While prototypes dominate this year’s entry, the 80th Le Mans 24 Hours still features a stellar field of GT machinery that will be vying for top class honors in both production-based categories.
The best of the American Le Mans Series meets the FIA World Endurance Championship for the second time after an enthralling battle seen at Sebring, while additional entries, in both the GTE-Pro and GTE-Am categories, should add some further excitement.
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Browse through SPEED.com’s favorites, dark horses and other notables entered in the highly competitive GTE ranks this weekend. Check back tomorrow for an extensive look at LMP1 and LMP2, ahead of the twice-around-the-clock French endurance classic (Sat. 8:30 a.m. ET, Live! SPEED).
GTE-PRO (9 Entries)
After a packed 18-car entry in 2011, the top production-based category sees a mere nine cars for this year’s race. While its a noticeable drop, the main contenders (minus BMW, which has switched focus to its DTM program in Europe), have returned and have each upped their game.
Corvette vs. Ferrari vs. Aston Martin vs. Porsche… Each of the four manufacturers holds a legitimate shot at victory, which could make the fight for top honors in GTE-Pro the most interesting battle this year.
Corvette Racing (Corvette C6.R): Returning as defending class winners, the Pratt Miller squad ride plenty of momentum, having won the last two ALMS rounds with its wide-body Corvette C6.R. After nearly three years of hard work and persevering, it appears the factory squad is at the top of their game in the GT(2) category.
The bow-tie brigade features a freshened-up driver lineup this year, as 21-year-old Jordan Taylor makes his Le Mans debut in the No. 73 Corvette with Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia. The squad’s No. 74 car, though, will likely be the one to watch with Long Beach and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca winners Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner being joined by Richard Westbrook.
An heavily updated car that’s two inches wider and featuring new suspension and bodywork, Corvette is in prime position to take its unprecedented eighth class victory at La Sarthe and two in a row in the highly competitive GTE-Pro ranks. A test day accident for Le Mans rookie Taylor may have come as a slight setback but the team is certainly up for the task.
AF Corse (Ferrari F458 Italia): Corvette’s main competition will likely come from a pair of screaming Prancing Horses, which have been on form since the FIA WEC season-opener at Sebring. As one of the most accomplished GT teams in the world, AF Corse has achieved nearly every major victory and championship, except for Le Mans.
Given the strength of the Ferrari F458 Italia and the all-star driver lineup the Amato Ferrari-owned operation has assembled, 2012 could be AF Corse’s year to shine at La Sarthe. Both the No. 51 car of Gianmaria Bruni, Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander as well as the Andrea Bertolini, Olivier Beretta and Marco Cioci-driven No. 71 Ferrari will likely be knocking on the door for the victory, as long as reliability, a known fault for the 458 Italia in endurance races, remains strong.
Team Felbermayr-Proton (Porsche 911 GT3 RSR): Perhaps the strongest entry from the Porsche contingent, Team Felbermayr-Proton will be seeking its second class victory at Le Mans with the same lineup that took the German squad to the top step of the podium in 2010. The trio of Marc Lieb, Richard Lietz and Wolf Henzler could be tough to beat, although their wide-body Porsche may be lacking in aero balance.
The German manufacturer had been hoping to run a larger rear wing and splitter for this race, in the same configuration Porsche’s ALMS cars ran at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca under IMSA sanction. It could put the 911 GT3 RSRs at a slight disadvantage, although Lieb and Lietz are coming off class victory at Spa in the original configuration which they started the FIA WEC season with.
Aston Martin Racing (Aston Martin Vantage V8): Returning to the GT ranks for the first time since its GT1 class victory in 2008, Aston Martin Racing has plenty to prove as it aims to turn its V8-powered Vantage into a race winner. Already four races into its 2012 season, the Prodrive squad has shown impressive pace with its heavily revised beast that may be enough for a class win on Sunday.
