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Le Mans

The future at Le Mans

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.

Le Mans

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.

Le Mans

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.

Le Mans

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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Le Mans 2019

Le Mans 2019: The Result

Toyota win Le Mans 2019 but not with the right car

The Le Mans 24 Hours 2019 had stories unfolding from the start to the finish. It was predictable and unpredictable at the same time, if that is possible. A crowd of 252,000 spectators were kept enthralled for the full 24 hours as the story of Le Mans 2019 unfolded. The history books will say that Toyota won Le Mans 2019 comfortably, as was predicted before a wheel turned at the famous Le Mans circuit. However, there was so much more that went in to this race than just a Toyota Win.

Late drama sees the No. 8 Toyota take the win
Toyota dominated Le Mans 2019. No one can argue that. As the sole manufacturer with a hybrid in the top class, it was going to be a big surprise if they didn’t. Even Toyota’s harshest critic would have to recognise that both their cars performed amazingly well. They continued lapping in the 3m20s throughout the 24 Hours and were reliable (almost) until the very end. That alone is impressive and should be acknowledged. It is not their fault they had little competition. From the very start, the No. 7 car of Conway, Kobayashi & Lopez were the quickets. In particular Mike Conway managed to get something extra from the No. 7 car. The No. 8 car of Buemi, Nakajima & Alonso followed behind, except where pit cycle rotation gave them the lead. As the race played out the No. 7 Toyota retook the lead after 2am and didn’t relinquish it until the final hour. Then there was drama.

Le Mans 24 Hours

With less than an hour to go in Le Mans 2019, the No. 7 car overtook a GT car and had to move off the racing line to do so. They had done this many times throughout the race, but this time they picked up a slow puncture. They were far enough ahead of the sister car, that they could afford to pit and still come out in front. For whatever reason, a decision was made to only change the punctured tyre and not replace the full set. As the No. 7 car rejoined the race, there was a problem as the car was still registering a puncture. Apparently there was a sensor problem and the wrong tyre had been changed so the No. 7 car had to return to the pit lane again. This stop, combined with the slow running with a puncture, allowed the sister Toyota to catch and pass the No. 7 car. Although the No. 7 car returned to the race, there was not enough time to catch the No. 8 car again. The No. 8 car completed 384 laps of the Le Mans circuit and took the chequered flag to win the Le Mans 24 Hours 2019.

Elsewhere in LMP1 there was a great race between SMP Racing & Rebellion Racing for the unofficial privateers crown (and 3rd place in Le Mans 2019). With two cars each it was a very fair fight which saw both ahead of each other at different stages. In the end the No. 11 SMP Racing outlasted the Rebellion pair after the No. 3 car had a major incident in to a tyre wall. That both Rebellions still finished is a statement to the professionalism of the team, but it was SMP Racing that got to stand on the podium alongside Toyota.

 Signatech-Alpine conquer Le Mans 2019 
In such a crowded class with similar technology it was always going to be difficult to predict a winner in LMP2 for Le Mans 2019. The race saw special performances from the No. 29 Racing Team Nederland team that came back from multiple punctures and broken suspension after a collision with the wall.  Dragonspeed were impressive early on and looked to be a contender until Maldonado crashed the car before sunrise. The class outfits (with much FIA WEC experience) were G-Drive Racing and Signatech-Alpine. The two teams were battling together from the very beginning. It appeared that G-Drive had got themselves ahead in the early hours of the morning only for a technical glitch on a routine pit stop, find them unable to restart the car. The following 20 minutes spent in the garage cost them at least a podium place. So it was left to Signatech-Alpine to dominate the final stages and finish ahead of Jackie-Chan DC Racing and TDS Racing who kept going until the end.

Le Mans 24 Hours

Ferrari step up to take GTE Pro at Le Mans 2019
In many ways this was the class to watch throughout the race. Particularly at the start there were often five different manufacturers all in a line, following each other down the Mulsanne Straight. The lead changed multiple times and often the pit lane was a battle ground as stops happened simultaneously. The race was a disappointment for Aston Martin Racing. having qualified on pole, they were hit by Balance of Performance adjustments, that left them unable to manage tyres and ultimately compete. After a couple of hours they were dropping fast down this competitive field and an accident eventually put paid to their challenge. BMW. in their last Le Mans for the time being, also failed to make an impact. So it was left to Corvette, Ford, Porsche and Ferrari to battle it out. And this they duly did. Corvette surprised many in the last outing of the C7.R and were ahead for long stints in the first half of the race.  However, one too many off track excursions ultimately cost them a podium. Ford were always there and challenging. Their numerical supremacy of 4 cars enabled them to extend their challenge, but this wasn’t to be their year. In the end it was the familiar sight of Porsche and Ferrari who got to decide the podiums. In the end it was the underestimated Ferrari team of AF Corse (a factory team in all but name) that came through to claim the top step. The Porsche GT team were always keeping them honest, but going in to the last hour the Ferrari had built a comfortable lead and were never really challenged as the end of the race approached.

Le Mans 24 Hours

Purple is the colour for Keating
So often overlooked, the GTE Am class, once again, provided an excellent spectacle. initially it looked like a Porsche was the car to have. Both Dempsey-Proton cars started the race well and were closely followed by the Gulf Racing Porsche.  As the race went on, the Project 1 Porsche appeared to get stronger and also came to the fore. However, as incidents thinned the challengers, it was the No. 85 Ford GT of Keating Motorsports that broke the Porsche stranglehold. The purple liveried Ford driven and managed by American Ben Keating, survived a late challenge by Team Project 1 that saw the gap reduced to 10 seconds in the last hour, after damage to the car meant a change of nose for the Ford. However, they managed to stay out in front and hold on for an emotional victory for the whole team.

Le Mans 24 Hours

The new FIA World Endurance Championship season begins again in August at Silverstone, and will end at Le Mans 2020. The Le Mans 24 Hours continues to deliver stories and on-track action that makes it the most famous race in the world.

Written by Richard Webb
Photography by Dailysportscar

 

Le Mans 2019

Le Mans 2019: Qualifying Review

Toyota cruise & Aston Martin sprint to Le Mans 2019 poles

Qualifying for Le Mans 2019 came to an end at midnight on Thursday evening, although the celebrations for some went on in to the early hours of Friday morning. The headlines were grabbed by the No. 7 Toyota who took overall pole position with a fastest time of 3m15.497s. They finished ahead of their sister car, with the No. 8 car completing the front row. It can be argued that the difference between starting first and second in a 24 hours endurance race is of little significance, but Kobayashi, Lopez & Conway were happy to celebrate in front of the cameras. In reality the point they receive for pole position narrows the gap to the No. 7 crew who still lead the FIA WEC Championship by 30 points.

