Wednesday, June 10, 2015

2015 24 Hours of Le Mans Preview

Five-six cars across four different classes with 168 drivers from 30 different countries have made the annual mid-June trek to Circuit de la Sarthe for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This marks the 83rd running of the twice-around-the-clock French classic, which serves as the third round of the 2015 FIA World Endurance Championship season. Teams from all across the globe have entered this year's race, which is set to start Saturday at 9:00 a.m. ET. This preview will go class-by-class through each entry and driver in the field starting with the premier LMP1 class.

Fourteen cars from six manufactures are entered in the premier class.

The #7 Audi R18 e-tron quattro of Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer are the defending Le Mans winners. The Swiss-German-French trio have won three 24 Hours of Le Mans together and have won the first two races this FIA WEC season. A win this year for the #7 would triple the amount of four-time Le Mans winners as all three could join Yannick Dalmas, Olivier Gendebien and Henri Pescarolo at that level. The #8 Audi has only one returning drivers from last year's runner-up team. Lucas di Grassi is joined by Loïc Duval, who missed Le Mans last year after not being cleared to race after a practice accident and Oliver Jarvis, who drove in Audi's third entry. Duval won overall in his last Le Mans start in 2013. Di Grassi has made 13 starts for Audi in the FIA WEC and has yet to score a victory. Jarvis' best finish at Le Mans is third on two occasions. Felipe Albuquerque and Marco Bonanomi return in the #9 Audi with René Rast making his Le Mans LMP1-class debut. Rast finished fourth in LMP2 for Sébastien Loeb Racing in his Le Mans debut last year.

Toyota Racing has entered two cars. Defending world champions Anthony Davidson and Sébastien Buemi will be joined in the #1 TS040 Hybrid by Kazuki Nakajima. The Japanese driver missed the most recent round of the FIA WEC season at Spa-Francorchamps after suffering a back injury in practice but has been cleared to race. Davidson and Buemi have finished on the podium the last two years. Two-time Le Mans winner Alexander Wurz leads the #2 Toyota line-up with Stéphane Sarrazin and Mike Conway as his co-drivers. Sarrazin has finished on the overall podium in the last four years ending in an odd-number. This will be Conway's second Le Mans start, first in LMP1. In 2013, Conway had finished third in LMP2 with Roman Rusinov and John Martin in the G-Drive Oreca only to be excluded after having an illegal fuel tank.

Porsche has won pole position in the first two rounds of the FIA WEC season and they have three 919 Hybrids entered as the German brand looks for their record-extending 17th overall Le Mans victory and first since 1998. The #17 Porsche of one-time Le Mans winner Timo Bernhard, Mark Webber and Brendon Hartley have won each pole position this year. The #18 Porsche of Marc Lieb, one-time Le Mans winner Romain Dumas and Neel Jani have finished second in each race this season. The #19 Porsche features Force India driver Nico Hülkenberg, Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy and this line-up finished sixth at Spa last month as a tune-up for Le Mans.

This year's race marks the anticipated return of Nissan and debut of the Nissan GT-R LM NISMO. Nissan has entered three cars for this year's race as two will go on to complete for the rest of this season. The #22 Nissan features one of last year's winners in LMP2 Harry Tincknell. The British driver won the class with Jota Sport on his Le Mans debut. Long-time Nissan driver Michael Krumm makes his Le Mans turn after a one-year sabbatical. Krumm raced the DeltaWing-Nissan in 2012 for Highcroft Racing and finished third in LMP2 two years ago with Greaves Motorsport. Krumm finished third overall for Audi in 2002. British driver and Le Mans debutant Alex Buncombe rounds out the #22 Nissan.  The other full-time Nissan will be the #23 and Olivier Pla is the senior driver as he has six consecutive Le Mans starts and finished second in the 2013 FIA WEC LMP2 championship. Jann Mardenborough will make his third Le Mans start and finished third in LMP2 in 2012 will Krumm. He has spent the last two seasons in GP3 and won at Hockenheim last year. Max Chilton makes his debut in the #23. The former Marussia F1 driver has spent the first half of 2015 driving for Carlin in Indy Lights. The #21 Nissan is the Le Mans only entry. Defending Super GT GT500 champion and two-time Super Formula champion Tsugio Matsuda will be joined by 2012 Lucas Ordóñez and Mark Shulzhitskiy. Ordóñez and Shulzhitskiy have each made Le Mans starts in LMP2.