The driver lineup of Darren Turner, Stefan Mucke and Adrian Fernandez has been strong in both FIA WEC and ALMS competition this year, with the only major concern coming from the reliability side. A loose wheel dashed hopes of a win at Sebring, while gearbox failure resulted in an early retirement at Spa. However, the car led both races, showing its outright speed. AMR heads into Le Mans with a revised cylinder block, hoping to put their bad luck behind them.
Flying Lizard Motorsports (Porsche 911 GT3 RSR): Always a front-runner in the ALMS, it seems like luck can never go their way at Le Mans. Can 2012 be the magic year for the Flying Lizards? With a proven lineup in Patrick Long, Joerg Bergmeister and Porsche’s latest factory driver, Marco Holzer, the No. 80 machine should be among the contenders for the class win. The question comes in whether the California-based team can finally seal the deal after seven previous attempts.
Luxury Racing (Ferrari F458 Italia): With arguably the quickest lineup in class, Luxury Racing may still have its work cut out for itself as the French squad chases top honors in its second Le Mans attempt. Former Ferrari factory driver Jaime Melo has proven his pace time and again, while French hot shoe Fred Makowiecki is considered one of the most under-rated drivers in the paddock. Dominik Farnbacher, who started the season in the team’s GTE-Am entry, completes the roster in the all-pro machine.
Don’t be surprised to see this car on pole. But will it last 24 hours, especially considering the aggressive pace the trio will likely put the Prancing Horse through? If engineer Mark Schomann can keep the drivers under control and on a steady, but fast, race pace, Luxury Racing could be a class winner.
JMW Motorsport (Ferrari F458 Italia): The odd team out in the highly competitive GTE-Pro ranks this year, JMW Motorsport will unlikely reach the podium, mainly due to British team’s Pro-Am driver lineup in the all-pro class.
Jonny Cocker and James Walker will keep the lone Dunlop-shod car in the category in with a fighting chance, but gentleman racer Roger Wills, the only FIA-rated Bronze driver in class, will unlikely be able to keep up with his co-drivers. Running with a 2011-spec car and with one gentlemen driver, this entry perhaps would have had a fighting chance for the win in GTE-Am, if the team had elected to go that route.
GTE-AM (13 Entries)
After a successful debut last year, the GTE-Am category has seen an influx of new arrivals, primarily teams which competed in GTE-Pro in 2011. While featuring the same base spec of machinery, all GTE-Am cars must be at least one year old and feature two FIA-rated Bronze or Silver drivers.
Larbre Competition (Corvette C6.R): The Jack Leconte-led squad came out on top in dominant fashion in 2011 with an impressive 1-2 finish. This year, Larbre Competition has replaced its Porsche with a second Corvette C6.R with the focus of repeating fortunes at Le Mans and taking the FIA WEC title in GTE-Am.
Defending winners Julien Canal and Patrick Bornhauser are joined by ex-Peugeot pilot Pedro Lamy in the team’s No. 50 Corvette, while Frenchmen Jean-Philippe Belloc, Christophe Bourret and Pascal Gibon are tabbed for duty in the No. 70 entry. Despite facing increased competition, the Lamy-led No. 50 Corvette will likely be tough to beat.
IMSA Performance Matmut (Porsche 911 GT3 RSR): A dominant force in the ELMS, the Raymond Narac-owned squad switches its Le Mans efforts to GTE-Am for 2012. GT2 winners of this race in 2007, IMSA Performance Matmut will be expecting nothing less this year, especially on the heels of a runaway class win at Spa, competing as an invitational entry to the FIA WEC round.
Narac, Anthony Pons and hot shoe Nicolas Armindo, who has quickly proven to be one of the quickest Porsche drivers around, complete the lineup, the same trio that scored top honors in Belgium last month.
Flying Lizard Motorsports (Porsche 911 GT3 RSR): One of the favorites among the American contingent, Flying Lizard Motorsports doubles its chances of victory with its GTE-Am class entry for Patrick Pilet, Spencer Pumpelly and Seth Neiman. A front-runner last year until engine issues, the No. 79 Porsche should be in the hunt for the win again, notably with the late addition of the French Porsche factory driver.