Le Mans 2019

Perhaps more significant for the top LMP1 class was the performance of the 3rd placed No. 17 SMP Racing car. Not only were they the first of the non-hybrid (privateer) cars, but they were impressively quick. Not only was their qualification time 3 seconds quicker than this time last year, but it was also quicker than the factory hybrid Porsche 919s and Audi R18 that preceded it. Paul Truswell, the much respected statistician at Radio Le Mans, calculated that if all cars ran without problems for 24 hours, then the Toyotas would have a 28 minutes gap to the next nearest car. However, Le Mans is rarely without problems, many of which take longer than 30 minutes to repair. So Toyota will be still be looking over their shoulders come the start of Le Mans 2019.

Le Mans 2019

There was a certain amount of controversy in the LMP2 qualification, with the No. 39 Graff Racing car initially setting the fastest lap time. However, the team were stripped of their times by the stewards after the chequered flag, after the car failed to stop and a mandatory weighbridge. So the official pole position in the LMP2 class was inherited by the No. 28 TDS Racing car in the early hours of the morning. This was a costly error by Graff Racing and the celebratory champagne had to go back on the ice as they will try to redeem themselves during the race.

Le Mans 2019

Some of the best qualifying action was witnessed in the GTE Pro class, which regularly saw 4 different manufacturers occupying each of the 4 fastest time slots.  In the end, and with the clock ticking down to midnight, it was a clear track for the No. 95 Aston Martin Racing with Nicki Thiim at the wheel that enabled them to complete a hot lap and take pole in this class. The qualifying result saw Aston Martin finish ahead of Ford and then Corvette in the top three. Perhaps surprising was the relative speeds for Porsche & Ferrari who qualified further down the order.

Le Mans 2019

By contrast Porsche completed a 1-2-3 in the GTE Am class, with No. 88 Dempsey-Proton Racing 911 RSR, claiming pole. The No. 77 sister car claimed second place on the grid with a remarkable turnaround seeing the No. 86 Gulf Racing Porsche claim 3rd. Gulf Racing looked out of the equation during the qualifying sessions, as they experienced gear-box issues. however, some sterling work by their pit team managed to get the car back on the track late in the last qualifying session and with enough time to set the 3rd fastest time. This relegated the No. 84 Ferrari 488 of JMW Motorsport to 4th on the GTE Am grid.

The weather looks set fair for the race on Saturday & Sunday and if the Le Mans 2019 qualifying sessions were anything to go by then we should be in for an exciting Le Mans 2019.

Written by Richard Webb
Photography by Dailysportscar

 

FIA WEC

The FIA WEC Super Season

Half-time in the FIA WEC ‘Super Season’

With the 6 Hours of Fuji behind us, and Shanghai just around the corner we are just over halfway through the 2018/19 FIA WEC ‘Super Season’, with just one race left this calendar year. This season has been a lot of things so far this year, but boring isn’t one of them. There has been drama aplenty, controversy, some great racing and enough story-lines to warrant the season’s label. As a result, we are left with plenty of hopes and fears heading into the home straight in 2019.

Equivalence of technology blues
The FIA WEC Prologue at Paul Ricard seems like an age ago. Pre-season testing is always tough to read into. Are teams showing their hand? What programmes are they running? Is the new machinery up to scratch yet? The 30-hour test to kick off the season did however, leave us with some clues of what was to come. Whilst the “unofficial” classification saw the top of the LMP1 privateer cabal faster than Toyota (Toyota’s official best times coming supposedly while running unrestricted), any bets on the private teams having a chance at competing for wins on track were quickly quashed at Spa, when the hybrid TS050s utterly dominated the competition. And it’s been like that ever since, leading to the big debate of Equivalence of Technology ruling the headlines ever since.
The questions we are left with, and still looking for answers for are as follows:
1. Should Toyota be penalized because the privateer prototypes aren’t yet quick enough?
2. Could the privateers compete even if all was equal on a performance level?
3. Should Toyota be handed an advantage for the sake of the FIA WEC’s public-facing image?

FIA WEC

Toyota has by far the most sophisticated, tried, tested and fastest car in the LMP1 field. Toyota has the only cars that are hybrid-powered now that Porsche is gone and the most experienced set of drivers, team personnel and resources. So, making it a contest is really hard. This is more than David v Goliath, this is David v Goliath, if Goliath had far more effective weaponry as well as a dominant stature. Surely, on that basis, you can make the argument that Toyota shouldn’t be artificially hobbled because the competition isn’t up to scratch? Well, at this point it’s a tough side of the fence to sit on. That’s because, wait for it… This is a sport, it’s entertainment, and there could be real trouble if the ACO and FIA WEC let Toyota run away with the title.

Now, so far there have been multiple Equivalence of Technology changes, in an attempt to give the field more balance, but it hasn’t been nearly enough for us to see real on-track action between the hybrid and non-hybrid machinery. That wasn’t helped by the fact that going into the season the privateers were forced to spend longer in the pits, and pit more often than the hybrids, artificially!
Le Mans was no contest, not even a tiny bit, not even for a lap. And since Silverstone, with most of the manufactured disadvantages taken away, the privateers are still not able to show off the true potential of their cars, as the fuel allowances per lap and stint are such that lifting and coasting down the straights (their only real area of advantage) is still necessary. That, coupled with the fact that the TS050s have an innate advantage through traffic thanks to the hybrid punch out of corners, means that Toyota doesn’t even have to push to its limits to win each race in formation, by multiple laps.

But, and it’s a big but, there is still time. There are rumblings in the paddock, and a real appetite for change. Rebellion Racing, SMP Racing, ByKolles and DragonSpeed have all turned up as promised, shown real loyalty, and effectively saved the class from fading away. So it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the second half to this season have a completely different feel.

Star Power
It’s not all doom and gloom. Not at all. While there is no known cavalry coming in LMP1 for the remainder of the FIA WEC ‘Super Season’ or indeed the 2019/20 season, there is cause for optimism, and part of it, is already within the championship. There is time for further change, and therefore some astonishing racing between the selection of drivers in LMP1, which arguably, has never been better. Should the ACO crack the EoT code, and get the privateers fighting for wins by Sebring, then we will have a real treat on our hands in 2019, with some of the world’s best drivers going toe-to-toe in a similar fashion to the golden years of the ALMS when Audi battled Penske, or when Pescarolo battled Audi at Le Mans.