There are three privateer LMP1 entries. Rebellion Racing has two R-One-AERs scheduled to make their debuts at Le Mans. Nicolas Prost, Nick Heidfeld and Mathias Beche finished fourth last year and return in the #12. Dominik Kraihamer is the lone returning driver in the #13. He will be joined by Alexandre Imperatori, who has raced the last two years in LMP2 with KCMG and Daniel Abt, who will be making his Le Mans debut. Team ByKolles enters their CLM P1/01-AER with two Le Mans debutants in Simon Trummer and Tiago Monteiro. Pierce Kaffer is the third driver and has eight Le Mans start and won in the GT2 class in 2009 with Risi Competizione.

Nineteen cars are entered in the Pro-Am LMP2 class with eight different chassis and four different engine manufactures. Nine of the entries are full-time FIA WEC competitors; nine are full-time European Le Mans Series entry with one Le Mans-only entry.

Defending race winners, Jota Sport return with the #38 Gibson-Nissan. Simon Dolan and Olivier Turvey will defending their class victory with New Zealander Mitch Evans making his Le Mans debut.

G-Drive Racing hold the top two spots in the FIA Endurance Trophy for LMP2 drivers and have won the first two races. The #26 Ligier-Nissan of Gustavo Yacamán, Ricardo González and Pipo Derani lead the championship after winning at Spa. González won the LMP2 class at Le Mans in 2013 on his way to the championship. The #25 Ligier Nissan ofRoman Rusinov, Julien Canal and Sam Bird are 16 points back of their sister car and won the season opener at Silverstone. The #47 KCMG Oreca-Nissan of Matthew Howson and Richard Bradley are third in the LMP2 championship and will be joined by Nicolas Lapierre, who finished third overall last year with Toyota. The all-British #42 Strakka Racing Dome-Nissan of Nick Levants, Danny Watts and Jonny Kane are fourth in the championship. These three drivers won the LMP2 class at Le Mans in 2010. Despite missing the opening round at Silverstone, the #43 Team SARD-Morand Morgan-SARD of Pierre Ragues, Oliver Webb and Zoël Amberg are fifth in the championship after finishing second at Spa.

The #35 OAK Racing Ligier-Nissan of Jacques Nicolet, Jean-Marc Merlin and Erik Maris are tied with the #43 for fifth but best finish is fifth this season. The second OAK Racing entry, the #34 Ligier-Honda is the non-championship affiliated entry in LMP2 and all-three drivers are making their Le Mans debut. The line-up features defending Blancpain GT champion Laurens Vanthoor, Pirelli World Championship and Blancpian Endurance Series race winner Kévin Estre and IMSA Prototype Challenge class winner Chris Cumming. The #36 Signatech Alpine-Nissan finished third last year in class and drivers Paul-Loup Chatin and Nelson Panciatici won the 2014 European Le Mans Series title. Chatin and Panciatici will be joined this year by Vincent Capillaire.

The American Extreme Speed Motorsports have two cars entered in the FIA WEC. It's been a difficult season for the American team. After struggling to develop the HPD ARX-04b and being off the pace at the 24 Hours of Daytona, they switched back to the ARX-03b for the 12 Hours of Sebring and the opening round of the FIA WEC season at Silverstone. The team switched to the Ligier JS P2 chassis at Spa and will use it at Le Mans. The #30 will feature two former Le Mans class winners. Ryan Dalziel won in LMP2 with Starworks in 2012 while David Heinemeier Hansson won in GTE-Am last year with Aston martin and finished second in LMP2 in 2013 driving for OAK Racing. Scott Sharp rounds out the #30 line-up as the Connecticut-based driver makes his first Le Mans appearance since 1996 when he drove a Riley & Scott Mk III-Oldsmobile with Wayne Taylor and Jim Pace. The #31 features an all-American line-up of Ed Brown, Johannes van Overbeek and Jon Fogarty.

