There’s less than a week to go until the 80th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours, another classic event in this year of grand anniversaries following the 60th Sebring 12 Hours, 50th Daytona 24 Hours and the 40th Nürburgring 24 Hours. Last weekend’s Test Day gave an opportunity to see just what the order of battle is likely to be during the race. This year the Test Day took place just two weeks before the race and a week before Scrutineering, which was both to help out competitors in the American Le Mans Series and to reduce the costs for all the teams otherwise having to ship their cars, personnel and gear over to France twice in a month.
The big news was the inaugural running out of the pair of LMP1 Toyota TS030 Hybrids. Also on show was the Nissan Deltawing. Would it go round corners?…
The two four-hour sessions on Test Day are more than just an opportunity to turn a wheel on the Circuit De La Sarthe: they’re a vital part of the build-up to the race, at which drivers who have never raced at Le Mans or who haven’t raced there recently must put in 10 laps around the track to assure their participation. Eight hours sounds a lot, but in reality it meant a packed programme for the teams to both set cars up for race week and qualify their new drivers.
In total we’ll see 56 cars compete for this year’s 24 Hours, split across three main classes. Firstly, LMP1: Le Mans Prototype 1, purpose-built, open-top or closed coupés sporting an F1-style fin on the rear bodywork. LMP2 is a cost-capped formula aimed at privateers: slightly less powerful than LMP1s and at least one driver must be an amateur. The production car-based GTE class is split into two divisions, Pro and Am, for all-professional line-ups in brand new cars and part-amateur crews in year-old cars. These cars will all be fighting in one big pack come the race.
There’s a long list of ex-F1 drivers sprinkled through the field, including Martin Brundle (LMP2 Greaves Zytek-Nissan), Nick Heidfeld (LMP1 Rebellion Lola-Toyota), Sebastian Bourdais, Nicolas Minassian (both LMP1 Pescarolo Dome), Pedro Lamy (GTE Corvette C6.R), Allan McNish (Audi e-tron), Marc Gené (Audi R18 ultra), Stefan Johansson (LMP2 Gulf Lola), Karun Chandok (LMP1 JRM HPD-03a), Anthony Davidson, Stéphane Sarrazin, Alexander Wurz and Sebastian Buemi (all LMP1 Toyota). NASCAR star Brian Vickers will also be making his Le Mans debut in the #61 AF Corse-Waltrip Ferrari 458 Italia.
There have been a number of further important changes made to the legendary track itself since last year: in the late Summer of 2011, 5.4km of the Les Hunaudières straight was resurfaced from Tertre Rouge to the Mulsanne corner, excluding just a small section at the Mulsanne hump. This is a track used for 360-odd days a year by diesel-spewing articulated lorries rather than diesel-guzzling sports prototypes, and the resurfacing will make a huge improvement to the performance of the cars down the long straights both for speed and stability. Vaguely straight Les Hunaudières might be, but flat it definitely isn’t, and previously cars would get caught up in ruts created by the trucks. Arnage corner has also been revised, with a big run-off area and gravel trap added.
There are 13 LMP1 competitors: the top tier at Le Mans and the place from which the winner is all but guaranteed to come from short of a Martian attack. Audi are the clear favourites, having hoovered up 10 wins since 2000: they’ve entered two pairs of diesel R18s: two R18 e-tron Quattros hopped up with electricity and two lightweight R18 Ultras rocking regular turbo-diesel power.
It’s in wet conditions where it looks like the e-tron Quattros will have the real advantage. These hybrids utilise the Williams F1-developed flywheel energy recovery system alongside the main turbo-diesel powerplant, pushing power to the front wheels to give effective four-wheel drive.
However, there are some rule changes that will affect the Audis: petrol-powered LMP1 cars (including the Toyota of course) can now only carry 73 litres of fuel – the diesel-engined R18 ultras can only carry 60 litres (a five-litre reduction from 2011), and the hybrid e-tron Quattros just 58 litres. So, fuel consumption could be a ray of hope for the privateer LMP1 runners. That said, despite the reduction, R18s were occasionally squeezing an extra lap out on the Test Day compared to last year, regularly putting in 12-lap stints…
With Peugeot’s shock exit, Toyota were put under pressure to step up to a full programme a year earlier than expected both to provide some competition to Audi and to satisfy the regulations for the championship status of the series. Remember that this year the Le Mans 24 Hours is once again a round of a world championship for the first time since 1992, as it’s the third round of the 2012 FIA World Endurance Championship.
