Monday 17 June 2019

Le Mans: Race report

Under hazy sunshine and after the usual entertaining shenanigans on pit straight, the cars peeled away neatly from their echelon formation for a single parade lap before the rolling race start promptly just as the clock ticked past 3pm.

Immediately Mike Conway took a commanding lead in the #7 Toyota and set increasingly faster lap times despite a report of rain at Mulsanne corner. On lap 2 he set a time of 3:17.910 then on lap 2 3:17.425 followed by lap 4 3:17.297, the fastest ever race lap at Le Mans. On the First lap Menezes in Rebellion #3 briefly split the Toyotas. Meanwhile  Mat Vaxiviere in the #28 TDS set the fastest LMP2 time 3:27.611 and at 15:25 Garcia in Corvette #63 led GTE Pro and #54 Spirit of Race Ferrari led GTE Am.

At 15:39 Jamin in #30 Duqueine Engineering ORECA was reported as slow at first chicane. It looked like a flat tyre. There was a good dice developing between Estre and Garcia in #92 Porsche and class leading #63 Corvette.

There was a brief FCY just before the end of the first hour of racing when tyre trouble afflicted #29 Racing Team Nederland and #1 Rebellion. There was an FCY at 16:41 to remove debris from circuit and punctures for #88 and #70 and we went back to green at 16:44. By this time the The all-female Ferrari #83 was up to 10th in GTE Am.

At 17:37 10s time penalty was added to the pit stops of cars #26,#60 and #93 for not respecting the FCY procedure. At 17:42 the #7 Toyota led the #8 Toyota by 49s. De Vries in #29 Racing Team Nederland was limping back with a puncture and littered debris in Porsche curves. There was a brief full course yellow for the clean-up. There was a 30s stop & go penalty announced for the #20 High Class Racing ORECA for speeding under FCY.

Just after the 3 hour point Bomarito in Ford GT passed Pilet in the #93 Porsche for 2nd in GTE Pro. By 18:22 Hand had slipped to 4th Bomarito back to 5th in the ebb and flow of pit stops. At 18:25 Hand in Ford #68 was nipping at the tail of Pilet the #93. There was a big lock up for Lietz at Mulsanne in #91 Porsche, losing position, down to 7th in Pro. Ten seconds was added to next pitstop for #89 Risi Competizione Ferrari and #71 AF Corse Ferrari.  At 19:23 the #50 Larbre Competiton Ligier had contact with #67 Ford GT at Mulsanne this was the probable cause of debris that brought yellow flag.

Approaching 20:00 #43 was beached in a dangerous position at Tertre Rouge bringing on a safety car interlude for a few minutes. It was unfortunate for Toyota #8 which was pitting at the time and was stuck at pit exit losing 30s. Rain spots were seen at 20:30 but not for long. That didn't dampen the fight for LMP2 lead with Alpine vs G Drive wheel to wheel on the Mulsanne straight with Negrao in #36 passing Rusinov in #26.

Soon after the change of lead in LMP2, Fassler in #64 Corvette tangled with Hoshino in the #88 Proton Porsche in the Porsche curves and put the car into the barrier. Hoshino struck the rear of the #64. This immediately brought about another safety car period for the #64 to be recovered. The SC helped the #8 Toyota which managed to make up nearly a lap to 20s behind the #7. The track went green again at 20:55. Fassler in Corvette #64 was later judged to have caused the accident with Hoshino in the #88 Porsche (€7,000 fine & 6 penalty points).

Light rain was reported at Arnage at the stroke of 21:00 when Nakajima in Toyota #8 passed Lopez in #7 to lead for the first time since the first lap.

Laurent in Rebellion #3 passed Aleshin in #11 SMP in Porsche Curves for 3rd overall but the two then tangled on the approach to second chicane on the Mulsanne straight when Laurent was surprised by a damp area in the braking zone and #11 ran into the debris. FCY immediately called. Both cars continued to pits and the #11 got away more lightly and rejoined quickly. The #3 Rebellion was delayed but only 3 minutes 38s before Laurent rejoined. FCY went to safety car while the barrier was repaired. Bart Hayden explained "it was wet and slippery and he lost it on the brakes". The SC period ended at 21:19 and was replaced with a slow zone adjacent to where barriers were being repaired. The track went green again at 21:30.

The #98 Aston Martin was reported as slow on track with Lamy at the wheel, it limped back to pit lane with overheating problem at 22:00. This was the beginning of the end for #98. At 22:08 Lopez in Toyota #7 had an excursion to the gravel at Mulsanne corner giving Nakajima in #8 the lead. Lopez then put two tyres in the gravel at Indy, losing the a little more time just before a 2 minute FCY at 22:14. #7 then regained the lead after a pit stop for #8. Just before 23:00 Pedro Lamy parked the #98 on the Mulsanne straight and there was a brief local yellow while it was pushed to safety. Meanwhile Garcia in #63 Corvette retook 3rd place in GTE Pro.

At 23:30, Lu in the #84 JMW Motorsport Ferrari had a trip to the gravel at the second chicane but retained 2nd place in GTE Am. Just after midnight, Lynn in the #97 Aston Martin went off, sideswiped the wall and got stuck in the gravel in the Porsche curves. It was pulled out and returned to pits for repairs.

We were only green for a few moments before we got a safety car period after Sorensen in Aston Martin #95 had an off into the tyres at the Indy kink. Sorensen appeared to be limping and was taken for medical attention. We got back to green flag at 00:37. The Dragonspeed #10 finally got back on track just before 01:00 but was seen going slowly and finally stopped at Indianapolis. The SC period broke up the gaps in LMP1, LMP2 and GTE Pro by splitting the leaders from the chasing pack.

Orudzhev in #17 SMP went into the tyre wall at Porsche curves at 01:20. The safety cars were scrambled again to allow the rescue the #17. The SC bunched the two Toyotas and Conway had to pit under SC, losing position to #8. The tyre wall was rebuilt and we went green again at 01:47. Within a couple of laps the gap between the two Toyotas was down to less than a second.

Buemi pitted the #8 giving the lead to #7 but when Conway handed the #7 over to Kobayashi they maintained that lead over the #8.

At 02:40 just before the half way point, Enqvist in the #49 ARC Bratislava Ligier ran off the track and stopped on the Porsche curves. It got going slowly but stopped again and there was a safety car period to allow marshals to move the car to a place of safety. We got back to green at 02:58. At 03:19 the #49 managed to limp to pit lane and was pushed to its pit garage.

Estre in #92 Porsche went into pits from the lead of GTE Pro, and was pushed into its garage at 03:48 for replacement of its exhaust. This quickly dropped the #92 to 12th in class and behind the #82 BMW. At 03:57 Dillman in the ByKolles #4 stopped at Arnage. A slow zone was called while the car was recovered to a safe place. Meanwhile the #92 was pushed out of its box and rejoined 5 laps adrift. At 04:20 the Porsches #93 and #91 pitted together. Garcia in the #63 Corvette led GTE Pro briefly 12 seconds ahead of Pier Guidi in the #51 Ferrari until the regular stop for the #63 dropped it back to 4th in class.

At 04:45 the Jackie Chan DC Racing #37 had a gearbox failure with Taylor at the wheel that launched 5th gear through the gearbox casing. That was the end of the race for #37. At 04:56 Hankey in the #90 TF Sport Aston was stranded in the gravel at Mulsanne corner, dropping it from 2nd in GTE Am to 6th in class by the time it was rescued. 

