The 24 Hours of Le Mans always makes for some interesting driver lineup combinations.
It should come as no surprise, then, that two drivers who are rivals in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship are teammates this week in France – or that the team they’re driving for is one they’ll be competing against when the WeatherTech Championship returns to action at the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen on July 1.
WeatherTech Championship Prototype points co-leader Filipe Albuquerque, who already owns two victories this season alongside full-time co-driver Joao Barbosa in the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac DPi-V.R, returns to United Autosports at Le Mans. He’s co-driving the No. 22 Gibson-powered Ligier LMP2 race car with Phil Hanson – with whom he also shares the car in all 2018 European Le Mans Series races that do not conflict with the WeatherTech Championship – and Scotland’s Paul Di Resta.
In the No. 32 United Autosports Ligier entry at Le Mans will be another WeatherTech Championship full-timer, Juan Pablo Montoya, who is making his first appearance in the 24 Hours this week alongside co-drivers Hugo de Sadeleer and Will Owen. Montoya – who usually shares the No. 6 Acura Team Penske Acura ARX-05 DPi car with Dane Cameron in IMSA competition – is currently fifth in the WeatherTech Championship Prototype class standings.
Montoya got his first taste of the 8.5-mile Circuit de la Sarthe on June 3, the day after he and Cameron finished third in the Chevrolet Sports Car Classic at Detroit’s Belle Isle Park.
“I was surprised how much I enjoyed the circuit,” Montoya said. It’s a challenge and not easy because there’s so many bumps and tricks that you have to learn, which will get easier the more track time I get. I love fast corners and this circuit definitely has them. I was pretty happy after the test.”
While Montoya was getting acquainted with the racetrack during the test, Albuquerque was reconnecting with his United Autosports teammates after helping Owen and de Sadeleer finish second in the 2017 ELMS LMP2 championship. He was eager to learn more about the updates to the Ligier LMP2 car for 2018.
“The Ligier last year was at a big deficit in terms of speed compared to the ORECAs,” Albuquerque said. “This year, a joker was allowed for this car to be better in terms of aerodynamics. That’s the main thing. We have to see how it is on the roads and to see where we are compared to them.”
At the test, the No. 22 posted the sixth-quickest time in class, while the No. 22 was 14th in LMP2. This week, we’ll really see how the team stacks up against the competition.
“The team is a good team,” Albuquerque said. “We have already one year of experience working with the same group exactly in an LMP2. They did Le Mans last year at a very good level.”
In fact, Albuquerque thinks his performance at Le Mans last year was even better than his run in this year’s Rolex 24 At Daytona, which he won with Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi.
“I think it was my most perfect race ever in Le Mans,” he said of his team’s fourth-place LMP2 result. “As a 24 hour overall, it was my best even compared to Daytona where I won. Last year at Le Mans was even better in terms of taking everything out of what we had because we had zero problems. In Daytona this year, we kind of had a problem.”
Albuquerque and Montoya both pointed out that the Ligier LMP2 car is quite a bit different from the Cadillac and Acura DPi cars they race in the WeatherTech Championship. But they’re both embracing the challenge and the opportunity to race for Le Mans glory.
“The car is very different to the one I race in America, including driving on a different side of the car,” Montoya said. “United are a great team, they were really well organized and they have a great set of mechanics and people working for them. When the opportunity came to race, I thought it would be cool and there is no pressure, so I’m looking forward to enjoying the race week.”
“It’s a big difference, I must say,” added Albuquerque. “The engine, to start with. I love the Cadillac engine. I love all about what ECR and Cadillac is doing with gears, with traction control. It’s just a different level. It’s a high level. In Europe and the LMP2, it’s more of a spec situation. You’re not allowed to change as much, but it’s the same for everyone.”
And for Albuquerque, this week offers an opportunity to win his second 24-hour race of the year.
“(The Rolex 24 win) gives me great confidence,” he said. “But I think what is also giving me confidence is whatever car I’m jumping in now, which is with a Ligier in Europe or a Cadillac in America, I’m in good cars. I know what to expect from them and the results are coming often there. I know what to do with the car and it gives me a great feeling.”
On-track activity for the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans begins this Wednesday, June 13. The race will run June 16-17 at the Circuit de la Sarthe. Live coverage of the race in the United States will be on Velocity.