GT to the Rescue: GTE Pro at Le Mans 24 Hours 2018 Preview
Those of us following endurance motorsport have been blessed for over a decade. The headline prototype class has featured a series of titanic contests between full factory outfits. Audi, Peugeot, Porsche and Toyota have gone toe to toe, hand to hand and wheel to wheel, in search of victory at the world's greatest race, the Le Mans 24 Hours. What a spectacle we witnessed. What memories we have, but...
The Field Has Changed
As in life, the only constant in racing is change. Priorities of the automobile industry have a new direction, and now only Toyota remains in the fight for the top step of the podium. However, there is another point of focus for the lucky ones heading for France and La Sarthe this week: the GTE Pro class.
There are six manufacturers in this arena: Aston Martin, BMW, Corvette, Ferrari, Ford and Porsche. Between them they have entered 17 cars, with 51 top line drivers backed up by some of the greatest exponents of motorsport magic on the planet.
As anyone connected to the sport will tell you, Le Mans is whole new ballgame compared to the rest of the season. Unique in that it is run on a mixture of private track and public highway, it presents challenges for man and machine that are simply not encountered elsewhere.
So who will come out on top in this fascinating contest? Perhaps some clues could be found in the results of the Official Test Day, held last week, or perhaps not. No one really knows how hard the GTE Pro teams were pushing themselves and how much they had in reserve. Why this game of cat and mouse? Why not go flat out from the first moment?
The Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO), custodians of the great race, have the unenviable task of trying to match the overall performance of a set of diverse cars in the front-engined Astons, BMWs and 'Vettes and the mid-engined Fords, Ferraris and Porsches. The protocol for this is a complicated set of measurements and allowances known as Balance of Performance (BoP). In some years, like 2017, the ACO got it right and more or less everyone was competitive, with the race decided in the last lap or two. 2016 was not regarded as the finest example of BoP. Ford got away with murder, or played the system better, depending on whose side of the fence you're on.
Matters are complicated by all the teams manipulating the figures, commonly known as "sandbagging," in the hope of getting an unfair, undeserved advantage over their opponents. Welcome to the wonderful world of professional sport. One thing is certain, if all the teams are moaning about BoP then it means that the ACO has more or less got its sums right.
For those of on the outside, this is all very confusing, so perhaps the best way forward is to consider the teams one by one to see if a favourite emerges. In alphabetical order, we start with the reigning champs, Aston Martin Racing. They have two new Aston Martin Vantage AMRs but have had a struggle matching the form of their opponents. Sandbagging was the cry, but it did not look that way from my perspective. They looked in trouble at both Spa and in the Test, and matters were not helped by Marco Sorensen wrecking the #95 car in France. A completely new racer was required, along with more long days and nights for the crew in the pits and back at the factory.
BMW make their return to the Le Mans stage with their imposing BMW M8 GTE run by MTEK. They also have two cars on hand and have looked pretty fast and reliable. One would have to say they're a dark horse.
Corvette have a pair of C7.Rs on the grid, run by Corvette Racing, one of the truly great teams in motorsport this century. Corvette are always challenging at the sharp end of the field, and I cannot believe that 2018 will be any different on that score. The C7.R is a veteran, having been around since 2015, and this could be its last shot at a second victory at Le Mans.
Ferrari will be represented at Le Mans by three examples of their 488 GTE EVO, run by the crack outfit AF Corse under the guidance of Amato Ferrari (no relation). They managed a podium at the first WEC race at Spa but were not convincing, nor did they sound particularly optimistic. Maybe a few espressos will change that.
Ford have no less than four GTs in the fight. Their European-based WEC team is being joined in France by the IMSA outfit, with both under the banner of Chip Ganassi. Ford dominated in 2016 but did not finish as well last year. In 2018, many will make them favourites. All the ingredients are there: drivers, crew and cars. Will the racing gods favour them?
Finally we come to Porsche. As I write this piece on June 8, 2018, it is exactly 70 years to the day since the first Porsche received its operating permit, and there is a special exhibition at the Porsche Museum featuring that very car. Porsche are celebrating this birthday big-time. Well, everyone likes a party. They are making huge efforts to take the GTE Pro class at Le Mans with four 911 RSR entries. Two of these feature iconic liveries, one a salute to the Rothmans coloured cars of the '80s when the 956s and 962s dominated endurance racing, and the other one looks back to 1971 when the factory ran an experimental aerodynamic package at Le Mans on a 917 known as 917/20. It was nicknamed "Der Trüffel-Jager von Zuffenhausen" (The Truffle Hunter of Zuffenhausen).
Who Is the Favorite?
From listening to the movers and shakers in the Le Mans Media Centre last weekend, the smart money was on Porsche, just ahead of Ford. That said, I would never write off Ferrari or Corvette, nor Aston Martin and BMW. Basically I am hedging my bets and sitting firmly on the fence. The only certainty is that the GTE Pro contest at the 2018 Le Mans 24 Hours will be a classic. Whoever comes out on top will have earned the victory the hard way. I can't wait for the flag to drop on Saturday afternoon.