Super GT x Le Mans 24 Hours Preview: The Grand Prix of Endurance

It is the greatest single prize in endurance racing: The 24 Hours of Le Mans. In the 85th running of the famous “Grand Prix of Endurance”, Le Mans will call 60 teams, representing four classes of cars, and 180 drivers of all skill levels and walks of life to take on its daunting challenge. It is one of the three recognized legs of the Triple Crown of Motorsport, with the Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix.

A Le Mans victory can make a car and its pilots into immortals for all time, and it can literally dictate the future success of a proud auto maker. For the hundreds of thousands of spectators in attendance, it is more than just a race – it is an experience like no other. For the teams, the drivers, the manufacturers alike, it is the one race that stands out above all others.

They have summoned the best of the best to compete at Le Mans this year. Our focus is on the ten individuals in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans who have competed in the Autobacs Super GT Series. And to do that, we’ve enlisted the help of a friend and colleague who has been at Le Mans for testing, and the opening rounds of both the World Endurance Championship and European Le Mans Series – deputy editor of DailySportsCar, and contributor to RACER Magazine, Stephen Kilbey.

For 2017, Le Mans continues to welcome the newest innovations in automotive engineering. The new Global LMP2 platform is the fastest iteration of the middleweight prototypes ever seen. Porsche have revamped their 919 Hybrid that has won this race the last two years running. And all eyes will be on Toyota, who came so, so bitterly close to winning this race one year ago, to see if they can finally capture the one prize that has eluded them for over thirty years.

The Le Mans/Super GT connection has gone hand in hand over the last quarter-century. The likes of Benoît Tréluyer, Loïc Duval, David Brabham, and John Nielsen were all champions at Le Mans, and in the JGTC/Super GT’s premier GT500 class. Masanori Sekiya and Seiji Ara, the only two Japanese drivers to win at Le Mans have also raced in Super GT – in the case of Ara, he still does today.

And this year will mark the 20th anniversary of the first Le Mans victory of another JGTC/Super GT alumni: The great nine-time Le Mans grand champion, Tom Kristensen.

10 of the 180 drivers in this year’s Le Mans field have experience in the JGTC/Super GT. Between them, they account for five overall victories at Le Mans – including the reigning winner of this race. The current GT500 Championship leader is in this group, as is the most recent GT500 race winner from several weeks ago. In Super GT, these drivers have combined for 2 GT500 Drivers’ Championships, 18 GT500 race wins, and 9 GT300 race wins.

Some will seek a breakthrough triumph for their international racing careers, while others will look to extend an already established legacy of excellence. Such is the mythical challenge of Le Mans, that once again summons the best teams and pilots in the world of endurance sports car racing.

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© Toyota

KAZUKI NAKAJIMA

#8 TOYOTA GAZOO RACING TS050 HYBRID

  • 6th 24 Hours of Le Mans
  • Best Finish: 4th (2013)
  • 2014 Overall Pole Position
  • Co-drivers: Sébastien Buemi & Anthony Davidson

Stephen Kilbey (SK): Kazuki Nakajima is capable of blinding speed. His WEC form book has on occasion had gaps due to clashing programmes in Japan, Toyota Gazoo Racing though, is fully focused on two objectives: 1. To win Le Mans. 2. To reclaim the championship it won last in 2014. There’s nothing to suggest, that Nakajima, is anything other than entirely capable in playing a major part in delivering last year.

After last-lap dramas last year, he’s surely going to be ultra-motivated to replace those dreadful memories, with some rather happier ones. And with a championship lead following two race wins out of two races this year, he’ll be confident that himself, Anthony Davidson and Sébastien Buemi, can conquer Le Mans.

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© Toyota

RJ O’Connell (RJO): June 19, 2016, and the most hollow three minutes and twenty-five seconds of Kazuki Nakajima’s life. He was literally a lap away from taking his, and Toyota’s, first-ever overall victory at Le Mans, before it disappeared from within their grasp. Every day since for Toyota, and for Nakajima and his co-drivers Buemi & Davidson, has been building up to the chance for redemption.

At 32 years old, Kazuki Nakajima, eldest son of national F1 folk hero and five-time Japanese top formula champion Satoru, is in the prime of his racing career and, in 2017, the form of his life. He’s won both rounds of the 2017 WEC season at Silverstone and Spa-Francorchamps. He won the season-opening Super Formula race at Suzuka, a championship he’s won twice already. And just a few weeks ago, he won his first Super GT race since his return to that series at Autopolis on May 23.

