This season’s 24 Hours of Le Mans promises to deliver one of the greatest races ever since at the Circuit de la Sarthe. Four separate manufacturers with two- and even three-car teams is almost unheard of the modern Le Mans era; add two newly engined Rebellion AERs and the ByKolles cars into mix and we have a mouthwatering week in prospect.
Toyota Racing – Toyota TS 040 Hybrid
The reigning world champions have not shown well so far this season, with only a sole podium at the first round at Silverstone to show for their efforts. The new Le Mans aero kit at Spa didn’t appear to have the desired effect, either, with the Japanese manufacturer seemingly losing further ground on its LMP1 rivals. Indeed, Toyota were the only team unable to match or beat their 2014 times at this year’s Le Mans Test Day.
However, as we have seen so many times before, it’s not always the quickest car the triumphs at Le Mans and if Toyota can have a trouble-free run at La Sarthe then they may be able to record the long-awaiten maiden victory at La Sarthe. Being the only LMP1 manufacturer to run a two-car team will lower Toyota’s chances of victory, with only two “bullets in the gun” so to speak.
In Davidson, Buemi and Nakajima, Toyota not only have the two reigning drivers’ champions, but also some of the quickest LMP1 pilots around who know how to balance risk and reward. It was this car that led the field by laps at last year’s race before a wiring loom burnt and the car ground to a halt at Arnage. In the #2 car, Wurz and Sarrazin are two of the most experienced LMP1 drivers on the grid and can be relied upon to combine speed and consistency.
Team ByKolles – CLM P1/01 AER
The ByKolles CLM P1/01 AER has had a troublesome birth, only debuting at the Circuit of the Americas race (in Lotus branding) last season. Despite running uncontested in the privateer LMP1 ranks in the first two rounds of the season, the ByKolles car has failed to score any points in the championship. With the Rebellion Racing cars never having run competitively with their new AER engines, a trouble-free run to the finish for the ByKolles entry may see it place well when the chequered flag falls – but on performances so far this season, that’s a big ask for the Austrian-entered team.
In the driving seat, WTCC and former F1 racer Tiago Monteiro will be joined by season-long driver Simon Trummer. Stepping in to replace Tonio Luizzi is experienced German driver Pierre Kaffer.
Audi Sport Team Joest – Audi R18 e-tron quattro
#7 – Marcel Fässler (CHE), André Lotterer (DEU), Benoît Tréluyer (FRA)
#8 – Lucas di Grassi (BRA), Loïc Duval (FRA), Oliver Jarvis (GBR)
#9 – Filipe Albuquerque (PRT), Marco Bonanomi (ITA), René Rast (DEU)
Audi go into the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans looking for their sixth victory on the spin and an incredible 14th victory in 16 years. Last year Audi were on the back foot after a disastrous Silverstone (where two chassis were written off), and yet the German team still managed to take the victory at Le Mans – one of only two throughout the whole season. A total of three of the now-familiar R18 e-tron quattros will take the grid, with only relatively minor tweaks made to the aero packages on the 2014 car.
The #7 car will be driven by three-time Le Mans winners Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer, an entry that must be considered the favourites going into the great endurance race. Two victories in the first two rounds of the WEC season speak for themselves. Oliver Jarvis has been given the unenviable task of filling a certain Mr Tom Kristensen’s shoes, but the British driver has certainly earned his salt so far as an Audi works driver and his appointment as Kristensen’s replacement is well-deserved. In the #9 car, Marco Bonanomi and Filipe Albuquerque have some scores to settle after being shunted out of the race by an errant Ferrari 458 in last season’s mid-race deluge. They are joined by René Rast, with the hugely successful Audi GT driver earning a well-earned call-up to the LMP1 squad.
Rebellion Racing – Rebellon R-One AER
Rebellion Racing celebrate a welcome return to the World Endurance Championship after missing the first two rounds of the season due to issues fitting their brand-new AER twin-turbo engines. The new power package will give the Rebellion R-Ones a boost, but it remains to be seen how close the Swiss-entered two-car team can get to the factory entries. In the past, Rebellion has mercilessly punished unreliability among the works teams – most notably in 2012, when Heidfeld, Prost and Neel Jani finished fourth behind the three Audis. With one season of racing under its belt, the Oreca-built R-One is certainly more competitive than it was twelve months ago. It remains to be seen whether AER power will give Rebellion the momentum it needs to trouble the factory entries. A top-ten finish would be a great achievement for the team, and a sniff of the podium absolute dreamland.
The #12 entry is the “all-platinum” car, while the #13 is piloted solely by gold-rated drivers. Nicolas Prost and Nick Heidfeld have almost a full season of Formula E behind them and are certainly not lacking in race practice. Look out for fellow Formula E driver and LMP1 rookie Daniel Abt in the #13 car, too.
Porsche Team – Porsche 919 Hybrid
Porsche go into their second Le Mans following their return to top-class prototype racing as one of the favourites for overall victory. The 919 Hybrid is a brand-new car and a complete revolution from last season’s effort. So far Porsche’s pace has been on point, but the car has suffered from excessive tyre wear compared to the Audi, hampering its average pace on the long runs. In terms of one-lap speed, there’s no doubting that Porsche hold the advantage and expect the German team to go for the headlines on Thursday evening with a rapid dash for pole.
The biggest news in the Porsche LMP1 camp is the addition of current Formula 1 driver Nico Hülkenberg to the Stuttgart team’s driver line-up. The German is fresh from an impressive drive at last weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix and will be looking to prove his driving talents and put the disappointment of Spa-Francorchamps (6th, after teammate Nick Tandy collided with a Porsche GT car) behind him. Elsewhere, there’s not much to choose between the #17 and #18 line-ups, with former Le Mans winners (Bernhard and Dumas) in each.
Nissan Motorsports – Nissan GT-R LM NISMO
#21 – Tsugio Matsuda (JPB), Mark Schulzhitskiy (RUS), Lucas Ordóñez
#22 – Harry Tincknell (GBR), Michael Krumm (DEU), Alex Buncombe (GBR)
#23 – Olivier Pla (FRA), Jann Mardenborough (GBR), Max Chilton (GBR)
Nissan is the word on everybody’s lips this year at the Circuit de la Sarthe. The Japanese manufacturer celebrates its return to Le Mans after an absence of almost twenty years. It’s been a troublesome birth for the revolutionary front-engined GT-R LM NISMO, but Nissan will be pleased to have confounded the naysayers and brought their brand-new LMP1 to the great 24-hour race after missing the first two rounds of the WEC season. Problems with the hybrid system continue, but Nissan meticulously went through their testing programme at Test Day without too much bother. Lap times were far from impressive, but setting lap times wasn’t the point of the exercise from the Japanese team. The aim, quite clearly, is to finish. Anything else would be a bonus.
From the outside, the retro-liveried #21 car driven by Matsuda, Schulzhitskiy and Ordónez is the most exciting, bringing back the memories of Mark Blundell’s blistering pole lap in the Nissan R90CK in 1990. The presence of two GT Academy winners in this entry will surely also be the ultimate vindication for Nissan’s acclaimed driver-training programme. In the #22 car, the next big thing in LMP1 Harry Tincknell, swiped by Nissan under the noses of Audi, is joined by a veteran of Nissan’s last foray at La Sarthe, Michael Krumm, and YouTube star and GT Academy mentor Alex Buncombe. With the third Nissan driven by all-conquering LMP2 driver Olivier Pla, another GT Academy star Jann Mardenborough and former F1 driver Max Chilton, driving talent is certainly one area where the Nissan LMP1 programme isn’t lacking.
Images: WEC-Magazin (Walter Schruff)