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Season Review

SPORTSCAR365: Prototype Drivers of the Year

Sportscar365 nominates the top prototype drivers of 2018 per category…

Photo: Toyota

In the first of our end-of-season reviews, Sportscar365 selects the standout prototype drivers from worldwide competition in LMP1, LMP2, LMP3, as well as the DPi ranks of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and best-performing Bronze/Silver-rated driver from 2018.

LMP1 – Fernando Alonso

Statistically, there have been quicker drivers than Alonso in Toyota Gazoo Racing’s FIA World Endurance Championship driver lineup this season. But the two-time Formula 1 world champion’s seamless integration into a new environment and his immediate pace against more experienced teammates made him a worthy LMP1 competitor of the year.

As a WEC rookie, Alonso won his first two races at Spa and Le Mans, and had a third victory at Silverstone until both Toyotas were disqualified in scrutineering.

A highlight from those events was his pivotal quadruple stint through the night in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Tasked with clawing back a two-minute deficit after a penalty, Alonso tore into No. 7 Toyota’s lead over two and a half hours to put Kazuki Nakajima in a position to pass Kamui Kobayashi for the win. While a Toyota victory was seemingly inevitable, Alonso’s drive will be remembered as the differentiator that put the No. 8 on top.

Further to his on-track performances, Alonso is known to be a crucial member of team discussions and appears to genuinely enjoy sports car racing and its unique set of demands. His approach to the challenge of contesting part of a WEC season alongside his final F1 campaign with McLaren was admirable.

An LMP1 rookie he may have been, but Alonso exhibited all the traits of a sports car stalwart in his debut year.

Honorable mentions: Mike Conway (Often the quickest driver in No. 7 Toyota), Sebastien Buemi (Le Mans winner with Alonso and Nakajima), Andre Lotterer (A linchpin for Rebellion who almost split the Toyotas in Shanghai qualifying).

Photo: IMSA

DPi – Felipe Nasr

Sauber refugee Nasr was another F1 name to appear on sports car grids for the first time this year. The Brazilian’s full-season debut in IMSA, which ran parallel to an LMP2 drive in the European Le Mans Series, was a revelation from start to finish.

Partnering Eric Curran, Nasr won back the Prototype crown for Action Express Racing and also claimed the Michelin North American Endurance Cup title. It didn’t take long for Nasr to assert himself in IMSA with a smooth transition from open wheel to the 5.5-liter Cadillac DPi-V.R. He burst onto the scene with the fastest lap of the Roar Before the Rolex 24 and went on to lap quickest in the race itself, while his No. 31 crew finished second.

Nasr was instrumental in his and Curran’s only win of the year at Detroit Belle Isle, where he set the fastest lap of the race to get ahead of Penske’s Ricky Taylor in the pit cycle before masterfully holding off the reigning champion.

That put the No. 31 level on points with the sister No. 5 Cadillac, setting Nasr and Curran up for a string of good results that led to a rookie title for IMSA’s latest South American star. 

Honorable mentionsPipo Derani (Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring winner), Filipe Albuquerque (Rolex 24 winner), Ricky Taylor (standout first year with Acura Team Penske), Oliver Jarvis (Helped Joest transition to Mazda with know-how and speed).

Photo: Scott LePage/IMSA

LMP2 – Colin Braun

While Nasr and Curran won the championship, perhaps the most compelling story in the Prototype class this year was the remarkable success of CORE autosport. Braun and Jon Bennett were a whisker away from snatching the title in their Oreca 07 Gibson, thanks in part to Braun’s often brilliant driving throughout the season.

The Gold-rated 30-year-old’s finest hour came at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, where he led every timed session before going on to make a crucial pass on Jordan Taylor for the win. Braun was later pegged back by a full course caution but went on to pull clear from the likes of Nasr, Albuquerque and the Taylor brothers to take CORE’s first victory in the top class.

This was followed by a light-footed final stint at Road America on an empty tank that resulted in another win that thrust CORE into the heart of the championship battle. Three other podiums, including third at the Rolex 24, capped off an outstanding year for Bennett, CORE and especially Braun.

Honorable mentions: Jean-Eric Vergne (starred in G-Drive’s ELMS title run and Spa WEC win), Norman Nato (impressive first year in sports cars for F2 ace), Stephen Simpson (4th in IMSA Prototype with Misha Goikhberg).

Photo: Xynamic/RLR MSport

LMP3 – Job van Uitert

The Dutch youngster had never raced a prototype before 2018, but the 20-year-old quickly adapted to his trade in the European Le Mans Series with RLR MSport. Paired with John Farano and Rob Garofall, Van Uitert won his first-ever LMP3 race in the team’s Ligier JS P3 Nissan at Paul Ricard before picking up another trophy at the Red Bull Ring to establish RLR as a serious title contender.

Consistently one of the quickest drivers in his class, Van Uitert set one of the top five fastest laps in all but one race this season. His pace, combined with the solid efforts of Farano and Garofall, led to RLR clinching the title at the Portimao season finale.

With the British squad returning to LMP2 next season, Van Uitert could well be poised to follow in the footsteps of Thomas Laurent and scale the rest of the Le Mans prototype ladder. He’s certainly set himself as one to watch.

Honorable mentionsKay van Berlo (17-year-old who won Road to Le Mans, 4H Fuji and 4H Monza), Kris Wright (IMSA Prototype Challenge champion with a 100% podium record), Matthieu Lahaye (three ELMS poles for Ultimate).

Photo: Will Owen Racing

Best Prototype Silver/Bronze – Will Owen

While Owen’s second season in the European Le Mans Series wasn’t as decorated as his first, 2018 as a whole was arguably more significant for the 23-year-old Colorado native.

Another solid campaign with United Autosports in the Ligier JS P217 Gibson, capped with a class podium at Le Mans, was rewarded with a full-time drive with Juncos Racing in DPi next year. Third in the 24-hours after G-Drive’s exclusion was remarkable considering the No. 32 car he shared with Hugo de Sadeleer and Juan Pablo Montoya started from 14th on the LMP2 grid.

Owen’s quadruple stint in the small hours contributed to United’s charge past many of the more fancied Oreca 07 entries that resulted in his second straight podium in the French classic.

Over in ELMS, Owen couldn’t repeat the two victories he achieved last year with De Sadeleer and Albuquerque, although he did finish third with De Sadeleer and Wayne Boyd in the Portimao season finale.

Honorable mentionsMisha Goikhberg (4th in IMSA Prototype standings), Jon Bennett (2nd in IMSA Prototype standings), 

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