The GTE-Pro field in 2017 is hard to project. Photo: Getty Images

Le Mans 24: 2017 GTE-Pro Preview

Leave a comment

If 2016’s GTE-Pro race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans centered on throwing back to the past with the victorious return of Ford, then 2017 is about pointing to the exciting future that is held for the class.

ENTRY LIST

Ford and Ferrari’s famous rivalry will once again play out at the Circuit de la Sarthe, but with Porsche reviving its factory GT effort for 2017 with its new mid-engined 911 RSR, plus the ever-present threats of Corvette and Aston Martin, it will by no means be a two-horse race – at least that’s the hope!

The class is stronger for Porsche’s fully-fledged return, and with BMW also set to join the fray from 2018, GTE-Pro continues to cement itself as one of the most competitive, challenging and interesting categories in global motorsport. The future is looking exceedingly bright.

It’s been a split start to the year in the FIA World Endurance Championship season. Ford took Silverstone off the bat, while Ferrari’s AF Corse squad enters Le Mans on the heels of its Spa win, the traditional Le Mans dress rehearsal. Thus far Porsche and Aston Martin have looked marginally behind.

Of course, things could yet shake up at Le Mans thanks to our old friend Balance of Performance. While efforts are set to be made to avoid the mis-step in 2016 that played to Ford’s advantage, it is likely to remain the big concern and talking point for the GTE-Pro field ahead of race day.

WEC: FORD, FERRARI SET TO CONTINUE FIGHT

Mueller, Bourdais and Hand took the 2016 win for Ford. Photo: Ford Performance

50 years on from its first victory, Ford’s successful return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2016 did much to stoke the fire within the GTE-Pro class against perennial rival Ferrari, who runs its AF Corse squad. All of the European full-season WEC runners will return for Le Mans, with Ford looking to bounce back from a winless start to the year. The same ringers from 2016 will be piloting the UK-run cars, with the exception of Pipo Derani, one of sports car racing’s brightest young talents, who is in the No. 67 Ford GT, and set for his final start with the team unless plans change.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 14: The AF Corse Ferrari of James Calado and Alessandro Pier Guidi drives during practice for the FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone on April 14, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

AF Corse looked very strong at Spa as its No. 51 and No. 71 Ferrari 488 GTEs ran pretty much nose-to-tail for the majority of the six hours.The No. 51 car’s revised lineup of Alessandro Pier Guidi and James Calado has usual Audi man Lucas di Grassi in as third driver; it’s an intriguing one that sees three good pieces on paper but hasn’t yet produced a collective Le Mans win yet. In the No. 71, it’s Sam Bird and Davide Rigon that picked up the Spa win, and will be joined by Miguel Molina here in his one-race step up from an AF-run Spirit of Race badged GTE-Am entry. However, Bird isn’t getting carried away, telling me last month that he wanted to wait and see just how competitive Ferrari was once Ford and Porsche had “thrown all the sand out”. More on BoP later.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 14: The Porsche GT Team 911 RSR of Richard Lietz and Fred Makowiecki 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 WEC runners at Le Mans, Porsche will be hoping to rekindle some of its old spark as the mid-engined 911 RSR hits the grid at the Circuit de la Sarthe for the very first time. Some of its drivers needs to step up and seize their opportunity. Remember Gianmaria Bruni will come on board for Porsche’s IMSA program from Watkins Glen later this month, his contract not allowing him to start until after Le Mans. Invariably that will force one of Porsche’s existing GTE drivers onto another project down the road, Estre already having been moved to WEC from IMSA.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 14: The Aston Martin Racing car of Nicki Thiim, Marco Sorensen and Richie Stanaway drives during practice for the FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone on April 14, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

Aston Martin Racing also comes into the race feeling quietly confident, even if its start to the season has been somewhat underwhelming with runs to sixth, seventh (twice) and eighth between its two cars. Experience will play a role here; Darren Turner is always a good bet to star at some point during the Le Mans week.

IMSA: CORVETTE, RISI COMPETIZIONE IN THE MIX?

Corvette and the U.S. Fords look to beat the WEC regulars. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Joining its pair of full-season WEC entries at Le Mans, Ford Chip Ganassi Racing will once again be fielding its two cars from the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, No. 68 and No. 69. IndyCar star Scott Dixon is fighting fit for the race despite his scary Indianapolis 500 crash occurring just over two weeks ago, while Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Tony Kanaan will be making his Le Mans debut in place of the injured Sebastien Bourdais.

Ford won’t be the sole IMSA representative in GTE-Pro, though. Corvette Racing once again boasts a strong two-car effort, now with some added Le Mans experience and prestige in the form of Marcel Fassler. He will join Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner in the No. 64 Corvette C7.R, while Jordan Taylor has moved into the No. 63 with Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia.

Risi’s No. 82 Ferrari 488 GTE takes checkered flag in 2016. Photo: Risi Competizione

Risi Competizione also joins the overall Ferrari effort at Le Mans with its No. 82 488 GTE that is looking to bounce back from retirements in both Long Beach and Austin. Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander will be joined by new arrival and past Risi Le Mans winner Pierre Kaffer for 2017, the aim being to go one better than 2016’s second-place finish in class.

WILL BALANCE OF PERFORMANCE REAR ITS HEAD AGAIN?

The changes made to BoP on the eve of last year’s race left a sour taste in the mouths of many following the GTE-Pro class, appearing to give Ford a boost that it didn’t really appear to need.

In a bid to avoid a repeat of the controversy at WEC races 2017, the FIA and ACO announced earlier that BoP would be worked out using an automated, mathematical system from the Nürburgring onwards. For Le Mans, though, it remains open to human error, and decisions can still be made all the way up to the eve of the race.

The first tweak to be made came following the Le Mans test, with Corvette being pegged back after posting the fastest time of the Le Mans test. The likes of Ferrari and Ford remain untouched for now, though.

While further edits to BoP are set to follow through the week, one would imagine it unlikely to follow the same controversial route it did last year. Hopefully the FIA and the ACO will have learned from the fall-out and strike a good balance to ensure we have a fair, open fight in GTE-Pro.

PREDICTION: LIKE BOP, A HARD ONE TO PEG

While the drivers in GTE-Pro are anticipating an open fight between all of the manufacturers, for me, it boils down to three real contenders: Ford, Ferrari and Corvette. Porsche and Aston Martin feel the “surprise” picks if you like (more here from Mobil 1 The Grid on both LMP1 and GTE-Pro classes).

All three have been impressive in the early part of the year on either side of the Atlantic, and trying to pick between them is tough. AF Corse’s display at the Spa WEC round was particularly impressive, showing relentless pace and reliability for six straight hours.

So really, it may come down to how BoP plays out, the answer to which we may not get until qualifying when the pecking order really comes to the fore.

But to pick one car: I will say the No. 69 Ford GT with Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook and Scott Dixon. Ford looked good at Daytona, and it is a very balanced line-up. For Dixon, it would be a Le Mans victory at the second attempt, only adding to the accolades and success he has known through his illustrious career.

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

INDYCAR Photo
Leave a comment

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.”

HOW THEY GOT BACK TOGETHER

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.”

THE TWO SIDES CONTINUED TO NEGOTIATE, EVEN WHEN IT APPEARED ALONSO WOULD GO TO ANDRETTI

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.”

ALONSO’S THOUGHTS ON HIS RETURN

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 IMPORTANCE OF RUOFF AS THE SPONSOR

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.”

KEEP THE MILK COLD

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