Previewing the 90th running of Le Mans: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship

James Moy Photography
James Moy Photography

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — There’s lots of anticipation for the increased convergence coming in 2023 between the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and the FIA World Endurance Championship. But there are already plenty of IMSA-affiliated drivers and other story lines for IMSA fans to follow this weekend when the 24 Hours of Le Mans is staged for the 90th time.

Nineteen full-time IMSA drivers and three teams are taking a break from their “day jobs” to compete at Le Mans, one of the world’s premier endurance races in company with the Rolex 24 At Daytona, Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts, and Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta. There are also at least a dozen other names familiar to followers of the WeatherTech Championship through their frequent participation in rounds of IMSA’s Michelin Endurance Cup.

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America’s strongest, most consistent and most patriotic hope lies with Corvette Racing, which has split its effort this year between the WeatherTech Championship and WEC, running one car in each series. That’s an indication of how seriously Corvette Racing takes Le Mans, a race in which it has earned the class victory eight times since 2001, the last coming in 2015.

The Jordan Taylor/Antonio Garcia/Nicky Catsburg entry finished second in class in 2021 in the Le Mans debut of the mid-engine Corvette C8.R, and Corvette Racing is using its full-time WEC presence this year to be better prepared for the slight differences in technical regulations, pit stop rules and other procedures between IMSA and WEC competition. The WEC version of the C8.R is also slightly different than the car that competes in the GTD PRO class in IMSA, with marginally more power, bespoke Michelin tires and the removal of ABS anti-lock braking.

Tommy Milner, Nick Tandy and endurance driver Alexander Sims finished second in the WEC 1000 Miles of Sebring in March and rank third in the 2022 WEC GTE point standings. With Le Mans awarding double points, it’s an important race for them in the overall context of the championship.

Sims was fastest in the Le Mans test day on Sunday, lapping the unique 8.47-mile circuit through the French countryside in 3 minutes, 54.001 seconds (130.239 mph) in the No. 64 Corvette. The seven-car GTE field was packed within half a second.

“For sure, having everything and everyone ready from doing the previous two WEC races has given us a head start,” observed Tandy. “We’re coming into Le Mans with the best level of preparation Corvette Racing has ever had, and we’ve definitely started with our best foot forward.”

“We’re racing a much different car in IMSA these days, so working with a different tire and no ABS is definitely an adjustment,” Taylor said after the No. 63 Corvette clocked a lap at 3:54.504. “It was nice that all of us got a good amount of running today.”

Here are some other IMSA-related story lines to follow at Le Mans:

Penske Preview: Team Penske has fielded a Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2) in WEC this year in preparation for Porsche Penske Motorsport’s 2023 LMDh program that is expected to compete in both the WeatherTech Championship and WEC. Dane Cameron and Felipe Nasr, both former WeatherTech Championship titlists, are teamed with Emmanuel Collard in the No. 5 ORECA.

Team player: Three-time WeatherTech Championship champion Ricky Taylor was nominated by chassis constructor ORECA as the reserve driver for all of its Le Mans entries. Taylor, who has made seven previous Le Mans starts, will share the No. 37 Cool Racing ORECA with Yifei Ye and Niklas Kruetten.

“Le Mans is a massive event,” Taylor said. “I think if you win the race, no matter which class, it goes right to the top of your resume.”

All-IMSA: United Autosport USA’s No. 23 LMP2 entry features a driver lineup comprised completely of WeatherTech Championship full-timers: Alex Lynn (No. 02 Cadillac Racing DPi), Oliver Jarvis (No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian Acura DPi), and 16-year-old Josh Pierson (No. 52 PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports LMP2) will split the 24 hours. Filipe Albuquerque (No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura DPi) is one-third of the driving team for United’s No. 22 entry.

LMGTE Pro is IMSA-Packed: Fifteen of the 21 drivers in the category have competed in a WeatherTech Championship race in 2022, including full-timers Garcia, Jordan Taylor and Felipe Fraga. The team fielding Fraga’s Le Mans entry – the No. 74 Ferrari 488 GTE EVO shared with Sam Bird and Shane Van Gisbergen – is also an IMSA full-timer. Riley Motorsports is the entrant of the No. 74 Ligier JS P320 that Gar Robinson drove to the 2021 IMSA Le Mans Prototype 3 (LMP3) title.

The No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari at Le Mans features the same driver lineup of Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado and Daniel Serra that finished second in GTD PRO in the 2022 Rolex 24.

No rest for the winners: Arriving somewhat late for the Le Mans test day Sunday was a small price to pay for three of the four winning drivers in Saturday’s Chevrolet Sports Car Classic, the WeatherTech Championship race at Belle Isle. Sebastien Bourdais (a Le Mans native who will co-drive the No. 10 Vector Sport LMP2) and Renger van der Zande (No. 66 Ferrari 488 GTE EVO LMGTE Am) shared the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) win in Detroit and, along with Ben Barnicoat, the GT Daytona (GTD) class winner (No. 56 Team Project 1 Porsche in LMGTE Am), all departed for Paris immediately after wrapping up their celebrations and media obligations.

Busman’s holiday: While the field for IMSA endurance races often includes full-time WEC drivers, the opposite phenomenon happens at Le Mans. The list of moonlighting IMSA full-timers not already mentioned includes DPi regulars Pipo Derani, Olivier Pla and Richard Westbrook, all driving for the Glickenhaus Hypercar team, plus Tristan Vautier (No. 44 ARC Bratislava LMP2). Steven Thomas is moonlighting from his full-season gig in the Era Motorsport LMP2 to co-drive the No. 45 Algarve Pro Racing LMP2.

Weather Tech Championship GTD PRO pilots Cooper MacNeil (No. 79 WeatherTech Racing) and Matt Campbell (No. 93 Proton Competition), along with GTD driver Jan Heylen (No. 88 Dempsey-Proton Racing), will all run Porsche 911 RSR-19s in the LMGTE Am class.

Other Le Mans drivers who have recently run IMSA races include defending WEC Hypercar champions Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez [No. 7 Toyota Gazoo Racing]; Laurens Vanthoor, Kevin Estre, Gianmaria Bruni and Frederic Makowiecki in LMGTE Pro [all in Porsches]; and Harry Tincknell, Zacharie Robichon, Mikkel Jensen and Ben Keating in LMGTE Am.