Leading up to the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans - a golden era beckons for Brazil

Leading up to the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans - a golden era beckons for Brazil

After Formula One and American open wheel racing, is a new dawn breaking for Brazilian motorsport in prototypes? The signs are certainly there as four drivers have an outstanding chance of a podium finish at the 84th Le Mans 24 Hours (18-19 June).

Over the years, Formula One has seen the likes of Nelson Piquet, Ayrton Senna, Rubens Barrichello and Felipe Massa. In America, Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran have left their mark on IndyCar. Before them of course, Emerson Fittipaldi blazed a trail on both sides of the Atlantic. In endurance, the Brazilian story is just beginning, but the opening lines written this spring are highly promising with the wins captured by Pipo Derani, Bruno Senna and Lucas di Grassi at four of the discipline’s most prestigious circuits: Daytona, Sebring, Silverstone and Spa-Francorchamps. Will Le Mans provide the setting for the next chapter?

Lucas di Grassi, a pioneer in the making? The Audi R18 driver has what it takes to become the first Brazilian to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Appointed in 2014 following Allan McNish’s retirement, the 31-year-old’s career has really taken off in 2016 with his maiden victory in Audi colours at Spa-Francorchamps. He is also currently leading the driver standings in Formula E, the FIA World Championship for all-electric single-seaters.

Pipo Derani, the prodigy. At the age of just 22, Derani has already this year won two of the three biggest races in the US endurance calendar – Rolex 24 at Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring. After a promising début World Endurance Championship season in 2015 with G-Drive Racing, he is spearheading US team ESM’s challenge this year with Scotland’s Ryan Dalziel. In view of his recent successes, Derani is certainly in with a shout of the LM P2 title at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in his Ligier JS P2. Whatever the outcome, there is no doubt that scouts from the factory teams will be keeping a close eye on his performance.

Bruno Senna, the comeback. Looking back at Sennaֹ’s track record in GP2, Formula One and Formula E, endurance is undoubtedly where he thrives. After making his Le Mans début in 2009 at the wheel of an Oreca LM P1 prototype, he made a winning comeback in LM GTE Pro as an Aston Martin factory driver at the 6 Hours of Silverstone in 2013. Unfortunately, he is yet to see the chequered flag in three attempts at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (2009, 2013 and 2014). Last time out, however, he left Sunday morning’s spectators with the memory of a superb battle for the lead in LM GTE Pro against Gianmaria Bruni’s Ferrari. At the 6 Hours of Silverstone last month, his first race at the wheel of the Ligier JS P2 prototype fielded by RGR Sport by Morand ended in LM P2 class victory. Senna will therefore pose a serious challenge to Derani’s quest for the Le Mans crown.

Nelson Piquet Jr. aiming for the podium. The son of the three-time Formula One World Champion has returned to endurance with Rebellion Racing this spring, ten years after his first 24 Hours of Le Mans. At Silverstone and Spa-Francorchamps, the Swiss team took advantage of the problems encountered by Porsche, Audi and Toyota to finish third and fourth in the overall standings of both races. This encouraging start to the 2016 WEC season has given them real hope of another podium finish at the 24 Hours of Le Mans this June.

Jean-Philippe Doret / ACO
Translated from French by David Goward

Photo: STAVELOT (LIEGE PROVINCE, BELGIUM), CIRCUIT OF SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, WEC 6 HOURS OF SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, FRIDAY 6 MAY 2016, PRACTICE AND QUALIFYING. After victory in the streets of Paris (Formula E) and at Spa-Francorchamps, will Lucas di Grassi’s winning streak continue on 19 June at the 24 Hours of Le Mans?