The second weekend of June means there is only one motorsport event worth talking about: The 24 Hours of Le Mans. This year marks the 87th running of the event and as always, is held on the 13.629km Circuit de la Sarthe, a gruelling mixture of permanent racing circuit and public roads on the outskirts of northern France.
This years race will also be the final round of the FIA World Endurance Championship so for some of the teams and drivers, there will be even more than just a race at stake. Some of the biggest names in motorsport in recent years, from specialist sportscar drivers to ex-Formula 1 drivers will be sharing the track with young, up and coming drivers and, in the pro-am classes, drivers for whom this is their (rather expensive) hobby.
Oh, and a decent proportion of the Formula E grid is taking part in the race as well, with nine current and nine former FE racers competing in endurance racing's biggest event.
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 for the SMP Racing entries and 816kg for the naturally aspirated entries which make up the rest of the class, compared to 888kg for the hybrids - but they also have a larger fuel allowance for each stint at 50.8kg for the naturally aspirated cars and 48.4kg for the turbocharged cars, compared to 35.1kg for the Toyota’s.
The privateers have also had their fuel allocation for each lap removed altogether although Toyota will still have an advantage of being able to go a lap further per stint. They 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 (Andre Lotterer, Neel Jani, Bruno Senna)
The Rebellion team are back for Le Mans this year and the only real differences are a new aero kit on the R13 to minimise aerodynamic drag and a pair of ‘art car’ liveries which are rather striking, to put it mildly! The driver line-up in the #1 is arguably, the more well-known of the two cars which the team are running for this year. DS Techeetah driver and currently, the Chris Amon of Formula E, Andre Lotterer is a 4-time winner overall for Audi between 2011 and 2014 as part of arguably, one of the most formidable line-ups ever to grace the circuit.
Alongside him is the former Dragon Racing driver, 2016 Le Mans winner and current development driver for Porsche, Neel Jani and the former Mahindra racer, Bruno Senna. The Rebellion might not be as quick as the SMP Racing entries but Rebellion Racing has a track record when it comes to finishing at La Sarthe and thus, this should stand them in good stead.
#4 ByKolles Racing Team: ENSO CLM P1/01 – Gibson (Tom Dillmann, Oliver Webb, Paulo Ruberti)
ByKolles are back for another go at Le Mans. The perennial underdogs in the top class have had a difficult season and to compound matters, they changed engine supplier from Nismo to Gibson which means that there is a considerably reduced chance of the ENSO CLM P1/01 performing its usual party trick of spontaneously combusting at some stage. The team deserve credit though for the speed in which they have been able to re-engineer the car in order to accept the Gibson V8 in the place of the twin-turbocharged, Nismo V6.
Leading the driver line-up once again is NIO Formula E driver Tom Dillmann and alongside him is team stalwart Oliver Webb and Paulo Ruberti, who when he was driving the Larbre Corvette in the GTE-AM class, was capable of some very impressive lap times. However, the goal for ByKolles this year will seemingly be to have as much of a trouble-free race as they can as they were nearing the bottom of the timesheets on test day, and qualified last in the LMP1 class.
#7 and #8 Toyota Gazoo Racing: Toyota TS050 – Hybrid (#7: Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi, Jose Maria Lopez / #8: Sebastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima, Fernando Alonso)
Coming off the back of last years one-two result, it is fair to say that it might well be a similar result again this year, barring any collisions with other cars or mechanical issues late on in the race such as 2016 when Kazuki Nakajima stopped on the pit straight, 3 minutes from the end of the race.
Being full-season WEC entries, nothing has changed regarding the line-ups. The #7 contains former Venturi and Dragon driver Mike Conway, sometime Andretti driver Kamui Kobayashi and Dragon Racing’s Jose Maria Lopez. The #8 features Nissan e.dams’ Sebastien Buemi - Formula E's champion in Season 2 - alongside Kazuki Nakajima and Fernando Alonso.
Being a full factory team, there are no weak links in either line-up with Conway being the fastest of the drivers in the #7 on test day and Kobayashi setting pole position. The #8 won last years race so the speed is there, but it remains to be seen how the crew in the #7 try to go one better in this year's race.
#11 SMP Racing: BR Engineering BR1 – AER (Vitaly Petrov, Mikhail Aleshin, Stoffel Vandoorne)
SMP Racing’s #11 entry caused a bit of intrigue during test day after new signing and HWA Racelab Formula E driver Stoffel Vandoorne broke Lucas di Grassi’s record for the fastest speed recorded in the history of the WEC after he was clocked at 350.1 km/h. sharing the car with him are team regular’s Vitaly Petrov and Mikhail Aleshin.
