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Opinion
Le Mans 24 Hours of Le Mans

The GT3 drivers we want to see at Le Mans next

OPINION: The arrival of the LMGT3 class into the World Endurance Championship has resulted in an influx of eligible new manufacturers and given opportunities to numerous drivers to make their debuts at the Le Mans 24 Hours. But several big names from the world of GT3 racing are still waiting for their shot. We pick out the drivers we'd like to see on the grid in future

#14 VasserSullivan Lexus RC F GT3: Jack Hawksworth, Ben Barnicoat, Kyle Kirkwood

This year's Le Mans 24 Hours is the first for which LMGT3 cars will be eligible. Where in the previous GTE era professional drivers allied to manufacturers other than Aston Martin, Corvette, Ferrari and Porsche were frozen out, this year five new marques have been added to the aforementioned quartet, opening up opportunities for new names to shine. With the Hypercar class also seeing a boost to 23 cars for Le Mans, a plethora of top GT3 stars will get their long-awaited debut in endurance racing's most famous event.

Christopher Mies (Ford), Kelvin van der Linde (Lexus), Daniel Juncadella (Corvette), Franck Perera (Lamborghini) and Valentino Rossi (BMW) are among the big names getting their first shot at Le Mans in GT3, while Edoardo Mortara (Lamborghini) will be joined by BMW trio Raffaelle Marciello, Sheldon van der Linde and Marco Wittmann among the contingent of high-profile rookies in Hypercar.

But which other top GT3 names yet to sample the 24 Hours would we like to see in future editions? Autosport writers pick out some of the best.

Maro Engel: The Mercedes GT3 kingpin

Engel has been a leading light of the Mercedes GT programme for over a decade

Engel has been a leading light of the Mercedes GT programme for over a decade

Photo by: Edge Photographics

A long-time member of the Mercedes AMG GT3 roster, Engel has won most things worth winning in what until this season was an alternative code of GT racing outside the sphere of the Le Mans 24 Hours organiser Automobile Club de l’Ouest.

Among his credits are a victory in the Nurburgring 24 Hours, a GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup title and no fewer than three wins in the big race on the streets of Macau. Yet this top performer in GT3 for so long knows that the opportunity might never come given that Mercedes is not one of the chosen manufacturers allowed to race in LMGT3 in the World Endurance Championship and therefore Le Mans.

It’s most definitely on his bucket list — and he even had a trip planned for this year in a RV to sample the atmosphere for the first time. Engel admits that it’s going to hurt if he finishes his career without racing on the Circuit de la Sarthe. It would be a loss for sportscar racing if Le Mans passes him by. Gary Watkins

Jack Hawksworth: IMSA champion waits in the wings

Defending IMSA GTD Pro champion Hawksworth has missed out on Le Mans opportunities afforded to team-mate Barnicoat

Defending IMSA GTD Pro champion Hawksworth has missed out on Le Mans opportunities afforded to team-mate Barnicoat

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

It’s one of the great anomalies that Jack Hawksworth, the reigning IMSA SportsCar GTD Pro champion has never raced in the Le Mans 24 Hours.

The 33-year-old former IndyCar racer – who placed inside Autosport’s Top 50 drivers of 2023 – has been a GT class full-timer since 2017, when he joined the Lexus GTD programme. Originally run by 3GT, the project was elevated by Vasser Sullivan Racing since 2019 and the five-litre V8-powered RC F machine – which isn’t a true GT3 race car, more of a ‘Frankenstein’ design – has flown in Hawksworth’s hands.

He has a dozen class wins and 15 poles to his name, and although success in the Daytona 24 Hours has eluded him, he’s won the 12 Hours of Sebring twice, along with Petit Le Mans in 2022. And he’s stacked up well on pace with Lexus team-mate Ben Barnicoat, who has started Le Mans three times.

Lexus is expected to utilise Toyota’s true GT3 racer planned for 2026, which should open the door for Hawksworth to finally make that long-awaited Le Mans debut. If so, watch him fly. Charles Bradley

Ricardo Feller: Audi's rising star

Feller has won twice in DTM with Abt-run Audis and is the reigning GT World Challenge Sprint Cup champion

Feller has won twice in DTM with Abt-run Audis and is the reigning GT World Challenge Sprint Cup champion

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

Feller has made a big impact since throwing his hat into the GT3 arena as a 16-year-old after calling time on single-seaters after a solitary season. The Swiss, still only 22, was picked up by Audi for 2022 after winning the Silver Cup class in the GTWCE Endurance Cup at the wheel of an Emil Frey Lamborghini the previous year and has continued to impress as a factory driver.

Feller sealed the Sprint Cup title last year and put in a starring performance at the Spa 24 Hours, both with the Tresor Attempto team. Things happen when Feller gets behind the wheel of an Audi R8 LMS GT3 Evo 2: he’s a real racer of the old school and a joy to watch. There are still some rough edges to be smoothed off, but he clearly has a big future ahead of him.

He’s remained part of the rump of the once-bulging Audi GT3 roster as the German manufacturer downscales its involvement as in GT3, so his next step as that process continues will be crucial in his career development — and will determine if and when he gets to Le Mans. GW

Lucas Auer: Mercedes all-rounder

Auer came close to winning the DTM in 2022 and has been a leading light of the Mercedes GT programme in recent years

Auer came close to winning the DTM in 2022 and has been a leading light of the Mercedes GT programme in recent years

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

If Mercedes manages to gain an entry into Le Mans next year, it should look no further than Lucas Auer for its designated Pro driver.

