In the third part of our comprehensive Le Mans 24 Hours preview, Sam Smith offers his verdict on the field in the GTE Pro and Am divisions.
Fast forward to 2016, and the Blue Oval is back at La Sarthe with one clear objective – to take the class win fifty years on from its first ever triumph with Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon in the black Ford MkII.
But the build-up to Le Mans has been distorted with Balance of Performance shadow boxing that is a sad inevitability of the way the class is structured.
The Ford GTs understated performances at Silverstone and Spa were analysed carefully by the ACO, FIA and direct competition.
The net result has been that the quartet of Ford entries will run 25kgs lighter than they ran at Spa, a decision that has left its adversaries particularly happy.
The factory backed Ford effort returns to Le Mans for the first time in 34 years is a romantic story, but one which Aston-Martin, Chevrolet , Porsche and most intensivelyFerrari are hell-bent on quashing.
The battle will be intense and likely rage throughout the entire 24 hours. Expect fireworks.
AF Corse Risi Competizione
Car: Ferrari 488GTE Tyres: Michelin
#51 - Gianmaria Bruni, James Calado, Alessandro Pier Guidi
#71 - Davide Rigon, Sam Bird, Andrea Bertolini
#82 - Giancarlo Fisichella, Matteo Malucelli, Toni Vilander
Designed by Michelotto, this all-new 488 car has so far swept all before it in the WEC with a 100 percent winning record. The signing of Sam Bird added additional steel and quality to an already- glittering roster of GT talent.
The continuity of Amato Ferrari’s well-drilled operational and technical expertise points toward the Prancing Horse preparing for a ferocious kick of the stable doors once again.
The new turbocharged 3.9 litre V8 488GTE design is nimble, yet this has also come at a price, as reliability issues have hit the #51 car at both events.
Gianmaria Bruni remains the benchmark performer in GTE, but not far behind him are Bird, James Calado and Davide Rigon. This trio are getting better and better and each has individual skills that have a solid arch of teamwork around them as well.
The final two drivers to join the full-time FIA WEC crews are Ferrari stalwarts Andrea Bertolini and Alessandro Pier Guidi, both of whom will add a solid structure to Ferrari’s hopes of a third Le Mans LMGTE Pro class victory. It will be Pier Guidi’s first Le Mans, but most expect him to excel.
US-based Risi Competizione will also field a 488GTE which has 2014 WEC champion Toni Vilander and former Grand Prix winner Giancarlo Fisichella in its driver squad along with Matteo Malucelli.
The team is no stranger to success at La Sarthe, having won the GT2 division in 2008, but it would be a surprise to see the #82 entry mixing it with its AF Corse-run cousins on sheer pace.
Car: Chevrolet Corvette C7.R Tyres: Michelin
#63 - Jan Magnussen, Ricky Taylor, Antonio Garcia
#64 - Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner, Jordan Taylor
Last year's winning manufacturer will attempt to defend its crown for the first time since 2006, and add another Le Mans trophy to its impressive haul accrued over the last two decades.
2015 also saw the team fight back win after the #63 car was eliminated in qualifying after Jan Magnussen’s hefty accident. The Dane will be as motivated as ever to add a fifth La Sarthe title to his impressive racing record.
This year will be tougher though for the Doug Fehan-led squad and they will go up against the works Ford, Ferrari, Aston Martin and Porsche squads for the very first time in 2016.
The season has so far reaped success, with class wins at both Daytona and Sebring, so good momentum is there.
With a revised version of the C7.R, the Pratt & Miller team came away from the Test Day in a good place after setting the quickest time.
But with BoP mirages shimmering, no real conclusions could be made - and now with a 0.3mm air restrictor reduction on its cars, Corvette may have its raw pace slightly diluted.
Ford Chip Ganassi Racing
Car: Ford GT Tyres: Michelin
#66 - Stefan Mucke, Olivier Pla, Billy Johnson
#67 - Andy Priaulx, Harry Tincknell, Marino Franchitti
#68 - Sebastien Bourdais, Joey Hand, Dirk Muller
#69 - Richard Westbrook, Scott Dixon, Ryan Briscoe
“We’re back. We’re back at Le Mans, and we’re back with a supercar,” said Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr at Le Mans last June. It was a simple yet grand statement.
A year on, and the pressure for a perfect ’50 years later’ storyline is getting hotter, but a four-pronged attack from Ford, at its first Le Mans since 1982, conveys a strong statement of intent.
The aesthetically pleasing contours of the Multimatic conceived GT design, sculpted by aerodynamics legend Mark Handford, are sure to be a crowd favourite.
The 3.5-litre V6 turbocharged Ecoboost engine has bullet-proof reliability after years in Daytona Prototype racing.
The contentious carbon chassis appears to be a good one and so far reliability, for a new car at least, has been reasonable.
The driver squad is impressive with the squad essentially split in to two camps – the American run #68 and #69 cars and the UK-based #66 and #67 FIA WEC season entrants.
Scott Dixon and Sebastien Bourdais have flown across the Atlantic after the Fort Worth IndyCar round to race at Le Mans. It will be Dixon’s first visit to La Sarthe.
Of the European drivers, Oliver Pla and Harry Tincknell have so far shown why they are both so highly rated and how much their talents were squandered at Nissan last year.
Away from the cockpit, George Howard-Chappell is the lynchpin after being so instrumental in forming and directing the Ford effort on many levels.
