Le Mans 24 Hours 2013 Preview: LM Prototypes

We continue our Le Mans 2013 preview with a look at the front end of the grid and the Le Mans Prototypes.

This year’s Le Mans 24 Hours could be very fine indeed.  Though many feared the worst when Peugeot withdrew from the sport a couple of years ago, the return of Toyota and their challenge to Audi’s dominance has spiced the sportscar world up once more.  Not only that, but LMP2’s ranks are still swelled to bursting and GTE is looking fine once more, with Porsche’s factory return and Aston’s improved form a strong rival to Ferrari.

So what can we expect from this year’s 90th anniversary of the Le Mans 24 Hours?

LMP1: (identified by red door cards)

Sportscar racing’s top drawer remains the preserve, solely, of the factories.  Audi, who have dominated the sport for more than a decade, still prevail but Toyota have made strides and will not be left behind in 2013.  Both cars, the R18 e-tron quattro from Audi and the TS030 from Toyota are hybrids, both nominally have enough space to fit a driver and passenger side by side but that’s just about where the similarities end.

The Audi R18 e-tron quattro has a turbodiesel V6 (a single turbo, mounted inbetween the banks of cylinders) and the Toyota TS030 an aspirated petrol V8.  The Japanese manufacturer has its hybrid powering the rear wheels, the Germans choosing the fronts.  The cars even have strongly differing aerodynamic philosophies.

Who will win?  Well, so far Toyota have been roundly defeated in both FIA World Endurance Championship events this year.  That doesn’t really tell the whole story, though, as they ran the first round with two 2012 cars and only debuted the redesigned 2013 car at Spa. The car raced alongside a 2012 team mate and retired after showing good pace.  Audi, meanwhile, were a little surprised to see their 2012 car beat their 2013 at Sebring (largely thanks to fuel and tyre consumption advantages) so they’ve put extra hard work into a ‘long tail’ update for Le Mans.  Don’t be fooled by the moniker, though, as it is now the same length as the Toyota’s ‘short tail’.

The driving squads are strong in both camps.  Andre Lotterer, Marcel Fässler and Benoit Tréluyer, who have won the last two Le Mans 24 Hours, stand out.  They’ve struck a balance between pace and consistency that the others have really struggled to match recently and their combination in Audi No.1 probably starts as favourites.

Their team mates might have a say in that, though.  Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish, Loic Duval take No. 2 and they will be hungry – McNish, particularly, has a point to prove after last year’s late accident and was on sumptious form at Silverstone.  The third car could be very impressive.  Marc Gene, Oilvier Jarvis, Lucas di Grassi take the reins and Ferrari F1 test driver Gene, in particular, was mighty last season.

Toyota’s drivers do not lack the pace of the Audi pilots.  Alexander Wurz, Nicolas Lapierre, Kazuki Nakajima in No.7 and Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi, Stéphane Sarrazin in No.8 are near dream line ups.  Wurz is one of the finest sportscar pilots of modern times, and his experience will be key to calming Nakajima’s edge – the Japanese was a little too aggressive for some last season.  Davidson’s scary crash last year prematurely ended what could have been a mighty run – 2011’s charge for Peugeot was superb and he’ll be well up for the challenge.

It’s unlikely any of the privateer LMP1 cars stand a chance of a win – though Neel Jani, Nick Heidfeld and Nico Prost are all fast, their Rebellion Racing Lola simply isn’t as cutting edge as the factory efforts.  The same goes for Strakka, and despite the best efforts of rapid Brits Danny Watts and Jonny Kane, the HPD chassis is not on the works pace.

LMP2: (identified by red door cards)

Once again, LMP2 has too many good cars to mention them all.  The second class of prototype racing, with chassis regulations largely similar to P1 but loosely production based engines, is full to brim.  The class, which sees at least one ‘amateur’ silver rated driver in every car, is probably the most open on the grid.  Picking a winner would take a very, very brave man.