FIA WEC

It is easy to forget that in LMP1 alone, we have two Formula One World Champions in Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso, competing against one another (though not on the track thus far!) in the same field as a WTCC champion in Jose Maria Lopez, a Formula E champion in Sebastien Buemi as well as multiple FIA WEC and Le Mans winners like Neel Jani, Andre Lotterer and now Kazuki Nakajima. If changes are made then the fabulous set of cars we have, can produce racing worth of the price of admission, and keep that level of drivers wanting to keep coming back for more. Because there is real potential here, it almost feels like the class is a sleeping giant. The cars are impressive, the driver crews are, we just need either the privateers to be allowed to breathe, or the Toyotas to be pegged back so we can have a title race that lasts until next Le Mans.

Real hope for the future
As for the future beyond 2019/20; well there’s green shoots, as the ACO and FIA prepare for the most important period in the World Endurance Championship’s short history – the months between the 2020 top class regulations being ratified in December, and the start of the 2020/2021 season. During that time, the future and fate of the championship may well be sealed. Will the factories come and adopt the new formula (hybrid-powered prototypes featuring heavy styling cues), or will the rule makers need a serious re-think once again about the shape and structure of the championship, which let’s not forget, still features a strong GTE Pro class with five manufacturers?

Let’s start with the 2020 yet-to-be-named ‘hypercar’ regulations, before diving into the zero-emissions target even further down the line. There is a big group of manufacturers known to be in the room, shaping the technical regulations and considering joining the new formula in 2020. This means that there’s plenty of scope to have a healthy grid. Of course, there’s no assurance that any of them will come, though Toyota seems certain, and Aston Martin has publicly stated that it is “very interested” in the potential. That’s without digging deeper into the other potential factories that have requested presentations and pitches at board level from the ACO and FIA. A defining factor of this whole formula will be cost, and the ACO and FIA seem confident that not only will the new formula prove cost effective for both factories and privateers, but also remain a proposition for aspirant factories or teams looking to join in after Year 1, due to the performance levels being contained and the fact that all hybrid systems have to be offered as off-the-shelf, cost-capped, systems to any competitor on the grid. The cars should look stunning, and set times not too far off the current LMP1s. And if a handful of teams commit, this could turn into a hugely successful formula. What is more, is that it won’t be long until the potential field for the 2020/21 season starts to take shape. “This is the first time ever that private teams will be able to purchase all of the elements of a hybrid prototype programme, off the shelf, and then be ultimately competitive,” Toyota’s technical director Pascal Vasselon said back at Fuji. “They will genuinely have that opportunity, with no performance gap between their cars to the factory teams. We have always pushed for the technology to be of the highest level but we have to accept that for the moment the first priority is to bring more competitors to the Championship. “And, we have said repeatedly that we are here for the long-term.”

As for the zero-emissions target, the foundations have been laid. We have seen the Project H24 Adess-based prototype turn laps at Spa-Francorchamps back in August, and a pit stop demo too. The technology for hydrogen power is coming, and it’s coming fast. That too, could breathe further life into the ACO’s top class come 2024, when there is the aim for teams running both zero emissions and hydrogen prototypes against one another. That will be sight to see!

GTE hotting up
It is safe to say that the start to the season saw a real imbalance in GTE Pro, with Porsche, Ford and Ferrari racing with a clear performance advantage over BMW and Aston Martin’s new machinery.
Now, with GTE racing, there’s always the question mark surrounding team tactics, and the impact of Balance of Performance, but Are the BMW M8s and Vantage AMRs good enough to win races and titles? The answer is yes, and we are starting to see just how competitive they can be, after strong showings from Aston Martin in certain conditions at Silverstone and Fuji, and BMW’s podium run in the last race.

FIA WEC

With Aston Martin and BMW up to speed, and the other three marques still just as competitive, we could be in for a barn-storming second half to the season. This is especially mouth-watering when you consider how much of it is left: we have Shanghai next week, then next year, Spa, and two rounds which award more than the standard haul of points at Le Mans at Sebring. “We’re just hitting our stride,” BMW driver Tom Blomqvist said after Fuji. “It has taken a while for the MTEK crew, which is new to the FIA WEC and endurance racing to get up to speed, but now we feel comfortable and know the car. Aston Martin look good now too, so the rest of the season should be really fun.”

The moments that mattered in the opening rounds
• Toyota Gazoo Racing’s No. 7 Toyota TS050 HYBRID was forced to start at the back of the field in the opening race of the season at Spa; penalized after setting pole in Qualifying for an incorrect declaration of its fuel flow meter. This was key for two reasons: One, it meant that the stars aligned and FIA WEC debutant Fernando Alonso was promoted to pole for his first race, which he would go on to win. And two, it showed just how much of an advantage Toyota had over the privateers. Despite the No. 7 starting from the pit lane, a lap behind the field in the race, it finished second, on the lead lap and two laps ahead of the privateer pack!

• G-Drive Racing’s antics at Le Mans have been a big talking point since June. The Russian-flagged team was found to have gained an unfair advantage in the pits during the 24 Hours by tampering with the fuel rig. This cost the team its Le Mans LMP2 class win the day after the race, and sparked an appeal and hearing process that would drag on until October. Alpine inherited the win as the result, but had to wait until the weekend at Fuji to celebrate. And they weren’t even awarded the original trophy, that’s supposedly still in Russia!

• Say what you will about Fernando Alonso, but he’s stayed classy, kept a smile glued to his face, and adapted quickly to life at Toyota since the start of the year. The two-time F1 champ came of age at Le Mans, embarking on a night stint in the No.8 during the Le Mans 24 Hours which ultimately turned the tide of the race and laid the foundations for the No.8 crew to win the race, scoring the Japanese marque a huge, momentous and historic result. It was certainly one of the more impressive drives we’ve seen at Le Mans in recent years. Also of note is that the Spaniard’s triple crown run is alive and healthy.

• The retro-liveried factory Porsches at Le Mans went down an absolute storm. As part of the 70th anniversary of the brand, the team put their corporate image and decision making to the side and went all out to impress the fans. That in turn translated into a lot of publicity and big win for the 911 RSR, which is easily one of the most impressive GT cars in the modern era. It looks the part, sounds incredible too, and in ‘Pink Pig’ colours, it looked fabulous, taking a controlling win after a metronomic run, which put Porsche in the driving seat of the GTE Manufacturers World Championship race, and scored the marque another famous win at the Grand Prix D’Endurance. Bravo!