There were just 10 official retirements at sunrise. #37 #17 #4 #49 #71 #95 #98 #64 #88 #10

At 06:38 Pianezzola in Kessel #60 Ferrari and Wainwright in Gulf Porsche #86 went off into gravel almost simultaneously in separate incidents at (respectively) the entry of Porsche curves and Indianapolis. There was a brief full course yellow while the cars were recovered.

At 07:12 Pastor Maldonardo in 4th placed Dragonspeed Oreca #31 went hard into tyres at Tertre Rouge bringing out a safety car period. The car had front damage and was craned off the track. Green flag was at 07:33. At 07:50 the Rebellion #3 served a 3 minute stop and hold for using incorrect tyres. This allowed Vandoorne in the #11 SMP up to 3rd place overall.

Menezes spun into into gravel in Porsche curves in Rebellion #3 at 08:05. A slow zone was imposed until 8:14 to recover the  car. At 8:25 Aubry the (3rd in LMP2) #38 JCDC Racing Oreca was seen going slowly on track. It took 7 minutes for the car to limp to pitlane. After fuel, tyres and driver change to Ho Pin Tung the car rejoined at full speed, still in 3rd in LMP2 ahead of #28 TDS. That was not the end of trouble for the #38. A few minutes later it returned to pitllane with a left front tyre, but still retained 3rd in LMP2

Conway took over the #7 Toyota and began opening up the gap to Nakajima in the #8. At 9am the gap had opened to 1 minute and 42 seconds. The #51 Ferrari and the #63 Corvette continued to exchange the lead of GTE Pro as pit stops unfolded. 

There was drama at 09:11 as the #26 G-Drive that had held the lead of LMP2 most of the race had trouble restarting the engine after pit stop. It was pushed into garage to solve the problem. The #36 Signatech picked up the class lead after making a regular stop. By 09:30 the #26 was back out on pit apron and rejoined in 7th place after a 20 minute stop.

As #26 rejoined, Berthon in the #3 Rebellion was seen going slowly on track. The Rebellion returned to pits and was pushed into the pit garage. Lotterer in the sister car #1 took 4th overall from #3. At 09:54 the United Autosports #32 shed its rear deck at Indianapolis. The car continued to the pits but there was a full course yellow to allow the bodywork to be removed from the circuit. The #32 rejoined after a few minutes to fit a new rear.

At 11:14 a penalty was posted for 3rd placed #91 Porsche, 10 seconds to be added to next pit stop for not respecting FCY procedure. With the top of GTE Pro so tight, 10s could be significant. At 11:22 we had a safety car due to De Vries taking the Racing Team Nederland #29 hard into the tyres at Indy. The car managed to get going and return to the pits with the left front wheel at a crazy angle.
The Corvette #63 pitted under SC but was held for some time at pit exit which contributed to the #51 Ferrari taking a more decisive lead in GTE Pro. It took a while to repair the tyre wall then the track went green at 11:45.  Soon after the green flag, Magnussen had a spin into the wall in the #63 Corvette in Porsche curves then came directly into pits for repair. Magnussen took the Corvette #63 back on track at 11:55 having dropped to 8th place in class.

The Porsche problems continued when a penalty of 10 secs was added to next pit stop for the #93 Porsche for crossing white line at pit entry. At the front of LMP1, the Toyota #7 led the #8 by over two minutes.

With two and a half hours remaining, the order became more settled but of course Le Mans holds surprises for the very end. The Toyota #7 led the #8 by over two minutes and short of accident or incident appeared safe. Teams appeared to focus on making the finish and staying out of trouble. 

Eng in the #81 BMW coasted to a stop in the escape lane of the second chicane at 13:03. It was a sad postscript for a difficult 24 hours for BMW. An out of schedule stop for a nose change at 13:10 delayed the #85 Ford GT allowed the Team Project 1 Porsche #56 to close to striking distance of a challenge for the lead of GTE Am, only a minute behind. Van der Garde in the #29 Racing Team Nederand Dallara had to nurse the car home with a flat tyre with 90 minutes remaining in the race. 

With 70 minutes left there was drama followed by more drama. Bergmeister in the Team Project 1 Porsche #56 had cut the GTE Am lead of Keating in the the #85 Ford GT to 42 seconds.  To add to the tension, the #85 was given a stop and go penalty for spinning wheels when released from pit stop. The penalty closed the gap to just under 6 seconds. Meanwhile the overall leader Lopez in the #7 Toyota had to make and out of schedule stop to replace a tyre. On his out lap the #7 was seen going slowly again on the Mulsanne straight and had to return slowly to the pits and was passed by Nakajima in the #8 Toyota.  As we entered the final hour the position of the two Toyotas was reversed and the #8 had a 58 second lead.

Jeronen Bleekemolen took over the #85 Ford GT for the charge to the flag with Bergmeister in #56 Porsche in hot pursuit. Meanwhile Eng had managed to get the #81 BMW back to life and made it back to the pits. With 30 minutes remaining Lopez had cut into the lead of the #7 but 47 seconds was a mountain to climb in the time available. The #8 Toyota made its last stop at 14:33 but #7 also needed to stop for a splash and when the pit stop unwound, the #8 was 24 seconds ahead with 17 minutes remaining. Bergmeister had to bring the #56 Porsche in for a late splash of fuel which clinched the GTE Am result for the #85 Ford GT. **

At the chequered flag it was the #8 Toyota over the line first followed by the #7 Toyota and #11 SMP. In LMP2 a well deserved win for Signatech Alpine Matmut #36 from Jackie Chan DC Racing #38 and TDS #28. AF Corse #51 took the GTE Pro win from Porsches #91 and #93. The GTE Am win went to the #85 Keating Motorsports Ford GT from the Team Project 1 #51 Porsche and #84 JMW Ferrari. 

Text: Dave Davies
Pictures: Kristof Vermeulen, Erik Junius & Jellybaby.Media

** Postscript:

During the post-race technical checks, the race stewards officially disqualified the #68 (Ford Chip Ganassi Team USA's Ford GT) and the #85 (Keating Motorsports' Ford GT) for breach of fuel tank capacity regulations.  The top step on the LMGTE Am class podium is now claimed by Team Project 1's #56 Porsche.

Full results HERE

Saturday 15 June 2019

Le Mans: Preview of the 2019 Le Mans 24 Hours - János Wimpffen

Preview of the 2019 Le Mans 24 Hours

Welcome to the 87th running of the Vingt-quatre heures du Mans! You have arrived at not only one of the most important motor races but what has long become one of the greatest sporting spectacles on the planet. We’ll provide a brief romp through its history and evolution and then focus on this year’s field.


This city of 150,000 is now the peaceful capital of the Department de la Sarthe. Active already during Roman times, although there is no known history of chariot races. Le Mans was a nexus of the early Christian period which led to the construction of the magnificent Romanesque-Gothic cathedral of St. Julian. With origins in the 6th century, the mostly 14th century building is situated on a bluff that serves as a backdrop for pèsage, the annual ritual of technical scrutineering of the cars which takes places early during the race week. 