The #46 Thiriet by TDS Racing Oreca-Nissan of Pierre Thiriet, Ludovic Badey and Tristan Gommendy lead the ELMS championship and won at Imola this year. This all-French trio finished second in LMP2 last year. The #41 Greaves Motorsports Gibson-Nissan won the ELMS season opener at Silverstone with the one difference from their ELMS line-up being Gaëtan Paletou replacing Björn Wirdheim and joining Jon Lancaster and Gary Hirsch. The third American entry in LMP2 is the #40 Krohn Racing Ligier-Judd of Tracy Krohn, Niclas Jönsson and João Barbosa. This will be Krohn and Jönsson's tenth time racing Le Mans together, breaking the record for most Le Mans raced together by two drivers, which was set by Dindo Capello and Allan McNish.

Murphy Prototypes returns with the #48 Oreca-Nissan of Karun Chandhok, Mark Patterson and Nathanaël Berthon. The Sammarinese Ibañez Racing will run the #45 Oreca-Nissan of José Ibañez, Pierre Perret and Ivan Bellarosa. The #29 Pegasus Racing Morgan-Nissan will run Léo Roussel, Ho-Pin Tung and David Cheng. SMP Racing has entered two of their BR Engineering BR01-Nissan. The #27 will feature Maurizio Mediani, David Markozov and Nicolas Minassian. The #37 will feature an all-Russian line-up with Kirill Ladygin and Anton Ladygin being joined by Mikhail Aleshin, who will be making his Le Mans debut.

Four manufactures are represented in GTE-Pro with a total of nine entries in the class.

The favorite is the #51 AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia GT2 of Gianmaria Bruni, Toni Vilander and Giancarlo Fisichella. This trio won the GTE-Pro class last year and Bruni and Vilander enter as championship leaders in the World Endurance Cup for GT Drivers. Bruni, Vilander and Fisichella won the GTE-Pro class at Le Mans in 2012 as well. Bruni won a class on his Le Mans debut in 2008 with Risi Competizione in 2008. The other Ferrari entered in GTE-Pro is the #71 AF Corse Ferrari of Davide Rigon, James Calado and six-time Le Mans class winner Olivier Beretta. Beretta's last victory was in 2011.

The other big story in GTE-Pro is the possibility of the Endurance Racing Triple Crown being completed. The #63 Corvette Racing of Jan Magnussen, Antonio García and Ryan Briscoe won the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring. Corvette has not won at Le Mans since 2011 with Beretta, García and Tommy Milner. Milner will drive the #64 with Oliver Gavin and Jordan Taylor. Gavin has four class victories with Corvette but his last came in 2006. Taylor finished second last year in GTE-Pro with García and Magnussen.

Porsche has two 911 RSRs entered. The #91 Porsche features two Le Mans class winners with three-time class winner Richard Lietz and one-time class winner Jörg Bergmeister being joined by debutant Michael Christensen. Lietz won two years ago and Bergmeister's lone Le Mans class victories came in 2004. Wolf Henzler, Frédéric Makowiecki and Patrick Pilet will drive the #92 Porsche. Henzler won the GT2 class at Le Mans in 2010 while Makowiecki and Pilet each have runner-up finishes in GTE-Pro.

Aston Martin has entered three Vantage GTEs. Nicki Thiim moves up to GTE-Pro after winning in GTE-Am last year and he will lead the #95 "Dane Train" Aston Martin. Christoffer Nygaard will make his fifth Le Mans start while current GP2 driver Marco Sørenson will make his Le Mans debut. Two-time Le Mans class winner Darren Turner will be joined by Stefan Mücke and Robert Bell in the #97 Aston Martin. The most recent GP2 winner, Richie Stanaway will make his Le Mans debut in the #99 Aston Martin with Alex MacDowall and Fernando Rees.

Fourteen entries fill out the GTE-Am class with five manufactures being represented.