FIA WEC

• Rebellion winning at Silverstone was a real landmark victory. Rebellion Racing’s No.3 R-13 officially scored the team its first overall FIA WEC victory and the first ever for a privateer in the championship, and the first non-hybrid win since 2012. It wasn’t in ideal circumstances (the team benefiting from Toyota losing its 1-2 finish for a skid plant infringement), but crucially it’s kept the title race tighter than you might imagine as the season wears on.

Voices in the paddock
“Obviously it wasn’t the ideal way to do it, but ultimately, winning a race is winning a race, no matter how it comes and we will grab this result with both hands,” Rebellion Racing’s Gustavo Menezes said after winning at Silverstone. “All the boys at Rebellion have worked so hard to get the whole LMP1 project off the ground and to develop the car to the stage where it is now, and they really deserve this 1-2 finish. I’m immensely proud of everybody involved in the programme.”

FIA WEC

“It’s a cool team,” Matt Griffin said when asked to reflect on his time spent driving with Clearwater Racing. “It’s a little bit like Reservoir Cats! Clearwater is a team where the people involved are very proud of what they can do. We have fun, we have crazy parties after the races. Weng loves his wine, and stuff like that. And that’s the thing, I’ve been with them since 2011. The only thing I would say though is that the Matt Griffin you might see at ELMS races, or in Blancpain, is different to the Matt Griffin with Clearwater. There’s a different vibe there, and it’s a team that relies more on sponsors and partners.”

“We’re not ruling anything out,” revealed Corvette Racing’s Doug Fehan when asked about his opinion on the 2020 regulations. “An overall win at Le Mans is a unique achievement, and when you look at the intent of the past efforts to create something unique, it became too expensive This move, to the credit of the sanctioning bodies, is to find something that’s more affordable and technologically representative of where you want to go, with proper brand identification, so it would stand a better chance of attracting manufacturers. But I’m sure that there will be manufacturers who continue to run both (GTE and LMP1). Porsche is a prime example, with a big customer race programme, and they’ve shown in the past that they can do both.”

“The atmosphere in the team is amazing. Everyone is really friendly,” Fernando Alonso said when asked about racing with Toyota. “We have a Whatsapp group and we are always chatting. We were taking pictures of each other today. The atmosphere is so friendly and so nice – this is one of the best things.”

“I have had a great career to this point, not only in F1 but also in the junior categories,” DragonSpeed’s Pastor Maldonado stressed when asked about his public persona. “I have won in every category I have raced in and I hope to carry that record forward into this new challenge. For me it is about the racing, about the driving I don’t care what people say, it’s part of the game. I just go out there, do my best and hope to win.”

“What a character, and what a legacy, a real innovator and a visionary,” Richard Dean said, when asked to pay tribute to the late, great, Dr Don Panoz. “He was a man who truly invested in the sport, in his series, his circuits and his cars. The American Le Mans Series showed the way, it is still my favourite race series. There are so many that owe their careers in this sport to the opportunities that Don’s investments and projects provided. At Le Mans (in 2006, with a Team LNT Esparante), it seemed coming into the race that everything was against us, engine issues at the test, we were allocated Garage 13, but his enthusiasm never wavered, he tried for 10 years to get the win and was just ecstatic when we did it. And he was given the Spirit of Le Mans award by the ACO that same weekend! I grabbed a Panoz flag from someone on my way to the podium, I see that picture every day in my gym. Without Don that wouldn’t have been possible, a simply huge part of my career.”

Written by Stephen Kilbey
Photography by Dailysportscar

Le Mans 2018

Le Mans 2018: A Review

In a flash, the 86th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours has been and gone. And while early preparations for the 87th running are already underway, there is still plenty to reflect on from last weekend’s race.

Here is five key talking points from the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2018

1. LMP1 was messy, but still interesting and historic
Overshadowed by endless Equivalence of Technology debates, the LMP1 race at Le Mans this year left a lot to be desired for many, but still wowed some of the new audience who tuned in for the first time to check out the star drivers. What did we see? Toyota’s race against the race, rather than it’s privateer competitors. With the privateers forced to pit more frequently, and spend more time re-fuelling, any sort of wheel-to-wheel action was always going to be a long shot. The fact that most of them weren’t quick enough either though, meant the closest a privateer came to leading the race was at Turn 1 at the very start, and even that was messy!

Le Mans
So did Toyota deserve their big win? Will it feel as satisfying? Well, you can argue yes to both. This is a brand that has invested countless millions into the sport, and come close to winning so many times since it started racing since at Le Mans in the early 1990s. This win has been a long-time coming, and to many involved in the programme, a trouble-free (Kobayashi missing his penultimate stop aside), clean run with no issues will serve as a breath of fresh air. After all, the fact that the competition wasn’t as hot as year’s past, isn’t their fault. Oh, and seeing Kazuki Nakajima take the flag in the No.8, putting the demons of 2016 behind him, was a sight to behold!

Behind Toyota, the battle for the final podium spot was pretty open early on, with SMP Racing’s No.17 BR1 able to challenge Rebellion’s R-13s. Into the second half of the race though, it became clear that in a race of attrition, the BR1s didn’t have the legs, both cars hitting trouble (one early in the race, and one in the final hour) and therefore had to leave Rebellion’s two cars to fight amongst themselves for the third-place prize. Ginetta, ByKolles and DragonSpeed meanwhile, didn’t feature, perhaps unsurprisingly. The ByKolles CLM crashed out in a big way, both TRSM Ginettas ran effectively a public test programme (one G60-LT-P1 remarkably making the finish) and DragonSpeed’s race ended prematurely in the wall at the Porsche Curves after an error by Ben Hanley. So Le Mans 2018 was not a perfect race, but there were flashes of what could be to come from all the private teams. With a re-think in how the EoT works, and more development work done to the cars, next year’s race could spring a surprise or two!

2. GTE Pro was astonishing
It was far from a surprise, but GTE Pro provided the fans track-side and at home with the best action in the race. It was the only class which delivered the goods, and thank goodness it did as all the other classes suffered lengthy lulls throughout. While the ‘Pink Pig’ Porsche 911 RSR eventually took a comfortable (and popular) victory, due to the car being handed an advantage due to an early safety car period falling its way, the action behind was stellar.

Le Mans
For much of the race, the battles from second place down to as low as 12th, were superb. Some of the best GT drivers in the world were able to run door-to-door, and cleanly too, with no major incidents occurring despite the nature of the pack racing on the faster parts of the circuit. BoP was of course, a big talking point, and unfortunately so. However, once the race arrived, most of the negativity in and around the paddock was put to one side. Only one factory struggled, and that was Aston Martin, its new Vantage AMRs wildly off the pace, and by such a margin that after two BoP breaks, neither car was able to run much better than just ahead of the GTE Am class leaders. While, that was a shame, seeing BMW, Porsche, Ford, Corvette and Ferrari all battling hard was a treat. Ultimately, Ford and Porsche had a slight upper hand though, Porsche’s 911 RSRs improving further as the temperature dropped, but that did little to detract from what we saw.

