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24 Hours of Le Mans – 2018 Preview

This year marks the 86th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours and the starting grid features some of motorsport’s biggest names from recent years.

From specialist sports car drivers to three of the most popular F1 drivers since 2000, the grid really is packed full of talent.

Oh, and there is also nearly half the current Formula E grid taking part in the race as well!

In this preview, we take a look at the runners and riders in all four classes, paying particular attention to the drivers who are also currently racing in Formula E.

LMP1

The LMP1 class features a mixture of hybrid-powered cars, entered in the past by multiple manufacturers - but just Toyota this year - and non-hybrid powered privateers. As a result, so as to not massively disadvantage the privateers, they are allowed to run lighter at 833kg compare to 878kg for the hybrids but they also have larger fuel tanks at 52.9L compared to 35.2L for the Toyotas. These are also some of the quickest cars in motorsport with the acceleration from the hybrid-powered cars being something which every fan should witness at some point!

#1 Rebellion Racing: Rebellion R13 – Gibson (André Lotterer, Neel Jani, Bruno Senna)

Bart Hayden’s team are back in the top class of sportscar racing and will be hoping to beat their previous best result of fourth place in 2014. The R13 is a derivative of the Oreca LMP2 chassis and the Gibson V8 is also a derivative of the LMP2 engine. The result of this was that because the mounting points on the 4.5L V8 are the same as on the 4.2L LMP2 spec engine, the team were able to focus on the cars aerodynamics. Even in Le Mans spec, the R13 is still producing more downforce than the high downforce spec of the Oreca 07s they ran last year. As for the driver line-up, this is the more well known of the two cars. Techeetah Formula E driver André Lotterer needs no introduction as a 3-time winner and was part of one of the most formidable line-ups Audi had produced when they ran at Le Mans. Alongside him is former Dragon Racing driver and Le Mans winner Neel Jani and former Mahindra racer Bruno Senna, who was one of the standout drivers in the LMP2 class last season. The pace of the Rebellion R13 has been very strong for a privateer effort and if either of the Toyota’s falter they will be in with a chance of a podium... and maybe more!

#6 CEFC TRSM Racing: Ginetta G60-LT-P1 Mecachrome (Oliver Rowland, Alex Brundle, Oliver Turvey)

To say it has been a difficult start to the season for the CEFC TRSM Racing would be a massive understatement. Most of this stems from a lack of running at the opening round of the World Endurance Championship thanks to cash flow issues from CEFC. As a result of this, they were struggling for pace on test day. One-time Mahindra driver Oliver Rowland was a front-runner in FIA Formula 2 and has taken to sportscar racing like a duck to water in that he set the fastest lap time of all 6 CEFC TRSM Racing driver on test day. Second fastest was Alex Brundle who has finally got a drive in the top class of sportscar racing and he is a seriously rapid driver and NIO’s Oliver Turvey also has plenty of experience at La Sarthe and is a former LMP2 class winner for Jota in 2014. The people involved in the Ginetta LMP1 programme includes some seriously impressive names like Adrian Reynard and Paolo Catone and the Mecachrome engine is a reworked version of the new Formula 2 engine. The main goal for the team will be simply to run a clean race as they won’t have the speed of their competitors due to the lack of race mileage so far this season.

#7 Toyota Gazoo Racing and #8 Toyota Gazoo Racing: Toyota TS050 – Hybrid (#7: Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi, José María López / #8: Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima, Fernando Alonso)

Toyota come into this race as the favourites. This is down to their car being the only hybrid left in the field and as a result, they have had a year for the technology to further mature. They also have the advantage of the equivalence of technology being in their favour. This means that they can go a lap longer per stint than the privateer teams and they also have a faster refuelling time by 5 seconds as well. This may not sound like much but over the course of a 24 hour race, this adds up! The #7 contains former Venturi and Dragon driver Mike Conway, former MS&AD Andretti racer Kamui Kobayashi and Dragon Racing’s man from Argentina José María López. The #8 features Renault e.damsSébastien Buemi alongside Kazuki Nakajima and Fernando Alonso. Being a full factory team, there are no weak links in either line-up with Kobayashi being the fastest of the drivers in the #7 on test day and Alonso setting the fastest time overall. A lot of the focus is going to be on Alonso and the team are going to want the publicity from him winning but as Toyota Gazoo Racing know all too well, this is Le Mans and every year, they seem to snatch defeat from the jaws of a near-certain victory, 2016's running of the great race springs immediately to mind when Nakajima stopped on the pit straight, 3 minutes from the end of the race. Toyota are well aware of this and that if issues to occur, then it will be a lot harder this year to make up the deficit!

