Wednesday, June 15, 2016

2016 24 Hours of Le Mans Preview

For the 84th time, the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be contested on Circuit de la Sarthe. The race is the third round of the 2016 FIA World Endurance Championship season and will feature 60 entries across four classes with an invitational entry. Joining the full-time FIA WEC competitors are teams from the European Le Mans Series and IMSA SportsCar Championship. The race is scheduled to start at 9:00 a.m. ET on Saturday June 18th.

Nine cars are entered in the premier LMP1 class. Porsche looks to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans for a record-extending 18th time. The #2 Porsche 919 Hybrid of Marc Lieb, Romain Dumas and Neel Jani lead the World Endurance Drivers' Championship after winning the season opener at Silverstone and finishing second at Spa-Francorchamps. The defending world champion #1 Porsche of Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard has 1.5 points through the first two races of the season after a retirement at Silverstone and finishing 38 laps down at Spa-Francorchamps.

Second in the championship is the #13 Rebellion Racing Rebellion R-One of Dominik Kraihamer, Alexandre Imperatori and Mathéo Tuscher after the privateer LMP1 entry has finished third in the first two races. The #12 Rebellion Racing of Nick Heidfeld, Nicolas Prost and Nelson Piquet, Jr. is fourth in the championship after finishing fourth in the last two races.

Oliver Jarvis, Lucas di Grassi and Loïc Duval won at Spa-Francorchamps in early May in the #8 Audi R18. It was the first WEC victory for Jarvis and di Grassi and Duval's first victory since he won the world championship in 2013 with Allan McNish and Tom Kristensen. André Lotterer, Marcel Fässler and Benoît Tréluyer finished fifth in the #7 Audi at Spa-Francorchamps after being excluded at Silverstone and losing the victory for failing post-race technical inspection.

Toyota has never won the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the #6 Toyota TS050 Hybrid of Mike Conway, Stéphane Sarrazin and Kamui Kobayashi leads the two-car effort after finishing second at Silverstone. The #5 Toyota of Sébastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima has struggled in the first two races, scoring only one point from two races. Buemi and Davidson finished second at Le Mans in 2013 while Nakajima's best finish at Le Mans is fourth, which came in 2013.

ByKolles Racing Team is the only other privateer LMP1 entry. Simon Trummer, Oliver Webb and Pierre Kaffer will drive the #4 CLM P1/01. The team finished sixth at Spa-Francorchamps.

The largest class in this year's race is LMP2, which features 23 entries. Ten of the 23 entries are full-time FIA WEC entries with 11 from the European Le Mans Series, one from IMSA and one being an unattached entry.

The #43 RGR Sport by Morand Ligier-Nissan of Felipe Albuquerque, Bruno Senna and Ricardo González is tied with the #36 Signatech Alpine Alpine A460-Nissan of Gustavo Menezes, Nicolas Lapierre and Stéphane Richelmi for the lead in the FIA Endurance Trophy for LMP2 Drivers after both have won the first two races, RGR Sport at Silverstone and Signatech at Spa-Francorchamps, and finished fourth in the other race. Lapierre won last year in LMP2 with KCMG. The other Alpine branded car in the field is the #35 Baxi DC Racing Alpine-Nissan of David Cheng, Ho-Pin Tung and Nelson Panciatici.

The #31 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier-Nissan of Pipo Derani, Chris Cumming and Ryan Dalziel has finished second in the first two rounds of the 2016 season, one point off the class championship lead. The #30 ESM entry of Scott Sharp, Johannes van Overbeek and Ed Brown has finished ninth and seventh in class in the first two races. ESM won overall in the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring earlier this season with Derani, Sharp, van Overbeek and Brown. The chassis used by ESM in its victories at Daytona and Sebring will be used by Michael Shank Racing as the IMSA team makes its Le Mans debut. Shank regulars Oswaldo Negri, Jr. and John Pew are joined by Blancpain GT Series front-runner Laurens Vanthoor in the #49 Ligier-Honda.

The #26 G-Drive Racing Oreca-Nissan of Romain Rusinov and René Rast will be joined by Will Stevens, who is on loan from Manor Racing. Nathanaël Berthon had run the first two races with G-Drive but has moved to the #41 Greaves Motorsport Ligier-Nissan with Memo Rojas and Julien Canal. The #38 G-Drive Racing Gibson-Nissan of Giedo van der Garde, Simon Dolan and Jack Dennis leads the ELMS championship after a victory at Silverstone and a second at Imola. Strakka Racing fields the only Gibson full-time in WEC. Nick Leventis, Jonny Kane and Danny Watts finished fifth in the #42 Gibson-Nissan at Silverstone.

