By: Tony DiZinno, Sports Car Correspondent
- Ferrari upgrades, Lotus relaunches
- Performance adjustments help close field even more
Seven manufacturers set for an epic battle in GTE Pro and Am
With great fanfare, a bulk of the fan focus for this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans will zoom in on Audi’s and Peugeot’s new prototypes expected to battle for the overall victory. Since each of the two powerhouse manufacturers first launched diesel-powered cars in 2006 and 2007, respectively, they have never gone into Le Mans with new cars at the same time as they are this year.
In the class where production relevance is more evident, GTE Pro, it’s worth noting a number of cars have also gracefully ridden off into the sunset while newer, hungrier cars take their place.
The biggest one, of course, is the new Ferrari F458 Italia, the replacement for the F430 GT. Visually stunning, the 458 in race trim features a modified nose and front hood with a trio of inlets, far curvier sides, and a fiercer rear body.
Some of the 458s have been designed at Michelotto in Italy. Performance-wise, it is powered by a 465 horsepower V8 engine. The car finished 1-2-3-4 in the first Le Mans Series round of the season, held in April at Le Castellet in Paul Ricard.
Ferrari’s newest car is also the most popular on the GTE Pro grid, with six of the 18 entrants fielding a 458. A minor miracle, considering at the start of the season, parts were at an absolute premium and the car went through expected teething woes.
Although Risi Competizione, the stalwarts of the American Le Mans Series and previous winners at Le Mans from 2007 through 2009, are not in Le Mans this time around, they are providing technical support and crew to French squad Luxury Racing and its No. 59 car.
Risi’s team manager Dave “Beaky” Sims described how vital their role in testing the 458 has been and how teams have utilized Risi as an invaluable resource.
At the roughest circuit in the world, we handled it ...
“In the past and sometimes present, a lot of people call us and see what we’re doing,” Sims said. “But it got to the point where it’s so competitive, and there are things we do to the car, which we can’t share, competition-wise. If there’s a structural problem, we tell them immediately. When we first tested, we found some rear, lower wishbone bolts were shearing, and we told Michelotto straight away.”
From completing 10.5 hours of 12 at Sebring, Sims knew the car had serious potential for 24, given how it handled the unbearably rough former airfield circuit.
“What we took away there was we ran 10.5 hours until the alternator gave up,” Sims said. “At the roughest circuit in the world, we handled it, which is a good omen for the rest of the tracks. It’s going well for a new car.”
Of the six Ferraris, AF Corse and Luxury Racing will each field two with JMW Motorsport and Hankook Team Farnbacher fielding one apiece. AF Corse and Luxury run on Michelins with JMW and Farnbacher the singular Dunlop and Hankook entries, respectively.
Farnbacher’s Ferrari F430 finished second at Le Mans last season and JMW took the opening round of the Le Mans Series this season at Paul Ricard, so either one can’t be counted out for the class win this year.
While Ferrari may have a new car, there’s an iconic marquee returning to the fray for the first time since 1997, Lotus.
Formula One fans will no doubt admit an angst about the ongoing saga of whether Group Lotus versus Team Lotus really owns the “Lotus” name, even despite last week’s initial settlement, and there are some who will say the Lotus name should have gone out in any respect when founder Colin Chapman passed.
But with Lotus at Le Mans, there’s no question. It’s the marquee, and it’s the premiere of its new Evora. Lotus missed the season-opening ILMC round at Sebring but made it to Spa with two new Evoras campaigned by the Jetalliance team. One has a Pro-Am lineup while the other which could bring a result is the No. 65 entry with all-Pros Lotus factory pilot Johnny Mowlem driving alongside James Rossiter and Jonathan Hirschi.
Mowlem said the team has made some sizeable improvements just in the last few weeks. They’ve tested different engine mappings, the air conditioning and new vent systems, and ran with higher temps. But the biggest gains came from a rig test.
“We tested last Thursday and Friday at the Lotus test facility to evaluate oil consumption with the oil tank,” Mowlem said. “The engine’s been run 31 hours on dyno with a bigger restrictor, with high temps deliberately. We struggled keeping it at 32 degrees Celsius at Spa. It’s all so much stuff and then we ran to just get all the systems. We went on a rig test on Thursday, as I drove one car and one was on a rig. Discovered a load of stuff there and went a ton quicker.”
The upbeat British pilot said there are no delusions of grandeur. Lotus is here to learn and finish well in the stacked GTE Pro class.
“We’re not coming with the illusions of being fast,” he said. “We’ve almost gone the opposite, going for the tortoise approach. We’re not going to do it on outright pace so we have to back it down, try to go 80 percent to save fuel for another lap, attempt to triple stint the tires, and try to gain as much experience and mileage as possible.”
We’ve almost gone the opposite, going for the tortoise approach.
There’s another name that conjures images of legends back in the GTE class this year – Ford, with its GT-R. Although Ford competed in the GT1 class last year, it didn’t go up against the mights of Ferrari, Porsche and Corvette.
While it isn’t a factory-supported effort, it is a car built by Kevin Doran. Anyone who knows Doran knows he will not rest until he has put every ounce of sweat and tears into creation of the car; in this case, it’s been built alongside the Robertson Racing crew led by team manager Andrew “H.” Smith.
The Robertsons compete in the GTE Am class, the new one introduced for gentlemen drivers and year-old cars, but their spirit has carried them this far after five years of growth, learning and development in the ALMS. Husband-and-wife David and Andrea Robertson, together with friend and co-driver David Murry, look to make the finish and wear the “underdog” label with pride.
Prior to the Le Mans test day, Robertson’s Doran Ford GT-R received an air restrictor break from 28.1 to 29.3 inches in the ACO’s most recent balance-of-performance adjustments. This should help on the long straights that make up so much of the 8.4-mile Circuit de la Sarthe. David Robertson said this was what was homologated in the U.S., so the ACO allowed the break.
Add in aerodynamic updates for BMW’s M3 and the venerable Porsche 911 GT3 RSR, along with the rumbling Corvette C6.R and newer spec Aston Martin Vantage, undoubtedly the manufacturers are set for what promises to be a thrilling Le Mans in GT.