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Who will win the Le Mans 24 Hrs?

Porsche, Audi & Toyota set for close fight in endurance showpiece | By Gary Watkins

Two topsy-turvy rounds of the World Endurance Championship so far this season have offered little in the way of a form guide for the Le Mans 24 Hours. The only thing that can be said is that Porsche, Audi and Toyota are each heading to the double-points round of the series in with a chance of victory. 

Porsche had the fastest car – just – in both six-hour races at Silverstone and Spa, but failed to win either on the road. Audi did just that both times, though it lost victory at Silverstone as a result of a technical infringement. It was, however, outpaced by both Porsche and Toyota when it did finally notch up its first WEC victory for 12 months in Belgium. 

The Japanese manufacturer had been nowhere at Silverstone, yet was on course for the win second time out until engine failures put its cars out of the race. That suggests that there might be reliability issues in the Toyota camp. On the other hand, it was the only LMP1 manufacturer to get both its cars to the finish in the season-opener. 

If the events of the opening two WEC rounds of 2016 weren’t confusing enough, the situation was further complicated by the different specifications of car running at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in May. Porsche and Audi raced their respective P1 hybrids in low-downforce Le Mans specification, while Toyota turned up with the same configuration in which its cars raced at Silverstone. 

Is Porsche favourite? 

Probably, but only by a narrow margin. That conclusion can be reached because the revised version of last year’s championship-winning 919 Hybrid had the pace to win on merit at both Silverstone and Spa and because it is the only proven car in the factory P1 field. 

Porsche, which finished one-two at
Le Mans last year, reckons it is not sufficiently clear cut for its pair of 919s to be tagged as favourites. That’s just two 919s rather than last year’s three, because it and sister marque Audi have entered into an agreement to downsize their Le Mans campaigns in the name of cost reduction. 

“We have seen that everyone is close together,” said Porsche LMP1 team principal Andrea Seidl. “I really don’t think we are favourites and we are
not underestimating Toyota and Audi.
It will be an open battle.”

Porsche is, however, saying that it is the best prepared it has been for Le Mans since its return to the pinnacle of sports car racing in 2014. It is heading for Le Mans on the back of a successful run of endurance tests, including 15,000km at the Motorland Aragon circuit in Spain over the course of two simulations undertaken either side of Spa.

That said, the no2 car driven by Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb that finished second at Spa completed all but half a dozen laps with reduced and sporadic hybrid boost. 

“With these complex cars you can never be too confident,” said Seidl. “A problem can come at any time, not just for us, but for all the manufacturers. It will again be a big challenge to get the cars to the finish at Le Mans.”

Toyota back in the game

Everything is pointing to a renewed Toyota bid for Le Mans glory. Last year it was little more than a bit player in the WEC, the 24 Hours included, which forced a major overhaul of its programme. The new TS050 Hybrid not only runs in the eight megajoule hybrid sub-class like the Porsche, but it also has an all-new V6 twin-turbo engine. 

Toyota didn’t get the most out of the new package at Silverstone, where it lacked downforce, but it was very much in the game at Spa. The fact that it chose to run the same aero configuration in each of the first two races backs up Toyota Motorsport technical director Pascal Vasselon’s view that its Le Mans spec is “a very low-downforce package”. 

Anthony Davidson, who again teams up with fellow 2014 world champion Sébastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima in the no5 TS050, is confident that Toyota will be back in the fight at
Le Mans after its abject 2015. 

“We showed at Spa that we can be competitive when we get it right and we expect that to be the case again at Le Mans, even if we may not be as strong as in 2014,” he said. “One of the reasons we were more competitive at Spa than at Silverstone is that there is more opportunity for kinetic energy recovery [courtesy of more heavy braking zones]. Le Mans, by the nature of the track, means we will be at least as competitive as at Spa.”

Toyota was insistent ahead of round two that it had no major reliability worries as it geared up for Le Mans. Engine failures on both cars in Belgium appeared to contradict that claim, but it believed ahead of press time that the issues encountered were specific to Spa. 

Toyota initially said that the two failures were not linked, but it now appears that the root cause was the same on both TS050s. The initial conclusion was that the forces sustained in the compression at Eau Rouge had a detrimental effect on oil flow and that Le Mans would not present the conditions for a reoccurence. 

Where is Audi in the mix?

Audi’s victory at Spa, its first in the WEC since the corresponding fixture last year, owed everything to its reliability in a race of attrition. The R18 shared by Lucas di Grassi, Loïc Duval and Oliver Jarvis was the only factory P1 entry to run six hours without problems or delay. 

The sister car also ran reliably on the way to fifth place. Its delays, which included the replacement of the underfloor, were all driver-induced. 

Audi’s claims that it was making progress with its all-new contender after a difficult start to its development programme late last year have proved correct. It was the only factory not to hit technical issues in Belgium. 

Audi was able to fight with Porsche at Silverstone, though winners on the road André Lotterer, Benoît Tréluyer and Marcel Fässler probably wouldn’t have been able to challenge the no1 919 had not Brendon Hartley crashed out early. 

The latest R18 was less competitive at Spa because its Le Mans package was light on downforce for the Belgian track. Audi Sport Team Joest boss admitted that the latest R18 was “too slow”, despite its victory, but pointed out that the team knew where it was losing time and “had the tools” to claw back the time it was losing. 

“We’re not expecting to go to Le Mans and run circles around our rivals,” he said, “but then we are not expecting them to run circles around us.”