If you're not already following GT Racing, not quite as popular here in America versus over in Europe, you may want to get in the know - as NASCAR recently took over the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) and this year will be kicking off something called the Tudor United Sports Car Championship. So lets start 2014 off right by getting up to speed with what goes on in the sportscar racing world...
Grand Touring motorsport (or GTs for most of us) was arguably as popular in 2013 as it has ever been. On all corners of the globe these direct developments of the sports cars that we covet on the street, are raced long and hard. Although a major part of their appeal comes from their apparent similarity to road going vehicles, and the consequent fantasy that we could also drive them, the reality is that they are purpose built racing cars. In 2013 three brands celebrated significant anniversaries and two drivers dominated the headlines, though for completely different reasons.
GT Racing has been with us since the late 40's when in Italy (where else?) a series of events were organised for two door coupés that were very fashionable at that time. The likes of Ferrari and Maserati were building high performance cars that were classified as Gran Turismo or Grand Touring for those of us not of Modenese persuasion. The wealthy purchasers also wanted to race their fine machines and here another distinguishing feature of this class of racing emerges, the participation of non-professional drivers usually known as "Gentlemen". As anyone who works in the business would tell you, not all "Gentlemen Drivers" are gentlemen in the accepted sense of the word, but GT Racing is a broad church and tolerant of most folks, as long as the bills get paid.
So the definition of what constitutes a GT racing car has evolved into a two door car, usually with a roof, that was based around a car that was also for sale on the public roads. Of course this being motorsport, when the factories get involved the rules get bent to ridiculous levels. Toyota's 1998 creation the GT-One is evidence that too much budget is bad for you, one can hardly imagine popping down to local shops for a pint of milk and a loaf of bread in one of these space age machines. In fact this excess caused the rule makers to reign in the manufacturers and keep the racers based in some form of reality and for the most part it has worked well.
What we have now are two sets of rules that approach the issues of safety and cost control from different starting points, however the results are broadly similar. In no particular order there is LM GTE and there is a Pro and an Am category so that the well heeled but amateur drivers can have something to race for. The Pro class is, as one might expect the preserve of the factories and their paid professionals. The rules are the result of a collaboration between the various manufacturers and the Automobile Club de l'Ouest plus the FIA.
The cars are presented by the manufacturers to the governing bodies based on the rule book and various waivers and allowances are made or granted, with the idea of equalising overall performance and trying to keep some sort of a check on budgets. There is also an aim to broaden the number of GT cars eligible to race so that matters are not dominated by obvious marques such as Ferrari and Porsche. There were two major Championships running to these rules, the FIA World Endurance Championship and the American Le Mans Series.
In 2013 the third round of the FIA World Endurance Championship was the Le Mans 24 Hours, indisputably the pre-eminent endurance race of them all. Perhaps that is the logical place to start. The World Championship was contested in 2013 by factory outfits from Aston Martin, Ferrari and Porsche, in France they were joined by ALMS works regulars Corvette and Viper.
The Porsche 911 reached the grand old age of 50 this year. If you had tried to place a bet back in 1963 that Ferdinand Porsche's creation would still be around today having to symbolise all the virtues associated with the brand, you would have been dismissed as a lunatic. Mind you the Rolling Stones have also been at it for 50 years, bigger than ever last year, I doubt if even they foresaw that, we live in strange times.
Porsche announced that they were going to have a crack at winning the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2014 with a new LM P1 hybrid prototype. Before that they would return to La Sarthe as a factory outfit for the first time since 1998, sporting a brace of the brand new 991 RSR models. There was a lot to live up to, Porsche's record at Le Mans is outstanding with 16 outright victories in 63 years of participation and class wins too many to count.
The Porsches were on the pace at La Sarthe especially the #92, driven by Marc Lieb, Richard Lietz and Romain Dumas. This trio pushed the leading Aston Martins very hard.
Early in the season the team struggled to match the speed of their rivals but in France circumstances fell their way, the cooler weather helped and the team found they could double and sometime triple stint the tyres. The Safety Car deployments also fell their way, the #92, along with the #99 and #97 Aston Martins, gained a lap during the first intervention, that proved crucial. In the final analysis Porsche AG Team Manthey recorded a convincing 1-2 finish but there was no joy on the podium, nor Champagne.
On the third lap of the race, the popular Danish driver, Allan Simonsen, had a collision with a barrier in his Aston Martin that proved to be fatal. The whole pit lane was devastated to hear this news, a reminder of the dangers that still lurk in the sport. It was back in 1997 that the last driver was killed at La Sarthe when Sébastien Enjolras had an accident during the Test Weekend, motor sport remains dangerous.
