After a year away, Le Mans stalwarts JMW Motorsport are happy to embrace its tag as dark horses for class honors in its return to GTE-Am.
The Jim McWhirter-led team was put on the reserve list last year and missed the race for the first time since its debut appearance in 2009, but earned an entry to this year’s running by finishing second in the 2016 European Le Mans Series GTE championship, only missing out on the title to Beechdean AMR after a gearbox failure at the final round in Estoril.
With team regular Rob Smith joined in the No. 84 Ferrari 488 GTE by Will Stevens and promising rookie Dries Vanthoor, McWhirter is quietly optimistic of improving on JMW’s chances at Le Mans despite running a brand-new car.
“We’re very pleased with it, it’s gone very well,” McWhirter told Sportscar365.
“The car was built by Michelotto with five of our own people there to learn about it and then our engineer spent time to learn the IT systems on the car.
“We’ve done about 900 kilometers in testing; we went to Adria for a shakedown and did about four hundred kilometers there, then we brought it straight here for the test day.
“It’s run well up to now, so we’re confident that it can hopefully do the job.”
The 488 replaces the team’s storied 458 Italia GT, first run in 2011, which won its final race in the ELMS at Monza last month with Smith, Jonny Cocker and Jody Fannin.
The same chassis claimed the first victory for the 458 Italia, with James Walker and Rob Bell, at Paul Ricard in its debut season six years ago.
While sorry to bid the car farewell, Smith said he’s optimistic that JMW can translate their form to the world’s biggest endurance race.
“Monza was a fairy story for the whole team, it was a really special moment and a great send-off for the 458,” he said.
“JMW prepare the car to a level second to none and the driver line-up is strong as well, so I think we’re going to hit the ground running.
“Having Will who is an ex-Formula 1 driver and Dries who is a real talent, it makes me want to dream that we can have a really good result here.
“The most important thing is having three drivers that are within a few seconds of each other and if we can do that, I really believe we can do this. I want to be looking down from the podium on Sunday night.”
Vanthoor only completed the minimum 10 laps at La Sarthe as the test day fell on the same weekend as the Blancpain Sprint Cup round at Zolder, but the 19-year-old said he already feels confident in his new surroundings – helped by a prior relationship with Stevens, his regular team-mate at WRT in the Blancpain GT Series.
“Of course we’re one of the underdogs here, both me and Will are new to driving a GTE car but I think we are doing a good job in Blancpain [GT],” said Vanthoor, the younger brother of Porsche factory driver Laurens.
“He is a really good driver and hopefully I can do my thing as well.
“Rob has really impressed me as well with how he’s so into it, he is really precise and writing everything down, which is really cool to see.
“We have a good team to do it, we have a good line-up and the Ferrari is a great balanced car. It gives you confidence which means you can find the limits quickly.
“We just have to stay out of trouble and I think to be a bit optimistic, we can get a nice podium.”
JMW also has another ace up their sleeve in Hugues Lardy, the chief engineer on the GTE-Am class-winning Scuderia Corsa car last year.
“He is very experienced and he knows this car well,” said McWhirter.
“He runs 488 GT3s in Blancpain [GT] so he’s very confident with the car. They’re a bit different with the aero, but the actual infrastructure is similar so it’s a good experience to have.
“He also speaks French, so if we have any issues, he can discuss them with Thierry Bouvet [ACO Technical Delegate] or the scrutineers which is a big plus for us.”
Having yet to score a podium in seven previous attempts, with a best finish of fourth in GT2 in 2009, Smith hopes this is the time for everything to fall into place.
“After the heartbreak of Estoril, there’s got to be a payback,” he said.
“Hopefully it’s going to be a really good one.”