What Lies in Store at The 24 Hours of Le Mans?
With no Formula One race this weekend, motorsport fans around the world will be glued to the action in the Le Mans 24 hours. It is the eightieth running of the Grand Prix d’Endurance, and, as I’ve mentioned in a previous article, is one of the three biggest races in the world alongside the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500. Coincidentally, only one driver has ever won all three races in the “triple crown of motorsport” – the late Graham Hill.
But turning the attention back to the present day, and it looks like once again the hundreds of thousands of fans that make the yearly pilgrimage to La Sarthe will be treated to a fantastic race. Many were surprised at the start of the year that Peugeot, Audi’s closest rival since 2007, would not be present this year. Peugeot’s place has been taken with an exciting new project from Toyota however – the TS030 being one of two hybrid cars in LMP1.
Toyota has surprised everyone so far. Considering one chassis was written off in a big testing accident, it is perhaps a miracle in itself that Toyota arrives at Le Mans with two cars. No one doubts the calibre of drivers in either car either, with three former Peugeot drivers in Alex Wurz, Anthony Davidson and Stephane Sarrazin. The highly rated Nicolas Lapierre and former Formula One drivers Kazuki Nakajima and Sebastien Buemi complete the line-up.
Despite that, not many people predict Toyota can win in their first year back. With a limited test programme and no race experience with the car at all, getting both cars to the finish will be a huge challenge in itself, never mind competing against Audi. However, Toyota did show what potential the car has even at this early stage after qualifying third and fifth on the grid respectively.
The other hybrid, unsurprisingly, is Audi’s. Their four wheel drive E-Tron Quattro impressed at the last round of the World Endurance Championship in Spa where it was particularly quick in wet conditions. Defending race winners Andre Lotterer, Marcel Fassler and Benoit Treluyer will start on pole. The second E-Tron will be driven by the likeable scot Allan McNish, Rinaldo “Dindo” Capello and eight times Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen. Few will forget McNish’s huge accident at the end of the first hour last year, and with Kristensen qualifying in fourth position they will be keen to avoid a repeat of those scary scenes.
Audi strengthens their cause with a further two, non-Hybrid cars. The diesel “Ultras” were effectively last year’s winning car and will be competitive once again in 2012. The Loic Duval, Marc Gene, Romain Dumas car starts on the front row after briefly setting the fastest time, whilst Le Mans rookies Oliver Jarvis and Marco Bonanomi join Mike Rockenfeller in the #4 car. Rockenfeller, like McNish, suffered a huge crash here last year in which he was lucky to walk away from uninjured and will be keen to put the demons of 2011 to bed.
Audi could make history this weekend with the first hybrid car to win Le Mans if the E-Tron Quattros are ahead by Sunday. But some believe that if the race doesn’t see any rain the Ultras could hold the advantage. No pressure then!
Elsewhere in LMP1 sees the usual mix of loyal privateer teams. Rebellion Racing will be hoping to be the best of these with their rebranded Lotus Lolas, but they’ll face stiff competition from Le Mans stalwarts Pescarolo who field two very different cars. Also look out for the #21 Strakka Racing HPD which set the fastest time of the privateers in qualifying. Oak Racing and JRM also field single car entries – the latter which will see former F1 driver Karun Chandhok become the first Indian to take part at Le Mans.
LMP2 sees its most competitive entry in many years with a bumper twenty car entry. One of the main headlines is Sky’s F1 commentator Martin Brundle making a return after an eleven year hiatus. He’ll be joined in the car by son and GP3 racer Alex, and Nissan Gran Turismo Academy winner, Lucas Ordonez. Also watch out for the pole position sitting #25 ADR Delta car and first time entries from Starworks Motorsport and Murphy Prototypes – but you’ll be hard pressed to guess a winner in this class!
GTE Pro looks to be equally competitive, with effective works entries from Ferrari, Corvette, Aston Martin and Porsche. Despite a crash for the #51 AF Corse car in practice, look out for it featuring heavily during the race with Giancarlo Fisichella, Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander driving. The second car driven by Andrea Bertolini, Olivier Beretta and Marco Cioci will also factor. Luxury Racing will be a contender for class honours with the #59 car. Jaime Melo, Dominik Farnbacher and Frederic Makowiecki – who many consider to be the best GT driver in the world at the moment – share the driving duties.
Corvette fields two cars with plenty of British interest in the team as Oliver Gavin and Richard Westbrook share the #74 car with Tommy Milner. Also look out for twenty one year old Jordan Taylor in the #73 – the youngest driver on the grid this year.
Darren Turner shares Aston Martin’s leading light with regular co-driver Stefan Mucke, with Adrian Fernandez completing the line-up. Porsche could be a factor at some stage too with both the #77 and #80 cars all having a trio of Porsche factory drivers behind the wheel. Richard Lietz, Marc Lieb, Wolf Henzler and Jorg Bergmeister, Patrick Long and Marco Holzer share the driving duties in the two cars.
The GTE Amateur class will be hotly contested too. The class was originally intended for “gentlemen drivers” – but there are some highly talented racers in numerous line ups. Former Peugeot driver Pedro Lamy will race the #50 car, and look out for Sean Edwards, Patrick Pilet, Allan Simonsen and NASCAR racer Brian Vickers in their respective cars.
And that’s before I’ve even started to talk about the Nissan Deltawing – what many are calling the most innovative car in motorsport for a decade! There’s plenty of interest wherever you look in all the categories. It’ll certainly be an incredible race on track, and no doubt as usual, a big party off it. It is a race you won’t want to miss.