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.

Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing
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To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

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“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.


Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”