When Porsche announced its withdrawal from LMP1 earlier this year, it appeared to many, to be a near-fatal blow to the future of top-line prototype racing and most notably for Le Mans 2018. But, since Porsche followed Audi in fleeing the LMP1 Hybrid ranks in exchange for a cheaper Formula E project in the wake of the emissions scandal, privateer teams and Toyota have stepped up to the plate. And to the surprise of many, everything is falling into place. Like the GTE field, LMP1 looks set to be healthy, and provide us with one of the most intriguing Le Mans 24 Hours in recent memory in 2018.
Toyota is set to return, meaning the hybrid era in LMP1 is not yet over! The Japanese marque announced its intention to return at the WEC end-of-season gala in Bahrain, meaning we will get at least two more chances to see some of the most technologically advanced racing cars at La Sarthe. It’s a decision which appears to be part of a strategy to continue racing at Le Mans into the 2020 regulations cycle, should the new rules attract other marques back to the fold.
For Le Mans 2018, Toyota is likely to come back with a two-car effort, utilising 2017 TS050 HYBRIDs with minor upgrades. In addition to the hoards of fans that will be interested in seeing Toyota as a marque try once again win its first Le Mans, it may also be a landmark race in the driver ranks. As it stands, it looks incredibly likely that two-time F1 world champion Fernando Alonso will commit to racing with Toyota at Le Mans and in the FIA WEC, after he tested with the team at Bahrain after the season finale.
His LMP1 debut in Sakhir was the first step in his drive at Le Mans, in his pursuit of motorsport’s ‘Triple Crown’, following on from his impressive Indy 500 debut last year, which he retired from after leading a significant portion of the race. If he does come and play, then it will certainly be unmissable, as it will be fascinating to see how he performs aboard what is a very different machine to his usual McLaren F1 car.
But who will Toyota race against? Well, over the last two months there have been a slew of announcements, the privateer grid set to rise from a single entry to more than seven; resulting in what should be an LMP1 grid for Le Mans 2018, the biggest it’s been since 2015.
This week saw Rebellion Racing throw their hat in to the ring by returning to the LMP1 class, after a short detour to win the FIA WEC LMP2 Championship in 2017. Rebellion are likely to bring 2 Oreca LMP1s to the start line in June (although this has yet to be confirmed at the time of writing). They have confirmed a driver line-up with considerable experience and well capable of being on the top step of the podium. Andre Lotterer & Neel Jani will join Bruno Senna and Mathius Beche alongside Gustavo Menezes and rookie of the year Thomas Laurent.
In the Ginetta camp, TRS Racing/Manor is the only confirmed outfit so far; the former Formula One team, with Chinese backing confirming a single LMP1 entry with Ginetta last month. The team has yet to confirm which engine or tyre supplier it will use, or whether a second car is on the cards; either way though, they’re locked in for a serious effort.
Then we have DragonSpeed, the newly-crowned ELMS champion, which is set to be the first American-flagged LMP1 effort in FIA WEC history. The team, run by Elton Julian, will race with a Dallara BR1 LMP1 chassis and a Gibson engine. The choice to go with BR Engineering’s Dallara-built chassis comes after extended talks with ORECA, though the French constructor was unable to commit to supplying the team within the required time frame.
In addition to that, SMP Racing will also compete with BR1s, though the Russian team will race with two cars, and a different engine; an updated AER P60B twin-turbo V6. The Russian team’s driver line-up should be strong for its Le Mans assault, the team having already tested the car at length, IndyCar veteran Mikhail Aleshin and ex-F1 driver Vitaly Petrov.
ByKolles has also confirmed its participation, the Austrian team making the announcement after a three-day test at Motorland Aragon last week in which it ran its Enso CLM P1/01, powered by the same NISMO engine as 2016. In Spain, ByKolles tested regular British drivers James Rossiter and Oliver Webb, in addition to single seater ace Tom Dillman, GT Asian Champion Edoardo Liberati and Mikael Grenier.
The confirmation from the team brings the total number of confirmed entries to nine for next season, although there are other programmes believed to be in the works.
Manor may run with a second Ginetta, in addition the other possible teams in talks with the Yorkshire-based marque. Ginetta is believed to still be in active discussions with its unnamed customer, which said back in the summer that it will purchase three cars, as well as a third outfit, that’s yet to make any sort of public announcement.
LMP2 constructor ORECA is also rumoured to still be working on supplying an LMP1 chassis for the ‘Super Season.’ The French company is known to have fielded interest from several teams, and is believed to favour working with just one for the upcoming season. Whether any plans come together or not though, remains to be seen, with much of its focus on the Acura Penske DPi effort that will debut at the Dyatona 24 Hours in January.
Beyond this, there are other teams within the FIA WEC and beyond that are evaluating, or have already evaluated programmes.
Nevertheless, even with what we have already confirmed, there’s nine cars on the list, a growth of five cars from this season. Within that there’s set to be a variety of chassis, and engine supplier too, which should make Le Mans as un-predictable as ever. Whether or not privateer entries can go toe-to-toe with Toyota is a question yet to be answered, but the ACO’s plan is to balance the both factory and private entries in performance terms, leaving Toyota with an advantage only in the efficiency department.
With so many new cars, and the potential for some real superstar driver talent to join the ranks, Le Mans in 2018 is set to be a corker; and with more announcements on the way, it can only get better.
Could we see more than 10 LMP1 cars on the grid at Le Mans next year? Yes, and if we do, you’ll want to be there to see how that pans out trackside!
Written by Stephen Kilbey
Photography by Dailysportscar
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