This time next week the wait will nearly be over for the Le Mans 24 Hours 2017. Anticipation for the on track action will be at its peak and all the cars will be being prepared for action. Here we look at the talking points from a new look prototype field and what we can expect to see during Le Mans 2017.
Toyota vs Porsche
It is the clash of the titans we’ve all been waiting for. This year it is slightly different too, with Toyota, for the first time, bringing three cars to Le Mans. Toyota will be out to right the wrongs of last year, and try out some new talent too. The No. 9 car features returnee Nicolas Lapierre, Japanese Super Formula champion Yuji Kunimoto and WTCC champion Jose Maria Lopez (who was in the No.7, but has been moved to the third car after his shunt at Silverstone cost him a race at Spa, and the experience to go with it).
Whilst the picture at Toyota has been of wholesale changes to technical parts and personnel, at Porsche, the car has taken a much more evolutionary approach, but the driver squad has had a thorough shake up. Out is the retiring Mark Webber, and last year’s Le Mans winners Roman Dumas (here in an Alpine LMP2) and Marc Lieb who is here as a reserve. In has come ex-Audi LMP1 star Andre Lotterer, and returning Le Mans winners from 2015, Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber.
So far it’s been advantage Toyota, winning at Silverstone & Spa and setting the fastest times at the Le Mans Test Day. However, Porsche shouldn’t be counted out, the new (for 2017) 919 has proved quick, using an aero package which wasn’t designed for use at Silverstone and Spa, and its driver set is both experienced and youthful. Who will come out on top? At this point it’s too early to say. One thing’s for sure though, it will be a historic result whatever happens. It’ll either be Toyota’s first victory, or Porsche’s 19th!
Without competition, but still with interest, the ByKolles Racing Team has kept the LMP1 privateer on life-support this year. The Austrian team, with its Nissan-powered CLM P1/01 has the potential to mix in with the new and high powered LMP2s. It may not sound like much, but the car will be fast in a straight line, and should be competing with the top-end LMP2 teams. This year in particular, filling the gap between LMP1-H and LMP2 is not necessary, instead, the team will be excited about the prospect of seeing just how high up the order it can finish.
Oreca vs everyone else in LMP2
The non-Oreca 07 runners could very well be in trouble. At the Le Mans Test Day, with their new low-downforce kits, the Orecas were seconds ahead of the competition, that without even being fastest in a straight line! In the end they finished 1 to 13 in the LMP2 running order, leaving frightened faces at Ligier, Dallara and Riley in their wake. Will this domination continue during race week? It’s distinctly possible. There are contingencies in the rules, to re-balance performance, but it’s by no means clear whether at this point the race officials intend to act. Certainly Ligier, has publicly accepted that its low-drag kit, is not working, with it becoming clear that Dallara has gone far too far down the blindingly fast route, and not nearly far enough on the goes round corners quickly aspect. The commercial future, for this brand new class, could well hinge on what, if anything, emerges in the coming days.
World Endurance Championship vs European Le Mans Series
There has been plenty of discussions over the past couple of years about a perceived gap in standard between the FIA WEC and ELMS LMP2 teams. This will be put to the test next week, as the entire WEC field (all Orecas!) and all but one of the ELMS LMP2 teams are on the entry list. There are entries from the likes of Signatech Alpine, Rebellion, United Autosports, DragonSpeed and G-Drive Racing, some of the best teams in sports car racing. Which series will emerge with the winning, or highest placed car? Time will tell. It’s time to settle the debate!
While there’s strength in numbers for Oreca, Ligier and Dallara at Le Mans, the fourth LMP2 constructor, Riley, has just one bullet in its gun. There are some very good aspects to this programme, mainly Keating Motorsports fielding Jordan Taylor – who has won every IMSA WeatherTech race this year – and ultra-fast Dutchman Jeroen Bleekemolen alongside team owner Ben Keating. The problem though, is that the car has had little testing, particularly with its Le Mans aero set up. The Keating outfit only received the car six weeks ago, but it will receive support from Bill Riley himself and Multimatic at the race week, as Keating is their only customer racing in Europe. They will be desperate to show off what the car can do too, as a good result next week could well boost future sales.
We don’t talk as much about reliability in sports car racing now, because modern machinery is almost bullet proof at times. But this year in LMP2 there is cause for concern when it comes to niggles, serviceability and durability. While the new breed of LMP2 cars have been surprisingly durable, there have been signs that over the course of Le Mans there could be some issues which affect the race.
The electronic systems have had the problems that are the most widespread, with compatibility issues that have caused many teams to lose functions on their steering wheel. Gearboxes, and in particular, gear-shift actuators, have also played up, particularly on the Ligiers. While a race of attrition shouldn’t be expected, the age of the LMP2 cars must be taken into consideration. Expect at least some of the contenders to fall by the wayside, spending unscheduled time in the garage.
One of the more spectacular aspects of this year’s 24 hours is going to be the speed of the new LMP2s. The new Gibson engine, and Le Mans aero has relegated the quickest LMP1 car to 13th on the speed trap in a straight line. The fastest of the bunch is the Dallara P217, which managed 341kph (about 205mph) down the straights during the Test Day. That can be bettered during race week too, when the track gets worn in. The new cars are seriously quick, and will breeze past the GTE cars in a straight line, which should dazzle the spectators on hand, who are used to seeing LMP2s have to fight traffic solely through corners.
It is not quite the GTE tyre war, but LMP2 does have a handful of Michelin and Dunlop runners in the race this year. It is fair to say that not only does Dunlop have the better rubber in ideal conditions, but also the customer base behind it, as there’s only three Michelin-shod cars in the 25-car field. If the conditions take a turn for the worst though, it may throw a spanner in the works, as neither tyre manufacturer has raced in the wet this year.
LMP2’s continued growth has led to many of the world’s best drivers, or most aspirant, wanting to give racing in LMP2 a go. In the field this year are former F1 star Rubens Barichello, Le Mans winner Jan Lammers, ex-F1 drivers Karun Chandhok & Jean-Eric Vergne, LMP1 Audi star Oliver Jarvis, GP2 race-winner Alex Lynn, Formula E champion Nelson Piquet Jnr and Bruno Senna among others.
It is an incredible 75-driver pool this year, and up front should make for a fierce battle for the win!
It is hard to believe that the LMP2 Le Mans lap record is held by Jos Verstappen, in a 2008 Porsche RS Spyder. Since then certain cars have flirted with breaking it but the 3mins:32secs barrier is proving a tough one to break. This year though, it will be shattered, with drivers predicting 3mins:25secs during qualifying. The new LMP2s were lapping quicker than the Pole-time set by the Audi R10 less than a decade ago. It is staggering how far they have come. They are fast down the straights, grippy through the corners, and punchy on exits. They are so fast, that it is going to be like having 31 LMP1 cars on the grid for Le Mans 2017.
Written by Stephen Kilbey
Photography by Dailysportscar