The Magic Of Le Mans –

Get To Know The Pros

Porsche Pro Hero

There’s no better man to provide a rundown ahead of the weekend’s famous race than the voice of the 24 Hours of Le Mans himself, John Hindhaugh. Picking out the runners and riders amidst a competitive class, John takes a comprehensive look at the GTE-PRO, GTE-AM and LMP2 fields.

The 24 Hours of Le Mans, 2016, is the 84th running of the world’s greatest race.

Whilst fans and organisers of the Monaco Grand Prix – which once ran as a sportscar race – and the so-called Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indy 500, might argue otherwise, Le Mans has been at the centre of all things motor racing since… Well, almost since motor racing began.

So where did it all begin?

The first ever motor race was in fact held, not in France, but in England.

It started, swathed in secrecy, at 4:30 am on August 30th 1867, and ran for 8 miles between Aston-Under-Lyme and Old Trafford, Manchester.

It was contested by solid-fuelled steam carriages, although drivers’ names were not reported, as they were breaking the ‘Red- Flag’ laws in force at the time.

However, I digress.

The Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) – a successful French Auto Club, and one which is still the sanctioning body of the 24 Hours of Le Mans today – was the first to regularly use the term ‘Grand Prix’ at their events, which started in 1906 around a 65 mile circuit near to the city of Le Mans, at the top of the Loire Valley.

The first running of the now famous 24 Hour race we know today, was 1923.

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Then, as now, the philosophy was to promote the automobile, celebrate reliability, and to showcase and prove new technology. Over the years, the race has seen debuts or developments of; headlights, windscreen wipers, radial tyres, disc brakes, aerodynamics, gas turbine power, hybrid electric, diesel and all manner of electrical and clever control systems, ECUs and more.

As was the case in previous years, the modern day race is broadly broken into cars of two types: Production-based GT cars – these are the aspirational marques we would all buy if we had large amounts of disposable cash – and Prototypes – purpose built racing machines designed to go very fast for a very long time, and be ridiculously efficient.

The GT car – or in Le Mans terms, ‘LMGTE’ class cars – are split into two classes, LMGTE-PRO and LMGTE-AM.

This year, there are some big changes to the regulations of the GTE-PRO cars. All cars competing in that class will be running different and far more heavily developed versions of the ‘donor’ cars competing in the AM class.

As the title implies, the GTE-PRO class allows the participation of fully professional drivers, mandated three to each car. The cars this year are allowed far more freedom in aerodynamics, which has led to major revisions from all manufacturers – all of whom were involved in 2015, plus the addition of one new one: Ford.

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I’ve detailed the controversy over the Ford GT before, so I won’t go over it again here.

This year, however, Ford has been allowed 4 ‘factory’ entries, and has been very clever in manipulating performance in the early races of the season, in order not to show the true pace of the new car.

The strategy has worked perfectly, as they have been awarded weight advantages, and other such performance enhancements, for Le Mans. The blue oval wants to grab headlines, and I’m betting on a 1-2-3-4 in-class result after hour one of the race.

The Ford GT is specifically designed for the long, fast circuit at Le Mans, and the only thing that can stop them winning is if the cars don’t last.

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Ferrari has the honour of being the other all-new car on the grid. Their 488 (in common with Ford) uses a turbocharged engine which is a new addition to their GT programme.

Ferrari have not been as circumspect as Ford in the early season running, preferring instead to run their cars as fast as they can; so hard, in fact, that they blew up an engine while heading for victory in the Six Hours of Spa. This, unsurprisingly, brought them to the attention of the rule-makers, who have dialled back the potential pace of the Ferrari 488 at Le Mans with performance adjustments.

Aston Martin has kept the engine and drive train from last year’s Vantage V8, but clothed the British challenger in a new, more aerodynamically efficient set of bodywork. A huge diffuser now pokes out from under the back of the car, which otherwise looks similar to the 2015 racer; however, every single body panel is different.

They are another brand to have benefitted from a weight reduction. Even with this, they probably don’t have as good overall pace as their competitors. AMR’s hopes of victory this year lie in a new partnership with Dunlop tyres – all the other teams use Michelin – and the fact that the sonorous heart of the beast is capable of reliably running the whole 24 hours.

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Corvette Racing has a new iteration of their racing car and, like Aston, they have embarked on a redesign of bodywork, set around a tried and tested engine. Whilst rumours of a radical mid-engined Corvette – codenamed ‘Zora’, after the man who saved the brand in its early days – to appear maybe as soon as 2017, hopes for this year lie with a stellar driver line up (made up of Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner, Antonio Garcia, Jan Magnussen and brothers Jordan and Ricky Taylor) and meticulous preparation.

This Corvette team won with only one car last year, after their second – the
63 of Ryan Briscoe, Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen – was destroyed in practice. They’ve built new cars and brought a spare this year. Oh, and they’ve already won the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, beating the new Ford, Ferrari and Porsche teams along the way.

So, I suspect Corvette to be the biggest challenge to Ford throughout the race.

As for Porsche, they will not be able to exploit the new regulations as much as their competitors. This is largely because the rear-engined layout of the 911 precludes clever underbody accoutrements at the back.

That said, the 911 is a revised ‘2015-and-a-half’, if not a full 2016 spec car.

