The Future at Le Mans
Upon reflection, the 2019 Le Mans 24 Hours was significant. Not necessarily for the racing, which at times was spectacular, but for what the week showed us about the future of top-level sportscar racing and the forthcoming 2019/20 FIA World Endurance Championship season which starts in August. From the ACO Press Conference held before the race, until the flag on fell on Sunday afternoon crowning the winners, a picture was painted of what is to come in Le Mans 2020 and beyond.
Much of the talk in the paddock surrounded the 2020/21 season, which will mark the beginning of the new ‘Hypercar Prototype’ era. But, before the ACO confirmed that the new regulations have been finalised, it revealed next year’s FIA WEC entry list, which is 33 cars strong for the full season. And it is a very strong selection of cars that are set to take on, what many would assume will be a rather forgettable season. But, after the Le Mans 24 Hours we’ve just seen, the next campaign looks to have real potential.
The key for many, will be the competitiveness of the LMP1 class. What we saw at La Sarthe marked tremendous progress, with Rebellion and SMP challengers producing blistering lap times and battling with each other throughout the race. Were the privateers able to keep tabs with Toyota come race time? Not quite. Though there are real signs of improvement.The lap time produced by SMP Racing’s fastest BR1 AER in qualifying was quicker than any Audi or Porsche LMP1 time, and Rebellion with its developmental Gibson engine was able to get close to matching that. A year on from the cars’ Le Mans debut, the raw performance was sublime and the reliability is certainly getting there. It made for a race for third overall that kept everyone guessing throughout. It looked for much of the race, especially after the No.17 SMP Racing AER had an off during the night, that Rebellion Racing would take the final podium spot on offer, but a series of errors and mechanical issues meant its chances faded late in the race for the Swiss team, leading to its Russian rival taking third.
At Toyota, there was an inter-team battle which came down to the final hour of the race when a sensor issue diagnosed a puncture, but for the wrong tyre on the leading No.7 TS050 HYBRID. This caused the Toyota team to pit Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez’s car twice for two unscheduled tyre changes, dropping the car to second. Hearts sank in the garage, after such a commanding performance could only produce a second place finish, behind Fernando Alonso, Kazuki Nakajima and Sebastien Buemi who took a second win at Le Mans and the World Drivers’ Championship in the process. It was strange to see an LMP1 podium at Le Mans such little jubilation shown from the winners.
Next season, with a fresh approach to balancing the cars in the top class, the ACO hopes we will see the privateer pack (which will include a pair of Team LNT Ginetta G60-LT-P1’s, now powered by AER engines) go head-to-head with Toyota after further development to their cars. Toyota does too, as such dominance, after a while, doesn’t add any further value to its programme ahead of its 2020/21 ‘Hypercar’ Programme.
And Toyota has now formally committed to a ‘Hypercar Protoype’. The Japanese marque one of two makes that are set to do battle in the first year of the new regulations. Toyota continuing its programme isn’t much of a surprise, as it has made it clear for over a year now that should the regulations support development of a hybrid system, it would carry on its sportscar programme. Thus we have Toyota Gazoo Racing hybrid-powered protyotypes, which will be styled to look like the forthcoming GR Super Sport Concept to look forward to. Excited? Those behind the programme certainly are, after a long wait for the regulations to be finalised.
The other factory that will take part is Aston Martin. The British marque is set to return to the top class of sportscar racing for the first time since prior to the Hybrid era began. Its last attempt at overall Le Mans glory was forgettable, with the AMR-One prototype not worthy of the brand’s rich history. But the brand looks very different now, inside and out, and this programme will bring together multiple parties associated with its motorsport commitments, who are all capable of delivering the goods. Aston Martin will race “at least two” non-hybrid, V12-powered Valkyries, designed by Adrian Newey, the man behind Red Bull Racing’s successes in F1, with financial support from AF Racing, which runs its new DTM programme and has been competing in the GT3 ranks in recent years. The new Aston ‘Hypercar’ programme will not affect Prodrive’s current GTE effort, which continues to win races in the FIA WEC’s GTE Pro class up against other factories. And that’s huge news, as GTE has taken a hit with the confirmed departure of both BMW and Ford in the past two months.
But the FIA WEC’s long-term viability will hinge on the success of its top class, which looks set to be filled with both factory and privateer teams, Glickenhaus and ByKolles are currently still insistent that they will race too. Beyond Year 1, further manufacturers are expected to join too. McLaren is still on the verge of green-lighting a programme and Porsche is also deep into the evaluation process. And that is just two of the brands still ‘in the room’.
Where does all this leave the other classes? LMP2 will continue to be healthy. Eight cars are on the FIA WEC entry for next season, with another strong set of drivers expected to do battle for some of the more professional prototype teams in the world. There’s a real chance that when ‘Hypercar Prototype’ takes over, then the current LMP2 cars will need to be slowed, as the pace of the ACO’s new breed are not expected to be capable of matching the supreme pace of the current LMP1s. And that’s OK, if the racing is exciting, and the formula attracts a strong number of entries, then few will complain. This will be especially true if the rule-makers can find a way to allow IMSA DPis to come and play at Le Mans and fight the ‘Hypercar Prototypes’ for the overall win. The performance window is similar and Scott Atherton insists that IMSA and the ACO’s relationship “is as strong as its ever been”.
What about GTE? Well Porsche, Ferrari and Aston Martin are all still committed with factory teams. Will Corvette bring its new C8R to Le Mans, which is currently being developed to the world stage? Unlikely, but there’s certainly a chance of some guest entries here and there. Luckily the customer ranks of GTE are booming. GTE Am will be the biggest class in the FIA WEC field next season, and the level of interest is showing no signs of waning.
After months of rumours, speculations and negativity as the ACO and FIA have put together its plans for the years ahead. We have heard positivity and plenty of it. Of course this has all come later than most would have liked, and both Aston Martin and Toyota will have to work unbelievably hard in the background during the next FIA WEC season to ensure it can make the start of the 2020/21 season with its new cars. But, a grid is forming, and if Aston Martin can take the fight to Toyota when it takes this bold step, then a new era will begin, and others will likely follow their lead.
Written by Stephen Kilbey
Photography by Dailysportscar
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