Le Mans 24 Hours is, for all intents and purposes, a series of 50 minute sprints. An endurance race, of course, but at the front of each of the classes (there are four of them) if you want to be in with a chance of a win, the teams will not be ‘sparing’ the equipment.
In the GTE Class, the manufacturers that would be on our lottery winning list, the competition is split into Pro and Am. The Am class need to have no more than one professional driver as defined by the FiA and the ACO (the race organisers). Aston Martin, Corvette, Ferrari and Porsche will battle for the honours and the French Larbre Competiton team – with the singleton Corvette – will be a mighty, roaring thorn in the side of the Italian, German and British marques. However, the form team is the Aston Martin of Canadian Paul Dalla Lana, Austrian Mathias Lauda and Kiwi Ritchie Stanaway. They have won the first 2 rounds of the FiA World Endurance Championship and look very confident. They have to be given fair consideration at the 24 Hours, a double scoring points round of the Championship.
On the Pro side of GTE, there’s a strong but respectful rivalry between Aston Martin and Corvette Racing. If you are near the start line in the half hour or so before the start, watch for the whole set of personnel, mechanics, engineers, truckies all shaking hands in the pit lane, ice-hockey style.
Corvette haven’t won at Le Mans for too long and a podium position in GTE Am last year wasn’t enough for the high standards they set themselves. Ferrari and Porsche are far more than bit players and, indeed, with the focus on competition between the two sets of front-engined cars, perhaps the pressure is off a little, at least externally. Ferrari have the current World Champion driver in Gimmi Bruni and, paired with Toni Vilander and Giancarlo Fisichella, they will be hard to beat. Porsche won 2 years ago in what was seen then as a bit of an upset, with what was a very new car. GT racing has been the backbone of Porsche ever since it was formed. With the recent return to LMP1, it’s been suggested that the Motorsport arm at Weissach has taken its eye off the GT ball. That is a VERY dangerous thing to assume. The drivers are strong and experienced. If anything, the carrot of an LMP1 drive may be motivating them even more than the ‘usual’ Le Mans exposure.
However, I think it might just be Corvette. They have missed out on top flight competition by staying in the USA national series and not racing in the FiA WEC. They are adamant that has not dulled their credentials, spirit or competitive urge, so they have a point to prove.
LMP2, the biggest class by entries, is as open as it ever has been. There’s some big changes coming in this category which will render a lot of the current chassis manufacturers’ cars ineligible. There’s unrest about that but, again, it has sparked the competitive side of their natures. That said, a clean run by anyone could take the big prize. If form is anything to go by, look no further than Jota Sport. The ‘Mighty 38’ is a revised version of the car they took a fairytale, back to front victory with last year. Simon Dolan is the non-pro driver (as required by the rules) and he is as fast and as consistent as any driver out there. Adding Mitch Evans to the driving squad to replace Harry Ticknell, who was poached by Nissan, is a smart move. Evans, a full season GP 2 driver, made his sportscar debut at Spa, the last round of the FiA WEC. Despite the fact that Jota are ‘only’ an ELMS team, they triumphed over the series regulars.
LMP1 is where the overall winner should come from. Nissan and their radical front engine, front wheel drive car are not in the fight for the victory this year. Hampered by Hybrid issues, they have around 550BHP to the 1200BHP+ of the other manufacturers. Yet, they were still the fastest in a straight line at the test: proof that their concept is working, even if some of the systems are not.
This time last year, Toyota were the hot favourites for the race and, but for the failure of a tiny electrical component, would have won. This year, they come to Le Mans with a deficit in pace and looking much less happy about their lot. They have gone over their car with a fine tooth comb to extricate every last BHP from their package. It may not be enough in overall pace but, at Le Mans, pace is not ALWAYS the winner… Having only 2 cars may be a bigger disadvantage.
As for Porsche, the 919 was scintillatingly fast at Silverstone and Spa: top of the timesheets at the Le Mans Test and is already my pick for pole position on Thursday evening. But, as the crew of the #17 know, pole is headline-making for just a day. Race wins are what create history. The antipodean duo of Mark Webber and Brendan Hartley have the Le Mans winning (for Audi) experience of Timo Berhard with them and are, for me, the pick of the Porsche teams. The addition of current F1 star Nico Hulkenberg to the Porsche driving squad is interesting, and he has acquitted himself very well so far. Sebastian Bordais (back in 2009) was the last active F1 driver in the race, but you need to go back to a very different era – 1978 and Didier Pironi – to find one who was in the winning car.
Audi have three R18 e-Tron quattros entered, and all of them will be ‘wearing’ the new aero styling we saw at Spa. The 2015 car was already good, especially around the twistier parts of Silverstone, and finally triumphed over Porsche in one of the best races I’ve ever seen. At Spa, Audi’s new bodywork mitigated the speed advantage Porsche had enjoyed on the straights, making them the hot favourite in most experts’ opinion.
In recent history, that’s not been the usual situation for Audi. The four rings have used reliability, organisation and tactics to beat faster cars from Peugeot and Toyota at Le Mans. Now they have to deliver on the promise the car showed in the early part of the FiA WEC Season.
The #7 car catches my eye, with Marcel Fassler (the best all-around LMP1 driver for me right now), Andre Lotterer (the fastest LMP1 driver right now) and Ben Treluyer (underrated by some but I think the most consistent driver and brilliant at stretching a 3rd or 4th stint out of a set of tyres).
As part of RadioLeMans.com, I’ve got the best seat in the house. As always, we are on site right now, broadcasting on 91.2FM. As the broadcaster with the biggest live audience for the race, there’s lots to do in preparation. Already, we have broadcast the test day. And as I write this from the paddock, our reporters are gathering interviews from the scrutiny of the city centre. We are on air LIVE for every moment the LM24 cars are on the 8.5 mile circuit. But there’s more, too. We’ll also follow the gossip and the stories in the pits and the paddock, plus all the support races.
If you can’t make it to the race, join us for all the action and the atmosphere on www.radiolemans.com, and 91.2FM. If you do make it to the race, don’t forget to bring a radio.