Auer proved his mettle in both the Class 1 and the GT3 era of the DTM, establishing himself as a regular frontrunner. The way he strung together a title challenge in 2022 against the all-new BMW M4 of Sheldon van der Linde was mighty impressive, especially when you consider his unmatched speed in the second half of the year that earned him a place in Autosport's Top 50.

Beyond DTM, Auer has raced in the GT World Challenge Europe and enduro events at Spa, Nurburgring and Daytona, making him a GT3 all-rounder. He also has another ace up his sleeve; the Red Bull-supported Super Formula campaign in 2019 during which he took a podium finish for the nascent B-Max/Motopark partnership.

And while some may consider him as being too loyal to Mercedes, he did spend a year with BMW in 2020 and attracted interest from Porsche in ‘22 before inking a fresh deal with the Three-Pointed Star. Rachit Thukral

Markus Winkelhock: Audi's man for the big occasion

Loyalty to Audi may cause Winkelhock to miss out on a Le Mans opportunity

Loyalty to Audi may cause Winkelhock to miss out on a Le Mans opportunity

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

Now 43, Markus Winkelhock is closer to the end of his career than the start. But given his glittering CV racing Audis in GT3 competition, the absence of a Le Mans start from a CV is the only really missing omission.

Victorious in the Spa 24 Hours and Nurburgring 24 Hours in the same year on two occasions (2014 and 2017), he claimed his latest win in a round-the-clock enduro in January's Dubai 24. That was his sixth, having also won the Nurburgring 24 in 2012, the same year Winkelhock was crowned GT1 world champion with the All-Inkl Lamborghini squad after a controversial final-round crash at Donington with Yelmer Buurman's BMW. He was temporarily a Daytona 24 Hours class winner in 2014 too, until a penalty handed to Alessandro Pier Guidi for edging Winkelhock onto the grass on the final lap was rescinded hours after the race.

That Winkelhock found his way into Audi's GT roster via its DTM programme, rather than LMP1, explains why the one-time Grand Prix starter has never raced in the event won by his uncle Joachim in 1999. And opportunities for the German are seemingly slim even now LMGT3 cars are permitted, given his loyalty to a marque that has ditched its factory racing programmes outside Formula 1.

But should an Audi customer squad earn one of the prized entries to the world's most famous endurance event, then it could do much worse than picking up a driver who has a knack for collecting results over sportscar racing's most gruelling distance. James Newbold

Joao Paulo de Oliveira: Setting the standard in Japan

Japan-based Brazilian de Oliveira has been a force in Super GT's GT300 class

Japan-based Brazilian de Oliveira has been a force in Super GT's GT300 class

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

He may be a complete unknown to anyone who doesn’t follow the Japanese motor racing scene, but Joao Paulo de Oliviera's success in both Super GT and Super Formula makes him an attractive option for any team looking for a left-field option.

De Oliveira was harshly dropped from Nissan’s factory GT500 programme at the end of the 2018 season, but it allowed him to have a new lease of life in Super GT’s secondary class. Joining the Kondo Racing team in a Nissan GT-R GT3 NISMO in 2020, the Brazilian won the GT500 title twice in the next four seasons - and finished second and third in the intervening years.

His ability to drag the car to the front in races where the success ballast is at the maximum has been a key to his recent success, and so has been his intricate knowledge of GT3 tyres thanks to the close relationship he enjoys with Yokohama. 

He has WEC experience too, having contested two events in the Vanwall Hypercar last season, and drove the similarly Kolles-run Lotus T128 LMP2 car at the Le Mans Test Day in 2013 albeit without starting the race. RT

Phil Keen: British GT benchmark

Keen has impressed in Mercedes machinery in British GT this season, having previously shown his credentials in Porsches and Lamborghinis

Keen has impressed in Mercedes machinery in British GT this season, having previously shown his credentials in Porsches and Lamborghinis

Photo by: JEP

Everybody who has set foot in a British GT paddock over the past decade or so knows of Phil Keen’s quality. Since his series debut in 2006, he has won a record-equalling 19 races outright, tied with Jonny Adam, is a three-time championship runner-up and has been competitive in Porsche, Lamborghini and Mercedes machinery.

He has regularly outpaced drivers who have previously taken class wins at the Circuit de la Sarthe - and those who are set to make their Le Mans debut this year. Yet a spot on the grid has always eluded the self-effacing 40-year-old.

He came close in 2015 by driving at the official Test Day, but his Gulf Racing squad never received a Le Mans entry that year. Keen has not been as close since, but nine years on from his last European Le Mans Series campaign with Gulf's Porsche he returned to the series this season with Le Mans stalwart JMW Motorsport in a Ferrari 296, further underlining his versatility.

Should an opportunity at last come his way in the years to come, it would be richly deserved. Ed Hardy

Keen turned out in Gulf Porsche for Test Day in 2015 but didn't get to race

Keen turned out in Gulf Porsche for Test Day in 2015 but didn't get to race

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

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