Tony DiZinno, June 12, 2012
What the GTE classes lack in quality (only nine GTE Pro entries) this year at Le Mans, they make up for in quality. A legitimate seven of the nine GTE Pro cars have realistic win chances, although at first glance, Ferrari and Corvette appear to have a slight edge over Aston Martin and Porsche. The GTE Am category is a little less clear cut, and, as the slowest of the four classes at Le Mans, the hardest to predict given how the race evolves as these cars get lapped and the disparity in driving ability. The Pro class should come down to the wire, with Am less likely to, at the end of 24 hours.
AF CORSE – Second at Le Mans last year and third at Sebring this year among all GT cars (even if it was first in WEC), AF Corse has to be thinking win-or-bust at this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours. The Ferrari 458 is one of the stars at Le Mans and many would argue the lineup of Fisichella, Bruni and Vilander is the best in class – even if occasionally they’re prone to an overenthusiastic maneuver. The sister car’s lineup of Bertolini, Beretta and Cioci is down a bit, but not much, to the No. 51. Another team where it won’t be a surprise to see both cars in contention come Sunday morning.
CORVETTE – Defending Le Mans champions, although the lineup is slightly changed. But Tommy Milner, Oliver Gavin and Richard Westbrook have worked incredibly well this season – Milner and Gavin have the last two ALMS wins on their scorecards this year, and Gavin’s no doubt primed to eclipse the disappointment of his last two 24 hours. The defending champion No. 73 still has Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia, with Jordan Taylor thrust into the biggest spotlight of his young career in making his Le Mans debut. Assuming youthful exuberance doesn’t get the better of him, that car should be able to match the No. 74 as prime contenders.
FELBERMAYR – One of only two Porsches in the GTE Pro class, but tried-and-true remains the mantra for the Felbermayr-Proton effort. Three factory Porsche shoes in Lietz, Lieb and Henzler know how each other work, know how the team works, and know how to win in class at Le Mans (they last did in 2010). The new variable this year is the updated to 2012-spec Porsche 911, which has been a fraction down on outright pace in the U.S. to Corvette and Ferrari, but still won in Lietz and Lieb’s hands last race in Spa. Porsche can rest comfortably in knowing winning Le Mans isn’t solely a speed exercise, and this car should remain a factor throughout.
ASTON MARTIN – It led at Spa, qualified on pole in Monterey, and finished top-five at both Sebring and Long Beach. Aston Martin’s resurgence with its new 2012-spec Vantage has been one of the biggest, but most pleasant, surprises of the GT season thus far on either continent, and marks a welcome return to prominence after the disaster that was 2011 with the AMR-One prototype. The Aston should be particularly strong at Le Mans, according to lead driver Darren Turner, who said the Vantage excels in high-speed corners and long straights – both staples of the course. Reliability remains the lone question mark as Aston seeks its first Le Mans win since the GT1 era.
LUXURY – Despite the pace of the Ferrari, Luxury’s No. 59 has carried the black cloud of poor luck thus far in 2012. Two of its drivers – Jaime Melo and Dominik Farnbacher – have also been prone to more mistakes than you’d expect over the last 14-16 months. Still, Melo’s a former Le Mans winner with Risi, Farnbacher is undeniably quick and was second in 2010, and Fred Makowiecki might be that guy who is primed for a breakout Le Mans drive this year.
JMW – Like Strakka in LMP1, JMW’s yellow Ferrari 458 is in a disadvantage as the only GTE Pro class team with a gentleman driver in its lineup in Roger Wills. It’s also the only car in class running on Dunlops, and if the temperatures don’t suit the tires right, the team may struggle. Still, Jonny Cocker and James Walker are more than capable shoes and any result they achieve will likely have been better than expected.
FLYING LIZARD – It just seems wrong to call Flying Lizard anything other than a contender. Yet redundancy has been the story of Flying Lizard at Le Mans – where the team enters 2012 still in search of its elusive first GT class win. The driver lineup is close to the best in class – Jorg Bergmeister, Patrick Long and Marco Holzer – but now the new 2012-spec Porsche 911 has been just a bit adrift of the other GT class contenders. The car is back to its usual dark red and silver livery after a special one-off for Le Mans a year ago, and would be a popular victor if it ends its drought.
Hardest to pick a winner in this class. Larbre Competition won last year at Le Mans and the class wins in two WEC rounds have thus far been split between Felbermayr-Proton (Sebring) and the non-WEC entered Imsa Performance Matmut (Spa). So, several possible contenders.
LARBRE – Jack Leconte’s team finished 1-2 in class a year ago with a Corvette and a Porsche, and is set to defend with an improved driver lineup and uniformity in cars. Ex-Peugeot driver Pedro Lamy replaces Gabriele Gardel alongside Julien Canal and Patrick Bornhauser. The No. 70 Corvette has the same lineup that finished second a year ago, except the car changes.
KROHN – Tracy Krohn has scored several Le Mans podiums in joint Risi/Krohn entries in the main GT2 class before it was split into Pro and Am last year. The team now runs the 2011-spec Ferrari 458 this year instead of the year-old 430, and combined with Nic Jonsson and Michele Rugolo, this is one of the best-prepped American teams in endurance racing.
IMSA – Spa GTE Am class winners, the Imsa Performance Matmut team did not receive an entry with its GTE Pro class car, so instead relies solely on this Porsche this year. Of the drivers, team principal Raymond Narac is a former Le Mans winner and Nicolas Armindo and Anthony Pons should provide capable support.
FELBERMAYR – Sebring GTE Am winners, the “R squad” of Christian Ried, Gianluca Roda and Paolo Ruberti are overall a good squad for the team’s Porsche, and should remain in contention provided reliability issues don’t arise.
FLYING LIZARD – Flying Lizard has a better chance in GTE Am than Pro for its elusive first Le Mans win, as the team has been able to maximize the lineup for the “pro-am-am” nature of the class. Spencer Pumpelly is only rated a Silver driver despite his success in Grand-Am and ALMS GT racing over the years, so is eligible to race alongside fellow pro Patrick Pilet – a last-minute replacement for Darren Law –and team principal Seth Neiman.
ASTON MARTIN – AMR’s second Vantage has one of the better driver lineups in class, with former GT2 runner-up Allan Simonsen and P2 class winner Kristian Poulsen on board. Another in the, “Will have speed, but needs reliability” camp, though, for a full 24 hours.
JWA-AVILA – No superstars in the first-year team’s Porsche, although Markus Palttala has the potential to surprise. Finishing is the goal for Paul Daniels’ squad.
LUXURY – Gunnar Jeannette is the youngest driver to finish Le Mans, and combined with Frankie Montecalvo and Pierre Ehret are a capable lineup in the team’s Ferrari. Montecalvo’s never raced at Le Mans and will have a steep learning curve within the field’s slowest class.
AF CORSE – Neither the AF Corse-Waltrip or sole AF Corse 458s have the caliber of drivers or experience levels as its GTE Pro class counterparts. Key for both squads – particularly the No. 61 car that includes NASCAR’s Brian Vickers and MWR co-partner Rob Kauffman in his second Le Mans – is staying out of the way when being lapped.
PROSPEED – This car should be a pole contender in the hands of one of the fastest drivers in class, Sean Edwards. However, the reliability and endurance factor with Edwards joined by Abdulaziz Al Faisal and Bret Curtis will probably see this car outside the contending realm.
JMB – Far from an inspiring driver lineup in the team’s Ferrari 458, but if they keep it running long enough they could get a result out of this year’s race.