Photo: Courtesy of IMSA

24 Hours of Le Mans is Sports Car Musical Chairs for IMSA Regulars

By IMSA Wire Service

If you’re a regular follower of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, this weekend’s 24 Hours of Le Mans might seem a little bit like a high-speed version of musical chairs.

We’re accustomed to seeing Renger van der Zande driving car No. 10 in the top class, but this one’s quite a bit different. Instead of sharing the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R with Jordan Taylor, van der Zande will be driving the No. 10 DragonSpeed BR Engineering BR01-Gibson LMP1 car with Ben Hanley and Henrik Hedman.

Among the drivers he’ll be competing against are two with whom he co-drove to victory in January’s Rolex 24 At Daytona, Fernando Alonso and Kamui Kobayashi, who will be driving separate Toyota LMP1 machines. Alonso will be going for his second consecutive Le Mans victory in the No. 8 machine with Kaz Nakajima and Sebastien Buemi, while Kobayashi is sharing the No. 7 Toyota with Jose Maria Lopez and Mike Conway.

Conway, who competed in all four IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup races last year, will start the 24 Hours of Le Mans from the pole position, while Buemi starts alongside. Hanley will start seventh in the No. 10.

“Kamui and Fernando are in the Toyota, so I’m kind of fighting them,” van der Zande said. “To be honest, I don’t think it’s going to be a real battle. I think they’re going to pass me a few times during the race, but it’s always nice to see those guys back. If you win a race like that, the 24 Hours of Daytona, you go through something that will never be forgotten. So, every time you see them, you’re like, ‘Hey. You know what it’s about.’”

The LMP2 class at Le Mans includes three more full-time drivers in the WeatherTech Championship Daytona Prototype international (DPi) class. Filipe Albuquerque, who usually co-drives the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac DPi-V.R with Joao Barbosa, is in the No. 22 United Autosports Ligier-Gibson at Le Mans with Phil Hanson and Paul di Resta.

Albuquerque qualified sixth in the LMP2 class. He’s joined on the two-car United Autosports team by another DPi racer, Will Owen, who is trading his No. 50 Juncos Racing Cadillac for the No. 32 Ligier-Gibson at Le Mans. Owen’s teammates are Ryan Cullen – who opened 2019 with a Rolex 24 At Daytona victory with the DragonSpeed team – and Alex Brundle, who qualified ninth on the LMP2 grid for this weekend’s race.

Brundle – a WeatherTech Championship race winner in 2014 – starts three spots ahead of 2017 WeatherTech Championship Prototype co-champion Ricky Taylor in the No. 37 Jackie Chan DC Racing ORECA-Gibson. Instead of co-driving the No. 7 Acura Team Penske DPi with Helio Castroneves, Taylor is sharing the No. 37 at Le Mans with David Heinemeier Hansson and Jordan King.

As strange as it might be to see those previously mentioned DPi drivers in LMP1 or LMP2 cars at Le Mans, at least they’re still racing prototypes. What will really be weird is seeing three-fourths of the regular Mazda Team Joest DPi squad in GTE Pro cars this weekend.

Granted, Harry Tincknell has been pulling double duty for the past year-and-a-half between co-driving the No. 55 Mazda Team Joest RT24-P DPi machine with Jonathan Bomarito and racing the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Team UK Ford GT in the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) with co-driver Andy Priaulx.

But this weekend, Tincknell’s worlds will collide, as his co-drivers are both Priaulx and Bomarito – who joined the team for the first time in March’s 1,000 Miles of Sebring and promptly helped them secure a podium result. They’ve got a good shot this weekend too, as evidenced by Tinckell’s second-place qualifying performance behind GTE Pro polesitter Marco Sorensen in the No. 95 Aston Martin.

“It’s perfect to have my same teammate in America as well as in Le Mans,” said Tincknell of Bomarito’s inclusion in the No. 67 driver lineup. “He did a fantastic job at Sebring. We were P3 and very unlucky not to win on the Friday, and then get in the IMSA car on the Saturday. So, it’s been busy for us, but he’s fitting in really well.”

Another Mazda Team Joest full-time driver, Oliver Jarvis, who normally co-drives the No. 77 Mazda DPi in the WeatherTech Championship with Tristan Nunez, is also competing in GTE Pro at Le Mans in a really intriguing lineup. He’s driving the No. 89 Ferrari 488 GTE for Risi Competizione – a long-time IMSA team – alongside French driver Jules Gounon and current WeatherTech Championship DPi points co-leader, Pipo Derani.

That’s right, Derani is moonlighting on his full-time job as co-driver of the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac DPi this weekend. Jarvis is glad to be on the same side as the talented Brazilian for a change.

“It’s going to be interesting,” said Jarvis. “I’ve never been a teammate of Pipo’s before, but I’m really looking forward to it. Racing’s great. In IMSA, we can be banging wheels with each other and then we’re going to be working closely together at Le Mans. That’s what I love about this job. You can go from being competitors one day to teammates the next.”

Another difference this weekend for the Mazda DPi drivers and Derani is that they’ll be racing head-to-head with many of the same drivers who normally race in the WeatherTech Championship GTLM class. That includes Corvette Racing and the U.S.-based Ford Chip Ganassi Racing and Porsche GT Team programs, as well as BMW driver Jesse Krohn, yet another full-time WeatherTech Championship racer.

The GTE Am class includes one more radical departure from the WeatherTech Championship. Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen normally share the No. 33 Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the GT Daytona (GTD) class – with Brazilian driver Felipe Fraga as their Michelin Endurance Cup teammate.

This weekend for the first time, Keating’s team fields the No. 85 Wynn’s Ford GT, which starts ninth in class tomorrow.

“We are all comfortable in the car,” Keating said. “That is the most important thing for this race. We may not have the ultimate speed for one lap, but we are good on average. We are ready to race.”

So is the No. 62 WeatherTech Racing Ferrari 488 GTE squad of WeatherTech Championship regulars Cooper MacNeil and Toni Vilander and their Le Mans teammate, Britain’s Robert Smith. Vilander qualified four spots behind Bleekemolen in GTE Am.

“The lap time is not indicative of the pace of our Ferrari,” MacNeil said. “We should be in the top five, but we didn’t. We have 24 hours of racing in front of us. The Scuderia Corsa-prepared Ferrari is in one piece and the car is running perfectly. We are ready to push for 24 hours straight.”

The race gets under way Saturday at 9 a.m. ET and will be televised in its entirety in the U.S. on the Motor Trend network.

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