3. The standout performances in the Pro/Am classes
Beyond the headlines focusing on F1 megastars, there were some very bright stars involved at Le Mans this year, with several putting in truly head-turning performances. In LMP1, the entire No.3 Rebellion line-up of Thomas Laurent, Gustavo Menezes and Mathias Beche was stunning. Menezes and Laurent have of course, already taken Le Mans class wins, but up against their teammates in the No.1 (Neel Jani, Andre Lotterer and Bruno Senna) they spent most of the weekend on the front foot and now look destined to become household names.

G Drive Racing

There were also some stunning drives in LMP2, with Andrea Pizzitola in the G-Drive Racing ORECA looking bullet-proof – until the team was disqualified. And the Panis Barthez three of Will Stevens, Julien Canal and Timothe Buret proved the surprise package of the entire week, putting the French team, Michelin and Ligier in contention for a win until reliability issues cost them a podium in the closing stages of the race.

Le Mans

Down in GTE Am, there were a number of young drivers that shone in what was a class that didn’t really ever get going. The talent of Dempsey Proton’s Matteo Cairoli (his off at the Ford Chicanes aside) is no real news here – but now looks even more likely as a full factory driver for the future after showing such poise once again. Julien Andlauer in Dempsey Proton’s ranks impressed too, winning on his Le Mans debut after not putting the team on pole and running a faultless race. Porsche has a real logjam now, with so many young hot shoes and experienced GT veterans on its books, all capable of much the same in terms of performances.

4. LMP2’s final result was unfortunately decided by penalties
Nobody likes to see a race decided by a stewards enquiry, but that’s what we got with LMP2. G-Drive Racing’s ORECA 07 Gibson which dominated the class from early in the race all the way to the flag, was disqualified after the team was found to be tampering with its fuel rigs, giving it an advantage in the speed in which the team could fuel its car.  In the end, the team was so dominant, that even without the handful of seconds gained at each stop, it would almost certainly have cruised to the line for a win anyway. But rules are rules, and Signatech Alpine was eventually crowned LMP2 champion for the second time in three years.

Signatech Alpine
The team’s other car (run under the TDS Racing banner) was caught out too, and lost fourth. This promoted United Autosports’ #32 Ligier JS P217 to the podium, giving Juan Pablo Montoya, Will Owen, and Hugo de Sadeleer, as well as chassis supplier Ligier a positive result after a tough week.

5. Alonso should be celebrated
There’s plenty of ways to look at the ‘Alonso factor’. You can be cynical, you can also be incredibly supportive, there’s no right or wrong answer. Either way, everyone had to sit down, soak up all the headlines he create and watch the Spanish F1 champion take on Le Mans for the first time. Ultimately, he is, a Le Mans champion now, and will be forever referred to as a multiple F1 world champion and Le Mans winner. Did he win a race in which there may have been an element of favouritism at play between Toyotas two TS050 HYBRIDs? Maybe. Did he have only the sister car as true competition? Yes? Is it his problem? No.

Le Mans 2018
If you are going to take away one thing from Fernando Alonso’s Le Mans 24 Hours, it’s that he was pushing. Despite the race not being the toughest and most competitive for Toyota, Alonso ended up with the fastest laptime average time of anyone in the class. He was not taking it easy, and put in the car for the least time possible to nab the win with the least effort. He didn’t even drive early on Sunday morning when the temperatures track-side provided the best conditions for drivers to put in qualifying-level lap times.

Will he keep coming back? That’s not something we know yet. But should we all appreciate that he has come along, and conquered the race? Yes. At a time where the FIA WEC and Le Mans 24 Hours is at its lowest in terms of factory involvement in the prototype ranks, Alonso kept the race feeling big, historic, and relevant. And we should thank him, in part, for that.

And so Le Mans 2018 is already just a memory, but Le Mans 2019 (the final race of the FIA WEC Super Season!) is already on the horizon. You can book and reserve your place at Le Mans with Travel Destinations now. Call our experts now on 0844 873 0203 to guarantee your place!

Written by Stephen Kilbey
Photography by Dailysportscar 

Le Mans

Le Mans 2018: Prototypes Preview

Le Mans 24 Hours 2018: LMP preview

This year’s Prototypes field at the Le Mans 24 Hours, is big, full of variety and high-profile talent. LMP1 is the biggest it has been in years; bolstered by privateer teams, while LMP2 is again huge, and features a chassis and tyre war for everyone to look forward to. Both classes will be intriguing, and with so many questions yet to be answered in each, fans track-side and at home will have plenty of reasons to stay up all night and follow the action.

Let’s start with the 10-car LMP1 field, because it is the big story, and will (almost certainly) produce the overall winner. Porsche’s LMP1 programme may be over, but Toyota has stayed put, meaning that we will see Hybrid LMP1 cars running at incredible speeds around La Sarthe once again. The one question on most fans minds though will be whether or not the Japanese marque’s new privateer competition will be able to give it a run for its money. At this point, answering that question is hard, as it’s become a very complicated subject over the last few months.

Le Mans

What are we likely to see? Toyota having a noticeable (but not dominant) advantage in pace, being able to run longer, and spend less time in the pits, through the Equivalence of Technology (EoT) regulations which seemingly have pegged the privateers back. So do the privateers stand any chance at all? Well… Yes and no. There is a good chance that one of them will lead the race, most likely in the opening stint, before the artificial EoT restrictions come into place. But beyond that, if the race runs clean and to plan, then expect them to slip further and further out of contention. It must be pointed out though, that Toyota has entered 13 cars at Le Mans in the hybrid era, and only two of them have had a clean run to the finish. This is a team that has come achingly close, on multiple occasions, and fallen short. This year, the pressure is off more than it has been in the past – it’s running the same TS050 HYBRIDs as last year (with minor tweaks) and the privateer competition is (as expected) not going to be a strong as the might of Porsche and Audi. Anything can happen though.

But, even if Toyota does win the race in dominant fashion, it will more than likely be a popular victory, because this is a brand that at this point, almost deserves a win after showing such loyalty and class over the years, without claiming any wins in France. It will also go down a storm if Fernando Alonso is in the winning car. Say what you will, but this is a ‘Triple Crown’ run, and we should all be rooting for it. It is rare that we see Formula One drivers looking outside of the bubble for other opportunities while in the prime of their careers, so make the most of this. It’s a big story, and there’s no avoiding it. Keeping Le Mans and the FIA WEC relevant to the public is a very hard task, so having a two-time F1 champion fully committed to a dual programme should be greeted with open arms.