#17 SMP Racing: BR Engineering BR1 – AER (Stéphane Sarrazin, Egor Orudzhev, Matevos Isaakyan)

SMP Racing are back at Le Mans this year and they have an entry in the LMP1 class as well. The BR1 has had a difficult start to it’s career but the team have made modifications to the aerodynamics after what happened at Spa last time out. Matevos Isaakyan caught air and the car suffered a blow over at Radillion, similar to what happened to the Mercedes CLR’s of Mark Webber and Peter Dumbreck at Le Mans in 1999.  The car does appear to be in good shape around La Sarthe though and looks to be the second fastest of the privateers behind the Rebellion R13. The AER engine is a development of their old Twin Turbo V6 used in the past by Bykolles and Rebellion. MS&AD Andretti driver Stéphane Sarrazin is the most experienced of the 3 drivers by quite some margin as his teammates are the young Russian pairing of Egor Orudzhev and Matevos Isaakyan. Sarrazin was the fastest with Orudzhev close behind. Isaakyan was a few seconds slower although after what happened last time out, that is understandable. All things considered, the package looks to be quite strong and if they keep out of trouble then there is a chance they could be in contention for a podium.

Others

The biggest surprise on test day was the pace of the sister Rebellion R13 of Thomas Laurent, Mathias Beche and Gustavo Menezes with Beche and Menezes setting the second and third fastest times respectively. Laurent was one of the standout drivers in the LMP2 class last season for Jackie Chan DC Racing and is also rather quick indeed. They may not be as well known as their teammates 0to anyone who doesn’t closely follow sports car racing but they have the pace to challenge for a podium and maybe even a win if the Toyota’s falter. 2009 F1 champion Jenson Button will also be making his Le Mans debut in the #11 SMP Racing entry alongside Vitaly Petrov and former IndyCar driver Mikhail Aleshin. All three of them are quick but Button could do with some more seat time in the car in order to get nearer the Russian pair who do have the benefit of having raced at Spa earlier this year. Watch out also for the #4 ByKolles entry that will be driven by Tom Dillmann, the Frenchman who made Formula E appearances for Venturi over the last two seasons, alongside Oliver Webb and Dominik Kraihamer.

LMP2

The LMP2 class is still an open chassis class except there are only four to choose from these days; Dallara, Onroak/Ligier, Oreca and Riley. The Riley is the only one of the four which will not be racing at Le Mans this year. There is also a spec engine as well which is a 4.2L Gibson V8 which produces 600hp and is really rather loud but in a good way. The class also features a tyre war between Dunlop and Michelin. The rules of the class state that each car must have one non-professional driver.

#26 G-Drive Racing: Oreca 07 – Gibson (Roman Rusinov, Andrea Pizzitola, Jean-Éric Vergne)

The #26 G-Drive racing caused a stir when the driver line-up was first announced as it had three drivers who were all graded as professional drivers. Matthieu Vaxivière was late dropped from the line-up after the ACO removed special dispensation, much to the chagrin of Rusinov who insists that he should be graded as an amateur driver thanks to him having a day job. However, he is a former WEC champion in this class and has been graded accordingly. Pizzitola was drafted in as the “Am” driver but that is doing his talents a disservice. He is a former Renault RS01 Trophy champion and won a test in a Super GT spec Nissan GTR and Nissan don’t let anyone test their GT500 cars! Techeetah’s Jean-Éric Vergne needs no introduction as he is the current points leader and also, a seriously fast sportscar racer as well. This team has one of the stronger line-ups in the class and will be heading into the race as one of the favourites for the win.

Others

There are always a number of incredibly strong entries in the LMP2 class and this year is no exception. The #36 Signatech Alpine Matmut entry of Nicolas Lapierre, André Negrão and Pierre Thiriet looked impressive on Test Day with gentleman driver Thiriet getting into the 3:30s in their Alpine A470 – Gibson, which is just a rebadged Oreca chassis. The #31 Dragonspeed Oreca 07 – Gibson of Roberto González, Pastor Maldonado and former Team Aguri racer Nathanaël Berthon and the #48 IDEC Sport Oreca 07 – Gibson of Paul Lafargue, Paul Loup Chatin and Memo Rojas both had impressive average times although these were helped by what looked like qualifying simulations from Berthon and Chatin respectively. The fastest of the revised Ligier JSP217 – Gibsons was the #22 entry from United Autosports for Phil Hanson and Filipe Albuquerque only as Paul di Resta was on DTM duties for Mercedes. The other G-Drive Racing entry, the #40 for James Allen, Jose Gutiérrez and Enzo Guibbert and the #39 Graff-SO24 Oreca 07 – Gibson for Vincent Capillaire, Jonathan Hirschi and Tristan Gommendy looked strong on test day and could spring a surprise in the race. 

Meanwhile the aforementioned Vaxivière will now compete in the #28 TDS Racing entry alongside former Dragon Racing driver Loïc Duval and fellow Frenchman François Perrodo, while there is also Formula E interest in the #38 Jackie Chan Racing entry as Jaguar Racing third driver and former Team China Racing competitor Ho-Pin Tung drives alongside Gabriel Aubry and Stéphane Richelmi. The Jackie Chan-owned outfit caused quite a stir in last year's race, finishing second overall having led the race outright - will they impress again this year? Time will tell.