A victory for his #8 Toyota TS050 would be an overwhelmingly popular triumph, especially for the Toyota supporters – many of whom have waited exactly 32 years for their favourite badge to finally win this race outright after so many tries.

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© Toyota

KAMUI KOBAYASHI

#7 TOYOTA GAZOO RACING TS050 HYBRID

  • 3rd 24 Hours of Le Mans
  • Best Finish: 2nd (2016)
  • Scheduled to make Super GT debut at 2017 Suzuka 1000km
  • Co-drivers: Mike Conway & Stéphane Sarrazin

SK: At this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours, Kamui Kobayashi will looking to help Toyota put the events at the end of last year’s race behind it. Along with Mike Conway and Stephane Sarrazin for the race, he’ll be hoping to score Toyota its third win in a row to start the season.

It’s fair to say that the car is on the back foot though, after José Maria López’s shunt at Silverstone, dropping them valuable points. It prompted the move to put Sarrazin in the car though, which does give him a more experienced pair of teammates for the most important race of the year. As well as gunning for Toyota’s first Le Mans win, the race will also be about getting the #7 team’s season back on track as the fly-away rounds begin to loom large.

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© Toyota

RJO: Including Kamui Kobayashi in this group is pushing the envelope just a bit – since his Super GT debut won’t be until August at the Suzuka 1000km for Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh. And even then, plans can change between then and now – but at the moment, Kamui is a Super GT driver in waiting.

And he is also, potentially, a Le Mans winner in waiting, with co-drivers Conway & Sarrazin – the same trio that finished 2nd last year. Kobayashi and Conway firmly felt like the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps should have been their race to win before bad luck intervened. Kamui was the fastest driver on Le Mans Test Day – and eye-witness accounts from the likes of DSC contributor Mat Fernandez suggest that he could crush the lap record in qualifying.

A fan-favourite in Formula 1, Kobayashi wants to find the sustained success in the WEC that many felt should have been his in single-seaters. If his is the team that can bring home Toyota’s first Le Mans victory, there will be little doubting Kamui Kobayashi’s status as one of Japan’s greatest racing heroes any more.

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© Toyota

YUJI KUNIMOTO

#9 TOYOTA GAZOO RACING TS050 HYBRID

  • 24 Hours of Le Mans debut
  • 2016 Japanese Super Formula Champion
  • Older brother Keisuke competed in 2009 24 Hours of Le Mans
  • Co-drivers: Nicolas Lapierre & José Maria López

SK: Le Mans is set to be a key race for Yuji Kunimoto, who has a lot to prove. At Spa – his first race in the TS050 Hybrid – was a quiet one, the #9 running the Le Mans-spec aero kit and lacking the outright pace to challenge.

Kunimoto will be under pressure to perform at La Sarthe, with Toyota becoming increasingly desperate to win the French classic. The current crop of LMP1 cars are not easy to drive though, requiring a very different driving style to that of a standard prototype. It will therefore be interesting to see how he fares – along with fellow Le Mans rookie Lopez – after further track time in private testing, the Test Day and the on-track action during race-week prior to the 24 Hours itself.

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© Toyota

RJO: An improbable breakout season for Yuji Kunimoto in 2016 has led to a golden opportunity at Le Mans for the 26-year-old rising star. Last year, of course, he not only led Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh to their first-ever GT500 race victory, but he also defeated the likes of Nakajima, Kobayashi, André Lotterer, and even top F1 prospect Stoffel Vandoorne to win the Super Formula Drivers’ Championship.

Carrying on when his brother Keisuke’s career abruptly stopped seven years ago, Yuji Kunimoto has always had the potential to succeed at the highest levels of motorsport. Even in the face of adversity and skepticism much like the kind that has simmered into this, his Le Mans debut.

Little will be expected of Kunimoto and fellow rookie López going into this race – but as an anecdotal aside, few had expected the “third” Toyota GT-One of Japanese nationals Ukyo Katayama, Toshio Suzuki, and Keiichi Tsuchiya to nearly win the whole thing in 1999, and this third Toyota TS050 could, with a lot of speed and a little luck, could shock the world – just as Kunimoto did last October, when he shocked race fans all over Japan by taking its biggest single-seater championship against a field of the world’s best pilots.

