If there’s one letdown in the 2018 Rolex 24, it’s the size of the GT Le Mans field. No matter, however, as a reduction in quantity certainly does not mean a reduction in quality. Nine cars from five manufacturers will battle for victory in a true all-out sprint that is nearly impossible to predict. Fortunately for you, dear reader, such a small field should make this an easy read.
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- Roar Before the 24 – What did we learn about the Prototypes?
- Roar Before the 24 – What did we learn about the GTs?
- Rolex 24 at Daytona GT Preview
- IMSA WeatherTech News
- tRL TV: IMSA WeatherTech Videos
The BMW M8 GTLM is the only all-new car in this year’s GTLM field. After a two year stint with the upgraded-from-GT3 M6, the M8 is the make’s first purpose built GTE car since 2012. It’s big and looks awfully bulky, but BMW made the M6 work well, so why not the M8? Despite being a new car, the M8 should leave few questions to reliability and if pace can be found after a slightly disappointing Roar Before the 24 test, the beast should stay in relative contention throughout the race.
BMW Team RLL – #24
The first of two M8’s campaigned by Rahal Letterman Lanigan on BMW’s behalf hosts a pair of open wheel refugees in Finland’s Jesse Krohn and American John Edwards. Now both happily BMW factory drivers, Edwards in particular brings familiarity to American motorsports.
Nicky Catsburg, at one time one of the fastest non-factory BMW drivers, will join the pair along with stalwart Augusto Farfus. There should be few question marks about this team, despite Farfus’ occasional tendency to push a little too hard. (Roar Qualifying – 1:46.717 – P8)
BMW Team RLL – #25
The second of Rahal’s new M8’s, the #25 hosts arguably the most exciting GTLM new hire, Connor de Phillippi. The American has landed himself a US factory seat at home after a few strong years in Europe, first with Porsche, then Audi, and their loss is certainly BMW’s gain.
The newest BMW driver joins the oldest BMW driver, Bill Auberlen, who has taken a back seat for an enduro-only drive in 2018. The American pair is supported by rapid Brit Alexander Sims and Austrian Phillipp Eng, all of whom are capable of delivering race-winning performances. If the car is up to it, the team certainly will be. (Roar Qualifying – 1:45.056 – P7)
If you’ve watched any GT endurance race over the last two decades, this team and manufacturer need no introduction. Neither will the car, as the C7.R is now the oldest GTE-spec car on the grid both at the Rolex 24 and in Europe. This leaves the platform well sorted both for pace and reliability and despite missing the podium in last year’s race.
Their strategy is second-to-none, particularly in the tricky setting of IMSA’s propensity for full course yellows, and the untouched driver lineups from last year should leave both cars in with a chance for victory come Sunday morning.
Corvette Racing – #3
Corvette regulars Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen are joined by last year’s endurance addition, Mike Rockenfeller to complete identical three-driver lineup to last year. Certainly, the former two drivers seem to have been around forever, which is fair. However, why mess with a good thing? Garcia in particular is still regularly one of the fastest GTE drivers worldwide, particularly in a car as familiar as the C7.R. (Roar Qualifying – 1:43.998 – P5)
Corvette Racing – #4
Another familiar lineup returns for the team car, to include Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner, and Marcel Fassler. While Gavin and Fassler are rated very highly in this writer’s opinion, Milner makes a few too many mistakes to be comfortable declaring this car the favorite. None of the three lack pace, and despite Fassler being an Audi refugee, he has a solid history racing GT1 C5R’s and C6R’s from the late 2000’s. (Roar Qualifying – 1:43.640 – P2)
Risi Competizione – #62
Perhaps one of the toughest stories over the last few years of IMSA competition has been the bitterly poor luck served to the Risi Competizione team. For four years now, it seems as though they have been ripping through Ferrari chassis through no fault of their own, and there is now the possibility that there will be no full-time Ferrari on the 2018 IMSA grid.
However, Risi returns with four factory drivers to give the 488 GTE the best chance of victory: Toni Vilander, Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado, and Davide Rigon. While there is perhaps a shortage in numbers for the Prancing Horse, there is no shortage of talent behind the wheel or experience behind the wall. All of the elements are in place for this car to bring home a Rolex – but will a little luck finally go Risi’s way? (Roar Qualifying – 1:44.037 – P6)
This year brings a much more reasonable entry of two cars from the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing stables, down a full 50% from 2017. The Ford GT program, now beginning its third year, has seen no shortage of controversy since its inception, whether because of the Balance of Performance fiasco at Le Mans in 2016, or through Ford’s struggles to produce the required number of cars for full ACO homologation. Regardless of that though, the car is quick and has established itself as a premier GTE factory program.
