LM24: AF Corse Ferrari, Keating Ford claim GTE wins

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LM24: AF Corse Ferrari, Keating Ford claim GTE wins

Le Mans/WEC

LM24: AF Corse Ferrari, Keating Ford claim GTE wins

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GTE Pro, surprisingly, was the only class that was settled early in the 87th 24 Hours of Le Mans. It was AF Corse’s year, the Italian team scoring the first win for the Ferrari 488 GTE at this famous race on the 70th anniversary of Ferrari’s first win at Le Mans.

The No. 51 of James Calado, Alessandro Pier Guidi and Daniel Serra was the winning car, the trio emerging as a contender in the race’s opening hours and fighting for the win all the way through the night and into Sunday afternoon. In the end, the battle, which involved multiple marques for the win, wasn’t decided on track, and instead by a safety car period splitting up the field in the final hours.

Until the 21st hour, seven cars were on the lead lap, and there were three clear contenders for the race lead — the No. 51, the No. 63 Corvette Racing C7.R and No. 91 Porsche 911 RSR. But an off for the Racing Team Nederland Dallara caused a safety car which split up the field.

Initially it appeared the Corvette and Ferrari would be together, but Corvette needed to pit and ended up getting stuck at the end of the pit lane, losing it valuable time. Jan Magnussen then had an off into the barriers at the Porsche Curves, which ended the GM brand’s challenge.

After that it was an easy ride for the No. 51 crew, who finished over a minute ahead of the No. 91 and No. 93 Porsches that completed the podium.

“It’s emotional. We’ve done an amazing job as a team,” said Calado, who along with Pier Guidi has won his first Le Mans.

It was an odd race. Throughout Pro had looked like it would provide the closest finish, yet it actually fizzled out. What it did have though, was multiple marques involved, and no real answers to the burning questions until Sunday morning.

For Corvette Racing, it was a tough outing. It should have been a gritty performance followed by celebrations for the team’s 20th anniversary of racing at Le Mans. Instead, the end result was less than satisfactory. The No. 64, which was always further down the order to the sister car in the opening stages, crashed out heavily at the Porsche Curves when Marcel Fassler clipped the No. 88 Dempsey Proton Porsche, sending him veering off the circuit and into the barriers. It was an incident which Fassler would later be blamed for. The No. 63’s chances then imploded later in the race, but the car did limp home ninth in class.

Despite finishing 10th, the full-season No. 92 Porsche duo of Kevin Estre and Michael Christensen claimed the FIA WEC GTE World Drivers’ Championship. It was a rather disappointing result, though, after the car led the class for an extended period.

Of the other marques, BMW’s WEC program went out with a wimper rather than a bellow, both M8 GTEs suffering issues, finishing way back. Aston Martin too, didn’t feature for the win, despite starting from pole with its No. 95 Vantage.

Both cars took a beating, the No. 95 ending up worse off after Marco Sorensen went sideways into the barriers on the Porsche Curves during the night. But long before the two cars had offs (Alex Lynn was aboard the No. 97 when it flew off the circuit at the Porsche Curves) they were out of the running.

Was the pre-race BoP change to blame here? Were the conditions sub-optimal for the car? Did the other factories have more in reserve than expected? At this point it’s not clear. All we know is the Vantage AMR struggled with tire wear — and therefore pace — all weekend.

Finally, there was Ford. In what was the final Le Mans 24 Hours for the Ganassi USA and UK teams as a factory, and the last WEC race for the program, the four GTs finished in formation from fourth to seventh. In order to challenge, the drivers had to run the cars ragged, which wasn’t a sustainable option over the 24 hours. Instead, they were forced to settle for a strong but arguably forgettable result.

Ben Keating, Jeroen Bleekemolen, Felipe Fraga fought off the effect of a penalty to win GTE-Am.

In GTE Am, though, Keating Motorsports scored a huge win for the Ford GT as Jeroen Bleekemolen, Ben Keating and Le Mans debutant Felipe Fraga survived late drama to beat the Project 1 Porsche to the flag.

The Wynn’s-backed GT made up for any disappointment from the factory camp with a win on the car’s debut in customer hands. Seemingly out of nowhere, in a similar fashion to AF Corse’s No. 51 Ferrari in Pro, the No. 85 rose up the order and went on to control the race.

In the second half, it looked almost too comfortable for the American guest-entered team. The trio had built a big lead and looked set to cruise to the finish. But a pit stop to change the car’s front end, requested by the organizers in the penultimate hour, spawned drama. Keating left tire marks when leaving his pit box, prompting race control to hand out a stop-go penalty.

All of a sudden, with less than an hour to go, the team’s lead had vanished, and the Project 1 Porsche was just a handful of seconds behind after the final stops. It was a straight fight in the end between Bleekemolen and Jorg Bergmeister, the Dutchman soaking up the pressure and winning the race by 44 seconds.

“We had some damage on the front of the car,” Keating explained. “We don’t exactly know why they made us come in and change it. It’s been an extremely stressful couple of hours.”

However, with its second-place finish Project 1 took the FIA WEC GTE Am title — an impressive consolation prize for Bergmeister, Patrick Lindsay and Egidio Perfetti. And what a season it’s been for the team, which is new to the WEC. After the No. 77 Dempsey Proton crew were docked all their points last year, it was game on for Project 1, and their title to lose. Despite drama at Spa and Sebring, all three drivers and the team around them held on, taking the title in style here with a faultless run in France.

The JMW Motorsports Ferrari driven by Blancpain GT World Challenge regulars Wei Lu, Jeff Segal and Rodrigo Baptista completed the class podium after a quiet but impressive performance, especially from Baptista and Lu, who are new to GTE racing and Le Mans. It was another memorable outing for Jim McWhirter’s plucky team.

Outside of the top three, it was a lottery throughout the closing hours of the race, with multiple contenders gaining traction and fading. The WeatherTech Ferrari took fourth after a solid drive from its crew, ahead of the No. 77 Dempsey Proton Porsche, which had the speed to win but suffered too many set backs to reach the podium.

Both Aston Martins in the field and the Clearwater Racing Ferrari looked capable of podiums too, but their efforts fell short. The No. 98 Vantage had mechanical issues and retired with accident damage, the TF Sport Aston Martin climbed as high as third but had to undergo a power steering pump change, and the Clearwater Ferrari looked set for fourth before an issue with the car’s uprights forced it to pit late in the race. The Singaporean team, a real fan favorite, ends its WEC story with an eighth-place finish, despite a performance that deserved better; a microcosm of its season.

Then there was the Spirit of Race Ferrari, which was realistically the only car that could take the fight to the Project 1 Porsche in the title race. It was a disastrous outing for Giancarlo Fisichella, Thomas Flohr and Francesco Castellacci. Multiple offs and a huge penalty for a drive time infringement meant they head home with a 13th-place finish and a missed opportunity hanging over them.

What a ride it’s been. The 2018/19 FIA WEC ‘Super Season’ has evoked mixed emotions. There have been memorable races, some simply forgettable ones, but the finale at Le Mans will likely be remembered as an old school endurance race that kept everyone guessing.

After real door-banging action in the opening hours, it was a mixture of strategy, luck, mechanical issues and incidents that decided the class winners in this one, rather than on-track fighting. And that’s OK — endurance racing, sometimes, is about survival more than anything else.

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