While there may not be an entire U.S.-based Porsche team taking part in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, some familiar faces from the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship are behind the wheel of Porsche machinery, seeking continued success, but some 4,000 miles away from their normal “day jobs.”
Reigning IMSA GT Le Mans class Champion Patrick Pilet, his Porsche North America co-driver Nick Tandy, as well as fellow Porsche factory pilots and teammates Earl Bamber, Fred Makowiecki and Joerg Bergmeister are all set to do battle for top honors in GTE-Pro in a pair of factory Porsche 911 RSRs.
Meanwhile, Cooper MacNeil, Leh Keen and Marc Miller have joined forces in a Proton Competition-run, WeatherTech Racing Porsche in GTE-Am, as the all-American trio also fly the flag for IMSA in the world’s greatest endurance race.
All Porsches competing in this year’s race are on Michelin tires, the brand that has delivered overall victories for the last 18 years.
From LMP1 to GTE-Pro
The biggest change for Tandy and Bamber is the fact they’re not defending their overall Le Mans win, and are instead in the GTE-Pro ranks due to Porsche’s scale-back to a two-car 919 Hybrid effort this year.
While it no doubt comes as a disappointment to both star drivers, who scored the shock victory in their LMP1 debut alongside Formula One ace Nico Hulkenberg, it does provide a unique chance of becoming Le Mans winners in two different classes.
“It’s going to be sad we can’t compete for the outright win but it’s always a dream to go to Le Mans and race each year,” Bamber told Sportscar365.
“I’ve never done the race in a GT car but I’m sure it’s a similar thing where you have to go flat out from the start to the finish. It’s clear the competition is very, very high and that’s good with 13 GTE-Pro cars on the grid this year.”
For Tandy, this year marks his fourth Le Mans start and third in the GT ranks.
“It was a big change last year going there in the P1 car, where now it’s the car I’m racing all year round; it’s the car I raced all year last year. It’s the people I’ve worked with for the last five years at Porsche.
“It’s the biggest race, but what we do as a job and what we have to do as drivers is pretty simple and pretty straightforward because it’s what we do all the time.”
Tandy and Pilet, who scored overall victory in last year’s rain-soaked Petit Le Mans on Michelin tires, both agree that the chemistry formed in the WeatherTech Championship will help their Le Mans efforts, despite switching from the CORE autosport-run Porsche North America team to the German Manthey organization.
“Although we may not have the exact set of people working on the car in France that we do in IMSA, there’s a crossover between both of the series,” Tandy said.
The pairing are joined by Kevin Estre, whom they drove with at Daytona and Sebring. Bergmeister, who has been loaned to the Park Place Motorsports team in GT Daytona, meanwhile, completes the Le Mans lineup in the No. 92 Porsche with Bamber and Makowiecki.
“The good thing with [the IMSA program] is that we work together and we’ll be together in Le Mans,” Pilet told Sportscar365. “We know each other very well and we’ll try to arrive with the same motivation as in the U.S. with the team.
“It’s the same process. We know the people, we know the car, we know the tires, we know the lineup. It’s something usual for us.”
Porsche also has a strong chance for victory in the GTE-Am category, with four 2015-spec 911 RSRs set to fight for top class honors, including the No. 89 WeatherTech entry of MacNeil, Keen and Miller.
It marks MacNeil’s third Le Mans appearance and first since his ironman drive in 2014 which saw he and Jeroen Bleekemolen finish 5th in the GTE-Pro class in an unexpected two-driver lineup.
“I obviously wanted to get back there because it’s definitely one of the races I want to win,” MacNeil told Sportscar365. “It was important to get back there this year. After we got our feet wet and started talking with different teams, the best option was running with Proton [Competition].
“All the stars needed to align. We needed to have the right car, the right team. We weren’t going to do this unless we gave it 110 percent effort and everybody entirely focused.”
While the car is run by German specialists Proton Competition, MacNeil has brought over his season-long GTD race engineer Greg Fordahl, from Alex Job Racing, to call strategy and be the voice in their ears during the race.
“Having an all-American driver lineup for an American pride company is pretty special, especially when carrying that flag over to Le Mans,” MacNeil said. “You’re running the most famous sports car race ever. I think that’s pretty exciting.”
Both the factory Manthey and WeatherTech squads will be looking for Porsche’s first GT triumph at Le Mans since 2013, when the German manufacturer swept both the GTE-Pro and GTE-Am categories.
For Pilet, the fact they’re effectively in a one-off-race, at Le Mans, means it will be maximum attack this weekend as some of IMSA’s finest drivers look to continue the tradition of success at La Sarthe.
“It’s not more pressure but we really want success there because it’s something extremely important for us,” Pilet said. “Even if you don’t have an amazing year, like we had in 2013, we won Le Mans. It was still a good year.
“The car quick. When we won in 2013, it was more or less the same car, but now with some aero differences. What we’re asking for is a chance to fight. We’ll be flat out all the time as we have nothing to lose.”