2009 Winner: Risi Competizione – Ferrari F430
Drivers – Jaime Melo/Pierre Kaffer/Mika Salo – 329 laps completed
What to watch for in 2010:
The closest racing at Le Mans?
America vs Europe
I'm very aware that the sportcar press can sometimes seem like a bit of GT2 racing love-in at the moment. Why after all is everyone so fixated on the quality of racing in the slowest class that will be racing at Le Mans?
If you actually think that you've clearly not seen the GT2 racing that has graced both the American and European Le Mans Series.
Podiums and wins have been decided by late moves in both championships – the recent ALMS race at Laguna Seca being decided by a three-abreast move around the last corner. The class has also seen some, ahem, aggressive driving, so don't be surprised if some drivers seem to forget they've (ideally) got to make their bodywork last a day.
The 18 car field at Le Mans includes eight different manufacturers – with each of them having at least some works involvement in the teams that will carry their cars into battle. The driving talent that will man the cars includes some of the best tin-top drivers in the world, with touring car drivers and reformed F1 pilots driving multiple GT racing champions from both sides of the Atlantic.
The ALMS is represented by the pair of works Corvettes (this their first year in GT2 at Le Mans) the Risi Ferraris and single entries from Flying Lizard Motorsports and Jaguar RSR – the famous marque returning to Le Mans with Paul Gentilozzi's team. Europe too has it's leading teams well represented – two AF Corse F430, two Felbermayr-Proton Porsches, strong line-ups from the Matmut and Scuderia Italia Porsches and representatives of Spyker and Aston Martin.
Trying to predict a GT2 winner is near impossible, no one team stands out – as much as half the class stands a realistic chance of stepping somewhere on the podium, but many of the same teams stand a chance of making the mistake of pushing a little hard to escape the competition behind.
The SRO shelved plans for a dedicated GT2 championship before the season started, but Le Mans is going to show what it could have been.
No.63 Corvette Racing – Chevrolet Corvette ZR1
Drivers – Jan Magnussen/Johnny O'Connell/Antonio Garcia
Taking step back into GT2 (their LMGT1 showing at Le Mans was the last outing (to date) for the Doug Feehan's operation in the class) has not been easy for Corvette. They've gone from sweeping all before them to some of toughest racing on earth. They're often one of the squads involved in the attention grabbing battles and they're still capable of winning in GT2, but so are most cars in the class.
As last year Brazilian Garcia joins regulars Magnussen and O'Connell in the car and as ever Feehan and company have the ability to get a car through an endurance race, though the team have a habit of self-imploding, take the coming together in the Sebring pitlane for a prime example.
No.64 Corvette Racing – Chevrolet Corvette ZR1
Drivers – Oliver Gavin/Olivier Beretta/Emmanuel Collard
The second Corvette is, logically enough, a very similar story to the first with another three massively experience sportcar drivers in the driving seat. Former Porsche and Pescarolo man Collard adding yet another feather to a bow already well flighted by Corvette's traditional 'Oli' driving duo.
Both Corvettes – the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune notwithstanding – should be amongst the class leaders. However, the strength of the field means that it may take a stroke of bad luck for one of the other teams to give them another Le Mans class win to celebrate.
No.75 Prospeed Competition – Porsche 911 GT3 RSR
Drivers – Paul van Splunteren/Niek Hommerson/Louis Machiels
You can write a pretty short list of the team that won't be contending for the win, and this is one of the cars on that list.
With no SRO run GT2 championship this year Belgian squad Prospeed moved to the LMS, and have been making god progress in their first two races of this year. However, those steps have been made with a far better driving staff that will take the wheel at Le Mans. Gone are the reigning FIA GT2 champions and in come Dutch GT3/4 driver van Splunteren and minor GT drivers Machiels (Belgian) and Hommerson (another Dutchman).
They all have some GT racing experience, often in Porsches and occasionally with Prospeed, but Le Mans behind be a little too far for the trio and a team still adapting to ACO regulations.
No.76 IMSA Performance Matmut – Porsche 911 GT3 RSR
Drivers – Raymond Narac/Patrick Pilet/Patrick Long
This Porsche however, could very easily be another one of the contenders. One of the few GT2 teams that still puts faith in anything other than a professional racing driver, with team owner (and Rouen Porsche dealer) Raymond Narac leading the team into Le Mans ahead of Porsche works drivers Pilet and Long – the latter joining the team for the race.
