Endurance Racing

Looking ahead – GTE Pro at the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps

PHOTO©JEP - WWW.JAKOBEBREY.COM

We are one day closer to the start of the inaugural FIA World Endurance Championship Super Season. Today we look at what to expect from the GTE Pro class.

It’s been a long off-season, but by the end of the week, we’ll be one race down in the 2018/19 Super Season. As we count down the days to the start of the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, we’ll be introducing each class and walking you through their entries and lineups. Part three covers the first of the World Endurance Championship’s GT classes – GTE Pro.

The Super Seasons sees the GTE Pro category grow as BMW join as a new manufacturer, bringing the total up to five and representing four countries: Germany, Italy, the US and Great Britain. GTE cars are based on road-going cars that you or I could buy from a dealership and may be powered by normally aspirated, turbo, or supercharged engines. Driver lineups are entirely open in GTE Pro, and unsurprisingly the vast majority of participants at Spa being platinum ranked (only two are gold ranked.) Interestingly this season, all the manufacturers have opted to use Michelin tyres, eliminating tyre battles from the class.

The WEC tries to maintain fairness and competitiveness within the class by using Balance of Performance (BoP) and explains it rather well:

“BoP works by equalising the different cars by adjusting their weight and power levels – the latter via changing the size of the air restrictor, and for turbo cars, changing the maximum boost ratios.  Other adjustments that can be made are changes to the rear wing or to fuel capacity.

In GTE Pro, this process has taken place automatically since the start of the 2017 season, using a calculation tool to determine what adjustments are required based on various performance criteria.”

Unsurprisingly, this is often a bit of a pain point for the teams, but ultimately it’s designed to ensure that no one car will scamper off into the distance with an unfair advantage. Nice idea, and it’s usually fairly well executed resulting in good, close racing.

So now you know a bit about the class, let’s introduce the competitors.

The Returners

Three of the five teams entered into the Super Season are largely the same as we left them at the end of the 2017 season – driver lineups and everything.

The Italian Car – AF Corse

Defending champions AF Corse had a cracking end to 2017, taking both the race victory and manufacturers championship at the 6 Hours of Bahrain. What better way to step into the Super Season?

If you look at any endurance or GT race around the world, you’re almost guaranteed to find an AF Corse entered car or at least a car prepared by the Piacentini squad – they prep most, if not every race-destined Ferrari that leaves the Maranello factory. For the Super Season, the team are bringing back their two Ferrari 488 GTE EVOs, and it’s always wonderful to see these iconic red beasts.

The team have such confidence in their drivers that both lineups remain identical to last season. 2017 Driver Champions Alessandro Pier Guidi and James Calado join forces once again in the #51, while the #71 is back in the hands of November’s 6 Hours of Bahrain race winners Davide Rigon and Sam Bird. Ferrari will surely be looking to continue last season’s success and capitalise on the accompanying morale boost for the team. Expect great things from the prancing horses.

The American Car – Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK

There are rumours circling that the Super Season could be the last for the fabulous Ford GT in the World Endurance Championship and if that’s the case, then they could really do with a championship win. The team took the 24 Hours of Le Mans win with the #66 in 2016 – the year they returned to the iconic race and the 50th anniversary of the Ford GT’s first Le Mans win. The championship, however, has eluded them thus far, with the team finishing 4th in 2016 and 3rd in 2017 – at least they’re going in the right direction.

Ford are sticking with what they know and have retained their drivers from 2017 for the Super Season. In the #66 you have Stefan Mücke, Olivier Pla and Billy Johnson. The sister car, the #67, has Andy Priaulx, Harry Tincknell and Tony Kanaan behind the wheel. Johnson and Kanaan were initially announced as part of the Le Mans lineups for these cars, but the team have elected to put them in the car for Spa as well, likely to prep the team ahead of the first of the season’s Le Mans.

This Ford GT is the race version of the brand’s iconic supercar, powered by a V6 Ecoboost engine that has been subject to some hefty BoP at times. Both Tincknell and Priaulx have criticised the BoP regulations applied to the Ford in the past, but the team have always remained super competitive – it will be interesting to see how the BoP rules affect play at Spa. Watch out for these red, white and blue beauties.