Aleshin is a former IndyCar driver and was part of the SMP Racing entry which won the Blancpain Endurance Series round at Silverstone and Petrov is an ex-Formula 1 driver for the likes of Renault and Caterham. Petrov and Aleshin are also on a run of third place finishes going back to the 6 Hours of Shanghai last year and will be looking to add another podium at the biggest race of them all to the trophy cabinet. They qualified fifth overall, just 1.168 off overall pole.
The sister Rebellion R13 of Thomas Laurent, former Team Aguri racer Nathanael Berthon and Gustavo Menezes claimed an overall podium last year and then went on to win the 6 Hours of Silverstone once the Toyota’s had been disqualified for a technical infringement although this was with Beche in the car instead of Berthon.
The other of the SMP Racing entries, the #17, has had no luck all season so a good result for former Venturi/Andretti/Techeetah racer Stephane Sarrazin, Egor Orudzhev and former Williams F1 driver, Sergey Sirotkin, will be a good way for them to finish off what has been a difficult season. Things went well for them in qualifying, as they set the third best time to line up behind only the two Toyota entries.
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 again this year. There is also a spec engine which is a 4.2L Gibson V8 - it produces 600hp and is really rather loud!
The class also features a tyre war between Dunlop and Michelin. Even though there is a cost cap in the class, which was introduced mainly to stop teams from entering the Porsche RS Spyder, these cars are still very serious bits of kit and capable of over 330 km/h on the Mulsanne Straight!
#26 G-Drive Racing: Aurus 01 – Gibson (Roman Rusinov, Job van Uitert, Jean-Eric Vergne)
After comfortably winning last years LMP2 Class prior to getting disqualified over a tampered fuel rig in a bid to speed up the pit stops, G-Drive is racing are back and there are a couple of differences.
The first of which is that Andrea Pizzitola is no longer classed as a silver graded driver by the FIA (at least one driver in each LMP2 car must be rated as either silver or bronze) so he has had to be replaced by Job van Uitert. The young Dutchman is the defending champion in the LMP3 class of the European Le Mans Series and is also fantastically quick in an LMP2 car.
Speaking of which, the car is now an Aurus and this is because the Russian limousine manufacturer has rebadged the Oreca 07 chassis. Season four Formula E champion, and always rapid, Jean-Eric Vergne of DS Techeetah is back alongside Roman Rusinov in what is heading into the race as one of the favourites in the class and they will be looking for revenge and an untampered fuel rig after last year.
There are always a number of incredibly strong entries in the LMP2 class and this year is no exception…again! It could, therefore, be claimed that it is the most competitive class in the series.
From the WEC, the battle for the class championship will mainly be between the eventual winners of last year's race, the #36 Signatech Alpine Matmut entry of Nicolas Lapierre, Andre Negrao and Pierre Thiriet and the #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca 07 – Gibson of Jaguar’s test and reserve driver, Ho-Pin Tung, Stephane Richelmi and the young Frenchman Gabriel Aubry. The sister Jackie Chan DC Racing entry #37 of David Heinemeier-Hansson, Jordan King and Ricky Taylor and the #31 Dragonspeed Oreca 07 – Gibson for Roberto Gonzalez, Pastor Maldonado and Anthony Davidson are also definite contenders.
As for the others, the #48 IDEC Sport Oreca 07 – Gibson of Paul Lafargue, Paul-Loup Chatin and Memo Rojas are always in with a shot at the win with the rapid Chatin behind the wheel. The same goes for Graff SO24 as well, again, with the #39 Oreca 07 for Tristan Gommendy, Vincent Capillaire and Jonathan Hirschi. This car actually took provisional LMP2 class pole for the race in Gommendy's hands, but had the pole lap cancelled due to the car failing to stop at the scrutineering light for weighing during qualifying practice three.
This handed the class pole to the former Dragon Racing driver Loic Duval's #28 TDS Racing Oreca that he shares with François Perrodo and Matthieu Vaxiviere.
As for those not running an Oreca chassis, the #22 United Autosports Ligier JSP217 – Gibson of Phil Hanson, Filipe Albuquerque and Paul di Resta are always near the sharp end of the field in the European Le Mans Series and the sister car, the #32 of Ryan Cullen, Alex Brundle and Will Owen were also quick on test day, especially with Brundle in the car.