Manor Racing will only have one car entered at Le Mans despite having two entered full-time in FIA WEC. Matt Rao and Roberto Merhi move to the #45 Oreca-Nissan and joined by Tor Graves. Defending LMP2 class winner Matthew Bradley returns to KCMG in the #47 Oreca-Nissan and joins his fellow co-winner Matthew Howson. Tsugio Matsuda will be the third driver in the KCMG entry after competing for Nissan last year in LMP1.

SMP Racing won at Le Mans last year in GTE-Am but this year will run two BR01 Engineering-Nissans. Maurizio Mediani and Nicholas Minassian are joined in the #27 BR01 by IndyCar's Mikhail Aleshin. Viktor Shaitar was apart of the GTE-Am winning team last year and will drive the #37 BR01 with Vitaly Petrov and Kirill Ladygin.

Thiriet by TDS Racing won the most recent round in ELMS at Imola and Pierre Thiriet, Mathias Beche and Ryō Hirakawa will drive the #46 Oreca-Nissan at Le Mans. Krohn Racing are fourth in the ELMS championship and Tracy Krohn and Nic Jönsson return for their 11th consecutive Le Mans together. João Barbosa comes over from IMSA to fill out the #40 Ligier-Nissan.

Two LMP2 entries have Judd engines and both come from ELMS. SO24! Lombard Racing has Vincent Capillaire, Erik Maris and Jonathan Coleman entered in the #22 Ligier-Judd while Race Performance has Nicolas Leutwiler, James Winslow and Shinji Nakano entered in the #34 Oreca-Judd.

World Cup winning goaltender Fabien Barthez makes his Le Mans debut with his own team, Panis-Barthez Compétition, a partnership with Olivier Panis. Barthez is joined by former Pro Mazda driver Timothé Buret and Paul-Loup Chatin in the #23 Ligier-Nissan. Six-time Olympic gold medalist Chris Hoy also makes his Le Mans debut in the #25 Algarve Pro Racing Ligier-Nissan with Michael Munemann and Andrea Pizzitola.

The only woman in LMP2 is Inès Tattinger, who will drive the #29 Pegasus Racing Morgan-Nissan with Léo Roussel and Rémy Striebig. Tristan Gommendy leads the #33 Eurasia Motorsport Oreca-Nissan with Pun Jun Jin and Nick de Bruijn both making their Le Mans debut. Murphy Prototypes returns with the #48 Oreca-Nissan. Jeroen Bleekemolen won in LMP2 at Le Mans in 2008 and will be joined by Marc Goossens and Ben Keating in the #48 Oreca.

The invitational entry is the #84 SRT41 by OAK Racing Morgan-Nissan of Frédéric Sausset, Christophe Tinseau and Jean-Bernard Bouvet. Sausset lost all his limbs to a bacterial infection in 2012 and drives the car with pedal controls under his thighs and prosthetic limbs attached to his arms to steer. Tinseau finished second in LMP2 in his last Le Mans start in 2012.

Fourteen cars from five manufactures are entered in the GTE-Pro class.

Corvette won its eighth class at Le Mans last year with Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Jordan Taylor. All three drivers return in the #64 Corvette C7.R and Gavin and Milner enter after winning the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring in the GTLM class with Audi's Marcel Fässler. Jan Magnussen and Antonio García won the GTLM class at Daytona and Sebring last year only to have  an accident in qualifying keep the duo from attempting to score an Endurance Racing Triple Crown. Ricky Taylor joins Magnussen and García in the #63 Corvette. It is Ricky Taylor's first time at Le Mans with the factory Corvette team.

The return of Ford has been the largest story of the 2016 sports car season. Four Ford GTs are entered, as the two IMSA teams will join the two WEC entrants. Andy Priaulx, Marino Franchitti and Harry Tincknell finished second in GTE-Pro at Spa-Francorchamps driving the #67 Ford GT and they are second in the World Endurance Cup for GT Drivers championship. Olivier Pla, Stefan Mücke and Billy Johnson drive the #66 Ford and their best finish was fifth at Silverstone. The #68 Ford features Joey Hand, Dirk Werner and Sébastien Bourdais. Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook won the most recent IMSA round in GTLM at Laguna Seca. Scott Dixon will make his Le Mans debut and joins Briscoe and Westbrook in the #69 Ford.