Le Mans had already seen many struggles for power, with the Normans emerging victorious at one stage, fueling William the Conqueror’s northward push. When his army arrived in England many of the soldiers carried the surname, du Mans. Centuries later the area again became strategically important as an air base during the WWII occupation. Liberated two months after D-Day, portions of the circuit were heavily damaged but it became an important Allied air base for penetration further into France. 

The location previously played a far more benign role in aviation history when in 1908 the Wright brothers made the first demonstration on European soil of their new invention. A plaque commemorating the event is located inside the circuit near the Mulsanne straight. Le Mans had already contributed to motorsport prior to the debut of aviation. What is considered to be the first Grand Prix was held here in July, 1906. That grueling 100 kilometer triangular layout over public roads had no physical connection with today’s track. It extended southeast from the center of the city towards Saint-Calais, then northward and returning roughly along the alignment of the present day A11 Autoroute. 

By the 1920s the automobile industry had achieved maturity and those managing the sporting side saw the potential for endurance events as demonstrating and developing reliability and performance in road going vehicles. This thinking was behind the establishment of the 24 hour Grand Prix d’Endurance, held for the first time in 1923. Since then it has been interrupted twice, once due to strikes in 1936 and then during the course of the war and its aftermath.

The first few editions were not intended to be discrete events but rather a series of three annual episodes with the award going to the best aggregate finisher across that time span. That concept was dropped and retroactively we celebrate the long lost French marque of Chenard et Walcker as winner of the 1923 event. It may be a race in France but the 24 Hours quickly became a happy hunting ground for foreigners, most especially in the early days with the “Bentley Boys” enjoying five victories during the race’s first decade. This was followed by a period of domination by Alfa Romeo, solidifying the Italian brand’s prime position in the motorsports pantheon. Two iconic French marques, Bugatti and Delahaye, did bring the glory back home, before all of racing went into the enforced hiatus of the 1940s

The Evolution of the Species
Today’s circuit configuration measures 13.626 kilometers. The first six editions followed a much longer route of 17.3 kilometers which started closer to central Le Mans, in the district of Pontlieue. It was shortened and by 1932 the basic outline of the present circuit was in place. There have been incremental changes ever since with the present exact configuration now in its second year. It is the 15th version that has been used. During the 1960s several of the kinks were metaphorically ironed out such that the 1968-1971 setup was the most wide-open with hardly any slow corners apart from the always daunting first gear Mulsanne Corner. Pedro Rodriguez’s 1971 qualifying time of 3:13.9 (250.1 km/h) in a Porsche 917 remains the quickest lap on time ever recorded, although the speed record was marginally quicker when Mike Conway set a pole time in his Toyota TS050 two years ago (3:14.791, 251.9 km/h). The in-race time and speed mark was established in 2015 by Andre Lotterer (Audi R15) at 3:17.475, 248.5 km/h. The most major circuit change came nearly 30 years ago, when in 1990 the excruciatingly long high-speed Mulsanne Straight was broken up by two chicanes. 

Already in the 1930s and continuing with the race’s resumption in 1949, its character changed from the original emphasis on road going touring cars. Competition shifted to higher performance road cars, the forerunners of what came be called sports cars and later Grand Touring cars. The other evolutionary path was the growing importance of the smaller classes. Sports car racing in general and long-distance events in particular have always included races within races. While most of glory went to those fighting for the overall crown the myriad of classes that have existed involved just as much fierce competition.

The constitution of the subordinate classes has varied greatly with some eras breaking them down by displacement, by performance characteristics, by production volume, by entrant status, or by driver ratings. A key distinction between classes is the separation of pure thoroughbred race cars from those that are based on production cars. Today that distinction is labelled as Prototype and GT, each of which is composed of two classes. Past eras have seen these two distinct categories broken down into as many as six classes each.

A guiding principal in this form of racing is that while all pretense of them being roadworthy cars is long gone, they still bear a passing resemblance by having full bodies, doors, and space for a passenger. That is the origin of calling the top tier in endurance racing a “Prototype”. Although it is in reality a pure racing car and not necessarily a predecessor to production as the term implies in its broader industrial context.  In most but not all cases, the overall winner in the post-war years came from the fastest class of prototypes. 

The production side has evolved into today’s two Grand Touring classes, effectively racing versions of commercially available sports cars. The Porsches, Ferraris, Corvettes, Fords, Aston Martin Martins and BMWs one sees this weekend are certainly identifiable but make no mistake, these are pure racing versions of the motorway cruising cousins. The bodies are very light, sculpted for aerodynamic efficiency, the position of the engine and other components are shifted to improve balance, they use quick fill fuel tanks, and a myriad of other differences mark the racing GT as distinct from the one that you just bought off the showroom floor.

Another enduring characteristic at Le Mans overlaps with the class contests. It is the tension between factory and private entries. There has been a near continuous ebb and flow of factory participation at the overall level as well as in each of the classes. Typically, a works team embarks on a multi-year effort and after it succeeds, or has given up trying, will discontinue the effort. More often than not the racing department wears out its welcome at board meetings after so many pleas for the massive funds that Le Mans consumes. The factory teams’ relationships with private teams has a similarly long and complex history. Sometimes they will support designated clients as a backup to the main team. At other times they will produce a range of customer cars as a revenue generator (as Porsche has frequently done) or they may sell off the remaining stock once the works team disbands, periodically with a lingering support network in place. This appears to be the case with Ford’s current GT program and may also be the fate of the BMW squad.

One can argue that each of the seven decades since World War I has seen a different character of competition at Le Mans. The first few years saw a mixed bag of new innovations emerge with the field often filled by lingering pre-war machinery. Luigi Chinetti’s victory of 1949 is laudable as Ferrari’s debut at Le Mans. While this is true it came with a modest 1.5 liter engine in a cycle-fendered body. The next few editions saw leaps in technology and technique such as Mercedes’ experiments with an air brake, Jaguar’s development of disc brakes and the increased use of aluminum and other lighter materials. There was also a flowering within the smaller classes, most notably with Porsche, which frequently won in the intermediate categories. There was also an ever greater variety of production based cars, which came to be called GT at around the turn of the 1960s. But for the most part, development during the 1950s focused on brute strength, coaxing more horsepower out of as large an engine as possible and hoping that the primitive brakes would hold up at the end of the long straight.

In 1953 a World Sports Car Championship was established which soon became a prestigious award for manufacturers. Transitioning through multiple iterations, the series lasted until 1992 after which it languished before a revival in 2012. There were several instances during the championship’s reign when Le Mans ran to rules which kept it from qualifying. However, this race is so central to the calendar that sports car racing has always revolved around Le Mans whether or not it was part of any series, or whether there was a global series at all. 

No review of Le Mans history is complete without acknowledging the horror of 1955. Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes scythed through the crowd and over 80 people died. It remains the worst accident in motor racing history and profoundly changed the way that sport has been regulated ever since. A memorial to the victims can be seen mounted on the main tribune along the front straight. 

Several important advances occurred during the 1960s. The theory and application of aerodynamic features came to be better understood. Interestingly, while the importance of managing air flow in all forms of racing became more and more vital ever since that time, the nature of Le Mans has always set it apart from other circuits. Most venues feature a variety of low and high speed turns and typically one achieves better lap times by sacrificing top speed in favour of greater downforce at the corners. This is not the case at Le Mans. Even with the introduction of the chicanes, top speed is vital at the Sarthe and thus designers focus on lowering the drag coefficient. 