Aston Martin were also celebrating an anniversary, their centenary. We have looked at that HERE and HERE , so this terrible event led the team to seriously consider withdrawing their four other entries in respect of Allan's memory. However the Dane's family insisted that the cars continue and for a while it looked as if #99 driven by Rob Bell, Bruno Senna and Fred Makowiecki would take the honours. However the Frenchman had a huge accident down the Mulsanne Straight with under five hours to go, he emerged unscathed but the car was a write off.
Darren Turner, Peter Dumbreck and Stefan Mücke took up the challenge for Aston Martin but a slight delay to fix a loose undertray and the vagaries of the changeable weather conditions in the final hours left them third.
The other marque celebrating an anniversary in 2013 was Corvette, with 60 years on the clock. The team has been one the strongest at Le Mans in past decade but this year could not match the pace of the Aston Martins and the Porsches. Some said it was balance of performance adjustments that had gone against them, others said that the C6 ZR1 was getting a little long in the tooth, especially compared with the 911 RSR and V8 Vantages. In the end fourth place in class was as good as they might have expected.
Also in the wars were Ferrari, the #71 sustained damage early on and neither they or their sister car could match the sustained pace at the front of the pack.
The final factory effort at Le Mans was the SRT Viper team, who knew from the outset that they would struggle against their faster rivals. 2013 marked the return of the brand to the 24 Hours, their first appearance since 2000. At that time they had dominated the GTS class with a hat trick of victories, they will be contenders in 2014.
Porsche also celebrated a popular win in the LM GT AM class with Raymond Narac, Christophe Bourret and Jean-Karl Vernay taking their IMSA Performance Matmut 997 RSR to victory in front of a brace of Ferraris.
So much for the Big Race, how did the FIA World Endurance Championship pan out? Well, AF Corse and Ferrari pretty much swept the board as far as titles went.
Gianmaria Bruni won the GT Drivers Championship scoring three wins along the way. In addition to this Ferrari won the GT Manufacturers title and AF Corsa the Teams Trophy.
Also visiting the top step of the podium three times in the season was the Aston Martin pairing of Darren Turner and Stefan Mücke but three retirements in such a closely contested category blunted their title aspirations.
Ferrari also triumphed in the LM GTE AM teams Championship with the Ferrari 458 Italia GT2 of 8 Star Motorsports.
All that was left for Aston Martin was Jamie Campbell-Walter and Stuart Hall taking the GT AM drivers title, which is a bit odd in reality. Both drivers are professionals, so logically should not have been able to win a title for amateurs, but there was a gap in the rules and Aston Martin Racing took advantage. The other gentlemen grumbled about this..................the gap is now closed.
American Le Mans Series
Over on the other side of the Atlantic, the American Le Mans Series has had arguably the best GT racing on the planet for the past decade with titanic struggles between BMW, Corvette, Ferrari and Porsche, 2013 was no exception to this rule.
Pratt & Miller are one of the best outfits around and while they struggled a bit at Le Mans, at least by their high standards, they wrapped up both Teams and Drivers titles with Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia at the head of the field.
The strongest opposition to the General Motors squad, aside from the battles between the crews of #3 and #4, came from Team BMW RLL and their pair of Z4 GTE coupés.
The team managed a brace of victories early in the year but a mid season dip in form and the resurgence of Corvette after Le Mans left the elegant coupés in second place.
Perhaps the most surprising result was SRT Motorsport Viper grabbing third overall, ahead of the Ferraris and Porsches.
The Viper's 8 litre V10 produces prodigious amounts of horsepower and torque and gradually the package became more and more competitive. Their maiden victory came in August at Road America with Dominik Farnbacher and Marc Goossens behind the wheel.
Much was expected of the return of Risi Competizione's Ferrari as the Houston based team has multiple championships and Le Mans class wins to their name. They looked good for victory at the opening round in Sebring but slipped to second late in the race. Then the nightmare began, the next seven races saw virtually no points scored with incidents aplenty and two cars wrecked, sometimes the drivers' fault, sometimes not.
Perhaps the lowest point came with the destruction of the 458 Italia GT2 less than ten seconds into the Baltimore race. From here it was an upward trajectory, leading at Austin, winning in Virginia and a podium at Petit Le Mans. They will be back.
Another outfit that expected much was Team Falken. Mirroring the Risi campaign, a podium at Sebring was followed by more misfortunes and another car destroyed at Baltimore. Victory in the final round at Road Atlanta was reward for perseverance in the face of adversity.
It will be all change in endurance racing in North America for 2014 with the Tudor United Sportscar Championship, but GTE will still be the star of the show for many.
Next we take a look back at how GT3 racing went in 2013...