The battle for the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans victory in the GTE Pro class is set to be another battle royale.
With their LMP1 programme shelved, Porsche are putting all of their efforts in to their GT programme, with four factory 911 RSR’s, brimming with factory talent.
Elsewhere AF Corse bring their trio of 488 GTE Evo’s headed by 2017 GTE Pro champions James Calado and Alessandro Pier Guidi, this year joined by Daniel Serra.
Aston Martin return with a pair of striking Vantage AMR’s, in only their second race they will be hoping to have made progress to improve on their fifth and sixth place finishes in Belgium.
Familiar faces at Corvette means they should be challenging for the top spots throughout the weekend with their all-star line up in the two Corvette C7.R’s.
Ford are going head-to-head with Porsche as they once again bring their quartet of Ford GT’s featuring a solid line-up of drivers.
BMW return to Le Mans for the first time since 2011 in their new M8 GTE, and like Aston Martin they are still bedding in their car.
It’s hard to call the shots for who will be at the front in the GTE Pro battle, but if the opening race of the season is anything to go by it looks set to be an even battle between the five manufacturers.
#51 AF Corse – Ferrari 488 GTE Evo
Alessandro Pier Guidi – James Calado – Daniel Serra
In 2017 Ferrari, AF Corse, Alessandro Pier Guidi and James Calado won everything in the FIA World Endurance Championship: Constructors titles, LMGTE Pro Trophy & the GT Drivers title.
Daniel Serra comes in to join the #51 crew after impressing on his Le Mans debut with Aston Martin last year.
#52 AF Corse – Ferrari 488 GTE Evo
Toni Vilander – Antonio Giovinazzi – Luis Felipe Derani
Ferrari returns to La Sarthe with the factory-backed AF Corse team and an upgraded version of the twin-turbo 488. The #52 crew features Sauber F1 reserve driver Antonio Giovinazzi alongside Ferrari stalwart Toni Vilander and former Ford GT driver Pipo Derani.
#63 Corvette Racing – GM – Chevrolet Corvette C7.R
Jan Magnussen – Antonio Garcia – Mike Rockenfeller
Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen (making his twentieth start at Le Mans) are coming off a hard-fought, third-place finish in the team’s most recent IMSA event at Mid-Ohio in May.
They will be joined by former Audi LMP1 and current DTM driver Mike Rockenfeller, who is making his first appearance at La Sarthe since 2012.
The crew have been working hard to find a good setup that works for them, especially following the change back to euro-spec Michelin tyres for this race.
#64 Corvette Racing – GM – Chevrolet Corvette C7.R
Oliver Gavin – Tommy Milner – Marcel Fassler
Corvette Racing has already tasted success with a victory on the streets of Long Beach for Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner in the IMSA GTLM class.
They will team up with yet another former Audi LMP1 driver in the shape of the three-time overall Le Mans winner Marcel Fässler, as they hunt for a ninth class win this weekend.
#66 Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK – Ford GT
Stefan Mücke – Olivier Pla – Billy Johnson
Having taken the first win of the 2018/19 season, the #66 car has started the season well. Ford have shown they are a force to be reckoned with and are definitely key favourites to take the class win on Sunday.
This year marks the third time that the trio will share the cockpit for Le Mans. Their last two attempts have not been greatly successful, with their best finish being 21st overall in 2016, fourth in class.
After having such a strong start to the year they will be looking to at least claim a podium, which looks to be very much in their reach.
#67 Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK – Ford GT
Andy Priaulx – Harry Tincknell – Tony Kanaan
Tony Kanaan had his first run at Le Mans last year, racing with one of the Le Mans-only entry Fords. He steps into the full season car with Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell this year in an attempt to claim class victory. Having taken an Indy 500 victory in 2013, a Le Mans victory would see him one step closer to achieving Fernando Alonso’s goal of the triple crown of motorsport.
It was not a bad race for Priaulx and Tincknell last year, ending second on the class podium after a last lap issue for one of the Corvettes saw it drop behind them in the final order. With the Fords looking so strong this year they are favourites to take the class victory, and Tincknell will be keen to make up for lost points after his incident at the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps.
#68 Ford Chip Ganassi Team USA – Ford GT
Joey Hand – Dirk Müller – Sébastien Bourdais
After Sébastien Bourdais’ 2017 Le Mans dream was ended by injuries sustained in a horrendous crash in Qualifying for the Indianapolis 500, his Verizon IndyCar colleague Tony Kanaan was drafted in as a replacement. Bourdais, who took the GTE Pro class victory at the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans alongside Joey Hand and Dirk Müller, was forced to watch from the sidelines. 2017 marked a disappointing race for the #68 USA entered Ford GT as they slipped to sixth in class.