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© Porsche

ANDRÉ LOTTERER

#1 PORSCHE 919 HYBRID

  • 9th 24 Hours of Le Mans
  • Three-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner (2011, 2012, 2014)
  • 2012 World Endurance Drivers Champion
  • Co-drivers: Neel Jani & Nick Tandy

SK: It’s a big year for André Lotterer, the German moving over from Audi’s LMP1 programme to Porsche’s – the only Audi driver to do so in the wake of its departure. So far he’s adapted well to the new environment, and while he hasn’t had a standout result as of yet in the 919, Le Mans would be the perfect place to gain that.

Himself, Tandy and Jani in the #2 have little to prove individually, now their task is this: Score a breakthrough win as a trio and challenge for the title. A fourth Le Mans victory is very much a possibility this year.

Porsche 919 Hybrid, Porsche LMP Team: Neel Jani, Andre Lotterer, Nick Tandy
© Porsche

RJO: Only eight human beings have ever won the 24 Hours of Le Mans at least four times, of the 129 that have ever done it. If three-time Le Mans champion André Lotterer can do it in his first run with Porsche, he’ll become the ninth person to reach that elusive club of four-time winners.

“André the Giant”, a two-time GT500 Drivers’ Champion in Super GT with Lexus Team TOM’s, is perhaps the most prominent example today of Super GT’s connection to the WEC and Le Mans. From an overlooked prospect in both F1 and Champ Car 15 years ago, to a bona fide racing legend at just 35 years of age, with his successes in Japan the bridge between the two eras. And on paper, a lineup of Lotterer, Jani, and Tandy – who have five Le Mans wins between them – could easily dominate this race on pace alone, if the Porsche 919 Hybrid is up to the task.

Oh, by the way – Lotterer won at the most recent Super Formula race meeting at Okayama International Circuit, and now leads the championship over his teammate and Le Mans rival Nakajima.

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© Red Bull

RYO HIRAKAWA

#22 G-DRIVE RACING BY DRAGONSPEED ORECA 07

  • 2nd 24 Hours of Le Mans
  • Completed 241 laps in Le Mans debut (2016)
  • Won 2017 ELMS 4 Hours of Monza
  • Co-drivers: Memo Rojas & José Gutiérrez

SK: Ryo Hirakawa heads to Le Mans riding a wave of confidence. A mistake in European Le Mans Series Qualifying – destroying a set of tyres – proved costly at the end of the race for himself and his G-Drive Racing by DragonSpeed teammates, who slipped to second at the end of the race with used tyres losing them valuable time.

But all was forgiven at Monza when Hirakawa, Rojas, and Leo Roussel stormed to victory and took a commanding championship lead. Hirakawa is rapid, and has every chance of making his mark at Le Mans this year, even with Roussel replaced by Le Mans debutant José Gutiérrez.

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© G-Drive Racing

RJO: Hand over heart, maybe it should have been Ryo Hirakawa over Yuji Kunimoto in that third Toyota TS050 Hybrid. That said, Hirakawa is making the most of his cross-continental 2017 campaign to date – his first as a Red Bull athlete.

He enters Le Mans as the championship leader of GT500 in Super GT with Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s, and the LMP2 class of the European Le Mans Series, after his G-Drive/Dragonspeed squad won the 4 Hours of Monza in May. Last year at Le Mans, he was one of the quickest drivers in an LMP2 class brimming with young talent, unlucky to see his race end six hours short of the finish due to an accident with his co-driver.

When Hirakawa was an 18-year-old rookie champion in Japanese F3 and Porsche Carrera Cup five years ago, fans started to call him the “Japanese-born Schumacher” – as in the seven-time F1 champion Michael. Hirakawa races quite similarly – relentlessly fast, uncompromising, and driven to win above all else. The Russian-flagged, Mexican-Japanese driven G-Drive Oreca can absolutely win this class – and if it does, it will likely be on the strength of their lead man Hirakawa putting in a Schumacher-esque set of stints.