Another important 1960s development was that of improving handling by the redistribution of weight and momentum, most notably by utilizing mid and rear-engine cars. The third technological triumph centered around advances in tyre construction. The perfection of the slick coupled with new found mechanical and aero grip led to adhesion that was unimaginable a decade earlier. 

There were also changes of a more procedural and strategic nature which greatly enhanced the quality of competition at Le Mans in the 1960s. The GT classes saw the growth of “homologation specials.” The rules allowed for very high performance versions as long as they were built to a specified but small production run. The Porsche 904, Alfa Romeo TZ, and Alpine A110 are just a few of the many notable models of the period. None compare to the exquisite Ferrari GTO, generally recognized as one of the most beautiful cars built and famous today as the most prized collector car. Those with Le Mans history fetch upwards of $60 million. But in the late 1960s the GTO was no longer competitive and owners had trouble selling them for more than $4000. 

The early part of the 1960s belonged to Ferrari, proving to be the most adept at combining light weight with good power and an engine mounted behind the driver. The end of the decade and the beginning of the next belonged to Porsche, having matriculated from ruling the smaller classes into fighting for overall victory with the 908 and then the dynamic 12-cylinder 917. In between the two there was a war which brought the Le Mans 24 Hour to a competitive crescendo. It is the oft-told story that Henry Ford wanted to win Le Mans by buying the perennially financially strapped little garage owned by Enzo Ferrari. After being rebuffed, “The Deuce” pulled out all stops to build the ultimate car to defeat Ferrari. It took three years, a period that almost seems an ironclad rule for achieving success at Le Mans, but the foe was indeed vanquished. The Mk II and Mk IV Fords dominated in 1966 and 1967, leaving the most memorable Yankee stamp in the race’s long history.

Matra, affiliated with France’s aerospace industry, was commissioned by the government to make a Ford like assault on Le Mans. It culminated in three consecutive victories. By mere coincidence it is a French body which wrote the rules for those races. 

The race entered a bit of a doldrum as the overall automotive industry endured the oil shocks of the 1970s. The Group C era of the 1980s represented a considerable renaissance with a new breed of prototypes headed in turn by the Porsche 956 and 962, the Jaguar XJR series, the Sauber-Mercedes, and the first competitive Japanese entries from Toyota, Nissan, and Mazda. An important legacy of this era was the development of fully monocoque chassis, aluminum at first and eventually the now ubiquitous carbonfibre variety. The era also opened the doors to a very cost-effective undercard, the C2 class. Aimed at privateers and focused on production based components, that prototype class is the direct forerunner of today’s P2 category. 

Sports car racing was problematic during the 1990s with the lack of a world championship and diverging paths taken in most countries. The Le Mans 24 Hours more than held its own during the decade, focusing more on GTs, a category that was mostly absent during the Group C era. A large number of turbocharged versions of the Porsche 911 competed as did quasi GTs like the 911 GT1 and Mercedes CLK. The decade is perhaps best remembered for the 1995 victory of the McLaren F1, considered by many to be the finest example of the concept of a supercar.
The first decade of this century saw the return of considerable stability to the format of the entry. While there was no official world championship, there were strong brand and technical links with the American and later the European Le Mans Series. This allowed manufacturers and teams to maintain an ongoing developmental strategy. The class structure also became more stable. While the specifications changed in important detail, the theme was and remains that there should be two classes in both the prototype and GT categories. 

In spite of there being a consistent rules platform, or maybe because of their ability to best exploit it, Audi came to dominate most of the noughties. Automotive technology in general was entering a period of greater reliability in mechanical components as well as the growing role of digital technologies in operating and monitoring vehicles. This percolated into racing and Audi seemed best equipped to strategically incorporate these elements into their program. An outgrowth of the decade was a sea change in how endurance racing is conducted.

Previously, the emphasis was more on mechanical survival than speed. Drivers were instructed to maintain a pace well below their limits and that of the car. Audi and their competitors changed all that. During the 2000s and especially in the current decade, reliability has become so great that to win requires a near all-out sprint from start to finish. Drivers rarely relax and the physical demands on them are far greater than in previous eras. It is no longer unusual to see a six-hour race with only one, two, or no retirements. While the vagaries of a 24 hour race preclude such perfection the attrition rate has been steadily dropping year by year. 

Several key developments have defined the current decade. First was the reestablishment of a World Endurance Championship in 2012. Concomitant with that has been the solidification of the current system of four classes, which have remained largely unchanged since 2011. Important rules regarding driver rankings and performance characteristics have been introduced in each class. The objective with Balance of Performance within the GT classes is to continually tweak each make’s specifications such as air intake, aero, fuel flow, and weight so that no one manufacturer’s models have undue advantage over another. While not without controversy, its success can be judged by the number of complaints. It seems that if only certain entrants complain, then BOP is not working. However, if everyone in the paddock is vociferous than it must be effective. Drivers are ranked as to their experience, race results, age, and whether or not they are professional. There are class rules as to minimum drive times for lower ranked drivers (bronze) and maximum for gold ranked drivers. This has led to an entirely new set of strategies for race planning.

On the technical front the most obvious legacy of the current decade has been the hybrid powered P1 car. The last seven editions have been won by a combination of reciprocating and electric power. Thrice the diesel fueled Audi R18 won, followed the next three seasons by the Porsche 919, with Toyota enjoying the honour in 2018. With it has come a stunning  increase in speed and fuel efficiency, culminating in the three industry giants going head to head. However, the costs of fielding such advanced technology came with equally stunning costs. Audi and then Porsche cried enough, leaving Toyota the last one standing among the hybrids of the P1 class.

While our overview of 96 years of the Le Mans 24 Hours has revealed spectacular change in technology and race characteristics, there are some universals that have stood the test of time. These are basic points about strategy that any fan can follow. First, the pits are the most important place at Le Mans. What happens or does not happen is as likely to determine the race’s outcome as any particular battle on the track. The team that plans and choreographs their stops best has more than a leg up on those that don’t. Much can be gleaned by watching teams in action during pre-race sessions, last week’s test, and also in the year’s preceding races at Spa and Sebring. Does a team panic when an unplanned stop is made or is their reaction more systematic? Do they make the same mistakes repeatedly? Are their garages well laid out? Does the crew have ready access to water, nutrition, and rest? Yes, an endurance army moves on its stomach just like the military! There are many clues that watching pits action will tell you about that most important aspect of endurance racing—preparation.

That having been said, the most important factor is to simply stay out of the pits. Keep the visits to their metronomic minimum. Countervailing this is another important Le Mans adage, when in doubt, pit. This is one of the longest circuits in the world. Thirteen kilometers is a long way to nurse an ailing car or one short on fuel and the rules are unforgiving. A tow or any other outside assistance, apart from getting out of harm’s way, leads to immediate exclusion. 

A corollary is stick to a plan and don’t overreach. Improvements at Le Mans are made incrementally through careful study. People often refer to a “three-year rule.” Nearly every successful manufacturer, team, and driver has found that to win requires a year of making mistakes, a year of experimenting, and then aiming for perfection. There are exceptions but even the best such as Carroll Shelby, John Wyer, Tom Walkinshaw, and Reinhold Joest have learned this lesson. 

