Le Mans 2019: Preview

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Le Mans 2019; it is time for the ‘Super-Season’ finale

After 62 hours of racing across seven rounds, the FIA WEC 2018/19 ‘Super Season comes down to this; the finale at the 87th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours. This season has had everything; close racing, drama, controversy, stars in fast cars, new machinery, dominant performances and it all ends here at Le Mans 2019.

It is easy to overlook Le Mans 2019 as the end of the current FIA World Endurance Championship season, as the Le Mans 24 Hours is an international mega-event and in many ways still stands alone. But much of the teams and drivers within the record 62-car field will be fighting not only for their places in the history of this great motor race, but for points and titles. Quite how the race will pan out with teams factoring in all important hauls of points, is a real unknown. But it can only add to the drama and intrigue that goes with Le Mans 2019.

So just how has the ‘Super Season’ panned out? and what can we expect out of the title battles? Well it all started in May of 2018, at the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, which was a race that, looking back, served as a real taste of what was to come. LMP1, understandably, has been dominated from the off by the sole remaining factory team in the class, Toyota Gazoo Racing. It’s pair of thoroughbred, near bullet-proof TS050 HYBRIDs, driven by six world-class drivers, this year including Fernando Alonso, have been winning convincingly. And aside from a slip up at Silverstone where both Toyotas were excluded post-race, it has been one-way traffic.

Now, the debate surrounding Toyota’s dominance has been somewhat all consuming throughout the season, but the reality is, that whatever the ACO and FIA do to balance the cars (and it’s efforts thus far have been far from perfect), the non-hybrid privateer cars are just not ready yet to go toe-to-toe with Toyota’s tried and tested, cutting edge machines. Rebellion, SMP, DragonSpeed and ByKolles’ efforts haven’t been in vein, and at times the sheer determination from all parties has been nothing short of admirable, but they’d need a lot more development time and money to sniff wins regularly.

Le Mans 2019

That is not to say that Le Mans 2019 can’t throw up surprises, because it Le Mans often does; just ask Toyota, which until last year had a history of spectacular blunders to its name. The 2018 Le Mans 24 Hours almost went ‘too’ smoothly for the Japanese marque, which in search of its first Le Mans win was able to take a controlled approach, with no other brands throwing huge resources at the event. Le Mans 2019  may prove to be different though, as the privateer cars have had a season’s worth of work completed on them, which will help in the reliability department. And it’s been a cocktail of fragility, along with costly driver errors, that have prevented some of the races from being more competitive. If a couple of the chasing pack can keep it clean, and Toyota hits any sort of trouble, then it will be game on. If not, it will be an inter-team battle between the No.7 and The No.8 to decide which trio is crowned World Champions and Le Mans winners. The battle for third place therefore, will be the one to watch in the class. Unless of course, reliability issues hit Toyota as they did at Spa, where the No.7 spent time in the garage with an electrical issue.

The LMP2 category on the other hand has been far more entertaining on track, as Jackie Chan DC Racing and Signatech Alpine have been locked in a season-long battle for the title lead. As it stands it’s advantage Alpine. For Alpine’s trio, consistency has kept them in it. Nicolas Lapierre, Andre Negrao and Pierre Thiriet won the class at Le Mans last year and have been on the podium at every other race. JCDC’s No.38 crew of Gabriel Aubry, Stephane Richelmi and Ho-Pin Tung, meanwhile, trail by just four points after wins at season opener at Spa, Silverstone and Shanghai as well as a second-place finish at Fuji. The big blow came at Sebring, where they could only muster a sixth-place finish after a troubled race on grueling Floridian circuit. At Spa too, in the weather chaos they wouldn’t finish ahead of the Alpine. Can they bounce back at Le Mans 2019, and for one last time pull a win out of the bag and win the title? It’ll be a story line well worth following.

Elsewhere in the full-season WEC LMP2 field, while there are no other contenders for the championship. There is the intrigue of DragonSpeed’s Pastor Maldonado and Anthony Davidson-led ORECA, which has finished on the podium the last three races and looks primed for a big result after a maiden win at Spa, and the new-look No.37 JCDC squad. A mid-season driver crew change for the No.37 car has eliminated it from the title race, but the addition of Briton Jordan King, American IMSA ace Ricky Taylor and super Gentlemen driver David Heinemeier Hansson to the field means further depth for the class. And it’s a class which oozes quality and now features 20 cars at Le Mans 2019 since the late surprise announcement that two extra garages will be built for the race.