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© Team Alpine Matmut

ROMAIN DUMAS

#36 SIGNATECH ALPINE MATMUT A470

  • 17th 24 Hours of Le Mans
  • Two-time and defending 24 Hours of Le Mans winner (2010, 2016)
  • Drove for Toyota Team SARD in 2001
  • Co-drivers: Gustavo Menezes & Matt Rao

SK: Romain Dumas is back for his seventeenth consecutive Le Mans start, but first in LMP2. The Frenchman, who last year won both Le Mans and the FIA WEC World Driver’s Championship, will be racing with last year’s LMP2 winner Signatech Alpine. Dumas is the very best example in world motorsport, of a multi-disciplinary racing driver, having won Le Mans, competed at a high level in rallying, and has even won Pike’s Peak.

The Signatech crew seem to be struggling for the ultimate form which saw them dominate in LMP2 last year. Dumas had a rough outing at Spa (his first of the year), being hit – in ironic fashion – by a Porsche 919, before finishing off the podium.

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© Peter May / DailySportsCar.com

RJO: Dumas’ brief Super GT career, all of five races in the 2001 JGTC with Toyota Team SARD, still make him one of the series’ most accomplished former drivers for what he has accomplished since. Two overall victories at Le Mans, a World Endurance Drivers’ Championship, victories at the 24 Hour races at Nürburgring, Spa-Francorchamps, and even the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. There’s little that the 39-year-old Frenchman can’t do as a driver.

With two sublime young co-drivers and one of the best teams in LMP2 behind him, Dumas is ready to make the most of what some would call a backwards step for the French legend in his seventeenth consecutive Le Mans start – but the fact is, in terms of entries alone, LMP2 stands as Le Mans’ deepest category this year.

And if Dumas and his crew were to win the LMP2 class this year, there’s no doubt he’d celebrate it as if he’d won the race outright again – as they damn well should.

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© JOTA Sport

OLIVER JARVIS

#38 JACKIE CHAN DC RACING ORECA 07

  • 7th 24 Hours of Le Mans
  • Best Finish: 3rd (2012, 2013, 2016)
  • LMP2 Class winner at 2017 6 Hours of Silverstone
  • Co-drivers: Ho-Pin Tung & Thomas Laurent

SK: Oliver Jarvis was in the form of his life with Audi last year, and in title contention to the end. This time though, he’s racing in LMP2, bouncing back from the shock of Audi’s withdrawal from the WEC. He was out of contract with the German marque in any case, and has done well to secure a Bentley factory drive and a full-season Jackie Chan DC Racing seat.

He’s done very well so far to deploy some of the efficiency lessons learned in LMP1 to the new-for-2017 LMP2 class. His measured pace at Silverstone provided the basis for the race win. And with excellent support from the JOTA Sport-run Jackie Chan DC team, his car holds a deserved championship lead. He has a real shot at the win here.

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© JOTA Sport

RJO: Ten years ago, Jarvis was a young, up-and-coming apprentice at Lexus Team TOM’s as they won the Super GT Suzuka 1000km. Now, having also driven for Lexus Team SARD in 2014, and coming off a breakout year in 2016 in the last year with Audi, Olly Jarvis might rank as one of the best British racing drivers regardless of discipline.

Jarvis has a reputation to uphold as one of the drivers of the “New Mighty ’38” – the successor to JOTA Sport’s evergreen (though mostly white, sometimes orange) Gibson/Zytek prototype that won the LMP2 class in 2014 – but this car is awesome, and fast, and it has already won earlier this year in Silverstone, the first WEC race for Global LMP2.

Jarvis finished third overall three times with Audi Sport Team Joest. In 2017, he seeks his first class victory in LMP2.

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© Porsche

FRÉDÉRIC MAKOWIECKI

#91 PORSCHE 911 RSR

  • 7th 24 Hours of Le Mans
  • Best Finish: 15th (2014)
  • Two GTE Pro class podiums (2012, 2014)
  • Co-drivers: Richard Lietz & Patrick Pilet

SK: Fred Makoweicki, with a brand-new Porsche 911 RSR, will be looking to bounce back from a dismal run of form at Le Mans recently, with just one podium finish (2014) in the past four years, the rest DNFs.

This year’s effort though, looks much fresher, with Porsche building to a new-look squad with Mako will hope he’s a part of moving forward. The car is quick, but is still yet to show it’s true potential. It has been reliable though, in both IMSA and the WEC, which is key to staying in the fight in what is set to be far more competitive GTE Pro field at Le Mans this year.