Ford Chip Ganassi Racing – #66
As the program has scaled down from four cars a year ago, Ford has made the intriguing choice to enter only three drivers in each car, leaving some of the additional drivers from 2017 without a drive. In this #66 entry, Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller are joined by Sebastien Bourdais, perhaps the fastest driver in, well, just about anything. He is undoubtedly the team’s main weapon when the end of the race calls for perfection and it would be tough to bet against Bourdais – or indeed the rest of the crew. (Roar Qualifying – 1:43.610 – P1)
Ford Chip Ganassi Racing – #67
To Chip Ganassi’s credit, he uses the talent at his disposal incredibly wisely. Despite having a full squad of GT drivers to attack the Rolex, he has included the services of Indycar’s Scott Dixon as the third driver alongside Ryan Briscoe (himself an Indycar veteran) and Richard Westbrook. The same can be said for his engineering and strategy teams. Perhaps that is the single biggest threat against the GTLM field – the insistence on using the absolute best. Ford has two cars stacked full of some of the best driving and team support in the motorsports business, and both cars deserve serious consideration for victory. (Roar Qualifying – 1:43.714 – P3)
Leading up to the 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona, Porsche was faced with an awful lot of unknowns. The new iteration of the Porsche 911 RSR was the first mid-engined GTE car from the brand, being fielded by driving teams with new additions like Laurens Vanthoor and recent addition Gianmaria Bruni.
Now into their sophomore seasons, Porsche and its CORE Autosport-led US operation find stability and the ability to attack for a 2018 Rolex 24 victory. Additionally, it is expected that Porsche will field four factory cars at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June. More than anything, that suggests a lot about where the brand’s motorsport priority is this year: a total commitment to GT success.
Porsche GT Team – #911
It’s difficult to pick a favorite amongst the Porsche teams (or any GTLM teams, really) simply because these drivers are the absolute best at their craft. That said, it’s really hard to find a better combination than Patrick Pilet, Nick Tandy, and Frederic Makowiecki. All three of them, at one time, were the absolute fastest sports car drivers in the world. Tandy, especially, had a monster 2015 season, and Makowiecki had his coming of age just a few years before that. The trio pose a real threat for victory in a well-developed – and brilliant sounding – Porsche. (Roar Qualifying – No Time)
Porsche GT Team – #912
This is the closest thing the GTLM field has to a “newbie” team, yet there is a tremendous amount of sportscar experience between them. Sophomore Porsche driver Laurens Vanthoor brings his GT3 brilliance to the table, joining the still really young Earl Bamber. The pair are joined by Gianmaria Bruni, who needs no introduction to GT racing fans as a Ferrari driver, but has just half a season behind the wheel of a Porsche. In terms of raw pace, this may be the single best car on the grid and is this writer’s favorite for victory. (Roar Qualifying – 1:43.888 – P4)
I was told recently that GTLM preview was unnecessary because it ultimately just comes down to the last hour. To be honest, it’s not wrong. GT Le Mans is well and truly about being in a position to compete following the last full-course yellow, which really just demands about 23 hours of clean driving – perhaps easier said than done.
One of the real joys of watching an entire field full of the best GT drivers in the world in some of the most closely balanced cars is that when a driver gets the chance to put in a string of quick laps, or to build or close a gap, it is something truly special. Races are often made on stints like that – think Nick Tandy at Le Mans in 2015 or Sebastien Bourdais at Le Mans in 2009 – and GTLM provides us that opportunity.
Ultimately, though, the rules at Daytona afford cars that lose a few laps during the early running to make up that time under full course yellows with some clever strategy. While some might argue that it is against the ethos of endurance racing – and that argument has some merit – it demands that teams and drivers keep pushing to bring themselves back into contention. Seven of last year’s eleven cars finished on the lead lap in GTLM, just seven laps behind the prototype winner.
As a result, it truly comes down to the cars and drivers in the healthiest shape around noon on Sunday. Think back to 2015, when a leading BMW Z4 took a trip through the grass at the Bus Stop, ripping off the rear bumper. The car, which to that point looked to be the strongest heading into the final hours, was never the same. The few pounds of downforce or few miles per hour down the straight lost with that bodywork took the car more or less out of contention for victory. Mistakes like this will cost you the Rolex; GTLM truly demands perfection.
So, who is left as the strongest contender? If I had to narrow it down from nine, I would pick all nine. It is a truly stacked field, all with signficant reasons to believe that they could well be the winners come Sunday afternoon. If you were to discount anyone, it might be the new BMW M8s. They did struggle for speed at the Roar Before the 24 test (by a whole second), and the new car may develop some teething issues as the race goes on. Additionally, the Risi Competizione squad has had the most horrid luck for the last few years, particularly in the endurance races.
That leaves Ford, Porsche, and Corvette. Do you want to pick a favorite? I’m not sure I can. I would suggest that Porsche likely has the most talented drivers across the board, but the last hour typically comes down to one-on-one matchups. In such a scenario, it’s tough to bet against Ford’s Sebastien Bourdais and Scott Dixon. More than likely, though, it will take until 2:40pm on Sunday to finally determine the GTLM champion.