BMW M8 DEBUT; FORD CHIP GANASSI RACING DOWNSIZE; CONNOR DE PHILLIPPI LANDS FACTORY DEAL
There are a few changes here and there, but the GTLM class for the 2018 WeatherTech SportsCar Championship looks very similar to last year. Good – when Cadillac dominated the DPi entries and arguments over driving standards and BoP split GTD, it was GTLM’s close-fought manufacturer battles that caught the imagination. Here’s a full car-by-car rundown of what’s promising to be the closest-fought class at the 2018 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.
#3 Corvette Racing Corvette C7.R / Jan Magnussen, Antonio García, Mike Rockenfeller
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Last year’s champions Magnussen and García see factory Audi man Mike Rockenfeller alongside at Daytona. A fourth place class finish at the Rolex last year doesn’t sound much, but it started a fire that drove Magnussen and García to the GTLM championship. Magnussen has raced Corvettes exclusively at Le Mans since 2004 and represented General Motors at Daytona since 2005; García has two class wins and a second at Daytona as well as enormous experience alongside Magnussen. Third man Rockenfeller brings serious Audi factory pedigree, including DTM and LMP1 experience as well as multiple podiums at Daytona. Corvette Racing’s guys behind the wall are legends in their own right too – Crew Chief Dan Binks and Program Manager Doug Fehan have been with the team forever, bear the weight of the fans’ expectations on their shoulders and command the immense respect of everyone in GT racing. The mechanics and engineers are the best in business, the car’s proven and the drivers could turn consistent laptimes blindfolded. Watch this space.
#4 Corvette Racing Corvette C7.R / Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner, Marcel Fässler
Oliver Gavin, all eight feet ten of him, is back for yet another North American season with Corvette Racing. A five-time American Le Mans Series champion, Gavin also has five wins apiece at Sebring and Petit Le Mans, and finally broke his curse at Daytona in 2016 when he won in GTLM on the way to that year’s GTLM title. Daytona marks his 17th year with Corvette Racing. Tommy Milner has been Gavin’s wingman since 2012, the American now counting successes at Le Mans, Sebring and Petit Le Mans as well as a GTLM title in his Corvette trophy cupboard. Marcel Fässler is a modern-day endurance legend, being a key part of Audi’s recent Le Mans performances in the hybrid era. He was a Corvette driver before Audi gave him the LMP1 opportunity that yielded three Le Mans wins in 2011, 2012 and 2014 alongside André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer. It was Fässler that took the Corvette over the line in 2016 with the closest ever margin of victory in Rolex 24 history, winning the class by 0.036 seconds.
#24 BMW Team RLL BMW M8 / Jesse Krohn, John Edwards, Nicky Catsburg, Augusto Farfus
Four factory drivers signed up with potential for one more to join the car for the Roar – it’s clear how much importance BMW is putting on the launch of the M8. Jesse Krohn is promoted from BMW Motorsport Junior to the works programme, stepping up into the main game from Turner Motorsports’ GTD squad. John Edwards stays with BMW for the 2018 IMSA season after showing Martin Tomczyk the endurance racing ropes last year. This will be his fifth straight year with BMW Team RLL, and the Kentuckian will be looking to assert himself as a team linchpin against the new hires and promotions from within BMW. Nicky Catsburg is confirmed as one of BMW’s WEC drivers in the MTEK-run M8 for the full season, finally giving the Dutchman the factory world championship ride he’s deserved for so long. Catsburg has raced BMW GT machinery since 2012, driving customer cars at the Spa and Zolder 24 hour races as well as winning the 2013 Blancpain GT Series Endurance Series and 2015 Spa 24 Hours for Marc VDS in a Z4 GT3. Augusto Farfus is a long-serving BMW factory driver, having represented the brand’s touring cars in WTCC and DTM as well as taken occasional endurance drives. His best result at Daytona is 2nd in GTLM, taken in 2015 co-driving a Z4 GTLM with Bill Auberlen, Dirk Werner and Bruno Spengler.
#25 BMW Team RLL BMW M8 / Alexander Sims, Connor de Phillippi, Bill Auberlen, Philipp Eng
Last year was Alexander Sims’ first year in IMSA, but you wouldn’t know. Enormously experienced co-driver Bill Auberlen has rated him as up there with the best he’s ever driven alongside, and a fantastic mid-season run drove Sims and Auberlen to within a whisker of the GTLM title in the last year of competition for the M6. He has a full season IMSA role in 2018, as well as supporting drives at Le Mans and Sebring in the WEC team. Although de Phillippi has only recently reached the top of the GT scene, he was signed in 2012 as a Porsche Junior, competing in Carrera Cup Germany and the VLN. He won the 2015 ADAC GT Masters championship with Montaplast by Land-Motorsport alongside Audi regular Christopher Mies; the two came within a few tenths of winning the GTD class at Daytona last year and won the Nürburgring 24 Hours overall. Fellow Californian Bill Auberlen has 400 starts with BMW and steps back to endurance driving only for 2018. Philipp Eng kicks off 2018 with a ride at Daytona before taking on full-season DTM responsibilities as well as endurance roles in the BMW M8.
