Sometimes Hollywood movie trailers give away too much of a film’s plot and you can pretty much figure what’s going to happen before the show ever starts. Other trailers give you just enough hints and clues to entice you to plop down your money and sit in the dark for two hours.
There will be four Hollywood stars in Le Mans this weekend. The first, of course, is Patrick Dempsey, who returns to Le Mans again this year in a supporting role as a team owner. The second is Jackie Chan who was in the 24 Hours of Le Mans driver’s parade on Friday. And Brad Pitt is getting top billing as he will wave the French Tricolore to start this year’s race.
Nine-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner Tom Kristensen told me about the fourth Hollywood star. I ran into Tom on this past Monday evening. I was walking back to my hotel and he had just been dropped off on the sidewalk outside of his. Part of the beauty of the majority of the great sports-car drivers is their lack of pretense (and entourages). Tom is no exception. We talked for 15 minutes, mostly about everything but racing. However, the subject came up on his duties at this year’s race. Tom is an ambassador to several companies involved with motorsports. He said one of his duties was some sort of interaction involving corporate and team VIPs and actor Keanu Reeves. This was to take place on Friday. I asked around and a few people acknowledged this was likely to happen, but done very quietly, all with a bit of mystery.
A very bad screenwriter must have written the mystery behind this year’s Balance of Performance (BoP) fiasco for the GTE-Pro class at Le Mans. Or perhaps a comedy writer. Here’s the short (movie trailer) version of things.
Following the Le Mans pre-test two weeks ago, a number of teams were given adjustments, including additional weight, smaller air restrictors, less fuel and so forth. Then during qualifying, Ferrari and Ford destroyed the field—both running laps 4-plus seconds faster than they did 10 days prior. The howls in the paddock and the media center said the fix was in. As one GTE competitor put it, “The Le Mans organizers are determined to get the race they want.” In other words, a duel between, and only between, Ferrari and Ford—in other words, a sequel that took 50 years to make.
Everyone expected both the Italian and American mid-engine cars to be the quickest at Le Mans. Both are new. Ferrari has dominated the early rounds of the FIA World Endurance Championship this year. Ford’s new GT is a purpose-built race car with the production car being built afterward (virtually every other GTE car is just the opposite).
In an unprecedented move, the race organizer—the Automobile Club de l’Ouest—adjusted the BoP today, the day before the race. Kind of like having to reshoot the ending of a movie because the sneak previews were panned by the critics. Weight was added to Ferrari 488 and the Ford GT—15 kilograms to the former, 10 to the latter. The Corvette C7.Rs and the Aston Martin Vantage GTEs were given slightly larger air restrictors. The Corvette was also given a 2-liter increase in fuel as was the Ferrari.
Make no mistake, the producers of Le Mans want a Ford versus Ferrari battle. The fact that Brad Pitt is here is no coincidence. He is believed to begin filming “Go Like Hell,” a movie based on A.J. Baime’s excellent book on the epic battles between Ford and Ferrari at Le Mans in the 1960s. Pitt is essentially the fluffer for a movie he will also star in.
So now it’s time to handicap the field and see who has the best chances to stand on stage late Sunday and collect the trophies. This may be the deepest field ever at Le Mans when looking across all classes.
2:1—No. 98 Aston Martin Vantage. This team and car is strong, the driver lineup solid.
2:1—No. 83 AF Corse 458 Ferrari. Beautifully prepared and arguably the best balanced car in the GTE-Am field.
4:1–No. 88 Proton Racing Porsche 911 RSR. Porsche will be strong in wet conditions. David Heinemeier Hansson is a strong addition to this team.
My Pick: The No. 88 Porsche. In a bit of an upset, I think this car can win. Patrick Long won in 2004 in the GT class, won again in 2007 in the GT2 class. He’s due to be on the top step again.
3:1–No. 26 G-Drive Racing Oreca Nissan. Rene Rast, an Audi works driver on loan to G-Drive, has real talent. Much will depend on rookie driver Will Stevens. If he keeps it between the lines, this team will be difficult to beat.
4:1: No. 27 SMP Racing BRO1-Nissan. Strong driver lineup led by veteran Nic Minassian.
10:1–No. 47 KCMG Oreca Nissan. Not a lot of driving experience at Le Mans, but the team has one victory under its belt from 2015. Could be there in the end.
My Pick: The No. 26 G-Drive.
2:1—Porsche is the odds-on favorite to repeat last year’s victory. The No. 2 car with Neel Jani, Romain Dumas, and Marc Lieb is having a stronger season so far than the No. 1 car led by Mark Webber. Ex-Formula 1 driver Webber is the sentimental choice.
2:1—The Audi R18 looks like two small submarines attached at the middle by a large Darth Vader-style helmet. The car with this paint scheme is really not attractive. But that doesn’t matter. Speed and reliability do.
2:1—The Toyota Gazoo TS050 Hybrid is a huge improvement from the 2015 car. The team is quietly confident and enjoying the spotlights shining on the German squads. The driver lineup is not as strong as Porsche or Audi and this could be the difference in standing on the top step and or one just below it.
My Pick: Reliability will decide the overall winner more than any other factor. The No. 2 Porsche is my choice for the win, followed by the No. 6 Toyota and the No. 1 Porsche.
LM GTE Pro
2:1—The Ford GT has the best odds of the field. Four cars, plus a U.S.- and a European-based team. There is strength in numbers and Ford has it. Plus the BoP is still in its favor.
3:1—Ferrari probably has the fastest race car running a race pace. However, the three Ferrari 488 GTE cars are spread over two teams and this may work against them.
4:1—Corvette has the best race team of any car on the 60-car grid. Period. Full stop. Fifteen years of experience with the core players in place. The BoP is a bit against the team, but it will fight the entire 24 hours.
6:1—Porsche has arguably the best sports-car driver in the world in Nick Tandy. He is going to need a lot of rain and a lot luck to find a spot on the podium. If the race stays dry, expect Porsche to not be on the Ford’s or Ferrari’s pace.
7:1—Aston Martin needs another year of development on its Dunlop tires before its odds improve.
My Pick: I rate the WEC Ford GT team with a slight advantage with its crew—a lot of it having raced at Le Mans with Aston in years past and having raced the first two rounds of the WEC this year. I rate the American Ford GT drivers higher than the U.K.-based squad. IndyCar champion Scott Dixon tilts those odds immediately. However, my pick is the No. 68 Ford GT with Joey Hand, Dirk Muller, and Le Mans native and former IndyCar (Champ Car) title winner Sebastien Bourdais. My second-place pick is the No. 82 Risi Ferrari 488. I pick this over the other AF Corse Ferraris simply due to the more experienced driver lineup at Risi. My third-place pick is the No. 67 Ford GT.
Of course, everything I’ve written in the last few paragraphs could be 100-percent wrong. Unlike Hollywood, where endings are scripted, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is not. Certainly the ACO wants a Hollywood ending in the GTE-Pro class, and it probably will get it. But this race will expose the weakness in a car, in a team, and in a driver in the most unforgiving ways. There will be plenty of drama during this year’s race. I expect plenty of tears, plenty of agony, and plenty of joy.
Plenty of movies have been made about the writings of William Shakespeare. One line best describes what will take place in Le Mans during the race and solves any mystery before this drama unfolds. “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” You don’t have to be a Hollywood star to figure that out.