Having won Le Mans three times before (2003 – Prodrive Ferrari and 2007, 2008 Aston Martin) GH-C knows how to react to the many surprises that Le Mans can spin at you.
Seldom has there been as much focus on a new project as this. The Ford Chip Ganassi Racing effort is poised to deliver something very special.
Porsche Motorsport Dempsey-Proton Racing
Car: Porsche 911 RSR Tyres: Michelin
#77 – Michael Christensen, Philipp Eng, Richard Lietz
#91 – Nick Tandy, Kevin Estre, Patrick Pilet
#92 – Frederic Makowiecki, Earl Bamber, Jorg Bergmeister
Porsche took a step back from the LMGTE Pro category, at least from a full FIA WEC season point of view, this year.
Instead, the Weissach marque is planning for 2017 with an all-new 911 concept, and instead this season it will concentrate on running a single car via Dempsey-Proton Racing in WEC and a two-car works attack at Le Mans only.
The 911 RSR is starting to get a little long in the tooth and is unlikely to challenge at the front in the early stages, but could start to stealthily rise up the leaderboard as the race goes on.
Back, but on opposing sides of the garage are last years overall winners Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber, while a well-known collection of drivers – from the young and blindingly quick Kevin Estre to the experienced campaigner Jorg Bergmeister – form a world-class team which will attempt to reprise Porsche's 2013 GT success.
The Dempsey-Proton 911 will have Austrian hotshoe Phillipp Eng added to the regular pairing of reigning WEC champion Richard Lietz and the pacey Dane Michael Christensen.
Aston Martin Racing
Car: Aston Martin Vantage GTE Tyres: Dunlop
#95 – Marco Sorensen, Darren Turner, Nicki Thiim
#97 – Fernando Rees, Jonathan Adam, Richie Stanaway
The 2016 look Aston Martin Vantage is an evolution of last year’s car, but it has some noticeable changes, not least he switch from Michelin to Dunlop tyres for 2016.
A post-season test at Bahiian started the switch in rubber and so far the exclusive development partnership is giving cause for optimism at Aston’s new Banbury headquarters.
Darren Turner switches across to join Danes – Marco Sorensen and Nicki Thiim, while young Scot Jonathan Adam is building upon some WEC outings last season to start making a name for himself this year with proven teammates Richie Stanaway and Fernando Rees.
The front-engined Aston Martin Vantage has received a 10kg weight reduction and also a 0.2mm smaller air restrictor. Still, a lot will depend on how the tyre war in LMGTE Pro develops, and how Aston can, should conditions allow, exploit that.
The Am class of the GTE battle will again be a ruthlessly tough fight between a variety of teams, cars and drivers. Maybe out of all the classes, this one really is too close to call.
Aston Martin Racing will field two Vantage V8s in an effort to banish the ghost of last season when Paul Dalla Lana’s crashed his car in the final hour and lost not only the Le Mans crown but also the WEC title.
The Canadian, a true bronze gentleman driver, was left devastated by his error, but has responded well since, scoring three WEC victories along with team mates Mathias Lauda and Pedro Lamy.
A second Dunlop-shod Aston Martin will be entered for Beechdean Racing owner and loyal Aston runner Andrew Howard. He is joined by reigning ELMS LMP2 champion Gary Hirsch and British GT race winner Liam Griffin.
The full WEC season entered Abu Dhabi Proton Racing Porsche should also be in the mix with a strong looking line-up of 2014 GTE Am champion David Heinemeier-Hansson, Patrick Long and Khaled Al Qubaisi.
Another likely front runner in the 13-car strong category will be the #83 AF Corse Ferrari458 of Rui Aguas, Emmanuel Collard and Francois Perrodo. This trio finished second in the 2016 FIA WEC standings and oozes experience and guile.
Fellow Ferrari 458 Italia runners Matt Griffin, Duncan Cameron and Aaron Scott will be in the cockpit of an unfamiliar dark green-liveried AF Corse entry. This partnership should not be underestimated but a lot will depend on Cameron’s stints at the wheel.
Gulf Racing and its Porsche 911 RSR cannot not be discounted either. The ambitious Milton Keynes-based outfit has a talented professional duo in Ben Barker and Adam Carroll, who are joined by bronze-classed racer and team owner Michael Wainwright.
Another likely challenger for victory will be the KCMG Porsche 911 RSR of Wolf Henzler, Christian Ried and Joel Camathias. This car will be run by Proton Competition, as will an additional entry for Alex Job teammates Cooper McNeil and Leh Keen, who are joined in the all-white 911 RSR cockpit by Marc Miller.
The Taiwanese Team AAI outfit, which is operationally run by well-known GT specialist Prospeed Competition, has significant American appeal as Johnny O’Connell and Mark Patterson join British racer Oliver Bryant behind the wheel of its Corvette C7.R.
A second Am class Corvette is entered by Larbre Competition for WEC regulars Yutaka Yamagishi, Pierre Ragues and Jean-Philippe Belloc, a last-minute replacement for the injured Paolo Ruberti.
Further US interest will come in the form of the Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 458 with Townsend Bell, Bill Sweedler and Jeff Segal at the wheel. Two more Italian cars - fromClearwater Racing and Formula Racing, which can boast one of only two female races in the field in the form of Christina Nielsen.