#62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE / Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado, Toni Vilander
Ferrari are represented once again by Risi Competizione, but the Houston team is very much a factory-supported effort rather than the full works programmes of its rivals. A full factory driver squad is still present, but there’s been no confirmation from the team of a full-season entry. That said, whenever Risi are on track, they’re special. Pier Guidi won the 2017 FIA WEC GTE Pro championship with James Calado in his first year as a factory Ferrari GT driver, and has serious pedigree at Daytona too – he took GTD honours in 2014 in a Level 5 Motorsports Ferrari 458. Calado capped a successful move away from the single seater ladder in 2017, staging a fightback against Ford GT pair Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell to take the 2017 WEC GTE Pro championship with Pier Guidi. Toni Vilander needs no introduction to endurance fans, being a stalwart Ferrari GT man. If it’s red and has a prancing horse on the nose, Vilander will have wrung its neck all over the world – wins at Bathurst, Le Mans and Petit Le Mans as well as multiple titles have made him the definitive modern-day Ferrari GT racer. A full season looks unlikely, but Risi love playing David against the Goliath manufacturer efforts.
#66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT / Joey Hand, Dirk Müller, Sébastien Bourdais
Sacramento native Joey Hand is devastatingly fast in whatever he races, and the Ford GT is no exception. This lineup was the crew that gave Ford the anniversary win at Le Mans it craved, beating the Risi Competizione Ferrari to the GTE Pro win in 2016 to celebrate 50 years since the original GT40 took a victory for blue-collar heroes at La Sarthe. Hand won the 2011 Rolex 24 overall for Chip Ganassi Racing, then won his class at the 12 Hours of Sebring a month later before taking third in GTE Pro at Le Mans that year. Dirk Müller has shared so many cars with Hand over the years that the two probably feel each other’s pain. The pairing spearheaded BMW’s return to the American Le Mans Series and won the GT title in 2011, as well as sharing a car at Le Mans that year. Reunited to once again lead a manufacturer effort, Hand and Muller are joined by Le Mans native and American open-wheel legend Sébastien Bourdais. With four successive Champ Car titles, F1 experience, wins at the Spa 24 Hours and 12 Hours of Sebring as well as factory Peugeot LMP1 drives, the Frenchman is as fast and consistent as they come. Despite not having the UK-based Fords present, expect as serious an attack as ever this year.
#67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT / Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook, Scott Dixon
Ryan Briscoe has made a name for himself through versatility when most drivers find their discipline and stick to it. The affable Aussie has been an F1 test driver, IndyCar race winner, Indy 500 polesitter, V8 Supercars podium finisher and has class wins at Sebring, Petit Le Mans and Daytona in GT and LMP2 cars as well as a podium at Le Mans. The ability to get in and just drive has served him well in endurance, and his easygoing temperament counters the intensity of co-driver Richard Westbrook to make for a strong team. Westbrook is an endurance specialist, renowned for being able to extract the maximum from his car or make his fuel and tyres last far longer than should be possible. He was a factory driver for Porsche and Corvette before joining Ford, and counts back-to-back Porsche Supercup championships, an FIA GT2 championship, Watkins Glen Six Hours win and podiums at both the Rolex 24 and Le Mans among his successes. Scott Dixon is IndyCar’s most successful active driver, and widely regarded as one of the most talented racers of his generation in any field. He is an Indy 500 and two-time Rolex 24 winner, and took a class podium on his Le Mans debut. On raw speed, this is probably the strongest entry of the entire 50 car field.
#911 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR / Patrick Pilet, Nick Tandy, Fred Makowiecki
No two ways about it, Patrick Pilet is one of the fastest men to ever race a 911. The Frenchman won the 2015 Petit Le Mans overall, sharing a GTLM 911 with Nick Tandy and sweeping all prototypes before them in a race that’ll go down in history as one of the most surprising, and wettest, on record. Pilet took the GTLM title that year, and won last year’s Tequila Patron North American Endurance Championship co-driving with Dirk Werner. Nick Tandy makes the move from Porsche’s LMP1 programme and reportedly pushed hard for a transfer back to IMSA over a GTE Pro seat in the WEC ‘Super Season’. He anchored the overall 2015 Le Mans winning team alongside Earl Bamber and F1 racer Nicolas Hülkenberg. Third man Fred Makowiecki was a factory driver for Aston Martin before moving to the Porsche squad, and took last year’s GTE Pro championship right down to the wire before being pipped by AF Corse boys Calado and Pier Guidi. With a year of competition under their belts, the crews and drivers know this new mid-engined 911 and will be back even stronger in 2018.
#912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR / Laurens Vanthoor, Earl Bamber, Gianmaria Bruni
Porsche GT boss Dr. Frank-Steffen Walliser put together the GT squad of dreams when he signed Laurens Vanthoor, bought Gimmi Bruni out of a multi-year Ferrari contract and put them in the same car. Bruni was contractually prevented from racing in the WEC last year, so came to IMSA after gardening leave. A pair of second places at Lime Rock Park and Road America were high points in a part season spent learning the 911 and a new team. Laurens Vanthoor stays in IMSA for the full 2018 season, clearly loving the atmosphere of American motorsport and relishing the challenge of immense factory competition. He co-drives the #912 with Earl Bamber, who makes a return to GT and North America in 2018. The two-time Le Mans winner and last year’s LMP1 WEC champion will have an interesting year, dovetailing endurance drives Down Under in Supercars with fellow Kiwi Shane van Gisbergen and IMSA commitments.