The 2019 Edition
This year’s race has two unique characteristics to it. The first is that the 2019 race is actually the finale of the World Endurance Championship’s “Super Season” which began at Spa in 2018. On this one occasion, points from two editions of the 24 Hours will qualify for a single championship. This is part of the transition from a calendar season to one which bridges two years. The 2019-2020 season starts with the next race (Silverstone) and will end at Le Mans next June.

Several of the titles have already been decided, including Toyota Gazoo Racing as the LMP1 team champions. Also, the trio of Fernando Alonso, Kazuki Nakajima, and Sebastien Buemi hold a commanding lead on the driver’s side. The Porsche GT Team has effectively clinched the GT team title, but P2 remains quite up for grabs. Andre Negrao, Nicolas Lapierre, and Pierre Thiriet hold a slim advantage over Gabriel Aubry, Ho-Pin Tung, and Stephane Richelmi. Their respective teams, Signatech Alpine and Jackie Chan DC Racing are similarly close. Gianmaria Bruni and Richard Lietz have an outside shot at overcoming the lead of Kevin Estre and Michael Christensen for the GT Driver’s award. Egidio Perfetti, Jörg Bergmeister, and Patrick Lindsey are favoured to win the GTE Am driver’s championship, but Francesco Castellacci, Giancarlo Fisichella and Thomas Flohr remain within range. In the GTE Am team’s race, Spirit of Race is capable of wresting the lead away from Team Project 1.

The other unique feature this year is the sheer size of the field. For many years the starting grid was capped at 55, reflecting the number of permanent garages. Gradually the entry has expanded as an annex was built with 60 having been the previous record. Assuming that they all make the start then this year’s array of 62 will set an all-time record. As information, the most finishers ever was 47 at the 2017 edition.

As to other records here are some of the targets:
The all-time distance record is 5,411 kilometres, set by an Audi R15 in 2010. It would take 398 laps of the current circuit to top that.
The all-time fastest lap record was set in 2015 at 3:17.475, 248.5. 
The all-time fastest qualifying lap occurred in 2017 on a slight longer circuit, at 3:14.791, 251.9 km/h.
The 2018 standards for the current circuit are 3:17.658 for the lap and 3:15.377 in qualifying.
In each of the classes  the all-time fastest lap, fastest qualifying, and distance standards were set last year, on the current circuits as follows:
P2, distance
P2, Signatech Alpine, Alpine-Gibson, 367 laps, 5000.6 km
P2, fast lap, Oreca 07, Nathanael Berthon, 3:27.200
P2, pole time, Oreca 07, Paul-Loup Chatin, 3:24.842
GTE Pro, distance, Porsche GT Team, 344 laps, 4687.2 km
GTE Pro, fast lap, Corvette, Jan Magnussen, 3:49.448
GTE Pro, pole, Porsche, Gianmaria Bruni, 3:47.504
GTE Am, distance, Dempsey-Proton Porsche, 335 laps, 4564.6 km
GTE Am, fast lap, Porsche, Ben Barker, 3:52.600
GTE Am, pole, Porsche, Matteo Cairoli, 3:50,728

P1 Class
The category is composed of two sub-groups, all competing in the same ranking. Cars with Energy Recovery Systems may be represented by a factory team, non ERS entries must be independent of factories. Fuel tank capacity is set at 62 litres for hybrids and 75 for those without ERS. Bronze rated drivers may not compete in P1.

Toyota Gazoo Racing, Toyota TS050, 2.4 litre V6, bi-turbo with energy recovery system
# 7 Jose Maria Lopez / Kamui Kobayashi / Mike Conway
It would be foolish to bet against Toyota for the overall win. However, it is not the cakewalk that most imagine. The team still need to execute well and avoid the delays that have plagued them at Le Mans too often in the past. The No. 7 car is ostensibly the “B” team but has twice saved the bacon, by winning the Asian rounds last fall. 

# 8 Sébastien Buemi / Fernando Alonso / Kazuki Nakajima 
Having won last year is the pressure off the “A” team”? Conversely, is it greater as they seek that rare Le Mans repeat? They are coming off of a streak, having won the two rounds held thus far in 2019. Alonso is motivated for redemption, having not qualified for the elusive third jewel of racing’s triple crown, the Indy 500. The team’s 2018 victory was aided by being able to go one lap per stint more than the non-hybrid cars, an advantage that will again be with them this week.

Rebellion Racing, Rebellion-Gibson R13, 4.5 litre V8, atmospheric
# 1 Neel Jani / Bruno Senna / Andre Lotterer
The normally steady Rebellions can be counted on to be leaders of the non-hybrid P1s and are the logical heir apparent should Toyota falter. However, the No. 1 seems to have been their own worst enemy with an accident at Sebring and several delays at Spa. Germany’s Andre Lotterer has competed in all but one of the WEC races held since 2012.

# 3 Thomas Laurent / Nathanael Berthon / Gustavo Menezes
More often than not it’s been the No. 3 Rebellion that has been the best-placed non-Toyota. They even have the distinction of being the only non-hybrid car to have won overall since the emergence of the  technology. However, that was a gift at Silverstone last year when both Toyotas were disqualified at post-race scrutineering. 

ByKolles Racing Team, Enso-Gibson CLM P1/01
#  4 Tom Dillman / Oliver Webb / Paulo Ruberti
This the problem child of the paddock. It is also one of the oldest cars, being based on an early P1 class Lotus. They seem to find creative ways of exiting the race by finding a barrier, catching fire at inopportune locations or suffering spectacular engine failures. Although they are a candidate for being the first retirement, the comedy of errors masks a couple of strong fourth place finishes last year. 

DragonSpeed, BR-Gibson
#10 Renger van der Zande / Henrik Hedman / Ben Hanley
After retirement at Sebring the team skipped Spa in order to focus their resources on Le Mans. Elton Julian , the Ecuadoran-American team owner, is a wonderful enthusiast but is also stretched a bit then, with entries in both prototype classes. Apart from a good 6th place finish in Shanghai last year, they have little to show.

SMP Racing, BR-AER, 2.4 litre turbo
#11 Vitaly Petrov / Mikhail Aleshin / Stoffel Vanddorne
The Russian based team had some good finishes late last year, due in no small part to having Jenson Button on the driving strength. Little was expected this year from rookie Stoffel Vanddorne but he and his veteran Russian colleagues have done exceptionally well in this year’s two rounds with a pair of podium finishes. With the reliable old AER motor they are well positioned to be the best non-Toyota.

#17 Stephane Sarrazin / Egor Orudzhev / Sergey Sirotkin
After an accident took them out early at Sebring they recovered with a 4th place finish at Spa, bolstering the trend of BR potentially being a better bet than Rebellion among the privateers. They only finished once in 2018, so it seems to be feast or famine for this crew.

P2 Class
Entrants may choose from one of several approved chassis builders, cost-capped at just under €500,000. All must use the same spec 4.2 liter naturally aspirated Gibson V8 engine. Teams must have at least one Silver or Bronze rated driver. Tanks are set at 75 litres.

This is numerically the largest class this year at Le Mans, which bodes well for a long, hard intra-class battle. Also unique among the classes both Michelin and Dunlop are represented, adding a bit variation to offset that they all use a spec motor.

High Class Racing, Oreca 07
#20 Anders Fjordbach / Dennis Andersen / Matthias Beche
This is one of the teams that benefited from the expansion of the entry. They have switched from a Dallara to an Oreca chassis to better their chances and generally have had modest success at the 4-hour races of the European Le Mans Series. An advantage here is having all-around journeyman Matthias Beche and long-time GT racer Anders Fjordbach on their roster.

