After Ford and Ferrari dominated the GTE-Pro field in last year’s race, there’s hope that the battle for top class honors in this weekend’s 24 Hours of Le Mans will be significantly more competitive and unpredictable, according to teams and drivers.
Thirteen cars from Corvette, Aston Martin, Ferrari, and Porsche are set to take the start, and all of the manufacturers except Ford ran within 1.2 seconds of each other at the official test day earlier this month.
While the fastest of the defending class-winning Ford GTs at the test checked in nearly three seconds off the class pace-setting Corvette, prompting Ford Performance Global Director Dave Pericak to express concern over the BoP, driver Dirk Mueller cautioned against putting too much stock into test day results.
“You saw that at the test everyone was doing a certain pace and then showing something different when someone stepped up, so nobody is showing their hands now, that’s for sure,” Mueller told Sportscar365. “Why would you?
“It’s like, for us last year, focusing on the race. We were really just working for the race car. And new tires, don’t forget the new tire model and compound we got this year.
“We had a big program [at the test] that we went through and I hope that we are in the mix.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Oliver Gavin and Corvette Racing said their strong showing at the test has them confident while also acknowledging that the strength of their competitors is hard to gauge.
“It was kind of a funny day because there was, it seemed like people were going to have good pace, and then nobody really seemed to get going or everybody seemed to get up to a certain lap time and then stop,” Gavin told Sportscar365.
“It’s one of the little things that happens now at Le Mans with the way that certain things are with certain manufacturers, but we’re happy with the way our program went.”
Porsche works driver Kevin Estre agreed, adding that the Manthey-run team, which gives the mid-engined Porsche 911 RSR its Le Mans debut, has focussed on self improvement rather than analyze what the competitors are doing.
“The tests and the Le Mans week is something different,” he told Sportscar365. “We saw last year there was a big difference in terms of lap times from many competitors.
“[At the test] we just did our program really, we didn’t look so much from the lap times from the others because there was definitely some brand which didn’t push the way they could have.
“At the end, everybody has to do his program. We respect the choice from the others and just did our stuff.”
Darren Turner and Aston Martin, meanwhile, are hopeful that it will not turn into another “two class” race in GTE-Pro.
The British manufacturer ended up being the best-of-the-rest in the race last year, with Turner finishing two laps back in fifth after being unable to contend for top class honors.
“There was the Ford and the Ferrari completely out on their own compared to us, Corvette, Porsche, and so I’m hoping that what I’ve seen with the BoP changes that it’s going to be a closer competition,” he told Sportscar365.
“You don’t want to go there with two seconds in the bag knowing it’s going to be an easy race because it’s no fun for anyone in the team or any of the drivers.”
James Calado was hopeful the minor BoP change that was implemented after the test, which sees the Corvette’s air restrictor reduced by 0.2 mm, will even the playing field, even if the team estimates it costing them only around 5 horsepower.
“In terms of BoP, it was noticeable that Corvette was really, really strong [at the test], especially in the straight line,” Calado told Sportscar365.
“It seems that they’ve got a bit more power than us but I think they’ve just been pegged back a tiny little bit.
“It’s still an unknown really until we get to qualy we’ll see, but we can only do our job. We can only drive with the best of what we’ve got, and we’ll see at the end.
“At the end of the day, speed isn’t everything. It’s mainly about finishing with a fresh car at the end.”
Ford Chip Ganassi Racing WEC Team Principal George Howard-Chappell admitted they didn’t go for a qualifying lap at the test day, although were still at more than a six-second deficit than the car’s best lap in the race last year.
“We’ve obviously got some challenges with the BoP change that’s been made [since last year], and how exactly that’s going to pan out, [we] don’t know yet,” he said.
The Fords head to Le Mans with a 20kg weight increase and reduced turbo boost, year-to-year.
“I think [the FIA and ACO] have a very difficult job to do,” Howard-Chappell said.
“Unfortunately for us, they chose to look at our improvement during the WEC season in addition to last year’s race results, so we got hit fairly hard. Hopefully we can recover from that.”
Corvette Racing Program Manager Doug Fehan echoed Howard-Chappell’s thoughts on the the sanctioning body’s closer scrutiny to the BoP from last year, although said they can only focus on the elements they can influence.
“We have based our victories here, all eight of them, on three principles: great engineering and strategy, implementation of perfectly choreographed and perfectly executed pit stops, and some pretty darn good driving,” Fehan said.
“If you bring those three things to the race, you have a very good chance of success. What happens around you and to others is in most cases immaterial.”