RELIABILITY, FUEL EFFICIENCY AND STRATEGY WILL DECIDE, WRITES COLIN SMITH
If form at the early season World Endurance Championship 6-Hour races means anything at all then a Porsche 919 Hybrid will qualify on pole position for this weekend’s Le Mans 24 Hours, an Audi R18 e-tron quattro has the best chance of victory and reigning endurance world champions Toyota face an uphill struggle.
That’s the form guide at its simplest. Then add the usual Le Mans variables: weather, accidents and safety car interventions, lapped traffic and the reliability factor for a race that will see the leading cars travel in excess of 5000km — the equivalent of about 17 Formula 1 Grands Prix — and predictions can soon be rendered worthless.
One certainty is that this year’s evolution of the LMP1 Hybrid cars will be faster around the 13.6km La Sarthe circuit than last year.
The recent official test day saw limited dry running and the track didn’t develop a clean line. However, the latest LMP1 cars were able to slightly better last year’s pole position time while the LMP2 and GT cars lapped slower than the 2014 test-day pace.
Kiwi Brendon Hartley’s 3m 21.061s lap saw Porsche set the test-day pace and it seems likely pole position will be under 3m 20s — and possibly faster than the record 3m 18.513s pole time Stephane Sarrazin set in a Peugeot 908 diesel in 2008.
Test day also suggested that Porsche may be able to run one lap further than its rivals on a full tank of fuel. Porsche regularly achieved 14-lap stints last year and repeated that on test day.
Audi and Toyota look like running 13-lap stints again. The Le Mans circuit is 13.6km long and the LMP1 fuel tanks are small so stops occur every 40 to 45 minutes.
It’s easy to look at Audi’s 13 Le Mans wins since 2000 and say the German marque has dominated. There’s no doubting the strength of this year’s competition but in Audi’s favour is that it knows how to win Le Mans. Toyota has never won. Porsche holds the record with 16 victories but hasn’t won in this century. Audi has won Le Mans in many different ways, sometimes with the fastest car and at other times through reliability or through strategic brilliance with fuel efficiency and tyre management.
The 6-Hour form this year suggests Audi has the advantage over longer runs. Gentle tyre wear makes a real difference at endurance racing where pit stops don’t allow teams to work on the car while refuelling. Changing tyres every third or fourth stop is a big advantage.
Toyota had the fastest cars at Le Mans last year but one car was delayed for an hour repairing damage and its leading car was halted by a wiring problem. So far this year it appears the revised Toyota TS040 has been left behind in the development race by an all-new Porsche and a much-updated Audi.
The leading Toyota finished three laps behind the race-winning Audi at the Spa-Francorchamps 6-Hours and was 4.2s off Hartley’s test-day pace. Porsche has upped its Le Mans effort from two cars in 2014 to a third car this year.
The programme gained momentum with its maiden WEC win last year in Brazil and a completely new car this year has shown a combination of outright pace, some minor reliability issues and a bigger appetite for tyres than Audi.
Then there’s Nissan. The front-engine, front-wheel-drive GTR-LM Nismo turns modern prototype design back-to-front. It’s too early for Nissan success. The team missed the first two WEC races and at test day was 20s off the pace — but interestingly fastest through the speed trap which suggests the aero concept works as intended. The project is so young that if one car reaches the finish Nissan will have built valuable momentum for its WEC campaign.
So a Porsche on pole and an Audi race victory. There’s only 24 hours of racing on one of the world’s most challenging tracks, 30-plus pit stops, slower traffic to negotiate, safety cars and pure racing luck between a simple prediction and race day reality.
Four New Zealanders line up
Kiwis A record four New Zealanders will contest the race. Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber are factory Porsche LMP1 drivers and in the running for outright honours. GP2 Series drivers Mitch Evans and Richie Stanaway are chasing class success. Evans drives Jota Sport which won the LMP2 last year. Stanaway is a factory Aston Martin driver in one of the team’s trio of Vantage V8 GTE-Pro entries.
Format Practice Wed, 4pm-8pm. Qualifying Wed 10pm-midnight, Thurs 7pm-9pm and 10pm-midnight. Starts Sat 3pm (Sun 1am NZ time).
Classes 4 classes; LMP1 prototypes (all pro drivers); LMP2 prototypes (at least one amateur), GTE-Pro (GT cars, all pro drivers), GTE-Am (GT cars, at least two amateurs).
Coverage English language commentary on radiolemans.com; official website 24h-lemans.com; also see FIA WEC ipad app
LMP1 Hybrid contenders
Toyota Racing — Toyota TS040 Hybrid 1 Anthony Davidson (Britain), Sebastien Buemi (Switzerland), Kazuki Nakajima (Japan) 2 Alexander Wurz (Austria), Stephane Sarrazin (France), Mike Conway (Britain)
Audi Sport Team Joest — Audi R18 e-tron quattro 7 Marcel Fassler (Switzerland), Andre Lotterer (Germany), Benoit Treluyer (France) 8 Lucas di Grassi (Brazil), Loic Duval (France), Oliver Jarvis (Britain) 9 Filipe Albuquerque (Portugal), Marco Bonanomi (Italy), Rene Rast (Germany)
Porsche 919 Hybrid 17 Timo Bernhard (Germany), Mark Webber (Australia), Brendon Hartley (NZ) 18 Romain Dumas (France), Neel Jani (Switzerland), Marc Lieb (Germany) 19 Nico Hulkenberg (Germany), Earl Bamber (NZ), Nick Tandy (Britain)
Nissan Motorsports — Nissan GT-R LM Nismo 21 Tsugio Matsuda (Japan), Mark Shulzhitsky (Russia), Lucas Ordonez (Spain) 22 Harry Tincknell (Britain), Michael Krumm (Germany), Alex Buncombe (Britain) 23 Olivier Pla (France), Jann Mardenborough (Britain), Max Chilton (Britain)