United Autosports, Ligier JS P217
#22 Phillip Hanson / Filipe Albuquerque / Paul Di Resta
This is consistently one of the quickest P2 runners, enjoying the services of two top line drivers, Albuquerque and Di Resta. The Anglo-American team is co-owned by F1 supremo and general fingers in many pies man Zak Brown. He’ll be looking to avenge the debacle of not making the show for Alonso at Indy.

#32 Ryan Cullen / Alex Brundle / William Owen
Owen is the only driver returning from this team’s competitive showing at Le Mans last year. Having the highly accomplished Brundle along will most definitely bolster their chances. While Orecas are typically quicker than Ligiers, this team’s experience and reliability could carry the day.

Panis-Barthez Competition, Ligier JS P217
#23 Will Stevens / Julien Canal / Rene Binder
While a long way from Henri Pescarolo’s 33 appearances, this will be Canal’s 10th Le Mans start, ranking him highly among active drivers. That will help the team become more comfortable with Le Mans as they are another group with mostly ELMS experience.

Algarve Pro Racing Team, Ligier JS P217
#25 John Falb / Andrea Pizzitola / David Zollinger
After a promising start with a brand new car, there was backsliding when it was badly damaged at the Monza ELMS round, injuring Mark Patterson in the process. Pizzitola is a strong addition to the team, being the defending ELMS champion.

G-Drive Racing, Aurus 01
#26 Roman Rusinov / Job van Uitert / Jean-Eric Vergne
The Russian team has always been a P2 threat. They won Le Mans on the road last year but were disqualified later when their fueling system was found not to be metering correctly. Van Utert has proven to be one of the rising stars in sports car racing. The car is really a rebranded Oreca. Aurus is the limo manufacturer of choice for your average Russian oligarch. 

TDS, Oreca 07
#28 Matthieu Vaxiviere / Francois Perrod / Loic Duval
The biggest strength of the team is Loic Duval. Otherwise, their record has been lackluster, with a string of midfield finishes. Hopefully, having a former overall winner onboard will change their course and will allow them to stand out in a crowded field. 

Racing Team Nederland, Dallara P217
#29 Giedo van der Garde / Nyck de Vries / Frits van Eerd
Having a Dallara sets this team apart from other midfield runners. That and its lurid livery will continue to attract attention. However, they’ve lost one of their great draws as one of sports car racing most accomplished veterans, Jan Lammers, is stepping back from driving duties (he will take part in the shorter Road to Le Mans support race).

Duqueine Engineering, Oreca 07
#30 Nicolas Jamin / Pierre Ragues / Romain Dumas
Among the non-WEC teams in the class, this one has to be a favourite. They are always a contender in the ELMS and this can be expected to carry over. In looking over the P2 roster one notices that all the candidates for the podium have at least one “ringer” on the driving strength. For Duqueine it is Romain Dumas.

DragonSpeed, Oreca 07
#31 Anthony Davidson / Pastor Maldonado / Roberto Gonzalez
The man to watch here is Anthony Davidson. While DragonSpeed’s P1 car has struggled their P2 effort has thrived and their activity is prolific. They won at the Paul Ricard ELMS round (with a different driver lineup) and are also one of the few P2 teams to participate in the American IMSA series, Maldonado and Gonzalez being part of the winning squad at the Daytona 24. That kind of experience makes for a good start at Le Mans.

Inter Europol Competition, Ligier JS P217
#34 Jakub Smiechowski / Nigel Moore / James Winslow
While not a likely contender for high honours, being the first Polish entry in the post-War era at Le Mans has already attracted much attention. They’ve done well in lesser championships such as Ultimate Cup and the French V de V Series and come by way of winning the P2 class in the Asian Le Mans Series. P2 at this level is a challenge and many will watch how up and coming star Jakub Smiechowski handles it. 

Signatech Alpine, Alpine A470
#36 Nicolas Lapierre / Andre Negrao / Pierre Thiriet
To anyone steeped in Le Mans history the name Alpine is close to heart. The feisty Renault powered specials were sprinkled around the smaller classes in the 1960s and then grew to overall winning material a decade later. However, this Alpine is merely a re-badged Oreca. But that is not meant as a slight, as the team has one of the more successful records in the class both at Le Mans and in the series overall. They are on track to be this year’s WEC champions and are the defending Le Mans winners, albeit that coming with the disqualification of G-Drive. All three of the drivers are returnees with Lapierre among the most accomplished of all active Le Mans pilotes. 

Jackie Chan DC Racing, Oreca 07
#37 David Heinemeier Hansson / Jordan King / Ricky Taylor
While co-owned by the ebullient Chinese film star, it is the quieter force behind the team which makes the difference. They are managed by the UK outfit, Jota Sport, which has a long track record of Le Mans success. While the No. 37 team lags behind No. 38 in the standings,  on any given day it is difficult to choose between the two as the overall team is such a tight ship. American Ricky Taylor, brother of Jordan—son of Wayne, is a more than worthy guest driver here. 

#38 Stephane Richelmi / Ho-Pin Tung / Gabriel Aubry
Tung is the veteran of the team’s greatest moment, their near overall victory at the 2017 Le Mans 24 Hours. Perhaps not as spectacular since then, but the train of success has carried on with class wins in the WEC’s 6 hour races of 2018. It’s been a little rougher go earlier this year but the trio of drivers is one of the most precise squads in the field.

Graff Racing, Oreca 07
#39 Tristan Gommendy / Vincent Capillaire / Jonathan Hirsch
The Graff team has its origins in the 1980s and after a hiatus they were reconstituted a few years ago and have since participated in a diverse set of national and international series. Tristan Gommendy anchors a driving squad that has shown flashes of speed. Notably, they are one of three all-French teams in P2. 

RLR Motorsport, Oreca 07
#43 John Farano / Arjun Maini / Norman Nato
Another with a long but interrupted Le Mans history, their name comes from Richard Lloyd Racing, the creation of the late British driver famed for constructing a special version of the Porsche 956. They are now moving up from the LMP3 class in the ELMS series and bring with them three drivers with success in disparate formulas. 

Scuderia Villorba Corse-Cetilar Racing, Dallara P217
#37 Roberto Lacorte / Giorgio Sernagiotto / Andrea Belicchi
Another Dallara entrant and for them success may be a question of where they finish relative to the Dutch team. The team has years of experience in endurance racing but podium finishes have been scattered. They have their work cut out, battling the Ligiers and Orecas.

IDEC Sport, Ligier JS P217
#48 Paul-Loup Chatin / Paul Lafargue / Memo Rojas
IDEC is a broad-based sporting concern. Their motor racing wing is involved with prototypes as well as GTs—mostly in the Creventic International Endurance Series. There is also separate yachting division, aimed at the America’s Cup. Chatin has proven to be standout driver among his P2 colleagues and could work magic here while Mexico’s Memo Rojas has impressed upon his return to endurance racing after a an earlier career in the old American Le Mans Series.

