The big three have returned for another year of GT racing madness! The manufacturers have again brought out their big guns to fight for honor, glory, bragging rights and trophies.
Last year's teams, drivers, and manufacturers championships winner AF Corse returns to defend their crowns. World GT Drivers champion Gianmaria Bruni remains in the #51 car but this year is partnered for the full season by Toni Vilander instead of Giancarlo Fisichella as he was last in 2013. In the #71 car we find GTE and sports car newcomer James Calado-who finished third in GP2 last year with two wins and seven podiums driving with Davide Rigon who has been rewarded for his efforts with 8Star last year with a factory GTE-Pro drive.
The 2013 European Le Mans Series GTE champions RAM Racing have stepped up to the world arena with a two car WEC program (one GTE-Pro and one GTE-Am). The team has retained the services of Thrapston's finest sports car driver Matt Griffin and have called upon Alvaro Parente to crew the #52 Ferrari 458 GTE. Although relative newcomers to the sport, RAM have proven themselves to be an extremely capable team as good as any, beating among others AF Corse in the ELMS last year.
As for the actual car, the 458 Italia has so far proven to be a very slippery thing indeed; winning last year at Spa and setting the fastest GTE trap speed of the Prologue at 272.7kph, 1.3kph faster than the next fastest marque (being Porsche). And the wins at Interlagos and Bahrain in 2013 show a car that is extremely adaptable as well, but was down on the time sheets in Sector 3 where the car requires downforce to make the most of the fast sweepers. The small high revving V8 not only provides auditory delight but will deliver its torque higher up in the rev range which will prove to be a benefit against the big V8 powered Aston-Martins and the flat-six Porsches.
The English Bulldogs enter the 2014 season with a bit of a sour taste in their mouth. After their TUSC GTLM effort was aborted due to a quite frankly draconian BoP levied on them by IMSA, Aston Martin Racing have returned to the WEC with a vengeance to erase the memories of Daytona, and to claim their first GT championship in years. To that end, the Banbury based marque has again brought two Gulf liveried beauties to the table, with the usual pairing of Darren Turner and Stefan Mücke in the #97. The #99 features an entirely new lineup for 2014, featuring the driving talents of Fernando Rees, Darryl O'Young (strangely not in a Porsche or a SEAT) and Alex MacDowall. It's interesting to note that much like AF Corse and RAM, the #97 only has two named drivers for the full season, which means that with SRT's withdrawal from Le Mans, Rob Bell is available to drive the car, and there wouldn't be any problem because they aren't competing against each other in the US.
The V8 Vantage GTE enters this year unchanged from 2013 where it recorded victories at Silverstone, Austin, Fuji and Shanghai. Examining its past form, it's clear that the V8 Vantage excels at circuits that are predominantly made up of medium and high speed corners, which might explain the car's performance at Paul Ricard. It was INCREDIBLY underwhelming at the test, setting the 5th fastest GTE trap speed at 271.4kph and setting the 9th fastest GTE time of the Prologue- a 1:59.076. Prodrive must have been having some serious problems with the cars because that is the only explanation I can think of as to why they were so off the pace. Do I think AMR will continue with this form? No, I think that they will be right back where they were last year in terms of speed by this weekend in Silverstone.
Porsche may have an LMP1 car, but that won't stop them from taking on the world in GT as well, and if the new 991 RSR is as fast in the WEC as it has been in the US, then there's really nothing anyone can do to stop the Stuttgart Juggernaut from steamrolling the competition. What you are looking at here is six of the best GT drivers in the world, in quite possibly the best GT car out there. As for the drivers; Patrick Pilet, Jörg Bergmeister and Nick Tandy are in the #91, and Marco Holzer, Frèdèric Makowiecki (who shall be known henceforth as Fred Mako) and Richard Leitz in the #92.
Curiously, the car is still called a "991 RSR" despite the GT3 road car being out for almost a year now, meaning that Porsche is still homologating their car off of the Carrera 4 body shape (same as the GT3). Regardless of confusing FIA homologation requirements, the car is a bullet, setting the fastest GTE time of the Prologue, that time being a 1:58.041. While not having the highest top speed on the Mistral Straight, the car made up the time in the corners- setting fastest Sector 3 times in the Friday morning, afternoon and Saturday morning sessions as well as the fastest Sector 1 times on Friday morning and afternoon. As if that wasn't enough for Olaf Manthey, the team went out and recorded the fastest Sector 2 time on Saturday Morning as well. Unlike 2013, their car seems to be incredibly well sorted, the team isn't sandbagging, and with a year under their belt Team Manthey is even more of a well-oiled machine than before.
My season predictions are: Porsche for the manufacturers' championship, and in the drivers' championship I'm going for Marco Holzer, Fred Mako and Richard Lietz as champions, Darren Turner and Stefan Mücke in 2nd, and Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander in 3nd.
Guest post republished with permission by Patrick Palony.