The GT category of the FIA WEC enters the new season in very good shape. After a successful 2016 season, the class gets an increased car count for 2017, (8 in PRO and 5 in AM), with the return of the works Porsche team in PRO, running the new mid-engined 911. With factory efforts from Aston Martin and Ford joining the established private Ferraris of AF Corse in PRO and newcomers Clearwater Racing in AM, as well as the AM Porsches of Gulf Racing and Dempsey Proton, we will see a real battle in both sub-classes.
After no fewer than ELEVEN changes over the course of 2016’s nine rounds, this year sees the introduction of an “automatic” BoP in PRO. This uses an algorithm to calculate the relative performance of each car, rather than relying on human intervention. This is not without its critics though, as the constant juggling might mean some teams are handicapped more than others. It remains to be seen if this will become a major talking point during the season, but if reality matches up to expectations it will soon be rightfully forgotten.
Most important is that it delivers us close exciting racing without favouring one manufacturer over another.
Ford Chip Ganassi Racing (#66/#67) (PRO)
The fabulous red, white and blue livery returns for a second season in WEC, the Chip Ganassi UK squad running the controversial (inasmuch as they are not for sale) Ford GTs. With Marino Franchitti opting to concentrate on the IMSA series, his place has been taken by Brazilian ex-ESM star Pipo Derani in the #67, alongside Harry Tincknell (sad not to see him in a P2) and Andy Priaulx. The #66 crew of Stefan Mücke, Olivier Pla and Billy Johnson remains unchanged.
Porsche 911 RSR
Porsche AG (#91/#92) (PRO)
After a year’s hiatus, the Weissach team returns as a fully-fledged factory team with the new mid-engined 911 RSR. Over the winter the driver line-up has been extensively shuffled, the major talking point being the defection from Ferrari of Gianmaria Bruni. Unfortunately his Ferrari contract prevents him taking up his seat until July. Frenchmen Fred Makowiecki and Kévin Estre stay with the team, the former partnering Richard Lietz in the #91 and the latter with Dane Michael Christensen in the #92. Patrick Pilet and Dirk Werner join as third drivers for Le Mans.
Dempsey Proton Racing (#77) AM
Again without the services of their famous part-owner (cue lots of disappointed expressions among the ladies), the German-registered team moves to AM for this season. Christian Ried moves over from KCMG to be joined by Matteo Cairoli and Marvin Dienst.
Gulf Racing (#86) (AM)
The UK-based Gulf Racing team returns with their trusty 911, Nick Foster taking the seat vacated by Adam Carroll. Ben Barker and Mike Wainwright complete the team. Expect a good result on home ground at Silverstone, where their experience will pay dividends.
Aston Martin Vantage
Prodrive (#95/#97) PRO
Nicki Thiim and Marco Sorensen stay with their PRO class winning #95 “Dane Train” for the new season, Kiwi GP2 driver Richie Stanaway added to the roster for this year. The #97 crew consists of Brits Darren Turner and Jonny Adam teaming up with Dunlop test driver Daniel Serra who is making his début in the category. Expect both cars to be at the sharp end of every race.
Prodrive (#98) AM
The tongue-twisting trio of Lauda, Lamy and (dalla) Lana return to the 2016-spec AM car, back on Dunlops after a brief pre-season switch to Michelin. This will be their third full season together which goes to show how well these three get on. The chemistry between these three lads has proven to be their biggest asset. It’s not just about out-and-out speed, you know…
Ferrari 488 GTE
AF Corse (#51/#71) PRO
The defection of Gianmaria Bruni to Porsche (see above) leaves the semi-works team in a bit of a state. However, they have managed to secure the services of Lucas Di Grassi, to join Briton’s James Calado and Italy’s Alessandro Pier Giudi in the #51, the Audi driver making a welcome return to the series at Le Mans. Erstwhile G-Drive P2 man Sam Bird starts his second successive year with the Italian squad, again paired with Davide Rigon. Ex-DTM Mercedes driver Miguel Molina moves over from the AM sister team Spirit of Race (see below) for the 24 Hours.
Spirit of Race (#54) AM
A new team in the class this year, or is it? In actual fact, it’s a sister team to AF Corse created to run their AM car. Ex-DTM man Miguel Molina starts his first season in GT, with Swiss Thomas Flohr and former Aston Martin driver Francesco Castellaci joining him, both of whom drove in the GT3 Le Mans Cup last year.
Clearwater Racing (#64) AM
This Singapore-based team steps up to the FIA WEC from the Asian Le Mans series, with drivers Keita Sawa, team owner Mok Weng Sun and Matt Griffin coming across too. The team did finish fourth in class at Le Mans last year, but this will be their first ever attempt at a full season in the World Championship. The FIA and ACO will be pleased to see an Asian team taking the plunge into the WEC, so hopefully some success this year will encourage others to make the journey from the regional championship in the future.
In GT racing the BoP always tends to obscure genuine mechanical performance of the cars relative to each other, especially this year with the introduction of the “automatic” BoP in PRO. However, for me there are three stand-out cars. Firstly the #92 Porsche has a very strong driver squad, as does the #97 Aston, but my money is on Ford #67 taking the title. Their first season delivered way more than could have been expected, so a championship in only their second year is a natural progression. But as usual I’ll probably be proved wrong…