This time last year we were looking at a Le Mans 24 Hours with only five factory P1 teams and the ByKolles CLM tagging along behind. Many were less excited than usual for Le Mans – the prospect of only five factory hybrids fighting for victory was less interesting than the years before it.
Then we all know what happened – Toyota set a lap record, cars broke down and a P2 led the race until the #2 Porsche 919 could eventually overcome the lost time. Turns out you only need two cars to make a race.
The withdrawal of Porsche for 2018 saw the ACO renew their focus on the LMP1 non-hybrid class for privateers. Like the new LMP2 cars, many have complained about the balance of new LMP1 non-hybrid cars. However, like the new LMP2 cars, it’s hard to say that the ACOs approach hasn’t worked as 10 cars will line up for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Or will they?
As the only manufacturer in LMP1, it’s easy to see the event as stacked in Toyotas favour. There’s no doubt that at the opening round at Spa, the EoT was very much in Toyotas favour. The #7 car made up a lap on the field and could’ve won had it not been for team orders.
Toyotas three-car challenge has reduced to two. Jose Maria Lopez makes his way into the #7 car with Konway and Kobayashi as Stephan Sarrazin takes up a seat in the #17 SMP Racing BR1. The #7 may not have taken victory at Spa, but it certainly could have. Despite starting last, the #7 caught the #8 for the lead. Safety cars helped but the speed was there.
The big Toyota story this year is Fernando Alonso. Anthony Davidson steps down to a reserve driver for Le Mans, allowing the Spaniard to take a full season seat alongside Sebastian Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima.
Fernando has made it no secret that he is attempting to complete the Triple Crown of Motorsport – the Formula One Monaco Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans – a feat only achieved by Graham Hill. A strong run at Indy last year suggests he has the ability to drink the Indy 500 milk, but Le Mans is still an unknown. 2018 will be, without a doubt, Alonso’s best chance of taking a Le Mans victory. But just how likely is it? According to My Top Sportsbooks, the odds are 5/4. It’s hard to argue with that and makes that Triple Crown a little more realistic.
Toyota are without a doubt the favourite for 2018 victory. Many think an act of God would be required to stop Toyota from winning. But we’ve been here before haven’t we?
One issue that Toyota have is that the EoT for Le Mans isn’t quite as favourable as the rest of the WEC season. The regulations allowed 6.1 MJ of hybrid power for a regular WEC race, and 8 MJ of power for Le Mans. Whilst that is more power, it is less per distance. Will it make a difference? We’ll find out soon enough. However, just as this article was being finalised, Autosport reported that the privateer teams will be served with a power reduction for Le Mans. Does this swing it back towards Toyota again?
However, one of the Rebellion drivers was quick to tell us that they don’t believe Toyota used the hybrid system to full capacity at Spa. Are Toyota lugging around some sand-like building materials in the TS050?
Rebellion have often faced criticism, somewhat unfairly in this writers opinion, for competing in a class purely against ByKolles. Some have suggested this is too easy and no competition for Rebellion.
For 2017 Rebellion moved to LMP2 and took the title in dramatic fashion in Bahrain. I think that answers the critics.
For 2018 Rebellion moved back to LMP1 with an Oreca developed Rebellion R13 with a Gibson engine and they’ve staffed the cars with Andre Lotterer, Neel Jani, Bruno Senna, Mathias Beche, Gustavo Menezes and Thomas Laurent. Apparently, Rebellion aren’t here for a jolly.
If Toyota are struck down by God or a faulty turbo pipe, it’ll be Rebellion who’ll be first in line to snatch positions. Whilst they didn’t lead at Spa, they were the closest to Toyota, despite being the most underdeveloped of the non-hybrid cars. Oreca chassis, Gibson engine, ex-factory drivers? Hard to bet against them being the best non-hybrid right now.
ByKolles are back with the CLM P1/01. It may be the same chassis, but it’s been breathed on heavily again and comes with significant upgrades. They ran a solid race at Spa, keeping the car on the road when others didn’t – and unlike Rebellion, making sure the car was legal throughout the weekend too.
The car finished fourth overall, ByKolles best ever result, despite the larger grid. Maybe this is their year? Oliver Webb, Dominik Kraihamer and Tom Dillmann will pilot the Nissan powered CLM.
The Russians mean business. The beautifully prepared BR01 never won a race, but SMP did take a surprise victory with the LMP2 Dallara during at Paul Ricard during last seasons ELMS event.
The new BR1 is produced by Dallara but interestingly SMP have chosen to bolt an AER engine into the back of it. It has to be said that AER are not known for their reliable power units, but SMP managed to have both engines run reliably at Spa.
The cars showed speed too, before Matevos Isaakyan ran over the rumble strips at Raidillon, sending himself into Low Earth Orbit. Isaakyan emerged ok but the incident, combined with the DragonSpeed accident, raised questions of spare parts issues before Le Mans.
