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

Le Mans 24: 2017 GTE-Pro Preview

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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.

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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.

EXCLUSIVE: NHRA’s Don Schumacher, all 7 of his drivers to donate brains for concussion research

From left, DSR Top Fuel drivers Leah Pritchett, Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher. Photos courtesy Auto Imagery.
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In a collective large-scale move never before seen in motorsports or any other form of professional sports, NHRA drag racing team owner Don Schumacher and all seven of his drivers have pledged in writing to donate their brains upon death to the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF), NBCSports.com’s MotorSportsTalk has learned exclusively.

The pledges were all signed this afternoon at suburban Denver’s Bandimere Speedway, site of this weekend’s Dodge NHRA Mile-High Nationals.

Team owner Don Schumacher (in red shirt) and his seven Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers sign written pledges to donate their brains for concussion research Friday at Bandimere Speedway in suburban Denver.

Don Schumacher Racing is the second-most successful team overall in NHRA history, with 11 Top Fuel and five Funny Car championships, as well as over 300 combined nitro national event wins by all seven of its drivers (as well as retired driver Gary Scelzi).

This is the first time an NHRA driver, owner or team has announced they will donate their brains to science for further study on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which can only be detected and diagnosed after death.

However, more than 3,000 current and former athletes in other sports have already pledged their brains to research post-mortem, including NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., U.S. Women’s Soccer Team star Brandi Chastain, and several former NFL Pro Bowlers including Randy Cross, Keith Sims, Shawn Springs and Gary Fencik.

MORE: Dale Earnhardt Jr. plans to donate his brain to CTE research

MORE: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s decision inspires NASCAR Hall of Famer to donate brain for CTE research

While concussions are not a widespread problem in the NHRA as in, for example, the NFL, they still happen from time to time.

With the g-forces, high-speed explosions and crashes and intense vibrations Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers endure while exceeding 330 mph in 1,000 feet, concussions are always a threat, but that threat is usually mitigated by the safety equipment found in the race cars.

Don Schumacher Racing’s Funny Car drivers, from left, Jack Beckman, Tommy Johnson Jr., Ron Capps and Matt Hagan.

In pledging their brains, Schumacher and his seven drivers will also “immediately begin a comprehensive brain monitoring process to ensure an in-depth brain profile upon donation,” according to a team statement.

DSR’s pledges coincide with CLF Project Enlist, a new program launched this week by CLF and Infinite Hero Foundation (IHF) a non-profit organization (and a partner of DSR) that assists military veterans returning from battle and their families. IHF’s main goal is to “accelerate research on traumatic brain injury (TBI), CTE and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in military veterans.”

DSR and Project Enlist are conducting recruiting and outreach to military and veteran communities to increase participation in the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs-Boston University-Concussion Legacy Foundation (VA-BU-CLF) Brain Bank brain donation registry.

The VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank is the world’s largest CTE brain bank specializing in research into concussions, ALS, and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

Schumacher, who was one of the sport’s most successful drivers in the 1960s and 1970s, has since gone on to build a vast business and racing empire that employs over 2,000 individuals. He is also regarded as one of the top innovators in performance and safety in drag racing.

“Donating my brain for research to help other individuals in this world is something that I’m more than willing to do,” said Don Schumacher, who was recently named to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America’s Class of 2019. “It surprised my wife, Sarah, but she also agreed to me doing this based on its potential to help drivers, soldiers, business people and the population of the world.

Team owner Don Schumacher.

“I support (the CLF) 100 percent and was thrilled that my seven drivers agreed to donate their brains.”

Here are comments from all of Schumacher’s seven drivers who have pledged to donate their brains to research post-mortem:

Tony Schumacher, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster: “I think any athlete donating their brain is a great idea once you’re done with it here on earth. If people can come up with a better system, and a better way to keep future drivers safer, that’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to improve our world. The doctors and the technology with all athletes right now, they’re diving in deep to come up with concussion research, and as a driver that goes through 11,000-horsepower, 2.5-Richter scale shaking every single run, I think we’re good candidates to research.”

“Fast Jack” Beckman, driver of the Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car: “My wife didn’t take the news that I was pledging my brain quite the way I thought. Apparently, she wants to have me stuffed and put in the corner of our living room (he said with a laugh), but (growing serious) I’ve been an organ donor since I was 16. My thought is, if it can help somebody else, that’s fantastic. When you see these veterans coming back with traumatic brain injuries and PTS, and there’s no one cure for this, it makes you realize how much more we still need to learn about the human brain to have effective treatments for the majority of the injured vets. To be a part of that in some small way; well, I can’t take my brain with me, haven’t used it since I started driving a Funny Car (he said with another laugh), so someone else might as well take advantage.”

Ron Capps, driver of the NAPA AUTO PARTS Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car: “When approached with the chance to help the Concussion Legacy Foundation and have an opportunity to help with advancing the study, treatment, and prevention of the effects of brain trauma in athletes as well as other at-risk groups, we said ‘yes’ without hesitation. The Concussion Legacy Foundation is a group of dedicated people doing great things to help the next generations to come, and we’re proud to help in any way we can.”

Antron Brown, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster: “We always want to do whatever we can to help elevate the safety in our sport, and be proactive in bettering the safety for all.”

Matt Hagan, driver of the Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car: “I think it’s pretty cool to donate anything to science. My brain is kind of mush anyways (jokes). Anytime we can do something to help is a good thing and being able to have research off of how your brain is affected by g-force and things like that, is interesting. Driving a nitro Funny Car is not something just anybody gets to do. There are only maybe 50 people in the world that really, truly experience the g-forces we do on a regular basis. These cars are extreme, we put on a show, and we put our bodies through elements that most people will never even understand. If we can help with the research of concussions and saving lives, that’s a great thing, and I’m all about it.”

Tommy Johnson Jr., driver of the Make-A-Wish Foundation Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car: “I elected to donate my brain because of all of my years of racing, suffering explosions and experiencing tire shake. If the Concussion Legacy Foundation can learn something that would help the next generation, I would be very proud to be a part of that. Tying it in with the soldiers who experience traumatic brain injuries, if we can work together and help one another, I think it’s a great opportunity for the road to recovery for everyone.”

Leah Pritchett, driver of the Mopar Dodge Top Fuel dragster: “When I was first asked if I would be open to donating my brain for future research, there wasn’t even a question in my mind at all. All of us are safer in our passenger cars and safer in our race cars because of what we’ve been able to learn from the past. We get to do what we do and are safe because of technology and science. If I have a legacy to leave behind, and it can benefit anybody in any way, from the sports community to the military to a child that wants to play football, whatever it may be, once I’m gone, I won’t need my brain so I’m proud to know that it will benefit others.”

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