Cooper MacNeil believes “anything can happen” in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, admitting that a GTE-Pro class podium finish for the underdog WeatherTech Racing squad is a “significant possibility” if everything falls into place.
The U.S.-flagged team is one of eight cars in the predominately factory GT class, following a decision to elevate its GTE-Am entry to GTE-Pro due to uncertainty surrounding potential travel restrictions for the Bronze-rated drivers it was in discussions with.
It therefore allowed former Le Mans GTE-Am class winner Jeff Segal to join MacNeil and his WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season-long co-driver and Ferrari factory driver Toni Vilander in the No. 63 Ferrari 488 GTE.
“We were talking to a handful of Bronzes to run the race this year, as our first choice was to run the Am class,” MacNeil told Sportscar365.
“But as time went on, it was pretty clear that it was going to be more and more difficult to put our team together at the level we wanted to be at, mainly due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Without that, it would have been possible to do things well.
“As time went on, it became more and more clear that wasn’t a possibility so we figured going to the pro class with our guns full loaded, hoping to make something happen.”
Incidentally, it’s not the first time MacNeil has competed in the GTE-Pro class at Le Mans, as an accident in qualifying in 2014 forced Bronze-rated driver Bret Curtis out of its lineup in a Prospeed Competition-run Porsche 911 RSR and resulted in the car moving to the pro class.
MacNeil and Bleekemolen completed the entire race as a duo, finishing fifth in class.
“The biggest takeaway was that anything could happen,” he said. “Anything could happen at any time.
“That could be taken multiple ways. Anything could happen with the aspect to having to run two drivers.
“Your teammate could could go off and get injured just like what happened to us in 2014 and then we’re in a position with having to run two drivers in the car.
“Also going to the pro class [that year] had me see how things matured throughout the race in that category first-hand.
“That was the first time I really paid attention to the class beyond seeing who wins pole or the race.
“I was really shown the fact that anything could happen in that class because those drivers like to push the car to the furthest edge of the envelope in every condition you can think of.
“Whether it’s in poor weather conditions to tight traffic conditions.
“Anything can happen at any point in time with them, just like we saw with Magnussen in the Porsche Curves with one of the Porsche Curves a few years ago.
“For this year, it’s the same mentality. It’s obviously an extremely difficult class with the best drivers, the best manufacturers and the best preparation but it’s Le Mans.
“Everything’s stacked against us as an underdog with the only Silver driver in the class.
“I recognize that and with that being said, when those guys are pushing 102 percent, we need to be pushing 98 percent and be there to capitalize on their mistakes.
“We obviously have to do a perfect job with no penalties, no issues in pit lane, no on-track issues, no contact, no wheels off… nothing. It has to be perfect.”
While finishing third in the GTE-Am class last year in what he described as a “perfect” race — other than their Bronze-rated driver lacking some speed — MacNeil feels optimistic on their chances for success in GTE-Pro.
The team, largely run by AF Corse mechanics that typically work on SMP Racing’s GT World Challenge Europe powered by AWS program, have already established high standards.
“It’s Le Mans so anytime you finish the race is considered a success,” MacNeil said.
“But to our level, we’re pushing for a win. Is that a possibility? Yes. Is it highly likely? No.
“However, anything can happen. I think a podium is a significant possibility, I really do.”
GTE-Pro Drive Time Rules Could Benefit Le Mans-Only Lineup
A strategy play could also come in terms of drive time, with LMP1 or GTE-Pro drivers not required to complete the minimum six hours unless wanting to score FIA World Endurance Championship points.
It could put MacNeil in a position to drive less in order to bolster their chances of a higher result.
A maximum drive time of 14 hours per driver and a four-hour limit for any period of six hours still applies regardless.
“The reality of it is the other two are faster than me so they’re naturally going to get more drive time,” MacNeil said.
“Is it going to be two, three or four hours [of total drive time for me]? I don’t know. It will depend on how things are going and strategy and my pace, the weather, our position to the leaders.
“Everything plays a factor.”