Le Mans

Outside of Toyota, we have five LMP Non-Hybrid entrants, with varying degrees of expectations. At this point, it seems that Rebellion Racing and its brand new R-13s are head-and-shoulders the best of the bunch. A good run at Spa, and a pacy run at the Test Day (where the No.3 finished up just six tenths off the fastest Toyota) have put the team in good stead to score an overall podium. Both cars have proven to be reliable (despite limited running) and have standout driver crews including 2016 LMP2 Le Mans winner Gustavo Menezes, and former overall Le Mans winners Neel Jani and Andre Lotterer. If there is going to be a privateer in with a shout, look no further than the Swiss.

Elsewhere, SMP Racing will hope it can also be in the fight with its BR1 cars. The car has shown potential, but the horrific blow which Matevos Issakyan suffered at Raidillon will inevitably put a microscope on this effort, especially as Jenson Button is joining the team from Le Mans onwards. Changes have been made to the car to prevent a repeat of what we saw in Belgium, but there hasn’t been enough running yet to categorically rule out any similar occurrences at Le Mans. Do Button and the Russian team have a shot here? Yes. Reliability could well become the deciding factor in which privateer finishes closest to the Toyotas, and the BR1 is the most developed of the non-hybrid chassis.

Le Mans

Outside of that, we have ByKolles, CEFC TRSM and DragonSpeed. All three have a lot of work to do, in the reliability and speed department to be considered contenders. It’s just too early for all three to expect much from Le Mans, which for them will be used as more of an extended (and very public test). DragonSpeed, like SMP, also had a huge incident (though a very different one) at Eau Rouge/Raidillon, leaving the team in a race against time to prep a brand new BR1 for the big race. ByKolles’ poor form over the years leaves very few with any sort of confidence and CEFC TRSM just hasn’t run its Ginetta G60-LT-P1s enough due to financial difficulties to expect anything more than a week full of new-car niggles and data gathering.

Then there’s LMP2. It’s a big field once again, with three of the four LMP2 chassis represented (ORECA, Dallara and Ligier) and two tyre brands (Dunlop and Michelin). There’s a lot to like about this year’s field, though it appears that in low-downforce trim, even with the new evolutions of the Dallaras and Ligiers, the ORECA is still the car to have.

Le Mans

At the Test Day, ORECA 07s ended up locking out the top five, with the fastest of the other chassis being the No.22 Ligier JS P217 from top team United Autosports. There is a divide in performance in raw pace, but during long runs, it remains to be seen what the Ligier and Dallara teams can do. As a result, for the moment it looks like the winner will most likely come from the ORECA camp, even though many will be rooting for the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya (also on a ‘Triple Crown’ run, with United) or the legendary Jan Lammers (in his 24th and likely, final appearance in the race) to feature up front.

Le Mans

Of the ORECA teams, who are the favourites? DragonSpeed’s No.31 car, spearheaded by a highly-motivated Pastor Maldonado, which is on Michelin rubber, looks to make noise. Former LMP2 winner Signatech Alpine does too, its A470 (an ORECA re-badged) driven by former Toyota factory man Nicolas Lapierre, the rapid Andre Negrao and fast amateur Pierre Thiriet. It does look though, like a more balanced class than years past. There’s no ‘outrageous’ line-up, and the fact that five of the 20 cars are running on Michelin could well add spice when the chips are down.

There is not long to go now, so soon all will be revealed. Hopefully we will have safe race & one that will live long in the memory.

Written by Stephen Kilbey
Photography by Dailysportscar

FIA WEC

FIA WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps review

Five things we learned from the FIA WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps

1. Alonso already looks impressive
While there wasn’t an enormous amount of wheel-to-wheel racing in LMP1, or a true battle for the overall lead, it was still nevertheless pleasing to see two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso get up to speed so quickly in his debut race in the FIA WEC. The Spaniard, along with teammates Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima didn’t put a foot wrong all weekend, and went on to win. Alonso, during his stints was nothing short of impressive, multiple times he was shown clearly pushing hard through traffic, and at the end of the race when the car suffered a gearbox temperature issue he managed his pace well, ensuring it made the finish.

FIA WEC
Despite the fact that team orders were clearly at play, preventing the No.7 Toyota, which came from a lap down at the start to within striking distance of the No.8 towards the end, this was still a significant moment. Alonso is up to speed, already, and will head to Le Mans confident. If he wins that, not only is it a global story, but a very strong start to what could be a World Championship-winning season.

2. BMW & Aston’s cars look reliable
The two new GTE cars for this year also had an impressive showing at Spa, not in speed, but far more importantly, in reliability.  The M8 GTEs and Vantage GTEs spent the entire weekend far off the pace of the front-running Fords and Porsches. But at this stage, that means little, partly because Balance of Performance can turn the fortunes of a manufacturer quickly, and even if BoP wasn’t to blame, it’s more than likely that political game-playing was.

FIA WEC
The key here is that all four cars finished their debut FIA WEC races, and without any notable niggles; a far cry from the debuts of some GT cars of old. The extensive pre-season testing programmes have paid off, because both MTEK and Aston Martin Racing will head to Le Mans full of confidence. Both can be in the mix, and like Ford in 2016, have a chance to win at La Sarthe in the first year of the car’s life. We just need to hope now, that the race organisers don’t mess up the Balance of Performance for Le Mans, because if it’s anything like Le Mans 2016, it will leave a sour taste in the mouths of everyone track-side and at home watching.

3. GTE Am didn’t disappoint
Going into round 1, looking at the entry list it was easy to come to the conclusion that the expanded nine-car GTE Am category could produce the best racing in the FIA WEC. At Spa, despite a few silly driver errors, it produced the goods, especially at the end after the last safety car. New teams Project 1 Racing and TF Sport impressed mightily. The former had its hopes dashed by an off from Egidio Perfetti, but when the team’s 911 RSR was kept between the white lines, it was competitive, and was odds on for a podium.

FIA WEC
TF Sport, which many UK fans may know from its championship-winning form in the British GT Championship, also produced the goods. Euan Hankey, on his WEC debut was the star here, battling reigning champion Pedro Lamy all the way to the flag for the class lead in the final hour. He didn’t score the team a historic win in its first race, but he did, along with Charlie Eastwood and Salih Yoluc showed off that Tom Ferrier’s team mean business this year, and that its ambition to win the world title in the ‘Super Season’ is not unrealistic. The only issue may turn out to be the Porsche 911 RSRs in the class, as so far, on pace they’ve been head and shoulders above the Ferrari and Aston teams. Porsche’s customers could have dominated at Spa, but due to a cocktail of poor luck and driver error none of the four found the podium. Le Mans is therefore going to be very interesting indeed!