The winning trio are back for 2018 and will look to make the same mark they made with that class win – it was Ford’s first Le Mans victory for 50 years.
#69 Ford Chip Ganassi Team USA – Ford GT
Ryan Briscoe – Richard Westbrook – Scott Dixon
In 2016, the #69 car stood alongside the winning #68 entry on the podium. However, just like the #68, their form deserted them in 2017, finishing seventh in class. For the third year in a row, they keep the same driver line-up of Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook and Scott Dixon.
Australian Briscoe, who had a brief spell as Panasonic Toyota Racing’s third driver for the 2004 Formula 1 season, returns to Le Mans for the fifth time in his career – yet he’s still not the most experienced driver in the #68 car.
That title goes to Essex’s Richard Westbrook – now in his eighth attempt. The only Le Mans he has missed this decade came in 2015 and he has two class podiums to show for his efforts – split between GT2 and GTE Pro.
IndyCar series leader Scott Dixon is the ‘least experienced’, having joined Le Mans and the WEC at the same time Ford USA chose to. With one podium to his name already, the New Zealander will be hoping to take a maiden victory in the series this year with the competitive GT, a car that took victory at Spa.
#71 AF Corse – Ferrari 488 GTE Evo
Davide Rigon – Sam Bird – Miguel Molina
AF Corse is running three factory cars for the first time at Le Mans in the face of tougher competition in the GTE Pro class. Miguel Molina again teams up with British Ferrari regular Sam Bird and Davide Rigon.
#81 BMW Team MTEK- BMW M8 GTE
Martin Tomczyk – Nicky Catsburg – Philipp Eng
BMW Motorsport are back at Le Mans with their first factory entry for seven years. Whilst they will not be able to get emulate the overall victory they scored with the open-top V12 LMR in 1999, they will hope to put up a good fight in the competitive GTE Pro class and improve on their showing at Spa-Francorchamps last month.
Two of the three drivers in the #81 car make their Le Mans debut. 2011 DTM series champion Martin Tomczyk is joined by GT journeyman Nicky Catsburg and current DTM star Philipp Eng – fresh from his podium at the Hungaroring two weeks’ ago. Eng’s first visit to the Circuit de la Sarthe came in the wet/dry 2016 race with the Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche in GTE Pro, finishing eighth in class.
#82 BMW Team MTEK – BMW M8 GTE
Augusto Farfus – Antonio Felix Da Costa – Alexander Sims
Augusto Farfus, like Eng, has been balancing the DTM with his new WEC commitments – the Brazilian also competes in his native Stock Car series. 2018 marks the 34-year-olds third attempt at Le Mans, his second in the GTE Pro class. Out of the six, Farfus is the only driver to have driven for BMW in their last factory entry for the 24 Hours back in 2011.
António Felix Da Costa is another new face at Le Mans, but he’s not that unfamiliar. The former Red Bull backed single seater prospect turned his attention to sportscar and touring car racing in 2014 and would no doubt like to improve the class fifth place the #82 car earned at Spa to a podium.
Similarly to Farfus, Brit Alexander Sims makes an overdue return to Le Mans. His debut in the race came in the LMP2 class in 2012, but saw the car fail to make the finish. A former McLaren Autosport BRDC Award winner, Sims has spent the past two years in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with BMW, as well has partaking in development duty for the MS&AD Andretti Formula E team – heavily associated with the German marque.
#91 Porsche GT Team – Porsche 911 RSR
Richard Lietz – Gianmaria Bruni – Frédéric Makowiecki
As Porsche celebrate their seventieth year, the two European 911 RSR’s will be running in special throwback liveries, the #91 car adorns the famous Rothmans colours, that the team will hope to bring them luck this time around.
Richard Lietz and Porsche go together hand-in-hand and in the eleven times the Austrian has competed at Le Mans it has always been in a Porsche, he has three class wins to his name plus a third place finish. Lietz will be looking to add to that podium tally again this year after missing out by one place in 2017 alongside Frédéric Makowiecki and Patrick Pilet.
For Makowiecki it marks his eighth attempt at the endurance classic and he is still in search of victory, his best finish a second place in 2012 and a third place in 2014.
While this will be Gianmaria Bruni’s tenth appearance at Le Mans, it will be his first in Porsche machinery having been a mainstay at Ferrari for so long. Three victories and two more podiums adds winning experience to the already strong team.