GTE-Pro

The GTE-Pro class is the top class for production-based road cars in sportscar racing. There are plenty of new models this year as well with Aston Martin bringing their new Vantage, Ferrari running an ‘Evo’ spec version of the 488 and BMW returning to Le Mans with a pair of M8s. The cars are all aligned using a specific Le Mans only balance of performance (BOP) which is useful when half the cars in the class are brand new! As the GTE-Pro class is for works teams with professional drivers, there aren’t going to be any weak links in each car when it comes to the driving talent.

#71 AF Corse: Ferrari 488 GTE Evo (Davide Rigon, Sam Bird, Miguel Molina)

DS Virgin’s Sam Bird and his full-season teammate Davide Rigon are joined by Miguel Molina for Le Mans. All three drivers are immensely fast in GT cars with Molina previously being a factory Audi driver in DTM. The pace of the revised Ferrari looks good with Bird setting the fastest time of any of the 9 drivers over the 3 cars. The car looks to be a good all-round package, but the BOP might cost them a chance of a win in such a competitive class. However, a top 5 or even a podium could be seen as realistic.

#82 BMW Team MTEK: BMW M8 GTE (Augusto Farfus, António Félix da Costa, Alex Sims)

MS&AD Andretti’s Portuguese racer António Félix da Costa is one of the full season drivers in the new BMW alongside one of his fellow works drivers from his spell in DTM, Augusto Farfus. Joining them is BMW GT specialist and multiple race winner in IMSA’s GTLM class Alex Sims. The new BMW had only da Costa and Sims driving on test day due to Farfus racing in DTM but the car looks to be good. More track time will be needed and as it is the first trip to Le Mans since 2011 with the M3 so a podium might be difficult due to the BOP but a top 10 is not out of the question for BMW Team MTEK.

#97 Aston Martin Racing: Aston Martin Vantage AMR (Alex Lynn, Maxime Martin, Jonny Adam)

Sam Bird’s teammate at DS Virgin, fellow Brit Alex Lynn makes his first appearance in the GTE class at Le Mans having driven an LMP2 Oreca last year. Alongside him are former BMW works driver Maxime Martin and one of the winning drivers from last year, Jonny Adam. The new Vantage AMR was a bit off the pace during test day. Part of this was due to being down to only one car for half the day after Marco Sørensen’s big accident in the #95 just before lunch and partly because of the BOP which they have been given.  Either way, all Aston Martin Racing will be hoping for is a clean race and a chance to rack up the kilometres.

Update: Since this was written, Aston Martin Racing have received an increase in turbo boost and a 4-litre increase in fuel capacity. BMW have also got an increase in turbo boost but a thirteen-kilogram increase in weight and a 4-litre reduction in fuel capacity and Ferrari have a slight increase in turbo boost. As for the others, Ford got a thirteen-kilogram decrease in weight but slightly less turbo boost and a 2-litre reduction in fuel capacity, Corvette got another ten kilograms of weight and Porsche are unchanged.

Others

The fastest manufactures at Test Day this year were Porsche and Ford and this was over multiple cars. In fact, they had between them the 11 fastest lap times in the class in testing. The Porsche contingent consists of the #91 of Richard Leitz, Gianmaria Bruni and Frédéric Makowiecki, the #92 of Michael Christensen, Kevin Estre and Laurens Vanthoor, the #93 of Patrick Pilet, Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber and the #94 of Romain Dumas, Timo Bernhard and Sven Müller. The #91 and #92 cars are painted in heritage liveries with the #91 inspired by the Rothmans backed 956 and 962 prototypes and the #92 inspired by the 917/20, or the ‘pink pig’ as it was also known as.

The Ford programme again consists of both IMSA cars joining the full season WEC cars with Stefan Mücke, Olivier Pla and Billy Johnson in the #66, Andy Priaulx, Harry Tincknell and Tony Kanaan in the #67, Joey Hand, Dirk Müller and Sébastien Bourdais in the #68 and Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook and Scott Dixon in the #69. Both of the Corvette Racing entries can’t be discounted either at Le Mans with Jan Magnussen, former NextEV/Team China Racing driver Antonio García and Mike Rockenfeller in the #63 and Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Marcel Fässler in the #64.

As there are no Formula E drivers in the GTE-Am class, we’ll just mention a few entries which are worth keeping an eye on. The first of which is the #77 Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche 911 RSR of Matt Campbell, Christian Reid and Julien Andlauer. Next is the #54 Spirit of Race Ferrari of Thomas Flohr, Francesco Castellacci and Giancarlo Fisichella and finally, the #85 Keating Motorsport Ferrari run by Risi Competizione for Ben Keating, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Luca Stolz. Both of the Ferraris are the original spec 488 GTEs as GTE-Am regulations state that the cars have to be at least a year old.

The race will begin at 15:00 CEST on Saturday 16th June, finishing at 15:00 CEST the following day.

Photo courtesy of FIA WEC.

Rob Lomas

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