Winners of the class in 2007, though with Richard Lietz in Long's seat, the team have showed flashes of similar form this year in the Le Mans Series – Pilet dragging the car from seventh to the lead during the first stint at Paul Ricard before bad luck dropped the team back into the pack. The team was also part of a typical GT2 battle at Spa, where ten seconds separated the four-car fight for second place after six hours of racing. The addiction of American Patrick Long can only strengthen the team ever further, who now only need better luck and fewer mechanical problems.
No.77 Team Felbermayr-Proton – Porsche 911 GT3 RSR
Drivers – Marc Lieb/Richard Lietz/Wolf Henzler
Quite simply the strongest Porsche line-up in the class in the team with the best proven track record. All three drivers are Porsche AG employees and Lieb and Lietz are the reigning LMS GT2 champions with the team last year, and have won both of the rounds held so far this year. Almost without doubt they will be spearheading the challenge of both the European and Porsche team.
Or rather they should.
The exact same combination of car, drivers and team were expected to be front runners this time last year. And where. For 24 laps before the car ground to halt metres from the pitlane having run out of fuel. Such are the margins of error, and the cost of even the tiniest mistake.
No.78 – BMW Motorsport – BMW M3 E92
Drivers – Jorg Muller/Augusto Farfus/Uwe Alzen
First a lesson in the lineage of the car. The BMWs for Le Mans are not the same as the ALMS versions – which have completely different suspension and aerodynamics – nor are they run by the same team, BMW's well-decorated Schnitzer outfit taking the honours for June. Nor is it the same car that the driving trio won the Nurburgring 24 Hours in last month sharing with Pedro Lamy (Pedro has a higher calling at Le Mans.
The team have taken (and are still taking) their time to get used to the new car. With their slow, yet reliable approach they have embodied a sort of “slow and steady wins the race” mantra, though fourth remains their best result in the LMS, that coming at Spa, one place ahead of the IMSA Porsche.
The drivers represent plenty of racing experience – Alzen has been a fixture in Porsche racing, while Muller and Farfus have Touring Car backgrounds. Hopefully, however, Farfus can show some the sanity from the Nordschleife, and less of his “random sense of direction” (to quote commentator Martin Haven) that has kept BMW panel shop in business following WTCC rounds.
No.79 – BMW Motorsport – BMW M3 E92
Drivers – Andy Priaulx/Dirk Muller/Dirk Werner
How you compare this driving trio to their teammates depends on how valuable you think the experience of the two Dirks is – Messrs Muller and Werner both having driven with Rahal-Letterman's ALMS effort since it began last year with Muller the only one of the team's drivers to be included by Schnitzer.
Personally their additional experience – of the class, more so than the car – could be the difference between the two team, though both M3s will suffer with the drivers' lack of Le Mans experience (they have barely a handful of starts between the six of them) that could easily be their undoing.
The only sure thing about the BMW is that the no.79 will be well photographed in June as the 17th and latest incarnation of the manufacturer's famous 'Art Cars'. No prizes for presentation at Le Mans though.
No.80 – Flying Lizard Motorsports – Porsche 911 GT3 RSR
Drivers – Seth Neiman/Darren Law/Jorg Bergmeister
Seth Neiman and the rest of the Lizards should feel a little hard done by. The brand's de facto flag carriers in America, where they are ALMS class champions, have been rewarded with Porsche moving Patrick Long to IMSA, a decision that blunts any chance Flying Lizard had for a class win.
That said, Bergmeister – himself a Porsche works driver – remains at the team, and Darren Law, is possibly as close to a works driver as you get without the paycheck in Euros having been a regular in Porsche powered machinery in both the ALMS and Grand-Am for many years. The team are proven in getting a car through an endurance race. Neiman, however, is another of the more gentleman drivers in the field, he has the experience in the car, but lacks the speed of the fleet of works drivers.
No.81 – Jaguar RSR – Jaguar XKRS
Drivers – Paul Gentilozzi/Ryan Dalziel/Marc Goossens
OK, if you're a Jaguar fan, skip the next few paragraphs.
Perhaps the best thing to say about the team is that it appears they're actually going to be on the grid – when the original field of 55 was announced in February RSR were perhaps the favourites to pull out.