Two of the three 2015 overall winners are driving for Porsche this year in GTE-Pro after a reduction in LMP1 entries this season. Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber are split into the #91 and #92 Porsche 911 RSR respectively. French drivers Patrick Pilet and Kevin Éstre will be in the #91 Porsche. Frédéric Makowiecki and Jörg Bergmeister join Bamber in the #92 Porsche. The #77 Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche is the only full-time Porsche in the WEC. Defending World Endurance Cup for GT Drivers champion Richard Leitz leads the #77 Porsche and is joined by Michael Christensen and Phillip Eng.

Sam Bird and Davide Rigon have won the first two WEC races in GTE-Pro in the #71 AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE. Bird finished third in LMP2 with G-Drive Racing last year and Rigon was second in GTE-Pro. Andrea Bertolini will be the third driver in the #71 Ferrari and Bertolini was apart of the GTE-Am winning SMP Racing Ferrari. Gianmaria Bruni and James Calado drive the #51 AF Corse Ferrari and Alessandro Pier Guidi join the Italian and Brit for Le Mans. Bruni has finished on the GTE-Pro podium in four of the last five Le Mans. Risi Competizione heads to Le Mans from IMSA with full-time drivers Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander being joined by Matteo Malucelli in the #82 Ferrari.

Aston Martin rounds out the GTE-Pro entry list with two Vantage GTEs. The #95 Aston Martin of Darren Turner, Nicki Thiim and Marco Sørensen finished third in GTE-Pro at Silverstone while the #97 Aston Martin of Richie Stanaway, Jonny Adams and Fernando Rees finished third in GTE-Pro at Spa-Francorchamps.

Four manufactures make up the 13 GTE-Am entries.

Aston Martin's Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda lead the FIA Endurance Trophy for GTE-Am Drivers championship with 44 points after the #98 Aston Martin finished second at Silverstone and won the class from pole position at Spa-Francorchamps. Joining the #98 Aston Martin is the European Le Mans Series GTE championship leading #99 Aston Martin of Andrew Howard, Liam Griffin and Gary Hirsch. The #99 Aston Martin won at Silverstone in ELMS.

Ferrari has the most entries in GTE-Am with five, all are the older Ferrari 458 Italia GT2. AF Corse's #83 Ferrari of Emmanuel Collard, François Perrodo and Rui Águas trails the #98 Aston Martin by one point in the championship after winning at Silverstone and finishing second at Spa-Francorchamps. The only thing separating the two teams is the point award for pole position. The #55 AF Corse Ferrari of Duncan Cameron, Matt Griffin and Aaron Scott come over from ELMS. The Danish Formula Racing also runs in ELMS and the all-Danish line-up of Mikkel Mac, Christian Nielsen and Johnny Laursen will drive the #60 Ferrari. The American Scuderia Corse finished third in class last year and Townsend Bell, Bill Sweedler and Jeff Segal all return in the #62 Ferrari. Asian Le Mans Series regular Clearwater Racing will run the #61 Ferrari for Rob Bell, Keita Sawa and Weng Sun Mok.

Two Corvettes are entered in GTE-Am. The full-time WEC entry of Labre Compétition has finished third in the first two races but there will be a driver change in the #50 Corvette. Paolo Ruberti will miss Le Mans after an injury suffered driver coaching at Hockenheimring. Jean-Phillipe Belloc replaces Ruberti and joins Pierre Ragues and Yukata Yamagishi in the #50 Corvette. Team AAI is another Asian Le Mans Series regular and the team has entered the #57 Corvette for Johnny O'Connell, Mark Patterson and Oliver Bryant. O'Connell is a four-time class winner at Le Mans and this is his first Le Mans appearance since 2010.

Four Porsches round out the GTE-Am entry list. The #78 KCMG Porsche of Wolf Henzler, Christian Reid and Joël Camathias has finished fourth in class in both WEC races this season. Patrick Long finished second in class last year and will drive the #88 Abu Dhabi-Proton Racing Porsche with Khaled Al Qubaisi and David Heinemeier Hansson. The #89 Proton Competition Porsche from ELMS is entered with Alex Job Racing drivers Cooper MacNeil and Leh Keen from IMSA and another regular IMSA competitor, Marc Miller. The #86 Gulf Racing UK Porsche of Adam Carroll, Michael Wainwright and Ben Barker is a full-time WEC competitor and finished fifth at Spa-Francorchamps.

Free practice is at 10:00 a.m. ET on Wednesday with the first qualifying session following at 4:00 p.m. ET. The two Thursday qualifying sessions will be at 1:00 p.m. ET and 4:00 p.m. ET. A warm up session will take place at 3:00 a.m. ET on Saturday with the 24 Hours of Le Mans starting at 9:00 a.m. ET.