This year's Le Mans 24 Hours is the first for which LMGT3 vehicles 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 flourish. With the Hypercar class also seeing a boost to 23 cars for Le Mans, a multitude of top GT3 champions 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.

Maro Engel: The Mercedes GT3 Pinnacle

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 purview of Le Mans 24 Hours organiser Automobile Club de l’Ouest.

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

It’s most certainly on his priority list — and he even had a voyage scheduled for this year in an RV to savor the milieu for the first time. Engel acknowledges that it’s going to sting if he concludes his career without competing on the Circuit de la Sarthe. It would be a tragedy for sportscar racing if Le Mans passes by him.

Jack Hawksworth: IMSA Champion Waits In The Wings

Jack Hawksworth

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 operated 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 genuine GT3 racing car, more of a ‘Frankenstein’ design – has flown in Hawksworth’s hands.

He has a dozen class victories 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 lined up well on pace with Lexus team-mate Ben Barnicoat, who has started Le Mans three times.

Lexus is anticipated to utilise Toyota’s genuine GT3 prototype scheduled for 2026, which should open the door for Hawksworth to finally make that long-awaited Le Mans debut. If so, watch him fly.

Ricardo Feller: Audi's emerging star

Feller has made a huge impression since tossing his cap 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 taken up by Audi for 2022 after winning the Silver Cup class in the GTWCE Endurance Cup at the helm of an Emil Frey Lamborghini the previous year and has continued to impress as a factory driver.

Feller secured the Sprint Cup title last year and turned in a starring performance at the Spa 24 Hours, both with the Tresor Attempto team. Things happen when Feller steps behind the wheel of an Audi R8 LMS GT3 Evo 2: he’s a genuine racer of the old school and a delight to witness. There are still some raw aspects to be smoothed off, but he undoubtedly has a huge future ahead of him.

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

Lucas Auer: Mercedes All-rounder

Lucas Auer claims race 1 honours in Portimão – Motorsport Week

If Mercedes manages to obtain 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 exceedingly remarkable, particularly 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 endurance events at Spa, Nurburgring and Daytona, making him a GT3 all-rounder. He also has another weapon 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.

Markus Winkelhock: Audi's Man For The Major Occasion

Now 43, Markus Winkelhock is closer to the conclusion of his tenure than the start. But given his dazzling 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 recent win in a round-the-clock endurance 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 collision 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 presumably limited even now LMGT3 cars are permitted, given his loyalty to a marque that has discarded its factory racing initiatives outside Formula 1.

But should an Audi customer squad obtain one of the coveted entries to the world's most renowned endurance event, then it could do much worse than taking up a driver who has a penchant for accumulating results over sportscar racing's most gruelling distance.

Read Also: Tandy, Vanthoor join KCMG to defend Spa 24 Hours victory

Joao Paulo De Oliveira

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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 dismissed 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 due 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 beginning the race.

Phil Keen: British GT benchmark

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 début in 2006, he has won a record-equalling 19 races uncontested, tied with Jonny Adam, is a three-time championship runner-up and has been competitive in Porsche, Lamborghini and Mercedes machinery.

He has routinely outpaced drivers who have previously claimed class victories at the Circuit de la Sarthe - and those who are due to make their Le Mans debut this year. Yet a position on the grid has always evaded the self-effacing 40-year-old.

He came near 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 merited.