For those of you track-side at Le Mans 2019 it is the GTE ranks, that will provide much of the excitement and drama, and for good reason, as both GTE Pro and Am are stacked with quality entries and are likely to play host to the closest racing. GTE Pro this year has had it ups and downs, and its fair share of drama up and down the field, but it’s been Porsche that has led the way with consistency. The German marque, against such stiff competition has taken control of the Drivers points battles and sealed the Manufacturers’ title at Spa. The foundations for its success have been laid throughout the season, thanks to its two screaming-mid-engined 911 RSRs taking wins at Le Mans, Fuji and Sebring, and scoring further podiums at every round. While the other teams have struggled to find any form, Porsche’s GT Team has been at times dominant, which is more than just impressive in a Balance of Performance-controlled formula. Michael Christensen and Kevin Estre in the team’s No.92 911 RSR have been the stars here, and head to the finale with a 36-point lead over their teammates in the No.91.

Le Mans 2019

Le Mans is its own race though, and all the other factories will be gunning for glory. After a slow start to its life as the flagship model, Aston Martin will hope its Vantage AMRs can challenge for their first win at La Sarthe, as too will BMW with its M8 GTEs. The older Ford GTs and AF Corse-run Ferraris too will of course be in the mix here, and have to fight not only their full-season competition, but the annual slew of IMSA guest entries (including of course two thunderous Corvettes) that will also be throwing the kitchen sink at Le Mans 2019.

GTE Am on the other hand, is a tighter points battle after seven of the eight races this season. It has been a roller-coaster in the pro-am division of GTE, with some of the best door-to-door action we’ve seen of any class, and a sprinkling of controversy to keep it all interesting. It looked almost certain that the No.88 Dempsey Proton Racing Porsche was going to march to the title, after winning Le Mans and Silverstone last year and scoring well at Spa, but at Fuji, it all changed. A huge penalty was handed to the team for a data logger infraction in Japan with the WEC opting to dock the team all its points. This hammering of the reset button for the class vaulted WEC debutant Team Project 1 into the title lead. It’s drivers Jorg Bergmeister, Patrick Lindsey and Egidio Perfetti have been strong all year, and as a trio getting stronger. They’ve shown consistency with four podiums and a win at Fuji. And even when the team had its backs against the wall at Sebring, after a huge fire in the pre-event test forced it to freight a spare car from Europe on short notice during race week, they still finished third. Another big result here would seal it, but after a slip up at Spa closed the points gap, of the five teams mathematically still in the fight, Spirit of Race and Aston Martin Racing in particular will be keen to win big in France and bring the end of the season to a fitting crescendo. There will be drama, especially as GTE AM is 17-cars strong for Le Mans 2019, thanks to the additional guest cars from Asia and Europe.

LMP1 Standings
1st.
No. 8 Toyota TS050 HYBRID – Fernando Alonso, Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima: 160 points
2nd. No. 7 Toyota TS050 HYBRID – Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopex: 129 points
3rd.  No. 3 Rebellion R-13 Gibson – Thomas Laurent, Gustavo Menezes and Mathias Beche: 99 points

LMP2 Standings
1st
  No. 36 Signatech Alpine A460 – Nicolas Lapierre, Pierre Thiriet & Andre Negrao: 143 points
2nd No. 38 Jackie Chan DC Racing ORECA – Ho Pin Tung, Gabriel Aubry and Stephane Richelmi: 139 points

GTE Pro Drivers Standings
1st
No.92 Porsche 911 RSR – Michael Christensen and Kevin Estre: 140 points
2nd No.91 Porsche 911 RSR – Gianmaria Bruni, Richard Lietz: 104 points
3rd No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari 488 – James Calado, Alessandro Pier Guidi: 98.5 points

GTE Am Drivers Standings
1st:
No. 56 Team Project 1 Porsche, Jorg Bergmeister, Patrick Lindsey and Egidio Perfetti: 130 points
2nd No. 54 Spirit of Race Ferrari, Thomas Flohr, Francesco Castellacci and Giancarlo Fisichella: 119 points
3rd No. 98 Aston Martin Racing Vantage, Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda: 87 points

Written by Stephen Kilbey
Photography by Dailysportscar.com