ARC Bratislava, Ligier JS P217
#49 Miroslav Konopka / Henning Enqvist / Konstantin Tereschenko
This is one of the pleasant little delights in the field. The merry band from Slovakia qualified by virtue of taking a sub-class of P2 in the Asian Le Mans Series and is back after a snub last year and an early retirement on their one previous appearance at Le Mans. Miro Konopka is the ultimate big fish in a small pond, having won multiple regional championships in central Europe. If they do well here, look for one very hard party on Sunday night. 

Larbre Competition, Ligier JS P217
#50 Romano Ricci / Erwin Creed / Nicolas Boulle
At first it seemed that the team had moved out of its element. For over 20 years Larbre has been a GT entrant and fielding a prototype was a new endeavor but the season has provided a run of finishes, not strong ones, but reliable--just as one would expect from endurance experts. 

Production engines up to 5.5 litres (4.0 turbocharged) may be used. Driver ranking is open and the fuel limits of approximately 90 litres are subject to BOP.

AF Corse, Ferrari F488 GTE, 4.0 litre, V8, bi-turbo
#51 Alessandro Pier Guidi / James Calado / Daniel Serra
There have been Ferraris entered in the top GT class at Le Mans continuously for over 20 years, but all have been customer efforts of some nature. While the factory continues to not be involved in sports car racing the Amato Ferrari (no relation) run operation has most favoured status, especially with Maranello's contracted race car preparer, Michelotto. AF Corse is a major force, fieldling multiple entries at every race with many being turnkey operations for enthusiast owners and drivers. Their two GTE Pro 488s are a step beyond and are potential factory team killers. However, they have not won the class since 2014, an eternity and back when 458 was the weapon of choice. It will be a tall order to repeat against the muscle of Corvette, Ford, and Porsche but Pier Guidi and Calado are coming off a strong second at Spa.

#71 Sam Bird / David Rigon / Miguel Molina 
After a podium finish in the first round of the 2018-2019 Super Season the No. 71 group has struggled. It belies the speed that each driver has shown. A good result would be to tag along behind the top factory entries in the class.

Corvette Racing, Chevrolet Corvette C7.R, 5.5 liter atmospheric V8
#63 Antonio Garcia / Jan Magnussen / Mike Rockenfeller
The GM backed squad are simply the most polished and experienced kids on the GTE Pro block. With scores of race wins, dozens of championships, and eight Le Mans victories, the Pratt & Miller, Doug Fehan run operation is seeking their first victory here since 2015. All six drivers are grizzled veterans of the great American Iron, with Magnussen and Garcia having six Le Mans wins between them. The Dane has not visited the top step of the podium since 2009, Garcia last in 2011, and Rocky a worthy journeyman here has never won the class. 

#64 Oliver Gavin / Tommy Milner / Marcel Fässler
Gavin is the winningest of Corvette drivers at Le Mans, being part of the 2015 winning group and four more, going back to 2002. Milner’s two wins includes being part of the 2015 lineup. While either Corvette is always a fair pick to win, Le Mans has not always been kind, with odd crashes and unusual mechanical gremlins seeming to strike out of nowhere.

Ford Performance (UK). Ford GT, 3.5 litre, V6, bi-turbo
#66 Oliver Pla / Stefan Mücke / Billy Johnson 
As has become standard the four-car Ford effort is split into two rival but cooperative divisions, this one is UK based and are regulars in WEC while the other two are visitors from the IMSA series. The British squad has seemingly lagged behind, last tasting class victory at the 2018 Spa 6 Hours with the No. 66 team, and never at Le Mans. There are scores to settle and blaming BOP is just not enough of an excuse.

#67 Andy Priaulx / Harry Tincknell / Jonathan Bomarito
Three podium finishes for the No. 67 lineup during the Super Season has kept them in the game. The last was a third place at Sebring. Then Bomarito played an important role and his return bodes well.

Ford Performance (USA)
#68 Dirk Müller / Sebastien Bourdais / Joey Hand
The American entrant with this same driver lineup brought Ford their greatest recent glory with a GTE Pro win in 2016. They are also a dominant force in the IMSA series and have high potential for delivering on Ford’s swan song in factory racing at Le Mans.

#69 Ryan Briscoe / Richard Westbrook / Scott Dixon
While the No. 68 squad has the experience of winning at Le Mans there is in reality little to choose between them and the equally successful No. 69, which has also done very well in the IMSA series. During the 2018 WeatherTech championship the Westbrook / Briscoe combo had three wins compared to two for Hand / Müller.

BMW Team MTEK, BMW M8 GTE, 4.0 litre, V8, bi-turbo
#81 Nick Catsburg / Martin Tomczyk / Philipp Eng
While both BMW and Ford have announced that their factory teams will come to a conclusion. BMW has more at stake here, the M8 having not done that well at Le Mans. Finishing an oh-so-close second to Porsche at Sebring must be an impetus to do well here.

#82 Augusto Farfus / Antonio Felix da Costa / Jesse Krohn
Factory hot shoe Farfus could be expected to bring the fireworks to this lineup. Ironically, they have done best when he’s not on the roster, which included a podium finish at Fuji.

Risi Competizione Ferrari F488 GTE
#89 Luis Felipe Derani / Jules Gounon / Oliver Jarvis
The very popular Houston, Texas based team is returning to Le Mans after a two year absence. They have one of the better track records among Ferrari privateers, having won twice with the old 430 GTC and three other podium finishes including a second place with a 488 in 2016. Since then they have limited their participation on both sides of the Atlantic but are always enthusiastic when they do arrive. Their 2019 livery harks back to NART, the North America Racing Team, founded by Giuseppe Risi’s hero and fellow Italian-American, three time Le Mans winner Luigi Chinetti.  

Porsche GT Team (Manthey, Germany), Porsche 991 RSR, 4.0 liter, flat 6, naturally aspirated
#91 Gianmaria Bruni / Richard Lietz / Frederic Makowiecki
Similar to Ford, Porsche is divided into a WEC and an IMSA camp.  The German squad is returning with identical lineups to that of Le Mans 2018 and are again hoping for a strong 1-2 finish. The No. 91 has recorded four podium finishes during the Super Season, culminating with a win at Sebring.

#92 Kevin Estre / Michael Christensen / Laurens Vanthoor
The No. 92 team are the defending class champions and could readily repeat. They also had a victory at Fuji and have generally been the more consistent of the two cars. 

Porsche GT Team (Core Autosport, USA)
#93 Patrick Pilet / Nick Tandy / Earl Bamber
The usually efficient team had a very fraught 2018 Le Mans, crashing one car in car in practice, retiring early in its replacement and a delayed finish with the other car. Their driver lineups here are a bit jumbled around from that used at IMSA rounds, making direct comparisons difficult. Bamber has participated in two victories this year, with Tandy and Pilet sharing another. The latter two also enjoyed two IMSA victories in 2018 with Bamber adding another. Overcoming their Le Mans jinx is a priority. 

#94 Mathieu Jaminet / Dennis Olsen / Sven Müller
Jaminet joined the team late last year while the other two are recent recruits. At Le Mans such youthful enthusiasm could work in their favour—or against it.

Aston Martin Racing, Aston Vantage GTE, 4.0 litre, V8, turbocharged
#95 Marco Sorensen / Nicki Thiim / Darren Turner
The team spent much of 2018 developing the then new Mercedes powered Vantage. The Le Mans results were mediocre, unable to match their class win in 2017. Then it all came right at Shanghai where the Danish-British squad brought home the new model’s first victory.