4. LMP2 looks open
This year’s LMP2 field in the FIA WEC has a fresh look about it, with new teams, new drivers, new chassis and a tyre war. The racing, while far from thrilling for most of the race at Spa, did show some really positive signs. The main signal for positivity, was just how open this year’s title race is. DragonSpeed, Jackie Chan DC Racing, G-Drive Racing and Alpine all look capable of winning races this year and challenging for the title. Even Racing Team Nederland’s Dallara, with its 2018 Joker package, looked pacey too, and could make waves later in the year when hot-shoe Nyck DeVries steps into the car’s third seat.

FIA WEC
Michelin’s tyres also appear to be capable of going toe-to-toe with Dunlop, so it could be interesting to see if anyone else makes a switch mid-season to gain an edge, as in raw pace, the French rubber does look to have an advantage at this stage.

5. Shaky start for the non-hybrids
Spa provided fans with their first chance to see the new LMP1 non-hybird challengers, though it was a somewhat fractured showing from the eight-car group, only five of which started the race. CEFC TRSM Racing’s weekend unfortunately never got going, financial issues preventing Ginetta from releasing its G60-LT-P1s for the race. DragonSpeed’s BR1 meanwhile, had a monster shunt at Eau Rouge, Pietro Fittipaldi going straight on into the tyres at full-speed, fracturing both his legs, and ending his chances of an Indy 500 birth just a month out from the race.

The cars that did take the start however, did put on a bit of a show, ByKolles CLM, SMP Racing’s BR1s and Rebellions pair of R-13s did all enjoy some thrilling on-track battles, giving us a glimpse into what could be a very competitive race for third place each weekend during the season.

FIA WEC

There were two issues though, one being that SMP Racing’s No.17 BR1 failed to finish after a big shunt at Raidillon, and that other that none of the Privateers came even remotely close to challenging the Toyotas in pace or efficiency, the whole field getting lapped, not just by the eventual winners in the #8, but by the No.7 crew, which started a lap down.  That’s not very encouraging, especially given the promises made to the privateers that they would have a chance should they run a perfect race. Rebellion’s No.3 R-13, which finished third, did indeed enjoy a perfect race debut, and wasn’t even in with a slim chance of securing second or first.

Equivalence of Technology, is crushingly difficult to understand and indeed work out if you’re a rule-maker. But so far, it’s not hard to spot that it appears to be skewed very much in the favour of Toyota, which could mean it goes one of two days at Le Mans: either the EoT swings back the other way – or Toyota run away with the French classic.  The only saving grace here, is that there are rumblings in the paddock that due to the what’s capable for the non-hybrids in terms of top speed, could mean that they are far closer to the Toyotas in June. A number of the cars, are perfectly capable of blowing by the Toyotas on top speed, once the Hybrid cars’ superiority under acceleration peters out. The wide open spaces at Mulsanne and the run down to Indianapolis could prove to be happy hunting grounds for a well sorted and well driven non-hybrid LMP1.

We’ll have to wait and see…

Written by Stephen Kilbey
Photography by Dailysportscar

FIA WEC

FIA WEC 6 Hours of Spa Preview

Looking Ahead to the FIA WEC  6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps

After months and months of intrigue and speculation, the FIA World Endurance Championship’s 2018/19 ‘Super Season’ is finally here. This weekend, the teams and drivers will head to Spa-Francorchamps to kick off the season with the traditional Le Mans dress rehearsal in the Ardennes Forest. But with so much new technology up and down the order, just what can we expect? Will it deliver and what should we be keeping an eye on as the countdown to the 86th edition of the Grand Prix D’Endurance enters its final stages?

Up at the front, the LMP1 class looks completely different, and far bigger, than it did in 2017. In fact, what we have, for better or for worse, is the biggest LMP1 field in the FIA WEC’s six-year history. It is packed with privateer cars, fresh and still unproven, and just two hybrid entries from Toyota after Porsche’s withdrawal. But don’t let the lack of factory competition for the Japanese marque put you off. This is very much a David vs Goliath situation, and there is still far more questions than answers at this time.

FIA WEC

Toyota’s big news story this year, isn’t concerning the car. Instead, the headlines surround the driver crew which will feature two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso. It is no secret he’s coming this year, and it is no secret that he is taking on the FIA WEC as part of a ‘Triple Crown’ run. But just how will he fare? Well, we don’t know yet, but what we do know, is that his supreme talents in an F1 car aside, when he stepped into an IndyCar last year he was quick straight away. You would also think that his performance at Daytona this year (for his sportscar debut) would give a good indication. But his car wasn’t up to the task, resulting in a rather quiet run to the finish for the Spaniard. Time will tell just how quickly he can adapt to what is a very different style of driving required in LMP1 H.

Can Toyota’s pair of mildly-revised TS050 HYBRIDs be challenged by the slew of private competition? In truth, especially at this stage, it seems unlikely. There is still plenty of creases to be ironed out in the class’ EoT (Equivalence of Technology), and in the new cars themselves. So we may have to wait a little before we see the true potential of SMP and DragonSpeed’s BR1s, CEFC TRSM’s Ginettas, ByKolles upgraded CLM and Rebellion Racing’s R-13s. The FIA WEC Prologue though, was if nothing else, encouraging; Toyota setting its fast times running outside the rules, leaving some hope for a competitive race at the start of the season.

FIA WEC

Who should we be looking to at this stage to challenge for the final podium spot? SMP Racing and Rebellion Racing look to hold the advantage at this stage in the pace department. The Russian BR1 AER’s look quick, and at the Prologue they didn’t suffer any major troubles. Not surprising, as the car, designed by Dallara, has had the most running of the new breed, and has a good set of drivers to get the most out of its cars. This will include Jenson Button this year, but unfortunately not until after the Spa round.

Rebellion meanwhile, was unable to get its pre-season test programme underway before the Prologue, due to the lead time from ORECA of its new Gibson-powered chassis. The team, has been out testing since the trip to Paul Ricard, but its R-13s are still very new. The pace appears to be there, so it’s all down to durability this weekend in Belgium if the Swiss-flagged effort is to leave with silverware at this early stage. Elsewhere, ByKolles, DragonSpeed and CEFC TRSM showed flashes of what is to come in France, but there is still a long way to go for all three teams. The focus at this stage is very much on using Spa as effectively as possible as preparation for Le Mans, which is going to be a far harder, but more important task in the long run.

