(Photo by Dean Treml/Red Bull via Getty Images)

Le Mans 24: 2017 GTE-Am Preview

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Why it’s important for Fernando Alonso to be in the Indianapolis 500

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It seemed so natural, so logical that Fernando Alonso would be part of McLaren in the 104thIndianapolis 500, it likely could have been announced last August.

NBCSports.com gave all the reasons why an Alonso reunion with McLaren at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made the most sense last week.

Tuesday afternoon, it became official.

Arrow McLaren SP announced the two-time Formula One World Champion as its third driver for the Indy 500. He joins full-time NTT IndyCar Series drivers, rookies Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward, on the Chevrolet team.

In a world where social media allows everyone to voice an opinion, there have been some who have asked, “Why is it so important that Fernando Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500?”

To back up their point, the 33-driver starting lineup already includes the legendary names of the NTT IndyCar Series. From five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon to three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, to Indy 500 winners Alexander Rossi, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay to two-time champion IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, the lineup is full of big names.

On the grand scale of international motorsports, however, Alonso has the charisma and star power that transcends into the mainstream of popularity.

“Having Fernando in the Indy 500 is going to be great for IndyCar, for the Indy 500 and for the fans,” said Arrow McLaren SP co-owner Sam Schmidt. “I can’t wait to see that get started.

“On behalf of Ric (Peterson, another co-owner of the team) and myself, Fernando needs to be in the 500, he needs to have an opportunity to win and that would be mega for IndyCar. For all of those reasons, we kept our foot on the gas and tried to position our team as the team of choice. Although we haven’t won, we have shown pace there and ran at the front. Now that we are with Chevrolet, we feel that we can get it done.

“Our team of guys is fantastic. We have been preparing for this for a long time and we are poised to get it done. Ric and I are very excited about this.”

McLaren CEO Zak Brown has a long and close relationship with Alonso. Brown was in charge of Alonso’s Formula One program. Last year when Alonso did not compete in F1, he remained under contract as a McLaren “Ambassador.”

His contract with McLaren ended on December 31, 2019. He officially rejoined the team with Tuesday’s Indy 500 announcement.

“He creates a tremendous amount of attention wherever he goes,” Brown said of Alonso. “When we did the first test at Indy in 2017, the live digital feed got over a couple million followers. Fernando will draw a lot of global attention to Indianapolis, to IndyCar, to our partners and to the sport as a whole.

“He is a great addition. He is an ambassador to the sport. He very much enjoys the way he is embraced in Indianapolis.”


With so many obstacles in the way between Alonso competing for any other team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it just made sense that his best situation, and only situation, would come with the McLaren-backed operation.

But it was certainly a long, strange trip to get there.

“Clearly, Fernando was deep in conversations with Michael Andretti,” McLaren CEO Zak Brown responded to a question from NBC Sports.com in a private teleconference Tuesday. “Short of Roger Penske’s team, he believes Michael’s team is the most successful team at Indianapolis, certainly in most recent times.

“If you are Fernando Alonso and you want to win Indianapolis, then Andretti is clearly on your short list.

“We had a strong desire to run him. Fernando didn’t want to take a decision until after Paris-Dakar because he wanted to be very focused on that event. He was in no rush. He had two good opportunities. We kept him informed of some of the offseason moves we made. We secured Craig Hampson (as technical director after a successful term as Sebastien Bourdais’ engineer). When he was ready to make his decision, we had all of our pieces in place.

“He chose to move forward with us.”

Alonso’s best days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in an Andretti Autosport-prepared Honda. That was in 2017 when the McLaren Honda Andretti team got the Formula One Ace up to speed quickly. Alonso qualified fifth on the grid off 33, led 27 laps and was in contention for the victory before his Honda engine blew up with 21 laps remaining.

Alonso came, he saw, and he nearly conquered the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso’s worst days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in a McLaren-prepared Chevrolet. That was last year when one mistake after another showed how unprepared the McLaren operation was to take on the Indy 500 on its own. The list of faux paus was so long and legendary, there is no reason to recount them.

It all added up to one of the biggest names in international motorsports getting bumped out of the 33-car starting lineup by unheralded Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing.

McLaren officials knew the best way to succeed at Indianapolis was to join forces with a full-time IndyCar Series team. The main obstacle in that was Honda teams were ordered by corporate headquarters in Japan that the company’s days of doing business with McLaren were over. This came after disparaging and critical comments were made about the Honda Formula One engine McLaren used during a horrendous 2017 Formula One season.

Under no circumstances would American Honda and Honda Performance Development be allowed to make a deal with McLaren.

Brown found a partner at what was then known as Arrow Schmidt Peterson, but that was a Honda team. In order to make the deal work, Arrow Schmidt Peterson would have to break the final year of its contract with Honda and switch to Chevrolet.

Arrow McLaren SP was announced on August 9, 2019. Alonso was not part of that announcement.

He was attempting to negotiate a deal with Andretti Autosport and the team was willing to make it happen. Sponsors were signed and decisions were made leading to an expected announcement of an Alonso-Andretti combination for the Indy 500.

Honda Japan said no. They were held firm with Alonso for the same reasons they didn’t want to do business with McLaren.

