex 24  victory for MSR), but Blomqvist, 29, clearly isn’t bothered by it.

He carries the quiet confidence of knowing his immense talent will ensure results that will make him impossible to ignore.

“To a degree, I guess, it’s definitely ramped up a lot for me,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports. “In America, I’m starting to get a lot more (attention). In the last year, I’ve quite often got a lot of maybe what you’d call the glory moments. It’s been fun. And within the paddock, there’s a lot of respect for me anyway. It’s been good.”

There have been several moments of acclaim since he joined MSR barely a year ago in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. In his first start for the team at last year’s Rolex 24, Blomqvist turned in a Herculean performance to position the No. 60 Acura for the victory (giving way to Helio Castroneves because he was too “cooked” to complete the last 74 minutes).

He was even better this year at Daytona.

He ripped off a monster “one and done” pole-winning lap to beat the clock in qualifying on the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course. During the race, Blomqvist was as dominant in his first stint as his last in the ARX-06 while taking the checkered flag. He set the mark for the fastest time on Lap 6 that no one topped over the final 755 laps.

The 10 fastest laps in the race belonged to Blomqvist, carrying over his speed from the 2022 when he won the Petit Le Mans season finale to clinch the premier prototype championship at Michelin Road Atlanta.

A year earlier at the same track, he had burst onto the radar of car owner Mike Shank, who was intrigued by Blomqvist’s results as a BMW factory driver in the Formula E and DTM series. In 2014, Blomqvist also finished between second in F3, between champion Esteban Ocon (now with Alpine’s F1 team) and Max Verstappen (who has won the past two Formula One championships).

“He did a lot of high-level stuff, and then kind of fell out of favor, or I don’t know what happened, but he was a free agent,” Shank said. “I started looking at his numbers, and I’m like, ‘We should test this guy. So I take him to Road Atlanta in the fall of ’21, and he got in the car and just slayed it.”

Within minutes, he had called co-owner Jim Meyer.

“I’ve got our guy,” Shank said. “This is our guy. There’s no question about it.

Honda Performance Development president David Salters hugs Tom Blomqvist after the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

“Now what’s happened, though, and I think if you look back at the Rolex here last year (and) what he did, he’s a gold nugget. He reminds me a little bit when (Robert) Wickens came into IndyCar out of DTM (as a rookie in 2018).

“He truly believes he’s the fastest guy out there, and he proved it (at the Rolex 24).”

Said David Salters, president for Honda Performance Development: “We love Tom. He’s the real deal, isn’t he? Immensely talented, super smart, and on it.

The great thing about our teams, the strength in depth is tremendous. But if you look through the sports car racing now, that’s the standard you have to have. Tom, brilliant, Filipe (Albuquerque), brilliant. Ricky (Taylor). You can go through that list. They’re all superstars. Tom is awesome. His lap in qualifying quite frankly was unbelievable.”


Having conquered one of the world’s greatest endurance races twice with Acura, Blomqvist could be ticketed for the world’s biggest race next – the Indy 500 — with HPD’s primary brand.

He tested a Dallara-Honda for MSR last October at Sebring International Raceway, and while he plans to focus solely on IMSA this season, he remains very intrigued by IndyCar.

And with Castroneves, 47, beginning a one-year deal with MSR’s IndyCar team, there could be an obvious opening in 2024.

“Obviously, it’s not in the cards this year,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports the day before the Rolex. “Yeah, I would love to give it a go. To be honest, I think that would be an amazing step for me in my career. I enjoy the sports car stuff so much. It’s been really good to me lately. I really enjoyed the style of racing.

“But I feel like IndyCar would be a step up for me and my career. It would be fantastic if I could get that opportunity. But yeah, I guess I have to keep pushing Mike or something to give me a shot. But obviously for now, the focus is here in the sports car stuff. It’s not really down to me at the end of the day. And I’ve got to do my job and then the people who pay the bills and make the decisions obviously have to decide if that’s something worth pursuing.

“But yeah, I’d love to give it a go, and I definitely would be up for it.”

Tom Blomqvist after winning the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole on the final qualifying lap (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

A transition from IMSA to IndyCar naturally would be easier than switching teams, but it also would be comfortable because Blomqvist already seems such a good fit at MSR.

It might have seemed an unusual pairing given his European-heavy background, but Blomqvist likes the Midwestern culture that’s been built at MSR. Based just outside Columbus, Ohio, the team’s shop has “no egos, and that just enables each and every one of to reach our potential.

“Obviously, with Honda, we obviously have some great resources, but we’re up against Porsche, BMW and some big heavy hitters in the motorsports world,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got a huge team compared to them, but we’ve obviously got a very capable team, and I think that’s what has been so impressive and really, really nice to see about the work that’s been done. No stone has been left unturned.”


Blomqvist still is living in Europe and planning to commute for the nine-race GTP schedule (which has a nearly two-month break after the Rolex 24 until the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring). But though he’s “got good friends in America, so I do have places to stay,” he seems open to being based more permanently near MSR in America.

“Let’s see what the future brings, and if that means me spending more time over here,” he said. “It’s a fantastic team. It’s a different environment to what I’m used to. It’s obviously now a hugely successful team, but it is a small team. It does feel like a very small family-operated team, which it is.

“I think Mike’s really just built this thing. It hasn’t happened overnight. Mike’s a great guy and put a lot of trust and faith in me, and I played a relatively good part in some of the success last year. I was able to reward him and give him my all every time I’m on track, and he respects that. But we are still a small team. In the grand scheme of things, we still are a really, really small team.”

Blomqvist said the BMW factory program would have two or three times the staffing of MSR – just on one of its two GTP cars.

“But it’s not the number of people that makes a difference, it’s the quality of people, and obviously Mike and HPD are a fantastic operation to go racing,” Blomqvist said. “We’re racers at heart.

“I’ve been part of some big outfits, and the European way of working is very, very different to how people go about racing in America. I’d say it’s more seat of your pants. A lot of emotion and kind of rides on that competitive spirt, competitive nature and on their personalities. It’s a lot more pure. It feels very pure. You want to win, so we go out and don’t cut corners on trying to win.”

Though it’s aligned with Liberty Media and has big-budget backing and support from Honda Performance Development, MSR also is much less corporate than most GTP teams.

A longtime and respected team owner who has built a sponsor portfolio, Shank also describes his maniacal dedication to success as “messed up,” and he’s known for dropping vulgarities into postrace interview with his blunt and self-deprecating sense of humor.

Meyer Shank Racing co-owner Mike Shank congratulates Tom Blomqvist on the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

With a more laid-back but sometimes just as biting demeanor, Blomqvist has become the team’s unquestioned leader behind the wheel

“I definitely feel a lot more immersed,” he said. “Within the team, I was a bit more of an unknown quantity the start of last year. Obviously after last season, the team trusts me a lot. And that gives me a lot of pleasure, pride and confidence. In this sport, confidence is a huge aspect of drivers’ psychology in a way. We’re in extremely high-pressure moments where my job is to perform under the pressure of these organizations and the brand as well.

“It’s just a good, healthy team to be a part of. It’s a high-pressure environment, but the team obviously have put a lot of faith in me, and I’ve been able to deliver for them on occasions.”

Rolex 24 starting lineup
Tom Blomqvist celebrates after winning the pole in the No. 60 Acura ARX-06 (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).