Aston Martin Racing (Aston Martin Vantage V8): Running as a joint effort with Young Driver AMR, the pseudo-works Vantage could surprise in the hands of the all-Danish lineup of Allan Simonsen, Christoffer Nygaard and Kristian Poulsen. Quickest in the test day and an impressive fourth overall among the GTE-Pro contenders, AMR could be looking at a double victory if the stars align.
Team Felbermayr-Proton (Porsche 911 GT3 RSR): Class winners at Sebring, the second FIA WEC-nominated entry from the German stable is also expected to be a front-runner this weekend. Two-time and defending Porsche Cup winner Gianluca Roda is joined by countryman Paulo Ruberti and team principal Christian Ried. It’s a lineup that could fly under the radar and end up with a top result.
Krohn Racing (Ferrari F458 Italia): As one of only two American globe-trotting FIA WEC teams, Krohn Racing is another favorite for the podium and potential class victory. Upgrading to a new 2011-spec Ferrari F458 Italia for 2012, the Jeff Hazell-led group hasn’t yet achieved the level of success it enjoyed in ILMC competition last year. Will Le Mans be the turning point?
Tracy Krohn and Nic Jonsson are again joined by Michele Rugolo in what’s considered a solid lineup in the increasingly competitive field. Engine failure took the trio out of the race last year after an early lead, giving even more motivation for a trouble-free run this time around.
Luxury Racing (Ferrari F458 Italia): Joining endurance veteran Pierre Ehret in the French-run Ferrari is none other than ALMS stars Gunnar Jeannette and Frankie Montecalvo, making for a formidable trio that could surprise. While it will mark 21-year-old Montecalvo’s debut at La Sarthe, Jeannette embarks on his ninth Le Mans and first since 2008. Don’t count these guys out of a podium.
AF Waltrip (Ferrari F458 Italia): Another high-profile entry with American interest, the AF Corse-run program returns to Le Mans after a bittersweet debut for MWR co-owners Michael Waltrip and Rob Kauffman, which saw Kauffman tangle with the Audi of Mike Rockenfeller that triggered the race’s second major accident last year.
This time around, Kauffman and Portuguese ace Rui Aguas are joined by NASCAR star Brian Vickers, who fills in for the two-time Daytona 500 champion. Vickers, too, has had a baptism by fire, having crashed the team’s Ferrari F458 Italia in warmup at Spa in his sports car racing debut. A finish at Le Mans would likely be a victory in itself for this effort.
Prospeed Competition (Porsche 911 GT3 RSR): Stepping down to GTE-Am for 2012, the Belgian squad sees an international lineup of Porsche Supercup ace Sean Edwards, American Bret Curtis and Abdulaziz Al Faisal, the second Saudi Arabian driver to race at Le Mans. While Edwards will undoubtedly be quick, it’s unclear if the team can contend for a podium position given the increased competition in class this year.
AF Corse (Ferrari F458 Italia): The fourth AF Corse-run Ferrari in the GTE field is unlikely to make a dent on the competition, although Le Mans debutant Matt Griffin could impress. The Irishman is joined by Italians Nicola Cadei and Pierguiseppe Perazzini, the latter who shared victory in the Gulf 12 Hours with Griffin earlier this year.
JWA-Avila (Porsche 911 GT3 RSR): Regulars in the FIA WEC, ex-open wheel ace Joel Camathias joins Finn Markus Palttala and car owner Paul Daniels behind the wheel of their ex-Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche. A steady run for the trio could be rewarded with a top-five result.
JMB Racing (Ferrari F458 Italia): Le Mans stalwarts JMB Racing complete the 56-car Le Mans field this year with Frenchmen Manuel Rodrigues, Philippe Illiano and Alain Ferte, a lineup that’s unlikely to impress or make any dent in competition.
John Dagys is SPEED.com’s Sportscar Racing Reporter, focusing on all major domestic and international championships. You can follow him on Twitter @johndagys or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org