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December 17, 2018

Five things to look out for at Le Mans… with Jonny Cocker

Five things to look out for at Le Mans… with Jonny Cocker
Photo Credit To Gary Parravani/ Xynamic

There are few things that you can take for granted in motorsport these days, but as part of the fabled ‘triple crown’ that is completed by the Monaco Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500, the Le Mans 24 Hours stands alone as the highlight of the international sportscar racing calendar. And with this year’s 84th running featuring a 27-car GTE grid including factory representation from Corvette, Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin and four cars from Ford, we’re set to have are almost as many sub-plots as a Stieg Larsson novel to keep us occupied. With the help of our special analyst, 2004 British GT champion and three-time Le Mans starter Jonny Cocker, here’s what you should be looking out for.

1. Will BOP changes shake up the order?

It wouldn’t be GT racing without a bit of BOP controversy, would it? By dint of a victory on fuel strategy for Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe at Laguna Seca, the new Ford GT has already enjoyed success in IMSA and made it onto the second step of the podium at Spa in the hands of Andy Priaulx, Marino Franchitti and Harry Tincknell.

However, the ACO’s decision to hand a 25 kg weight break to the Fords – and 30kg Aston Martins – may give them an advantage both in terms of fuel mileage and tyre-wear, not to mention under braking and acceleration out of the Circuit de la Sarthe’s many chicanes.

Just how much of an advantage is unclear, but with lingering suspicions that the Fords, fastest in the speed traps at Spa, haven’t reached anywhere near their full potential in the opening rounds and the pre-event favourites Ferrari – the class of the field at Silverstone and Spa with their new 488 – set to receive a 10 kg increase, the traditional gamesmanship is already well underway.

Jonny Cocker: Le Mans actually is probably less sensitive to weight than some of the other circuits than the WEC visits. You’ve got a lot of flat-out sections and ultimately the pace of the cars is will be determined more by aero efficiency and power than necessarily 25 kilos, although that’s not to say that having the weight off won’t help. There’s a lot of starting and stopping and carrying it around the back end of the lap around the Porsche Curves has got to be worth somewhere in the region of 0.5-0.75 seconds. It’s a difficult position for the ACO, because their interest lies in giving the spectators the best show and all the teams a fair shot of winning. It’s a big call to make prior to such a huge event, but they’ll have all the data to hand from all the cars and they work closely with the engineers in all the teams, so they must feel confident that it was necessary.

2. Don’t underestimate Corvette

Of course, if Ford do enjoy a massive advantage over everybody else, it will mean nothing if they don’t have the reliability to make the finish – which partly explains why they’ve stacked their deck with four cars.

If it’s reliability and a proven track record over 24 hours that you’re looking for, then look no further than Corvette Racing, the defending winners from last year and with back-to-back wins at Daytona and Sebring to boot.

With Doug Fehan at the helm, the American squad are among the best in the business and only too happy to allow their rivals to hog the limelight in the build-up, knowing that the real talking is done on-track. Oliver Gavin is going for a sixth Le Mans victory alongside Tommy Milner and Jordan Taylor, while the sister car driven by Antonio Garcia, Jan Magnussen and Ricky Taylor will also be a threat.

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Jonny Cocker: I’ve got some experience of racing against Corvette and nobody can take anything away from those guys, they’re super-experienced and their cars are for the most part bulletproof. I can see why it would be easy to overlook them because a lot of attention is on Aston, Ford and especially Ferrari, but if you were to say ‘who would you put your money on’, you’d have to think Corvette will be in the picture. They know exactly what they’re doing and they’ve got some great drivers there as well, so Corvette definitely shouldn’t be underestimated.

3. 911 RSR’s last hurrah

The 911 RSR has been an undoubted hit for Porsche, winning on debut at Daytona in 2013 and adding Le Mans at the first time of asking the same year, before Richard Lietz became the first man to break Ferrari’s strangehold on the WEC GT Drivers crown in 2015. But now in its fourth season, the car is beginning to look rather long in the tooth and Porsche will hope to give it a fitting send-off before a new model, rumoured to have dropped the rear-engine formula with which Porsche is synonymous, arrives next year.

Having decided to pull their works effort in order to focus on development, Porsche have entered two full works cars for Nick Tandy/Kevin Estre/Patrick Pilet and Earl Bamber/ Fred Makowiecki/Joerg Bergmeister to bring their representation in the Pro class up to three. The works-supported Proton-Dempsey Racing car of Richard Lietz and Michael Christensen is joined by Porsche Supercup champion Philipp Eng, on-loan from BMW.