After no-shows at the opening rounds of the WEC in Sebring and Spa and an accident in testing, not many people were expecting Toyota to be so strong out of the box. But the core of this team comprises Toyota’s Formula 1 personnel and uses their high-tech facilities in Germany, plus race support is being provided by the expertise of the French Oreca team. All the stops have been pulled out to make this a viable programme in the short period of time available, and the initial results look very encouraging.
It was a welcome surprise to see the two Toyotas right up there with the R18s during Test Day. There could yet be a race, reliability allowing, and Toyota may well take the hare approach: go for pole glory and lead as many laps as possible before the possibly inevitable problems occur. The signs are there: Toyotas set the highest top speeds through the traps of over 330kph – three or four kph faster than the Audis.
The Toyota’s electric hybrid system delivers power to the rear wheels, supplementing the power from the TS030’s 3.4-litre V8 petrol engine; amongst the six drivers controlling that power are several cherry-picked from the folded Peugeot squad, at least providing some positives from the closure of the 908 programme.
To accommodate the KERS on the Audi e-trons and Toyotas, the ACO have designated seven braking zones around the track between which the cars can utilise their harvested braking energy. In addition, for the electrically front-driven Audis, the car must be running above 120kph for the system to be live.
Of course, Audi hold four aces compared to Toyota’s pair of jokers – though force of numbers didn’t stop Peugeot’s meltdown in 2010 and Audi didn’t have things go all their own way on Test Day: McNish went off at Tertre Rouge late in the session and both e-trons suffered minor niggles.
Behind the six factory cars – and unfortunately on raw pace they are some way behind – is the unofficial LMP1-bis petrol-powered class. This will see a great battle, as these teams will be fighting both against each other and also to capitalise on any problems that befall Audi or Toyota. Though hardly slow in their own right, reliability and consistency will be the way that these cars can be near the front come 3pm on Sunday.
HPD showed well at the Test Day, with the #21 Strakka HPD-03a setting the fastest LMP1 time behind the factory teams. Strakka took LMP2 honours in 2010 before moving up to the premiere class last year – the HPD-03a is a fast and reliable package and should show well.
Also running an HPD is the JRM team, with Le Mans winner David Brabham on the team alongside Peter Dumbreck and Karun Chandok.
We’ll be running a live stream from the JRM team throughout the 24 Hours – there will be some amazing footage coming from the car during the race, plus plenty of behind the scenes coverage.
Rebellion are running a pair of Lola B12/60 coupés in Lotus colours powered by fast, reliable Toyota V8s, and can be expected to be right in the mix. The #12 car will be the one to watch, with Nicolas Prost, son of F1 champion Alain, Swiss hotshot Neel Jani and ex-F1 driver Nick Heidfeld on its roster.
The popular French team Pescarolo, run by multiple Le Mans winner Henri, is back with two cars new to them. The first sees the return of Japanese constructor Dome, with Pescarolo fielding a heavily revised S102.5 coupé with a driver line-up that includes Sebastian Bourdais.
Then there’s another surprise: the spectacularly unsuccessful Aston Martin AMR One from 2011 is back, having undergone some serious surgery at the Pescarolo factory. Pesca have taken the FIA crash-tested base tub and built up a new car (the same reason that the Deltawing also uses an AMR One tub): it’s no more pretty than the original Aston was, but let’s hope it displays far more reliability.
A test it might have been, but Test Day still claimed casualties: for instance the #44 Starworks HPD clouted the barriers and wiped off the rear of the LMP2 car, and the #15 Oak Racing Pesca had a heavy impact that injured the driver, Guillaume Moreau, and has counted him out of the 24 Hours. The #61 AF Corse-Waltrip Ferrari 458 also swiped the barriers, taking off the rear of the Ferrari, and several other cars also had minor but repairable offs. Moreau suffered severe back injuries, but thankfully the prognosis is positive for his recovery; he has subsequently been replaced in #15 by yet another ex-F1 driver, Franck Montagny.