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Porsche are busy developing their mid-engined challenger for next year, so one might expect them to have taken their eye of the Le Mans ball.

But this is Le Mans, and the likely last outing for a 911 RSR with the non-turbo engine in the back, so there’s plenty of effort being expended, including putting the overall winning drivers from last year – Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber – back into GTE cars. Plus, with Le Mans being Le Mans, it might rain. Indeed, it probably will rain. And when it rains… it’s 911 time!

GTE-AM

In GTE-AM, all (with the exception of Ford) of the above manufacturers are representing, with 2015 spec cars. The regulations state that at least one of the 3 drivers must not be graded as a professional. In practice, this means 2 pros and a ‘gentleman’ driver. That the pros in question can drive pretty well is a given, so the result is far more determined by the consistency and speed of the non-pro.

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So who wins it? Actually, it’s pretty open.

The 98 Aston Martin should have won last year. An uncharacteristic error late in the race by Canadian Paul Dalla Lana while leading comfortably was a bitter pill. I can’t see him making the same mistake this year.

Watch out for the all American crewed 62 Ferarri, the 88 Porsche – with factory driver Pat Long on board – and the 57 Team AAI Corvette, with Works Cadillac and former Corvette star Johnny O’Connell joining quick Brit Olly Bryant and a very capable gentleman driver, Mark Patterson.

LMP2

LMP2 is the Prototype class reserved for private teams. Once again, one of the three drivers must be a non-pro. It’s the biggest entry in terms of numbers. Twenty three cars line up representing 6 chassis manufacturers and 4 engine suppliers.

Nissan have the numerical advantage in the power unit stakes. But in a 2016 race that’s hard to call in all classes, LMP2 surely has the most cars that could genuinely be winners.

It would seem from the pace at test day that the Oreca chassis, including their derivatives Alpine, have a pace advantage.

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There are talented drivers and famous names throughout the entry. Olympian Sir Chris Hoy and former French Goalkeeper Fabien Barthez are two sportsmen from other disciplines making their Le mans debuts. Both, by the way, are more than capable drivers. Hoy is already a European champion in the LMP3 category, and has adjusted well to the extra power and downforce of the LMP2 car. Barthez, too, is an accomplished GT driver and team owner. The pair will shine, but their cars won’t win.

As mentioned, Oreca have the advantage. The first team I’m going to highlight is the 31 ESM Liger, running with what is the only Honda engine in the field. They don’t have the right chassis, but they do have Pipo Derani.

This young South American driver has already been the winning difference at both the Rolex 24 Hours of Datyona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring. He’s more than adequately supported by Canadian gentleman Chris Cumming and super-fast Scotsman Ryan Dalziel. If anyone can overcome the hoards of Oreca Nissans, it’s Pipo.

My second tip is the defending WEC Champions, G-Drive, in the 26 car. Money-man Roman Rusinov, an extremely rapid non-pro driver, is the only carryover from last season, having added Rene Rast for the full season, and bought in Will Stevens from Manor WEC, specifically for Le Mans.

Stevens replaces Nataniel Berthon, who was unceremoniously dumped by Rusinov for underperforming in the first two WEC races of the season. This team takes its lead from the Russian, though their single minded, ruthless, win-at-any-cost approach may need to be tempered for the longer distance of Le Mans.

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In a field of 23, I think it’s only fair that I should shine a spotlight on a few more of the entries.

I’ve had to think long and hard about this, but there’s a part of me that would like to see the 47 KCMG do well, not least because of the unfortunate way they were knocked out of the championship race in Japan last year. The driving squad is sound and the team will keep them in the running.

Given that there’s so little to choose between most of the LMP2 entry list – when a trio of drivers seem to stand out then you simply MUST take notice. Unfortunately, there are two such squads.

The names of Senna, Albuquerque and Gonzales in the 43 RGR Sport, almost jump off the page. Bruno, nephew of Ayrton, and Audi factory driver Filipe could probably do the race themselves. But they aren’t allowed to.

Ricardo Gonzalez will be the key here, although even a clean race form him may not be enough to get their Ligier Nissan to the top step. A great pick for a podium, though.

Nico Lapierre is a former Toyota factory driver who is driving as well now as at any time in his career.

Better than when he was at Toyota? Maybe. Certainly, he’s happier. And that is translating into quick lap times.

Stephane Richelmi is one of a growing number of highly-talented single seater drivers to move over into sportscar racing – Such interest no doubt piqued when Mark Webber turned his back on an F1 seat to go WEC racing with Porsche.

Gustavo Menezes is a teenager starting his career and, only by dint of his relative lack of experience, is he graded as a non-pro driver. There’s a rawness here that, admittedly, might not work at Le Mans; but their Signatech Alpine team are top class and know how to put out a fast car. I hope to see Nico Lapierre use his experience to get the drivers to ‘gel’. If he does, this is a team that can win.

The front of the field is LMP1 and LMP1-H. But that’s another story (coming soon).

You can follow the 84th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans at www.radiolemans.com, and trackside on Mobil 1 Radio Le Mans, at 91.2fm – Programming from Le Mans begin on Sunday of race week, with additional reports from Scrutineering. Radio Le Mans’ live coverage will cover every moment the cars are on track, from practice on Wednesday through to the end of the race on Sunday. Full programme schedule at www.radiolemans.com.

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