Jonny Cocker: If you talk about Le Mans with any motorsport fan, Porsche has got to be one of the first things you associate with it. From their point of view, achieving a clean sweep of both classes that they’re entering would be not only a huge achievement from a motorsport side of things, but also in terms of selling their dream to customers in the showroom – there’s no better way of doing that than by winning. Certainly they’re stepping things up this year for Le Mans is partly in response to knowing how strong the competition is this year, but also because they’ve got the new car coming in 2017 and this could be the last year of the 911 as we know it, so they’ll be pushing hard to give it a proper goodbye.

4. Can Dunlop make a splash?

With 23 cars running on Michelin rubber, that leaves only the four Aston Martins using Dunlops. It’s a bold call from the British manufacturer, whose last taste of victory came in the Am class with Danish trio Nicki Thiim, Kristian Poulsen and David Heinemeier-Hansson in 2014, but will going against the grain help or hinder them?

The thinking behind the move is that their status as the sole Dunlop customer will ensure Aston have tyres developed especially to cater for its FWD configuration, although Le Mans may have come just a little soon for a partnership still in its infancy.

However, after least year, when they had the fastest car – all four Astons qualified in the top five – but fluffed their lines and came away empty-handed, the Prodrive boys will expect to at least be in the thick of the fight in both classes. In addition to running 30kg below the minimum weight, Aston have also been granted a fuel break, so can now carry 102 litres, a full 14 more than the Ferrari.

_D8X4964_originalJonny Cocker: I’ve got a good understanding of how Dunlop work, we were factory supported by Dunlop when I was in the JMW Ferrari and we did a lot of testing. Dunlop have been playing chase to Michelin for a long while, but they push extremely hard and they’ve now come to a point where it’s just down to preference. Aston Martin being partnered with Dunlop is by no means a disadvantage, because they can work with them to develop a tyre which works well for them in the same way as Porsche have. It could add a bit of interest to it because the nature of the tyre does work differently to the Michelin. Who knows, maybe the Dunlop will work really well from 3 to 6 AM in the morning when the conditions require a very specific type of tyre and when the cars are so close, that could be the deciding factor.

5. GTE-Am wide open

While the battle rages for GTE-Pro, don’t forget the hungry pack of GTE-Am competitors gunning for their own slice of glory. Last year’s winners SMP are not returning, giving Aston Martin’s Paul dalla Lana the chance to make up for his faux pas last year when he slid into the barriers and threw away a comfortable lead with only 45 minutes to go. The Canadian won at Spa and will be as usual joined by reliable co-drivers Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda.

Their WEC arch rivals from AF Corse are just a point behind in the points after winning at Silverstone.  Rui Aguas, Francois Perrodo and Emmanuel Collard, who will become the equal 7th most experienced driver ever with his 22nd start, are just a number of a cluster of 458 GT2s that remain in service this year, with ELMS frontrunners Matt Griffin, Aaron Scott and Duncan Cameron entered in a second AF Corse car. Watch for last year’s podium finishers Townsend Bell, Jeff Segal and Bill Sweedler to figure at the pointy end too in the similar Scuderia Corse machine, while Rob Bell will star in the chrome-liveried Clearwater Racing Ferrari.

The Labre Competition Corvette topped Test Day with Nicky Catsburg at the helm, but the Dutchman was overlooked to replace the injured Paolo Ruberti due to lack of budget, so instead keep an eye on the Team AAI C7.R driven by four-time PWC champion Johnny O’Connell, Mark Patterson and Briton Oliver Bryant, running last year’s race-winning chassis.

Jonny Cocker: Although the team is obviously important, I think again it’s going to come down to the driver pairings, you’ve got to have the right line-up and be on the limit of what the regulations allow. Take the Corvette for example; I raced with Olly when he was in the Ecurie Ecosse BMW, he’s really good at looking after the car and will do a solid job. as for Johnny O’Connell, you don’t need to say an awful lot about him. He’s got a huge amount of experience and will be very fast, so I’m sure that car will be a very strong contender – and the Corvette is also a really safe bet when it comes to getting you home, which you need to have.

I think the race is going to be incredible, in particular the GT classes I think has to be one of the strongest entries in a long time. You’ll have the usual suspects in P1 and P2, but I think the GT field is going to be the one to watch, so hopefully the directors will do some justice to it and show some of it! It’s shaping up to be an extremely cool race and I’m excited to see how it unfolds.

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About The Author

James Newbold

James Newbold is Racing.GT's Editor. He graduated from a politics degree at the University of East Anglia in 2015, which should help him navigate through the political minefield that is GT racing. He likes Marmite on toast and Oreo cookies. Speaks Spanish, but only when no one is looking.