The 85th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans brought Ferrari a clean sweep of the podium, a fifth place and two disappointments in the two GT classes.
Victory for the third consecutive year came in the GTE-Am class where the 488 GTE dominated. The car of JMW Motorsport won with a lap advantage over everyone. The British team was making its debut with the new berlinetta, driven by Robert Smith, Dries Vanthoor and Will Stevens. Marco Cioci, Duncan Cameron and Aaron Scott came second with the 488 GTE No.55 of Spirit of Race, while third place went to the 2016 winners, Bill Sweedler and Townsend Bell, along with Cooper MacNeil in the 488 GTE of Scuderia Corsa.
Things went less well in the GTE-Pro class where only the Ferrari No.71 of AF Corse, driven by Davide Rigon, Sam Bird and Miguel Molina, finished in the points. James Calado, Alessandro Pier Guidi and Michele Rugolo in car No. 51 were entirely out of luck, knocked out due to a misunderstanding with a lapped car that destroyed a radiator. The same held for the 488 No.82 of Risi Competizione driven by Toni Vilander, Giancarlo Fisichella and Pierre Kaffer, which was struck and put out of action due to a crazy manoeuvre by Mathieu Vaxiviere in the Oreca of TDS Racing.
The class win went to the Aston Martin of Turner-Adam-Serra, while the overall laurels were taken by the Porsche No.2 of Bernhard-Bamberg-Hartley.
In GTE-Pro Alessandro Pier Guidi pulled off a lightning start in the 488 GTE No.51 of AF Corse to overtake the Aston Martin of Turner-Adam-Serra and lead the group. In contrast, Sam Bird lost a position in No.71 , while Toni Vilander began well and started to make up ground.
However, the Aston Martins, with their much faster speed on the straight, soon took the lead with Thiim Stanaway-Sorensen in No.95 pulling away from their teammates. The Risi team began to cycle through their drivers, first substituting Vilander for Giancarlo Fisichella and then Pierre Kaffer. Pierre, however was unable to complete his stint after Mathieu Vaxiviere and his LM P2 machine swerved in front of the Risi Ferrari prior to the second Hunaudieres chicane. The impact redirected the Ferrari straight into the barriers before Pierre had any chance to recover. Miguel Molina in 488 No.71 only escaped the accident by a whisper.
However, this car really experienced a very difficult night with a penalty for exceeding track limits, a puncture and poorly timed safety cars making forward progress difficult. As the seventeenth hour of racing approached a misunderstanding between Calado and the Aston Martin No.90, put an end to the race of car No.51.
James came into contact with the lapped car, damaging a radiator that took an hour to replace. Ferrari 488 No.71 found itself in a fight for fourth with Ford No.67 and Porsche No.91. The positions remained unchanged over the final hour and so the No.71 of Davide Rigon, Miguel Molina and Sam Bird came fifth in the race won by the Aston Martin of Darren Turner, Jonny Adam and Daniel Serra.
In GTE-Am Ferrari had everything to celebrate where Maranello enjoyed a clean sweep of the podium with three 488 GTEs from three teams: JMW Motorsport, Spirit of Race and Scuderia Corsa. The Aston Martin of Dalla Lana-Lamy-Lauda dictated the pace from the start, but as darkness fell its front right tire exploded to put it out of the running. At that point first place wen to the 488 of JMW Motorsport that had been the only one to vie with the British car. The youthful Dries Vanthoor, a former Formula One driver, Will Stevens and the experienced Robert Smith drove impeccably to pull off an extraordinary result for the British team that a few weeks ago in Monza had won its last race with the 458 ltalia GTE (in the European Le Mans Series). At Le Mans it embarked upon the new 488 GTE era in the best possible way. Second place went to the sister car of Spirit of Race crewed by Marco Cioci, Duncan Cameron and Aaron Scott.
The 488 GTE of Scuderia Corsa driven by the 2016 winners, Bill Sweedler and Townsend Bell, alongside Cooper MacNeil claimed the final step on the podium in GTE-Am and gave Scuderia Corsa its third podium in three tries at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The trio never put a foot wrong and, minus two flat tires, their 488 GTE car stayed mechanically sound throughout the twenty-four hours.
"It was a great day." said Bell "The WeatherTech Ferrari was just terrific. We're under a lucky star here in France, Bill Sweedler and I, three years, three podiums, all with Ferrari. I think the third year is even sweeter, because you know how hard it is and there are so many things that can go wrong, so many things that do go wrong, we had two flat tires, incidents on track. But everyone stayed calm, and it's the experience of knowing that we can do it that I think pulled us thorugh it. I'm exhausted but I'm thrilled at the same time. This thing [the Ferrari 488 GTE race car] is awesome. It just drops on track and goes. It ran like a top, it had speed when we needed it to. Its reliable, its robust and its gorgeous as well."
The second Scuderia Corsa car, driven by Christina Nielsen, Bret Curtis, and Alessandro Balzan, however, endured a difficult weekend starting in qualifying. A badly taken curb damaged the underside of the car, including the engine. To play it safe, the team decided to swap motors, meaning that they started from the back of the grid, with only the forty five minute warm up to finalize their set up for the weekend. Throughout the race, the trio never gave up, running at times just below the podium positions. Their poor luck, however, continued to hamper their weekend, with punctures and badly timed safety cars throwing the team off track. Despite an overly aggressive pass attempt that led to contact, the team was able to repair the car to take the checkered flag in the hands of Christina Nielsen.
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