#92 Porsche GT Team – Porsche 911 RSR
Michael Christensen – Kévin Estre – Laurens Vanthoor
As with the #91 Porsche, the #92 is also running a special livery for this race, a tribute to the famed ‘Pink Pig’ livery that was seen in the 70’s on their 917/20, hopefully the trio of drivers can bring the ‘Truffle Hunter’ a little more luck that it’s older relative after they retired from the 1971 race due to an accident.
Michael Christensen heads in to his fourth run at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, teaming up again with Kévin Estre who he competed alongside with in 2017. The Dane will be looking to better his best finish of fifth place in 2015.
Frenchman Kévin Estre has had no luck at Le Mans, 2018 will be his fourth entry with all previous attempts ending with a DNF.
Laurens Vanthoor makes his GT debut at Le Mans having previously race in LMP2 in 2015 and 2016. The fast Belgian driver has shown solid pace in the past and won last time out on the IMSA series at Mid Ohio alongside Earl Bamber.
#93 Porsche GT Team – Porsche 911 RSR
Patrick Pilet – Nick Tandy – Earl Bamber
The #93 Porsche Team is made up completely of Porsche works drivers for their one-off appearance in WEC this season for Le Mans. The trio are racing the Porsche 911 RSR in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship this season, with Nick Tandy and Patrick Pilet partnered in the #911 and Earl Bamber racing with Laurens Vanthoor. Vanthoor moves into the full season #92 for Le Mans.
The three have a lot of racing history together, with Bamber and Tandy sharing their first Le Mans overall victory with each other when they took the third-entry Porsche 919 Hybrid across the line first in 2015.
Pilet is highly experienced in racing Porsche GTE atd Le Mans, with this being his tenth entry into the race (all of which he has competed in a Porsche).
#94 Porsche GT Team – Porsche 911 RSR
Romain Dumas – Timo Bernhard – Sven Müller
Sven Müller takes on his first 24 Hours of Le Mans this year in Timo Bernard’s team Porsche 911 RSR. Bernhard will race in the Pro class again for the first time since 2013. Bernard’s first race at Le Mans was in a Porsche GTE and he helped his team mates take it to class victory. He will be hoping to do the same with Muller and ex-Porsche Hybrid team mate Romain Dumas this weekend.
Last time Dumas and Bernhard raced together was in the Audi Sport LMP1 (2009-2011). The duo took the overall victory with the team in 2010 along with co-driver Mike Rockenfeller. Both Dumas and Bernard have two overall Le Mans victories to their name so know what it takes to be successful around the Circuit de la Sarthe.
#95 Aston Martin Racing – Aston Martin Vantage AMR
Marco Sørensen – Nicki Thiim – Darren Turner
Darren Turner sees himself split from his 2017 Le Mans Winning team mate Jonny Adam as he has climbed on board with the Dane Train. Aston Martin have managed to secure two very strong line ups for their pro cars which should see them in a strong fighting position. However, BoP has not been in their favour so far this year, so hopefully the Le Mans weighting will make the field a little more evenly matched.
Nicki Thiim joins Turner as another Le Mans GT Pro class winner in the car, whilst Marco Sorensen is still waiting to claim his maiden victory at the Circuit de la Sarthe. 2018 is Sorensen’s fourth attempt and the blue ribband event.
The trio have raced together once before at Le Mans, for the 84th edition of the race in 2016. They managed fifth in class, crossing the line twenty-third overall. They will be hoping they are in a more competitive position that fifth when it comes to Saturday / Sunday’s race.
#97 Aston Martin Racing – Aston Martin Vantage AMR
Alex Lynn – Maxime Martin – Jonathan Adam
Alex Lynn and Maxime Martin signed as works drivers this year with Aston Martin, and are now going into their first Le Mans with the British team. Both have proven their worth and talent, meaning this will be a car to keep an eye on throughout the 24 hours of racing.
Pairing the duo with last year’s Le Mans winner Jonny Adam was a clever move on Aston Martin’s part. The Brit managed to pull the #97 through the field to an unexpected class victory last year, providing some incredible racing in the closing stages to get past Jordan Taylor in the Corvette Racing car.
With the racing talents in the cockpit this year, make sure you keep tabs on where the #97 is throughout the race, even if the BoP and pace doesn’t show it very high in competitive order.
The Checkered Flag will be reporting all week from Le Mans including around the clock coverage of the race, we hope you join us on our journey through what looks set to be another highly competitive edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.