#97 Maxime Martin / Alex Lynn / Jonathan Adam
The No. 97 car picked up where No. 95 left off and won at Spa last month. In general, the team appears to be on an upward trajectory.

Same engine rules as in GTE Pro but the cars are typically at least one model year old. At least one Bronze rated driver must be used.

A beauty of the GTE Am field is that not only is there a diversity of marques (four) but also of teams emanating from all corners of the globe and all of the major sports car series. If there is a surprise winner this year, it is likely to be in this category.

Spirit of Race, Ferrari F488 GTE, 4.0 litre, V8, bi-turbo
#54 Francesco Castellacci / Thomas Flohr / Giancarlo Fisichella
Spirit of Race is actually a subdivision of AF Corse and between the two have made the sight of Ferraris in the paddock as common as seeing baseline Toyotas in a rental car lot. Some of the 488s are client owned and Spirit/AF Corse managed while others come from team’s French, Swiss, and Italian bases of operation. With the technical expertise behind them, it is up to the diverse group of drivers to produce results. The No. 54 squad remains in mathematical contention for the class championship, thanks to some very consistent though unspectacular results.

Team Project 1, Porsche 991 RSR, 4.0 litre, flat 6, naturally aspirated
#56 Egidio Perfetti / Patrick Lindsey / Jörg Bergmeister
The team was new on the scene last year and thus did not shine at Le Mans, but a series of strong finishes plus a win have propelled them to the points lead in GTE Am. It was rather slow at the recent test days, which has raised some concerns.

Car Guy Racing, Ferrari F488 GTE
#57 Takeshi Kimura / Kei Cozzolino / Come Ledogar
This will no doubt be a crowd favourite. The name of the team says it all. They are bunch of enthusiasts headquartered at Fuji. They have been regulars with a Honda in the GT300 class of Super GT and for the 2018-2019 Asian Le Mans Series fielded a Ferrari which dominated the GT class. Their first visit to Le Mans may not bring silverware but it will be lots of fun. Sadly, the merry band of Three Musketeers has been broken up as their usual teammate James Calado is obliged to race for the GTE Pro AF Corse Ferrari.

Kessel Racing, Ferrari F488 GTE
#60 Claudio Schiavoni / Sergio Pianezzola / Andrea Piccini
Swiss-based Kessel is a slightly smaller rival to the AF Corse conglomerate. They provide similar turnkey operations. While the team has much experience in numerous series this will be their first appearance at Le Mans under their own name. The No. 60 squad are all regulars in the ELMS and Michelin Le Mans Cup series and were the 2018 GT3 champions in the latter league. Doing well at the 24 Hour level will be a challenge.

#83, Manuela Gostner / Rahel Frey / Michelle Gatling
The all-female roster comes courtesy of backing from the FIA Women in Motorsport initiative. They have featured well in the ELMS rounds this year and will be closely followed here. Frey of Belgium is by far the most experienced of the trio, having run at the Spa 24 Hours. 

Clearwater Racing, Ferrari F488 GTE
#61 Luis Perez Companc / Matt Griffin / Matteo Cressoni
The Asian based team had a dreadful start to the year when a pre-race crash at Sebring resulted in a non-start. They recovered nicely at Spa but are feeling their way somewhat blindly after their principal supporter, Weng Sun Mok, stepped away from the team late last year. 

WeatherTech Racing, Ferrari F488 GTE
#62 Cooper MacNeil / Toni Vilander / Robert Smith
While the exact configuration of the team is new they bring much expertise with long time IMSA entrant and 2016 Le Mans winners Scuderia Corsa providing management. Both Vilander and Smith have won here and the package has already produced the fastest test time in the class. MacNeil’s father David is the man behind the WeatherTech empire and would dearly like to see his very talented son win.

MR Racing, Ferrari F488 GTE
#70 Motoaki Ishikawa / Edward Cheever III / Oliver Beretta
Perhaps the biggest story here is that Beretta will add to his record as the most prolific currently active driver at Le Mans. This will be his 23rd start. As a team they have seen consistent finishers, but not very high up the charts. 

Dempsey Racing-Proton Competition, Porsche 991 RSR
#77 Matt Campbell / Christian Ried / Julien Andlauer
This large team’s effort is divided into two groups, the No. 77 and 88 being WEC regulars while No. 78 and 99 race in the ELMS. The first is the strongest and is anchored by Christian Ried, the only person to have competed in every WEC round since 2012. They have the slimmest of chances to capture the class championship but will surely settle for a simple race win. The team is still smarting  from multiple disqualifications in 2018 for software hacking but  their on track results since then have been quite good. 

#78 Louis Prette / Philippe Prette / Vincent Abril
This ELMS squad features the well-rounded Abril with the father-son pairing of the Prettes. They are entirely new to the car and to Le Mans so not much is expected. 

#88 Matteo Cairoli / Satoshi Hoshino / Gianluca Roda
Hoshino is new to the squad, replacing the retiring Giorgio Roda. All three of the drivers have ample experience but not necessarily in this setting.

#99 Patrick Long / Tracy Krohn / Niclas Jonsson
Krohn and Jonsson have been partners for nearly 20 years, with a long history in Grand-Am, the American Le Mans Series, and at Le Mans. While they have raced all manner of cars, the Porsche is relatively new to them. Indeed, they have been together so long that they will add to their record as the most starts (13) by a particular pairing. The addition of former factory driver Long is a big plus.
Postscript: Tracy Krohn had an accident in the first qualifying session that destroyed the front of the car. Krohn appeared uninjured but was not cleared to race on medical grounds. The car was withdrawn and did not take part in qualifying 2 and 3 or the race.

JMW Motorsport, Ferrari F488 GTE
#84 Jeff Segal / Rodrigo Baptista / Lu Wei
They must still be celebrating their shock win of 2017. The lineup has changed completely since then and only Segal is back from their lower finish last year. Lu and Segal are coming off of a podium run at Monza last month, so a bit of momentum can’t hurt.

Keating Motorsports, Ford GT, 3.5 litre, V6, bi-turbo
#85 Ben Keating / Jeroen Bleekemolen / Felipe Braga
This is the most talked about entry in all of GT if not the entire field. Dallas area Ford dealer Keating brokered a deal with the company to race the first customer version of the GT. All signs point to this being a test for a longer foray into the various series once the works team goes away. 

Gulf Racing, Porsche 991 RSR
#86 Michael Wainwright / Ben Barker / Thomas Preining
The team have very little to show for the Super Season, two fourth places being their best result. Their highlight was at Le Mans last year where they nearly took pole position. That provides a base for this year’s effort. 

TF Sport, Aston Martin V8 Vantage GTE, 4.5 litre
#90 Salih Yoluc / Charles Eastwood / Euan Hankey
This is another team with a low probability of taking the GTE Am title. Interestingly, if they do so it will be with one of the oldest cars in the field. It will likely be the last run for the first generation Vantage before being sent to the pastures of club and vintage racing.

Aston Martin Racing, Aston Martin V8 Vantage GTE
#98 Paul Dalla Lana / Mathias Lauda / Pedro Lamy
Another of the old style Vantage, this works-backed team had a promising start with a win at Spa in 2018. One other podium finish came at Fuji but elsewhere it’s been a struggle. It will be a nostalgic send-off, redolent with memories of Alan Simonsen.

János Wimpffen
Images by Kristof Vermeulen