Not content with watching Fernando Alonso have all the fun, ex-McLaren team-mate Jenson Button has joined SMP Racing for the remainder of the WEC season. The Brit has been racing in the Japanese SuperGT series for Honda recently, where the Twitter hashtag #BensonJutton was trending. I think Sam Collins may be partially responsible for that one!
Jenson joins Mikhail Aleshin and Vitaly Petrov in the #11, whilst Isaakyan, Orubzhev and ex-Toyota star Stephane Sarrazin man the #12.
If anyone can take the fight to Rebellion, it’ll be SMP.
DragonSpeeds 2018 campaign started with disaster at Spa. Pietro Fittipaldi suffered a huge accident at Eau Rouge, breaking both of his legs. Understandably the car didn’t start the race.
Some questioned the safety of the BR1 chassis, but realistically one injury does not mean anything. DragonSpeed have opted for the Gibson power unit, same as Rebellion, rather than the AER like SMP.
Bronze driver Henrick Hedman has been given dispensation to run in an LMP1 car and will be joined by regular ELMS teammate Ben Hanley. It has to be said that Hedman has vastly improved over the last 2 years in ELMS – he is faster, more consistent and safer than he ever has been. But realistically, a Bronze driver will not be battling with Andre Lotterer and #BensonJutton. For DragonSpeed, it may be more about keeping out of trouble and seeing where they end up. Renger van der Zande replaces Pietro Fittipaldi for Le Mans after being unable to attend Spa due to calendar clashes.
After the SMP and DragonSpeed accidents, DailySportsCars Graham Goodwin reported on a spares shortage of BR1 parts and a DragonSpeed request to move the car down into LMP2. That request appears to have not been accepted for the moment, but it’s not impossible.
Another possibility (and this is me purely thinking out loud) is that they could run another LMP1 car. Ginetta are facing the possibility of having fewer cars line up than they wanted, and even the possibility of no Ginetta making the grid. DragonSpeed needs a car, and Ginetta need someone to run their car to enable them to sell more. Could a mash-up of DragonSpeed, Manor and Ginetta be on the cards? Probably not, but it’s fun to speculate.
CEFC TRSM Racing (Manor)
Another team with a nightmare start to the year is Manor. CEFC funding failed to materialise for Spa and the result was Ginetta not releasing the cars. Installation laps were done during practice but nothing more – the cars were packed up early and never took part.
For Ginetta, it must be a bitter pill. A relatively aggressive social media and marketing campaign and updates of the cars development cycle painted a rosy picture of the future. Sales of more cars to additional teams were talked about, and targets of double-digit sales were mentioned. Come Spa, sadly, no Ginetta raced.
Whilst reassuring messages have come out regarding funding for Le Mans, you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to find worrying reports regarding the financial state of CEFC. Whilst I won’t go as far as saying that I don’t expect Ginetta to be at Le Mans, I will say I wouldn’t be surprised.
Ginetta are said to be assisting Manors efforts to be on the grid at Le Mans, but really this is within Ginettas interest. They need to sell cars, and if nobody gets to see the Ginetta G60-LT-P1 race against the BR1, R13 and even the ByKolles, then it’s not going to sell well.
Should the cars make it to Le Mans, the driver lineups are certainly worth a shout. Ginetta factory drivers Charlie Roberston and Mike Simpson join Leo Roussel in the #5, whilst Oliver Rowland, Oliver Turvey and Alex Brundle crew the #6.
It’s hard to predict the performance of the car given it hasn’t run, but under the current circumstances, I’m sure Ginetta would be happy with a pair of finishes and a reasonable run. The goal is to sell more cars – it’s hard to do that if you aren’t there.
What else is there to think about?
Toyota should get one extra lap of fuel at Le Mans based on the current EoT. Based on Spa, that seems to be about correct. Toyota were getting an additional lap at Spa, and the longer lap at Le Mans means it won’t extend to two laps. Andrea Quinterelli looked at the EoT and how it would play out earlier this year.
However, it was interesting watching the pit stop differences between hybrids and non-hybrid cars at Spa. Toyota were more polished but ignoring that, the hybrids took an extra few seconds to pull out of the box. The fact that Toyota can leave the pit box instantly on electrical power, whilst the non-hybrids have to run through the starting procedure (even if it’s just a starter motor) gives the hybrid car an advantage of a couple of seconds each stop. Over the full 24 hours, that’s going to add up.
Downforce kits at Spa also varied. SMP were running the low downforce BR1, which suggests they may be a bit closer than what they appeared at Spa. Rebellion have run the low downforce kit during a Monza test, but we currently have no direct comparison of these cars.
And lastly, tyres won’t be an issue in this class. There is no tyre war, with Michelin supplying all of the LMP1 cars this year. Whilst tyre sets are limited in number, the new pit stop regulations allow teams to change the tyres whilst refuelling the car. Most teams were achieving this without a problem. This simplifies the strategy options as it means the long stop for taking new tyres no longer exists. Most pit stops will be around the same length of time now – defined by the amount of time it takes to fill the car’s tank.