In the second-division LMP2 field there are no less than 20 entries, and quick ones at that. This used to be a fast but fragile class, but recent evidence shows that these lightweight prototypes are coming of age and the fastest cars will be bothering the slower LMP1s. Nissan dominates the class, supplying engines to 13 of the 20 LMP2s. BMW-Judd power another five and Honda a further pair.
Oreca are the primary chassis manufacturer, with eight Oreca 03 on the grid; HPDs, Lolas and Zytek comprise the remainder, with carpentry specialists Morgan rebadging the Pescarolo chassis of the two Oak Racing LMP2s. There’s also a single Norma holding up French pride. After the crash for their LMP1 car, Oak Racing had better news in this class on Test day as they were the fastest in LMP2.
In GTE there are two sub-classes: GTE-Pro for all-professional crews and GTE-Am for amateur squads usually bolstered by a pro. Nine Pro cars are backed up by 13 Am entries. Luxury Racing’s #59 Ferrari 458 Italia topped the GTE times at the Test Day, though less than a tenth of a second ahead of the fastest Corvette. Two seconds covered the top 10 GTE cars, a mix of Pro and Am, and we’re likely to see even more cars covered by an even smaller difference come Qualifying. These cars will be lapping around 30 seconds off the mid-three minute pace of the factory LMP1s.
AF Corse have a quartet of Ferrari 458s entered thanks to their success on both sides of the Atlantic last year: they have two running in Pro and two in Am, with one of the Am cars run in conjunction with Michael Waltrip. Waltrip raced last year (until the unfortunate accident between their Ferrari and an Audi), but in 2012 is tied up with TV work and will step down from driving duties.
Corvette have split their winning line-up from 2011 across their two C6.Rs: Tommy Milner drives in #74 and Antonio Garcia in #73, with Olivier Beretta having jumped ship to Ferrari – he’ll drive in the #71 AF CorseFerrari.
Aston Martin’s new Vantage V8 headed GTE-Am, infiltrating the upper echelons of GTE-Pro and even outpacing the sister Pro Vantage.
Porsche are not out of this. They may have had a painful run during the 2011 Le Mans 24 Hours and aren’t on the outright pace of the other GTE cars, but you can never count Porsche out of an endurance race. Felbermayr-Proton won the Spa round of the WEC and will be looking to smart strategy calls to bring them back into the game during the 24 Hours.
Finally, there is the Deltawing, the doyen of the special 56th garage. Not only did it run at the Test Day, but it ran quickly. Its fastest lap of 3m47.980s was enough to put it 32nd overall and at LMP2 pace. The car suffered no problems and the drivers reported it as very easy to drive, so with a clear set-up path ahead of them it will be interesting to see how the Deltawing performs in the 24 Hours. It certainly doesn’t look like being the white elephant (black sheep?) some were expecting…
Technical scrutineering ahead of the race started on Sunday, and finish on Monday evening; the first track live action will be the four-hour Free Practice session at 4pm on Wednesday afternoon, by which time Speedhunters will be on site. On Thursday we’ll have our first sight of the Group C celebration, plus another pair of two-hour qualifying sessions for the 24 Hours in the evening. Friday is reserved for the public pit-walk and the driver parade in Le Mans town. Then it’s Saturday and the start of the longest day at the end of the longest week…
Le Mans 24 Hours 2012
Test Day times
1: LMP1 #2 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18 e-tron Quattro (Capello/Kristensen/McNish) 3:25.927s
2: LMP1 #1 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18 e-tron Quattro (Fässler/Lotterer/Tréluyer) 3:26.468s
3: LMP1 #3 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18 ultra (Dumas/Duval/Gené) 3:26.561s
4: LMP1 #7 Toyota Racing TS030 Hybrid (Wurz/Lapierre/Nakajima) 3:27.204s
5: LMP1 #8 Toyota Racing TS030 Hybrid (Davidson/Buemi/Sarrazin) 3:28.298s
7: LMP1 #21 Strakka Racing HPD-03a (Leventis/Watts/Kane) 3:34.243s
13: LMP2 #35 Oak Racing Morgan (Heinemeier-Hansson/Nicolet) 3:41.291s
40: GTE-Pro #59 Luxury Racing Ferrari 458 Italia (Makowiecki/Melo/Farnbacher) 3:58.869s
43: GTE-Am #99 Aston Martin Racing Vantage V8 (Simonsen/Nygaard/Poulsen) 3:59.938s