That meant Alonso would have to find a Chevrolet team for the Indy 500. Team Penske wasn’t interested in increasing to five cars at Indy. Ed Carpenter Racing also said no to expanding to four entries.

All paths led back to Arrow McLaren SP.

“It’s a great day in the history of our team,” co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “We’ve had a lot of changes recently. Arrow McLaren SP is a fantastic cooperation of the future of our company. This just raises the bar. Everyone on our team is a true racer, wants to win and wants to win the Indy 500 and the championship. Every move we have made over the last two years has been geared towards achieving those dreams. This is one step further.

“Fernando Alonso, two world championships, two WEC’s, Le Mans and the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. He has made it perfectly clear the Indy 500 is the missing link there. We all know how competitive he was previously.

“For our team, we want to tap into his experience. We have two exciting rookies with Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward. We really think being around him for the month of May will help them raise their game and understand what it takes to be a true, top-level, world-renowned driver. For all of those reasons, we have been working very hard on this for quite some time and we are very excited to announce Fernando Alonso as part of our team for the Indy 500.”


Although it appears this deal was put together quickly, Brown and Schmidt emphasized that was not the case.

“Actually, it’s been in the works for quite some time,” Brown said. “Fernando is quite a thoughtful individual when he takes a decision on what he wants to race. Paris-Dakar, from the moment he decided he was interested in it, he wanted to test, he wanted to get to know the car, he wanted to get to know the team and ultimately made his decision. This is something we’ve been speaking to Alonso about for a while.

“The new recruits, specifically Craig Hampson, we had a good test at COTA. These were things as Fernando made his final decision helped get him over the hump. There was speculation he would go elsewhere with parallel conversations that were going on.”

Schmidt was even more decisive in the team’s negotiations with Alonso.

“It seems like a bit of a whirlwind announcement, but we have been talking since November,” Schmidt said. “We’ve always run a third car at Indy. This will be a very, very well-prepared, thought-out deal. Craig Hampson will be the engineer and will be staffed by full-time, quality personnel.

“There has been some talk about the Grand Prix in a preparatory fashion for the Indy 500, but so far, we don’t have that in consideration.”


In a separate interview with Leigh Diffey of NBC Sports, Alonso admitted he had several teams to consider and McLaren was always in that group.

“We had some conversations,” Alonso said. “I already said last year I wanted to explore more options. I’d been talking with Andretti as well and some other teams. Andretti and McLaren are the ones I feel in my heart are like family. At the end, it was the natural choice to go with McLaren, especially after last year and give the fans something back after the disappointment of last year.

“I think McLaren is one of those teams that are part of motorsports. Being in F1 and IndyCar doing all the races. That shows and proves how McLaren is committed to the sport. The fans will love that commitment.”

Alonso has long dreamed of winning the international “Triple Crown” of motorsports. That includes victories in the Grand Prix of Monaco, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso behind the wheel of the famed Marmon Wasp, the first winning car in the 1911 Indianapolis 500 — INDYCAR Photo

Alonso has already conquered Monaco and Le Mans. Indy remains the final event to master for the driver from Spain.

“The Indy 500 completes the big three races in motorsports, and three completely different disciplines,” Alonso explained. “It makes you quite a complete driver. That’s what I’m looking for in this stage of my career. The Indy 500 is probably the biggest priority for me now.

“Oval racing is unique, but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway even more. It’s a huge place. All the facilities are quite big. The circuit, there are four corners, but all very different. The traffic, the slipstream, the strategy, the tire degradation. The downforce you run differently from practice. The race, you are adjusting downforce. Even if it seems a simple way to drive, over 200 laps, you never repeat the same line or speed in any laps. It’s quite difficult to adjust the minimum settings in the car.”


The key to completing the deal was allowing mortgage firm Ruoff to join Arrow McLaren SP after agreeing to back Alonso with Andretti.

“Ruoff is a partner of Michael’s, he’s a good friend of mine and a partner in Australia,” Brown explained, referring to the Virgin Australia SuperCar team. “As he was having his conversations with Fernando, Ruoff was looking for something with big impact and exposure. When Michael and Fernando were unable to get their deal together, Ruoff asked Michael if he would mind going where Fernando goes because they know he will draw a tremendous amount of attention and Michael has all of his title deals done. Michael gave his blessing, he cut a deal with Ruoff, and we are excited to have them with us for the month of May.

“Right now, Fernando is going to be laser focused on the Indianapolis 500. I think he would enjoy IndyCar racing, but he is unsure of what he wants to do in 2021. The door is open, but there are no plans or discussions about racing beyond Indy at this point.”


Alonso said it feels good to be back at Indy; to have another chance to win the Indianapolis 500. Despite last year’s major disappointment, Alonso is ready to recapture the glory he experienced in 2017.

“Definitely once you experience the Indy 500, it’ll remain always in your heart,” Alonso said. “I think the Indy 500 is on top of all the events I’ve ever participated. The atmosphere, the adrenaline, the traditions all the celebrations before the race. Even the milk! It arrives in a fridge Sunday morning and goes to the Pagoda.

“There are things as a driver you understand the importance of the moment and how big that race is worldwide.”

And that is why it is important that drivers such as Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500. It’s an event that is bigger than the sport itself.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500