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© Porsche

RJO: Once again, the Mako Shark is on the hunt at Le Mans – and hunting for the breakthrough GTE victory that has eluded him for a number of years, most devastatingly in 2013, when he crashed from the lead in his Aston Martin in pursuit of an emotional win after the death of teammate Allan Simonsen in the first hour of the race.

Makowiecki has won the Suzuka 1000km before in Super GT, and could have been a champion in GT500 had the prospect of international success with Porsche not come calling four years ago.

There have been many ups and downs over his time at Porsche, but when Makowiecki is on it, he can be spectacular – and he has the support of two equally spectacular co-drivers, Patrick Pilet and Richard Lietz, to help the radical mid-engined 911 RSR get back to its winning ways in GTE Pro.

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© Takashi Ogasawara / AUTOSPORTweb

HIROKI KATOH

#60 CLEARWATER RACING FERRARI 488 GTE

  • 7th 24 Hours of Le Mans
  • Best Finish: 5th (2000)
  • First Le Mans start in 9 years
  • Co-drivers: Richard Wee & Álvaro Parente

RJO: For the first time in nine years, longtime Super GT veteran Hiroki Katoh is back in the 24 Hours of Le Mans – and reunited with Clearwater Racing, for whom he raced with in Super Taikyu for part of last season.

It’s been so long since the last time Katoh was at Le Mans – 2008 with the legendary Yojiro Terada and longtime GT300 running mate Kazuho Takahashi in LMP2 with the Terramos Courage-Mugen, to be exact – that many may not know what to expect out of the 49-year-old veteran, or remember much of what he’s done at Le Mans in his six previous attempts.

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© David Lord / DailySportsCar.com

Katoh has two top-ten overall finishes at Le Mans: 5th with Panoz in 2000, 7th with Audi Sport Team Goh in 2002. In Super GT, he’s probably the best driver left that’s yet to win a championship of his own – and he’s still very fast as an individual driver even late into a twenty-year career. Already, he’s won his class twice this year with the new Civic TCR Racing Project in Super Taikyu – including just this past week at Suzuka Circuit, which is why Katoh wasn’t at Scrutineering this Sunday!

Parente will be the star driver of this car of course, but it’s Katoh in the Chrome Silver Ferrari who might be a “Super Silver” driver in the making in the Pro-Am GTE category, and that speed that he still wields could be a major difference-maker for Clearwater’s “B-team”.

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© Kazushi Nakano / auto sport

KEITA SAWA

#61 CLEARWATER RACING FERRARI 488 GTE

  • 2nd 24 Hours of Le Mans
  • Finished 30th in Le Mans debut (2016)
  • GTE Am class winner at 2017 6 Hours of Silverstone
  • Co-drivers: Weng Sun Mok & Matt Griffin

SK: Stalwart of the Clearwater Racing team, which has become a fan-favorite very quickly in the WEC, the team grabbing a race win on its WEC debut. Much will depend on Sawa-san, maintaining a fast and consistent pace at Le Mans, amongst what is a sterling GTE Am entry this year, to keep the #61 488 in the hunt.

Last year, when the team first raced at Le Mans, they scored Pole and fourth in class. It was mightily impressive, though this year they’ll be looking to go at least one better this year. Along with Mok Weng Sun and ultra-fast Matt Griffin, Sawa could have a race to remember.

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© David Lord / DailySportsCar.com

RJO: Keita “All the Lights” Sawa has come a long way since his time as a GT300 class journeyman in JGTC/Super GT, his last appearance in that series coming in 2012 with Team JLOC as a third driver for the Suzuka 1000km – a race he won twice in GT300 as a driver.

Since then, Sawa has gone on to win championships in the Asian Le Mans Series, Porsche Carrera Cup Asia – but it’s been his career in the WEC that has put the 40-year-old on the map of motorsport. Like Katoh, he too possesses the speed to separate himself from the rest of his Silver-rated peers. If he can harness it consistently, Clearwater Racing might be in with a chance to win it all in GTE Am – just as they did in Silverstone this April, but on a much bigger magnitude.

The 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans takes place on June 17-18, and will be broadcast in its entirety around the world on Mobil 1 Radio Le Mans (91.2 FM trackside/RadioLeMans.com).

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