OAK Racing Morgan could be very, very hard to beat – if they can get over reliability issues that plagued them last year.  Their No. 24, with fastest-man-not-to-drive-for-a-factory Olivier Pla paired with Alex Brundle and probably-the-fastest-IT-specialist-in-the-world David Heinemeier Hansson, is fast.  Their second car, with Belgian star Bertrand Baguette, English star Martin Plowman and Mexican ‘am’ star Ricardo Gonzalez is also fast.  In fact, the line ups are close to P2 perfection – pairing very fast pros with the best silver rated drivers available.  The black and pink Nissan powered cars will be hard to beat.

So far, though, Oreca have had the edge in the FIA WEC.  Wins for ADR-Delta at Silverstone and Pecom at Spa have given the French chassis a flying start.  However, ADR’s winning team from Silverstone won’t make it to Le Mans intact, and their best chance probably lies with their G-Drive named car.  John Martin and Mike Conway are bona fide stars and they’re joined by Russia’s silver rated Roman Rusinov.  It’s a potent combination and should be in with a shot.

Pecom’s line up remains in one piece, with Nic Minassian and Pierre Kaffer joining Argentinian gentleman Luis Perez Companc. The car is prepared by AF Corse, and all three drivers fit this level well.  Perez Companc has come a long way in recent years and would love to add a Le Mans title to his burgeoning trophy cabinet.  Michelin tyres set them apart from most of the field

Murphy Prototypes will be strong with their Oreca Nissan. The charismatic Irish outfit have a real star in Brendon Hartley, the New Zealander seamlessly transitioning to LMP racing from single seaters.  He’s joined by Karun Chandhok, who has a year’s experience in LMP1 with JRM behind him, and amateur racer Mark Patterson. Patterson has improved everytime he’s stepped in a racing car and he is rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with in gentlemen’s racing circles.

Sort-of-pretending they’re car’s not an Oreca (it is, really) are Signatech Alpine. The French brand have rebadged a chassis with a Nissan engine, and bring Nelson Panciatici, Piere Ragues and Tristan Gommendy to drive.  It’s a strong line up, and one to watch out for.  Like Pecom, they’re on Michelins.

Greaves are one of the two teams running the Zytek chassis, but they’ve got strong Nissan support and come with one of the best line ups ever assembled in an LMP2 car.  All round ace Michael Krumm is joined by two of the best GT Academy graduates (if not the two best, full stop) Lucas Ordonez and Jann Mardenborough.  Ordonez won the first ‘gamer to racer’ competition and Mardenborough took the crown in 2011 before starring in British GT last season.  He’s stepped to F3 in 2013, with Nissan bosses indicating they believe he can go a long way in single seaters – his pace in LMP machinery will be fascinating.

Their team mates could match them – Tom Kimber Smith is much sought after and Eric Lux is solid. They’re joined by American Alexander Rossi, Caterham F1 reserve driver and talented GP2 racer.  They could be ones to watch.

The other Zytek is for Jota. Simon Dolan’s team bring ALMS champion Lucas Luhr and McLaren test driver Oliver Turvey along with the man himself and their Zytek-Nissan will show well for sure. They should be right amongst the top places.

The HPD chassis has proved to be a very good Le Mans package in recent years and Scott Tucker’s Level 5 team know how to get the best from it.  Seeing him teamed with Marino Franchitti and Indycar (and ex-Penske Porsche) star Ryan Briscoe could have others quaking in their boots.

There’s even more variety provided by Lotus. The Kodewa built car arrived very late but the impressive money spent on the project has resulted in a very good package. They will need a miracle, though, to finish without reliability issues. Amateur Kevin Weeda is joined by rapid pairing James Rossiter and Christophe Bouchut in one, with Thomas Holzer, Jan Charouz and Dominik Kraihamer piloting the other.

Lola may have gone under but they’re represented by three teams. DKR Engineering have a near archaeological chassis and will be looking to finish above all other concerns and the less said about Gulf Racing Middle East, the better.  HVM Status,though, bring Johnny Mowlem, Tony Burgess and Jonathan Hirschi.  That car could spring a surprise.

This writer will not be sticking his neck out and picking a favourite from that bunch…

Written by Jake Yorath
Photos by l’endurance