While LMP1 may hold the most interest to those in the stands, let’s not forget that there is plenty to look for in the other three classes too. GTE Pro is stacked. Now with the addition of a full BMW factory effort, the category is 10-cars strong, and oozing talent. While little has changed at Ferrari, Porsche and Ford in the off-season, that is by no means a bad thing. With the added value of BMW’s new M8 GTE and Aston Martin’s new Vantage, with fresh driver crews, there’s going to be a real fight for the podium spots this year.

FIA WEC

Both new cars set to grace the class have been out testing for months now, and have completed some serious mileage. Both cars look strong, not bullet proof, but certainly further down the line in their development than you might expect considering neither have a FIA WEC start to their name.

Aston Martin’s driver crew sees two newcomers set to debut at Spa; Maxime Martin, who’s astonishing performance at the 2013 Nurburgring 24 Hours still lives in the memories of many, and Alex Lynn, who’s won races in GP2, LMP2 and in DPi. Both are rapid, and are already up to speed with the car and their new surroundings. BMW meanwhile, will start the season with a quartet of FIA WEC new-boys: Martin Tomczyk, Nicky Catsburg, Tom Blomqvist and Antonio Felix Da Costa. There’s no weak link there, it is hot-shoe central in the BMW garage!

FIA WEC

Then there is both the LMP2 and GTE Am classes which are set to deliver quality racing all season long, as they did in 2017. LMP2 has variety, with a Dallara P217 from Racing Team Nederland (driven by none other than Dutch hero Jan Lammers at Spa and Le Mans) and a Ligier JS P217 fielded by Larbre Competition. That means  we don’t have an an ORECA spec-class, instead we have a division with three of the four LMP2 global chassis present, and two tyre brands, with Michelin entering the class to go head-to-head with Dunlop.

FIA WEC

DragonSpeed’s 07 Gibson may well prove to be the class of the field. At the Prologue it ran fastest, courtesy of a rapid lap by the polarising figure that is Pastor Maldonado, the Venezuelan signed up for his sportscar race debut at this weekend too, with Mexican Roberto Gonzalez and Frenchman Nethanael Berthon.

FIA WEC

GTE Am meanwhile, may have been consistently the best class on the wheel-to-wheel racing front in 2017, and that could well be exacerbated this season, as the car count has grown significantly to nine cars, up from five last year. There is plenty of familiar faces in the class too. Aston Martin Racing return as champions with the same line-up and the older, rumbling V8-powered Vantage, Clearwater Racing looks to be everyone’s favourite team again with its all-chrome Ferrari 488, and the ageless Jorg Bergmiester rejoins the series with Team Project 1 – the most successful Porsche one-make team, which expands its programme with a debut FIA WEC run this year. As unpredictable as ever in 2018/19, GTE Am should continue to throw some real surprises throughout the season. At the moment, going on the form from the Prologue, which saw the new Porsche 911 RSRs in the class look clearly faster in pure lap time, it’s advantage Stuttgart. But with BoP set to be tweaked throughout, nobody is crowning any winners just yet.

So sit back, and enjoy the ride. This weekend, the FIA WEC, with its new look grid and new calendar is back, and some might say, better than ever. The new era, starts now.

Written by Stephen Kilbey
Photography by Dailysportscar

Le Mans 2018; An LMP1 Update

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.

Le Mans 2018

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.

Le Mans 2018

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.

Le Mans 2018

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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Le Mans 2017

Records fall in qualifying for Le Mans 2017

Toyota announced a strong statement of intent during qualifying on Thursday evening, as they locked out the front row of the grid and set a new circuit lap time in the process of claiming pole position. Porsche had to settle for the second row as the Japanese manufacturer grabbed the Le Mans 2017 headlines.

Toyota at Le Mans
The first qualifying session on Thursday evening was curtailed following an accident by the Eurasia Motorsport Ligier, that caused damage to the barriers. This meant all eyes were on the second and final qualifying session and the drivers didn’t disappoint in any of the classes. Kamui Kibayashi, at the wheel of the No.7 Toyota, was out early in the session and took full advantage. With a relatively clear track, new tyres & favourable breezes down the straight, the Japanese driver astonished everyone (possibly including himself) setting a new qualifying lap record (13:14.791) by more than two seconds. It was a quite remarkable lap that nobody else was able to get close to throughout the rest of the session. Porsche rallied and improved their times, but the new record was never really under threat as darkness fell at Le Mans.

G-Drive Racing at Le Mans
The new LMP2 cars have already proven to be extremely quick. In fact, they have been clocked faster than the LMP1 cars down parts of the Mulsanne straight. Lack of downforce elsewhere in the circuit means their fastest lap (3:25.549) was more than 10 seconds behind the LMP1 pole. Make no mistake though this is quick and some 7 seconds ahead of the previous LMP2 class record. With so many similar powered cars in LMP2 this class is going to be hugely difficult to predict, and all through qualifying the provisional pole kept changing hands. In the end, the fastest time in the class was set by the No. 26 G-Drive Racing Oreca, with Alex Lynn getting the best from the car. Not far behind were the No. 25 CEFC Manor TDS Racing Oreca and the No. 38 Jackie Chan Racing Oreca. The Gibson powered Oreca appears to be the car to have this year.

Aston Martin Racing
Another close battle for pole took place in the LMGTE Pro class and another qualifying lap record fell in the final session. British driver Darren Turner brought the No. 97 Aston Martin Racing Vantage around in 3:50:837 to claim pole and cue the back slapping in the garage. There has been much criticism of the Balance of Performance regulations in this class, but judging from the qualification alone, they seem to have got most things right. Provisional pole changed a number of times throughout the session, with Ferrari, Corvette and Ford all having a shot at provisional pole. In the end it was the No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari that pushed Aston Martin the most with James Calado, making it good evening for the Brits.

Larbre Competition
Not to be outdone the GTE AM battle was equally close and once again the qualifying lap record fell (3:52:843). This time however, it was the No. 50 Larbre Competition Corvette that took the honours and class pole for the 2017 Le Mans 24 Hours. Fernando Rees was the driver to get the best from the Corvette, although he was pushed all the way by the No. 98 Aston Martin and the No. 62 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari.

As the chequered flag fell to signal the end of the session, all participating cars had set qualifying times less than 4 minutes (another record) indicating that the Le Mans 24 Hours 2017 will probably go down in the history books again once the race gets going this weekend. One not to miss!

Written by Richard Webb
Photography by Dailysportscar