The #98 Aston Martin of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda have won the first two rounds of the FIA WEC season. The other Aston Martin in the GTE-Am is the #96 of Roald Goethe, Stuart Hall and Francesco Castellacci. Aston Martin has won eight consecutive GTE-Am races dating back to Le Mans last year and 14 of 18 dating back to 2013.

Six Ferraris are entered in GTE-Am. AF Corse has three cars entered in class. The FIA WEC #83 AF Corse Ferrari features two-time Le Mans class winner Emmanuel Collard, François Perrodo and Rui Águas. The ELMS #55 AF Corse Ferrari features 2013 ELMS GT champion Matt Griffin being joined by Duncan Cameron and Alex Mortimer. The Le Mans-only #61 AF Corse will be driven by Peter Ashley Mann, Raffaele Gianmaria and Matteo Cressoni. Viktor Shatter, Andrea Bertolini and Alksey Basov are in the FIA WEC #72 SMP Racing Ferrari. The ELMS #66 JMW Motorsport Ferrari will be driven by Abdelaziz al Faisal, Kuba Giermaziak and Michael Avenatti. The all-American #62 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari features Bill Sweedler, Townsend Bell and Jeff Segal.

Four Porsches are entered in GTE-Am and two are FIA WEC entries. The #77 Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche features Patrick Dempsey, Patrick Long and Marco Seefried while it's sister #88 Abu Dhabi-Proton Porsche will be driven by Christan Ried, Khaled Al Qubaisi and Klaus Blacher. The #88 finished second in class last year. The other Porsches belong to Tawainese Team AAI in partnership with ProSpeed Competition. The #67 Porsche will be driver by Jun-San Chen, Xavier Maassen and Alex Kapadia with Han-Chen Chen, Gilles Vannelet and Mike Parisy in the #68 Porsche.

The #50 Labre Compétition Corvette will feature two-time Le Mans class winner Kristian Poulsen, Gianluca Roda and Paolo Ruberti. Poulsen won last year in GTE-Am with Aston Martin and won in his Le Mans debut in 2009 driving in the LMP2 class in a Team Essex Porsche RS Spyder with Casper Elgaard and Emmanuel Collard. The final entry is the #53 Riley Motorsports-TI Auto Dodge Viper SRT GTS-R of Jeroen Bleekemolen, Ben Keating and Marc Miller. The #53 Viper was initially on the reserve list and was added to the field after one of the Team SARD Morand withdrew.

All in all, France has the most representatives in the race with 31 drivers, 19 will be in LMP2 and the United Kingdom has the second-most drivers with 28. The United States has the third-most drivers entered with 17 but have zero in LMP1. The United States has nine drivers in GTE-Am, more than another nation. Germany has 15 representatives and most in LMP1 with nine. Italy is the final nation with representatives in the double-digits with 12. France, United Kingdom and Italy are the only nations with at least one driver in all four classes.

Russia and Switzerland each have eight drivers. All eight Swiss drivers are in LMP classes with six in LMP1. Denmark has seven representatives but only one in an LMP class, that being Heinemeier Hansson in LMP2.

Austria and Portugal each have five drivers and two in LMP1. New Zealand also has two drivers in LMP1 but only four drivers total. Brazil has three drivers, one in each LMP class and one in GTE-Pro. Australia has two drivers entered, each platinum (Webber and Briscoe). Canada has two drivers, each bronze (Cumming, Dalla Lana). Neighbors China and Taiwan each have two drivers; Spain has two drivers and the Netherlands have two drivers. Japan also has two drivers, both in LMP1.

Belgium, Colombia, Finland, India, Ireland, Mexico, Monaco, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates each have one representative.

Free practice for the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans begins at 10:00 a.m. ET on Wednesday. The first qualifying practice will take place at 4:00 p.m. ET Wednesday. On Thursday, there will be two qualifying practice sessions at 1:00 p.m. ET and 4:00 p.m. ET. On Saturday, there will be a warm-up session at 3:00 a.m. ET. Green flag is scheduled for 9:00 a.m. ET Saturday.