There is something slightly surreal about the World Endurance Championship ending at Le Mans in June – but then it always felt a little odd to dispatch the series’ showpiece event relatively early in the campaign. It wasn’t quite like NASCAR’s tradition of commencing its season with the Daytona 500 – saving the best until first? – but what followed sometimes felt slightly anti-climactic.
The WEC’s revised summer-to-summer schedule (which, uniquely, started and ends at Le Mans in 2018-19) means its focal point will henceforth also be its conclusion.
After scoring its maiden Le Mans victory in 2018 – and as the only factory team in the LMP1 class – Toyota inevitably starts as overwhelming favourite ahead of the race on June 15-16. Here, though, are a few key pointers to a race that will feature 62 cars, the biggest field in the event’s history.
Can Toyota be beaten at this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours? The answer has to be ‘no’ on the evidence of every round of the 2018/19 World Endurance Championship superseason so far. And that’s despite the best efforts of the rule makers to edge the privateer opposition closer to the Japanese manufacturer’s all-conquering TS050 Hybrids.
The changes under the so-called Equivalence of Technology to balance the Toyotas against the non-hybrid independents, the likes of Rebellion and SMP Racing, haven’t been entirely successful. Witness the run of one-two finishes for the TS050s, broken only by the cars’ Silverstone disqualification (for skidblock infringements). What’s more, the half-a-second-per-lap advantage enshrined in the agreements covering the EoT is due to be back in place for Le Mans. Toyota, which had to agree to rule changes outside the FIA’s stability statutes, was happy to waive it for the run-of-the-mill WEC races, but not for the big one.
On the assumption that the TS050s will finish one-two — and it is a fair one — at the Le Mans superseason finale on June 15/16, then the no7 Toyota crew of Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and José María López need to win at Spa at the beginning of May. They are 15 points behind Fernando Alonso, Sébastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima going into the penultimate round of the championship in Belgium, but the difference between finishing first and second at the 24 Hours is only 11 points.
They have to close the gap before the final round, or the championship battle is all but dead.
Form guide: The margins between the two Toyota crews have been tiny over the course of the superseason. But the stats are in favour of Alonso and co: they lead their team-mates four-two in race victories (when Silverstone is included).
The secondary prototype division is the biggest class in the Le Mans field, although only seven of the 20 cars are registered to score points in the WEC. The European and Asian Le Mans Series supply the rest of the LMP2 grid, including many of the potential front-runners. There’s little doubt that P2 in the ELMS this season has a depth of quantity and quality that is missing from the WEC.
The championship battle in the WEC has come down to a straight fight between a pair of ORECA-Gibson 07s, run by the British Jota Sport squad under the Jackie Chan DC Racing banner, and the solo Signatech Alpine ORECA that carries the badges of the niche French sports car builder. They’ve shared out the class victories in six races run at the time of writing.
The Jota cars have won five times, with the line-up of Ho-Pin Tung, Stéphane Richelmi and Gabriel Aubry taking three of them. But Signatech drivers Nicolas Lapierre, Andre Negrão and Pierre Thiriet lead the points on consistency: they have yet to finish off the podium, though have seldom been a match for the British-run cars with the exception of Le Mans last year.
The team claimed maximum WEC points with second place 12 months ago and was then given the win proper when the G-Drive ORECA was thrown out for what were deemed illegal modifications to its refuelling system. Reigning ELMS champion team G-Drive Racing is back this year with a TDS Racing-run ORECA, which is now badged as an Aurus after the Russian luxury car builder that launched last year.
The Ligier charge should be led by the Anglo-American United Autosports squad. Co-owned by McLaren racing boss Zak Brown, the team finished in the top six overall on its Le Mans debut in 2017 and last year made it onto the class podium after the disqualification of the two TDS-run cars which finished ahead of it.
Form guide: The G-Drive ORECA dominated the division at Le Mans last year. It had the pace to win, even without the seconds it gained at each pitstop thanks to its refuelling modifications. It has changed its line-up for this year, with ELMS LMP3 champion Job van Uitert coming in as its mandatory silver-rated or ‘amateur’ driver alongside Jean-Eric Vergne and Roman Rusinov, but should be right up there.
Porsche claimed class victory at Le Mans last year with one of its retro-liveried 911 RSRs. Kévin Estre and Michael Christensen, who were joined in the winning car by Laurens Vanthoor, enjoy a healthy points lead going into Spa after a super-consistent season.
That’s something no one else in the GTE Pro field has managed over the course of the superseason, even though the automatic Balance of Performance system – devised to level the playing field in a class containing cars as diverse as the Ford GT and the BMW M8 – has been a success. But making predictions ahead of Le Mans isn’t easy. The 24 Hours isn’t subject to the same system, courtesy of the unique demands of the eight-and-a-half-mile Circuit de la Sarthe.
Fans should savour the battle between six manufacturers this year. GTE Pro has probably hit a high-water mark during the superseason. Ford, class winner in 2016, won’t be back with an overt factory programme in 2020 and BMW has admitted its dissatisfaction with the WEC’s marketing return, prompting it to hint that it might not come back.
Form guide: The head points to another Porsche victory, given its consistency with the mid-engined 911 across a range of circuits. The heart must go for a Chevrolet Corvette C7.R in the 20th consecutive season for the front-engined American muscle car, the last before it is replaced by a car with the engine behind the driver.
The mid-engined Porsche 911 RSR is in the ascendant right now in GTE Am, a class that allows for only one true pro in each driver line-up. The Proton squad won the division at Le Mans last year and the Project 1 team is leading the points chase, although only because its rival in the Porsche pack, Dempsey-Proton, lost all its points up to and including the Fuji race in October.
Bearing the name of US actor Patrick Dempsey, the German team was excluded from the Japanese race because it was found to have tinkered with the electronics that measure the refuelling time in the pits. Its failure to co-operate with the investigation led to the draconian points penalty.
It bounced back, however, claiming class wins at Shanghai and Sebring with Julien Andlauer, Matt Campbell and Christian Ried.
Form guide: Proton has the pace and the depth in talent to win again: it has a further two cars on the Le Mans entry, in addition to its pair of full-season WEC cars.
Le mans reader offer
Fancy experiencing the thrill of Le Mans first hand? For this year’s race, Travel Destinations, an official Le Mans ticket agent, is offering £100 off any of its packages for new bookings, exclusively to Motor Sport readers. To claim the discount, please call Travel Destinations on 01707 329988 to book and quote ‘Motor Sport Magazine Reader Offer’. Subject to availability, the offer can be claimed until May 17 2019.
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