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.

Newgarden, Rossi ready for a red-white-and-blue INDYCAR finale

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MONTEREY, California – In an international series that personifies diversity from all over the globe, the two main combatants in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship are from the United States.

Josef Newgarden of Tennessee takes a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Northern California into Sunday’s double-points season finale at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca. This year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud of France, is just 42 points out of the lead.

It’s been quite a while since the two drivers entering the final race of the season were both Americans. Four of the top 10 drivers in the series are from the United States. Last year, five of the top 10 were from the USA.

All but one race in the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series schedule is contested in the United States.

Patriotism still matters in IndyCar.

“I think so,” said Andretti Autosport driver Rossi, who is the last American driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. “I know I’ve read a lot of things from other drivers saying, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s not important, no one cares.’

“I can’t really get onboard with that.

“I think me as an American, growing up, being a fan of the Olympics and everything, like you cheer for Americans, right? That’s what you do as a patriotic person. Canadians cheer for James. We see the Swedish contingent that comes to the races for Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist.

Getty Images“I think Americans will cheer for Americans. I would love to see an American to win the championship. I think it’s important for the young kids watching hoping to be IndyCar drivers one day, that they see someone who grew up in Tennessee or California or wherever. It’s like, there’s a lot of relate-ability to that for a young kid with aspirations of being a racecar driver.”

Since Sam Hornish, Jr. won the final of his three IndyCar Series championships in 2006, just two American drivers have won the title – Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 and Newgarden in 2017. During that span, Scott Dixon of New Zealand won four of his five NTT IndyCar Series championships and Dario Franchitti of Scotland won all four of his IndyCar titles.

The last time two Americans had a chance to win the championship in the final race of the season came in 2001 when Hornish won the championship over Colorado’s Buddy Lazier. Connecticut’s Scott Sharp was third and Arizona’s Billy Boat was fourth in the final standings that year.

That was a much different time and place for IndyCar. At that time, many of the top drivers were in CART while the old Indy Racing League featured a predominantly American lineup. Once unification brought the two sides together in 2008, the championships have been fought on American soil, but international drivers were victorious.

The last time two American drivers finished 1-2 in CART was 1996 when Jimmy Vasser of California defeated Pennsylvania’s Michael Andretti for the crown. In 1992, Bobby Rahal of Illinois defeated Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. of New Mexico for the CART title.

Prior to that, the IndyCar “National Championship” was dominated by drivers from the United States.

 

While Rossi openly choose to wrap himself in the American flag, it’s not as important to Newgarden.

“For me, it’s never been something I put a lot of emphasis on,” said the Team Penske driver. “I’m proud to have grown up in such a wonderful country as the United States, but what I’ve always loved about the IndyCar Series is that they bring the best of the best from around the world. That’s always been important to me.

“It means more I think when you have the best from all over the place coming to compete at the Indianapolis 500, during the whole championship. You really feel like you have that in the IndyCar Series. You get the best drivers from around the world.

“To pair with that, I think we need strong Americans running, as well. So for sure, having guys like Alex and Graham Rahal, some young guys coming up like Colton Herta, myself, it’s really great to have young American competition representing as well and running so strongly.

“What I’ve always loved is the great mix of talent from around the world. To me that’s just so important. If it was all Americans running in the championship, I don’t think it would mean as much. I like that we have that great diversity and that great mix from around the world.”

Although these two drivers are both from the USA, they are fierce rivals. They have mutual respect for each other, but they sure aren’t considered close friends.

“Josef and I honestly aren’t that close,” Rossi admitted. “He never lived in Indy when I moved here, or he was just moving. I actually never really hung out with Josef.

“We obviously have a lot of respect for each other. We raced together for a short period of time in Europe. We have a lot of mutual friends.

“Josef and I don’t talk or socialize really. So, it doesn’t have any impact.”

Newgarden agrees that these two men choose to embrace the rivalry.

“I think it’s just really business,” Newgarden said. “He lives in Indianapolis. I live in Nashville. I don’t see him too often outside of the racetrack. We go and we compete. He’s a great competitor. He’s definitely a tremendous talent, has done a great job in his career.

“It’s been a good, competitive relationship I would say.”

With the return of American drivers capable of winning races, championships and Indianapolis 500s, it has sparked a rejuvenation in IndyCar racing. With drivers from all over the world fighting it out for glory, this series that was born and bred in the United States can take pride in featuring some of the best racing in the world as the series continues to grow in popularity.

“I think we just need to continue a focus on our product,” Rossi said. “I think we have the best race product on the planet in terms of entertainment, the variance of winners that we have throughout a season, how many guys are capable, teams are capable of winning races.

“But that’s an ever-moving target. I think IndyCar has done a good job of placing the priority on that. I just think we need to continue doing that and everything will be moving in the right direction.”