Photo: Courtesy of IMSA

IMSA’s Keating, Bleekemolen, Fraga Win 24 Hours of Le Mans in GTE Am Class

By IMSA Wire Service

Texas car dealer Ben Keating and his team have shown prowess in IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship endurance races over the past several years.

Keating and his longtime full-season co-driver Jeroen Bleekemolen won both the 2017 and 2018 IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup in the GT Daytona (GTD) class. In fact, Keating’s overall performance in the 2018 WeatherTech Championship earned him the Bob Akin Award as the top sportsman driver in the GTD class, which comes with an automatic invitation from IMSA to the following year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Keating and his team made the most of that invitation, winning the GTE Am class in this weekend’s twice-around-the-clock race. The No. 85 Keating Motorsports Ford GT shared by Keating, Bleekemolen and Brazilian racer Felipe Fraga dominated much of the 24 hours in GTE Am, but a late penalty on pit road tightened up the race considerably for the final hour.

However, Bleekemolen was able to pull away after taking over on the final pit stop of the race, crossing the stripe 44.943 seconds ahead of Joerg Bergmeister in the No. 56 Team Project 1 Porsche 911 RSR he co-drove with IMSA regular Patrick Lindsey and Egidio Perfetti.

It was Keating’s first Le Mans victory, adding to an endurance racing crown jewel trophy case that already includes the Rolex 24 At Daytona (2015), Motul Petit Le Mans (2016) and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring (2017).

“We stuck to our strategy and kept it clean for the most part,” Keating told Radio Le Mans. “We’re so grateful to be here.”

It was Bleekemolen’s second victory at Le Mans, following a 2008 LMP2 class victory. This was the team’s first race with the No. 85 Ford GT – in fact, it was the first time a privateer team fielded a Ford GT at Le Mans. Keating, Bleekemolen and Fraga will be back in the familiar No. 33 Mercedes-AMG Team Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3 in two weeks for the WeatherTech Championship Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen on June 30.

The top four teams in GTE Am had strong IMSA ties. Runner-up Lindsey’s Park Place Motorsports team competes full time in the WeatherTech Championship, fielding the No. 73 Porsche 911 GT3 R. Jeff Segal, who helped the No. 84 JMW Motorsport Ferrari team to a third-place finish, won GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series GT championships in 2010 and 2012, and the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge title in 2007. He’s also a winner at Daytona and Sebring.

Finishing fourth was the No. 62 WeatherTech Racing Ferrari 488 GTE shared by Cooper MacNeil, Toni Vilander and Robert Smith. MacNeil and Vilander are full-time competitors in the WeatherTech Championship, sharing the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3.

Four of the top six teams in GTE Pro included full-time WeatherTech Championship competitors. The highest finisher was the U.S.-based No. 93 Porsche GT Team 911 RSR squad and drivers Nick Tandy, Patrick Pilet and Earl Bamber, who finished third in class.

Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller and Sebastien Bourdais finished fourth in the No. 68 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Team USA Ford GT, ahead of the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK entry, which included full-time Mazda Team Joest No. 55 RT24-P DPi co-drivers Harry Tincknell and Jonathan Bomarito. The second Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Team USA Ford GT shared by Richard Westbrook, Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon finished sixth in GTE Pro.

The No. 63 Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C7.R co-driven by two-time and defending WeatherTech Championship GTLM champions Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia and their endurance teammate, Mike Rockenfeller, was in contention for the GTE Pro victory before some unfortunate events with three and a half hours remaining.

The team pitted under a safety car period and lost significant track position to the race-leading No. 51 Ferrari as Magnussen was held at the pit exit until the next safety car passed. Just after the ensuing restart, Magnussen spun and contacted the barrier in the Porsche Curves, forcing him back to the garage for repairs. The No. 63 ended up ninth in class.

The overall victory in the 2019 24 Hours of Le Mans went to the No. 8 Toyota LMP1 machine in a driver lineup that included two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso, who became the first driver since Mike Rockenfeller to take overall victories in both the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Rolex 24 At Daytona in the same year.

Alonso co-drove the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R to the Rolex 24 win in January with Jordan Taylor, Renger van der Zande and Kamui Kobayashi. It was Alonso’s second consecutive overall victory at Le Mans.

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