The team have had a developmental nightmare with the car, appearing late last year and being plagued with copious reliability and speed problems, eventually finishing their first race in May at Laguna Seca some 40 laps behind. For any team still developing car Le Mans is possibly the worst place to have to come, and the car is very, very likely to retire, or be shamefully off the pace (despite the driving line-up)
No doubt the team will garner a lot of attention simply for being a Jaguar at Le Mans, but I fear we could have another JLOC on our hands here.
No.82 – Risi Competizione – Ferrari F430
Drivers – Jaime Melo/Gianmaria Bruni/Pierre Kaffer
The red Risi Ferrari (this one as opposed to the Krohn Racing effort below) have an astonishing record in the big endurance events. They have won the class at Sebring, Le Mans and its ALMS cousin Petit Le Mans for the last two years. That they have missed out on the ALMS championship is something of an anomaly.
2010 sees some changes at Risi. Mika Salo – who has been part of the team for most of the endurance wins – left the team over the winter. However, the team that will take to track remains strong. Both Kaffer and Bruni have past wins with Risi, and a wealth of Ferrari driving and Circuit de la Sarthe experience from other teams. It's possible Salo's departure has brought together three of the best Ferrari GT drivers in the world.
If Risi aren't at least challenging for the win, something's gone badly wrong.
No.83 – Risi Competizione – Ferrari F430
Drivers – Tracy Krohn/Nic Jonsson/Eric van de Poele
The green and blue livery of Krohn Racing is becoming something of a Le Mans fixture of late and is one of the most recognisable in sportcar racing, thanks to fact the team also make regular appearances in Grand-Am, and not many other people want to drive a car the colour of sneeze.
Despite amateur driver Krohn's presence the team have a good record at Le Mans, finishing third in class last year and second in 2007, though those finishes sandwich a DNF caused by an accident after only 12 laps. If the three drivers can keep the car on the tarmac, then the Risi part of the team should give them hope of contenting for another podium finish. But the drivers will have to be pretty much faultless.
No.85 – Spyker Squadron – Spyker C8 Laviolette
Drivers – Tom Coronel/Jeroen Bleekemolen/Peter Dumbreck
Spyker have remained true to form, bringing one of the (increasingly aged) C8s with a top quality driving line-up – current FIA GT1 driver Dumbreck joining the Dutch duo of racing polymaths Coronel and Bleekemolen. It would be naive to think that the team stood a realistic chance of challenging for the podium – the C8 somehow seems to belong to a previous era of GT2 racing.
However, the team have got rid of most of the reliability gremlins that used to follow the Audi-engined car around, and have been consistently inside the top half-dozen teams in the Le Mans Series – even closing out 2009 with a pair of second places. Of course, if the team could run that consistently for 24 hours around Le Mans then a La Sarthe podium for Spyker would be richly deserved (and popular, you have to feel). But a podium would also need several of the, dare I say, better teams to encounter trouble, which while possible, is perhaps not probable.
No.88 – Team Felbermayr-Proton – Porsche 911 GT3 RSR
Drivers – Horst Felbermayr Sr/Horst Felbermayr Jr/Miro Konopka
Internal Porsche politics at work here you have to feel. The line-up that's taken the second Felbermayr car for the first two round of the Le Mans Series – Christian Ried, plus Porsche works driver Martin Ragginger and Patrick Long – would have easily made this car a contender of the podium, as it was at Paul Ricard, finishing second.
But Long is moved to bolster the IMSA Performance challenge, and Ried and Ragginger are (pretty inexplicably) absent from the entry list altogether. Instead father and son Felbermayr – the men behind the heavy plant company that adorns the Porsches panels – and Slovakian Konopka, a refugee from the Autoracing Club Bratislava GT1 effort, step in. The three do have Le Mans experience, and the team do have factory support – see the line-up for their first car if you doubt that. Unfortunately, the drivers will make a mistake long before the team do.
No.89 – Hankook Team Farnbacher – Ferrari F430
Drivers – Dominik Farnbacher/Allan Simonsen/Leh Keen
A nice dark horse to challenge the big works entries. Farnbacher and Simonsen are, in my eyes, two of the most underrated drivers in GT racing and both have masses of experience driving the Ferrari, and an increasing amount of time on the Hankook tyres. The addition of American Leh Keen gives the team a very capable third driver, with wins in Grand-Am and the ALMS.
