RISI | Ready for “David vs. Goliath” Reprise at Le Mans

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The GTE Pro class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans – not unlike the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship – is, by and large, the domain of factory race teams.


The competing manufacturers commit substantial resources to these racing programs, expecting a return on their investment in the form of trophies, and they’ve certainly taken home plenty of trophies over the years. But, every now and then, an “underdog” sneaks in and runs away with the big prize.


And playing the role of underdog in this weekend’s 24 Hours of Le Mans is the Houston, Texas-based Risi Competizione team that regularly competes in the WeatherTech Championship. The team is fielding the No. 82 Ferrari 488 GTE for its regular IMSA driver lineup – Finnish racer Toni Vilander and Italian ex-Formula 1 pilot Giancarlo Fisichella – as well as another of the team’s former full-time IMSA drivers, Pierre Kaffer, from Germany.


The underdog role is one the Risi team has played well over the years at Le Mans, dating all the way back to 1998, when the team captured its first victory at the Circuit de la Sarthe with its Ferrari 333 SP. The team has added two more Le Mans wins since then – back-to-back in 2008 and ’09 with its Ferrari 430 GT – and gave the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing team all it could handle in last year’s race before finishing second.


This year, the team expects it to be a battle royal among every car in the class, not just another Ford vs. Ferrari battle. And by looking at the qualifying times, they’re probably right. Less than two seconds covers the entire GTE Pro field, which is a tiny margin considering the racetrack is nearly eight-and-a-half miles in length.


“It’s going to be a tough race,” said Fisichella, who has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans twice, most recently in 2014. “It’s stiff competition when comparing teams. I think it’s more than last year, because there is the new Porsche that is very good. There is Corvette, which is back again, and very competitive compared to last year. I think we are there and close to the other manufacturers, but it’s going to be a tough race.”


“It will heat up a notch this year,” added Risi Race Engineer Rick Mayer. “Both AF Corse Ferraris went out early last year, and that’s unlikely to happen again this year. The BoP for this event so far has all the players very close. There are no weak cars, teams or drivers in this class.”


Risi Competizione clearly fits that profile. The team is racing a brand-new Ferrari 488 that it introduced two weeks ago at the mandatory pre-event test. The team is battle tested, and all three drivers have stood atop the Le Mans victory podium. Kaffer won the race in 2009 with Risi, while Fisichella and Vilander were co-drivers for both of their Le Mans wins, in 2012 and 2014 with the AF Corse team.


“I have to say, our driver lineup is really strong,” Kaffer said. “I’m really going to enjoy driving with Giancarlo and Toni. In the past, I had the opportunity to drive with Giancarlo in America for two seasons and we really enjoyed our time together. Giancarlo, Toni and I have driven Petit Le Mans together and I think we are home again as a driving trio, as we really like to drive together.”


If all goes according to plan, they’ll have plenty of time to drive together between now and Sunday afternoon. They’ve got some work to do, starting from 11th on the GTE Pro grid, but the team has plenty of reasons to be optimistic.


“The week here at Le Mans has been good,” Vilander said. “The car has improved and now has a good and comfortable setup for the race. You always want to go faster, but we were not so concerned about qualifying. 


“The team decided it was more important to have the right setup on the car for all three of us drivers and to save the car for the race. The team has been doing a good job to prepare everything, as they always do. Now, we go out and do our job and race smart, be fast and reliable and have some positive luck. Then we believe we will get a good result.”


Sounds like all the ingredients are in place for another classic “David vs. Goliath” story for Risi Competizione. 


The 24 Hours of Le Mans starts at 9 a.m. ET on Saturday, June 17. FOX Sports and Radio Le Mans will offer live coverage throughout the race.