The GTE-Pro class is the top class for production-based road cars in sportscar racing. There are no new cars for this year but at least the Balance of Performance (BOP) should work for this season so that BMW and Aston Martin will be a bit nearer the others! The race will also mark the last WEC appearances in works trim for the BMW M8 GTE and the Ford GT.
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. The minimum weight in this and the GTE-Am class is 1245kg and the cars are producing over 500 bhp but this is all dependant on the individual BOP.
#71 AF Corse: Ferrari 488 GTE Evo (Davide Rigon, Sam Bird, Miguel Molina)
Envision Virgin Racing’s Sam Bird and his full-season teammate Davide Rigon are, once again, 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 and Rigon and Molina won the Blancpain Endurance Series round at Silverstone in the GT3 spec version of the 488 alongside Mikhail Aleshin.
Rigon set the fastest time of any of the nine Ferrari drivers over the three cars. The car still looks to be a good all-round package, and qualified eighth in class as the best Ferrari.
#82 BMW Team MTEK: BMW M8 GTE (Augusto Farfus, Antonio Felix da Costa, Jesse Krohn)
BMW i Andretti Motorsport’s Antonio Felix da Costa and Augusto Farfus are back again in the M8 GTE and joining them this year is Jesse Krohn, the Finnish driver replacing Alexander Sims in the car for this year.
At the test day, BMW were languishing towards the bottom of the timesheets; but the #82 car improved in time for qualifying and will start fifth in class.
#97 Aston Martin Racing: Aston Martin Vantage AMR (Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn, Jonny Adam)
Former BMW DTM Driver Maxime Martin and his full-season teammate, Jaguar Formula E driver Alex Lynn, are once again joined by Jonny Adam, who was part of the winning lineup in 2017 with a last lap pass on the Corvette which was leading. The Vantage has improved as both the drivers and the team got used to the characteristics of the new car and indeed, Lynn was the fastest of all the Aston Martin drivers during the test day.
However, the #97 crew only managed to qualify 14th in class, while the sister #95 car took the class pole - so there is a lot of work to do for this trio.
Compared to last year, there does not seem to be any manufacturer with a clear advantage compared to the others, with five different manufacturers represented in the top five grid spots. This indicates that the Balance of Performance is working as intended, and that the race should hopefully be a good one in the class!
Porsche have already wrapped up the World Endurance GTE Manufacturers’ Championship which means that both the #91 911 RSR of Richard Leitz, Gianmaria Bruni and Frederic Makowiecki, the #92 of the defending class champions, Michael Christensen, Kevin Estre and Laurens Vanthoor will be running with the red in the normal WEC livery replaced with gold. The Core Autosport-run, IMSA entries are back and will run the #93 for Patrick Pilet, Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber and the #94 of Sven Mueller, Mathieu Jaminet and Dennis Olsen in the much-loved, Brumos Racing throwback liveries.
The Ford programme again consists of both IMSA cars joining the full season WEC cars with Stefan Mucke, Olivier Pla and Billy Johnson in the #66; Andy Priaulx, former NIO/Jaguar tester Harry Tincknell and Jonathan Bomarito in the #67; Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller and Sebastien 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 TCR racer Antonio Garcia and Mike Rockenfeller in the #63 and Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Marcel Fassler in the #64. Indeed, Rockenfeller was quickest on test day and the #63 also had the fastest average lap-time based off of each driver's best lap.
It was the #95 Aston Martin that took pole in the class however, thanks to a 3:48.000 from Marco Sorensen in the car he shares with Nicki Thiim and Darren Turner.
Once again, there isn’t any Formula E representation in the GTE-Am Class so we'll just mention a few entries worth keeping an eye out on.
From the WEC, the championship is led by the #56 Team Project 1 Porsche 911 RSR of Jorg Bergmeister, Patrick Lindsey and Egidio Perfetti with the team in this position thanks to consistency despite it being the teams first season in the WEC. The #54 Spirit of Race Ferrari 488 GT3 of Thomas Flohr, Francesco Castellaci and Giancarlo Fisichella are just behind them in the championship though. These two cars will start next to each other in class, in seventh and eighth respectively.
Having said all of this, had they not had half a season's worth of results wiped off due to a technical infringement, the #77 Dempsey Proton Racing Porsche 911 RSR of Matt Campbell, Christian Reid and Julien Andlauer would have won the title some time ago! The #77 will start second in GTE-Am.
Starting on class pole will be the #88 Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche, after Matteo Cairoli put in an impressive qualifying lap in the car he shares with Satoshi Hoshino and Giorgio Roda.
The race will begin at 15:00 CEST on Saturday 15th June, finishing at 15:00 CEST the following day.
Photos: Rob Lomas