Last year the team's undoing was the Hankook rubber, the car suffering several punctures that eventually ended their race. The tyres potentially remain the weakest link in the chain, but there is evidence that things are improving, with the headline grabbing (in sportscar circles at least) second place overall in the Nurburging 24 Hours – perhaps the only race tougher on cars and drivers than Le Mans?
No.92 – JMW Motorsport – Aston Martin Vantage
Drivers – Rob Bell/Tim Sugden/Bryce Miller
The GT2 Vantage has always been a troubled car. In its previous life with Drayson Racing the car was plagued by many and varied reliability problems. It was often fast, but insanely fragile, and for that reason it saw few checkered flags.
Unfortunately that trend seems to have continued for the small Colchester-based JMW outfit, with both LMS races ending early. Like the Jaguar, and worryingly despite being several years older, the Aston has the feeling of a car still going through teething troubles and development glitches, and like with the poor old Jag, those kind of problems can mean a long (or should that be short) weekend at Le Mans.
The team, Dunlop's standard bearers in the class, if not the series, moved across from Ferrari over the off season. The team's credentials are undoubted – with the Ferrari they punched far above their weight – finishing fourth at Le Mans last year and second in the class points battle in the LMS. However, a repeat of that finish with the Vantage would be the astonishing result of the race.
No.95 – AF Corse – Ferrari F430
Drivers – Giancarlo Fisichella/Jean Alesi/Toni Vilander
This team, with all the star power of the first two names on the entry have been one of the biggest surprises of the first two Le Mans Series races where the trio have come away with podiums. So much rested on whether the two former F1 drivers could adapt to the different car and style of racing, and it seems they have made the move faster than anyone expected – especially Fisichella, who was already exhibiting some of the most aggressive driving in the field at Paul Ricard.
The team too, has had to adapt, with AF Corse, like Porsche's Prospeed moving to a full LMS campaign after the SRO's GT2 championship fell through. However, AF Corse have found the move far easier than Prospeed, though they were no doubt helped by the fact they have often competed in ACO races before, using the 'Advanced Engineering' moniker. In both series, and under both names, AF Corse have had plenty of success. If Alesi and Fisichella (and AF Corse stalwart Vilander) can continue their rapid start to the season they could easily be fighting Risi for top Ferrari and victory.
No.96 – AF Corse – Ferrari F430
Drivers – Luis Perez Companc/Matias Russo/Mika Salo
Argentines Companc and Russo, the former a more experienced rally driver than GT racer, burst onto the GT2 scene in 2009 when they finished second at Sebring, with Gimmi Bruni as third driver. However, they have struggled ever since to prove that that result was anything other than a lucky fluke, especially given that they have had the expertise of AF Corse/Advanced Engineering behind them, who are easily Europe's best Ferrari squad.
This year Bruni moves to American rivals Risi, swapping places with Mika Salo. Salo is a veteran of Ferrari GT2 efforts and of Le Mans, but he alone cannot carry the team, and needs his teammates to revist their Floridian form if he is to add to his trophy cabinet.
No.97 – BMS Scuderia Italia – Porsche 911 GT3 RSR
Drivers – Richard Westbrook/Marco Holzer/Timo Scheider
I-Spy with my little eye something beginning with P and S.
Surely nothing else could make Scuderia Italia move from Ferrari – a brand that is their natural home – to Stuttgart's finest. Westbrook and Holzer are Prospeed's regular drivers – Westbrook is the reigning class champion from the FIA series and Holzer is another of the Porsche works stable. Scheider is the reigning and double DTM champion for Audi (who are owned by Porsche) making his Le Mans debut.
Naturally in a team with two GT2 veterans all eyes will be Scheider to make the potential mistake, as he like Farfus in BMW has to make the jump from Touring Cars to endurance racing on fast-forward.
The team pulled off a surprise (to me at least) second place at Le Mans last year with a far weaker driving threesome, but in a Ferrari. How the team copes with the switch to Porsche, for what at the moment is a single race, will decide whether they can come anywhere close to delivering for their new masters.
The 78th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans takes place on the 12th and 13th of June, with television coverage varying. However, full live-from-La Sarthe coverage is available from Radio Le Mans on www.radiolemans.com.
Photo Credit: Richard Prince/GM Racing Photo