The German Car – Porsche GT Team

The first of two German manufacturers in GTE, Porsche killed their dominant LMP1 program at the end of last season (causing much devastation to those of us who hadn’t quite gotten over Audi’s sudden departure), leaving them with just the GTE program. Much like the Ferraris, Porsche 911s have become synonymous with endurance racing and Le Mans, so it’s fantastic to see them still here.

The 4L 911 RSR can put out over 500BHP depending on the BoP being applied to the car, and it sounds rather good too. Porsche’s driver lineups remain mostly the same, but there is one new face amongst them. The #92 stays in the hands of Danish driver Michael Christensen and Frenchman Kevin Estre, who suffered a season plagued with retirements last year. The #91 keeps hold of Richard Lietz (who took the team to second in the championship in 2017), but this year he’s joined by Italian driver Gianmaria Bruni who for a long time was more commonly seen in a Ferrari.

With the two cars running rather different seasons last year it will be interesting to see which way the penny falls this time around – heads for a championship win, or tails for more retirement issues?

 

The Newcomers (mostly)

Our remaining two teams are bringing something new to the WEC this season – and we are very excited to see how they do.

The New German Car – BMW Team MTEK

New car, new team, new drivers. It’s always great to have more manufacturers entering the GT game, and the latest to join the WEC is BMW. If you looked at BMW’s current model range, you’d be forgiven to thinking that nothing really lends itself to being a GTE car. In fact, BMW’s new WEC challenger is based on a car that hasn’t hit the market yet – the 8 Series Coupe. That’s right; the new BMW M8 GTE is based on one of the larger cars in the range, a stark contrast to previous GT cars like the Z4 GTE or M3 GT Coupe.

PHOTO©JEP – WWW.JAKOBEBREY.COM

Size aside, we can’t wait to see this beast in action during the Super Season. The car has already had its race debut with BMW Team RLL entering a pair of M8 GTEs in the IMSA Weathertech Sportscar Championship which kicked off at Daytona in January. Under the hood, you’ll find a 4L V8 engine which according to BMW, has a base output of over 500 bhp depending on the classification of the car.

Team MTEK have a small army of BMW factory drivers to pilot their car this season, with four confirmed so far and more names linked to the team for races later in the season (Le Mans for example.) Aboard the #81 M8 GTE will be DTM veteran Martin Tomczyk and endurance buff Nicky Catsburg. While in the #82 are a pair of Formula E teammates, Tom Blomqvist and Antonio Felix da Costa. Both are driving in FE currently with MS Amlin Andretti so teamwork shouldn’t be a problem for them! Following 30 hours of testing at Paul Ricard, the times set for the car weren’t massively impressive, but how will that translate into a race setting? We’ll have to see.

The British Car – Aston Martin Racing

Technically, Aston Martin never left, but they are coming into this season with a brand new (and quite frankly, stunning) Vantage GTE. We waved farewell to the old Vantage at the end of the 6 Hours of Bahrain, and as we understand it, she’s rather enjoying retirement. But what about the replacement? Well, it’s big, it’s lairy, and it’s fluorescent yellow. Like the BMW, the new Vantage is also powered by a 4L V8 engine, though this one is derived from a Mercedes-AMG engine. And you’ll be glad to know that yes, it does still have a ridiculous rear splitter.

PHOTO©JEP – WWW.JAKOBEBREY.COM

There are some new faces as well as old ones in the team this year. Marco Sorensen, Mr Hairodynamics himself Nicki Thiim and Aston Martin veteran Darren Turner will be joining forces in the #95. While the sister car is in the hands of Johnny Adam, DS Virgin Formula E driver Alex Lynn and Maxime Martin who brings DTM, Blancpain GT and Le Mans experience to the table.

In 2017, the team managed to finish 6th and 7th in the GT Drivers’ championship (and bottom of the GT World Endurance Manufacturers’ Championship), so it will be very interesting to see if this new car brings them more success for the Super Season.

 

What to expect

WEC fans last year were spoilt rotten with explosive racing all season, and we don’t expect the Super Season to be any different. BoP rules usually mean that the cars are all very close in performance meaning close action on the track. The new cars and drivers in the field this year will each add their own variables, but one thing we can say for sure – GTE Pro will not be dull.

 

Free practice kicks off on Thursday, May 3rd at 12.00 local time, with GTE qualifying on Friday at 15.00. You’ll be able to follow timing via the FIA WEC website or app, and you can listen live with the fantastic team over at Radiolemans.

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