At the front of the field on the 13.6km Circuit de la Sarthe, which is part public roads and part race track, four manufacturers will do battle to win the world’s oldest endurance race. In the flagship LMP1 prototypes class, battle will resume between reigning Le Mans champion Audi and its challengers Toyota and Porsche, with Nissan also joining the fray this year.
Last year the factory Porsche team came close to scoring a historic win on its long-awaited comeback to the elite LMP1 class, when it was leading the race until mechanical maladies dropped it out of contention. It was a reminder that endurance sportscar racing is all about balancing speed and reliability, and when all the smoke from broken engines had cleared it was Audi’s diesel-hybrid R18 e-tron quattro that took the chequered flag for the 13th time in 16 years.
Second place was also taken by Audi, which is back this year with three R18 e-tron quattro cars which are powered by a 4-litre turbodiesel engine paired with an electric motor. Toyota, which had the fastest car and led much of the race until also succumbing to the reliability gods, placed third.
Porsche is the most successful brand in Le Mans history with 16 victories in top tier classes and last stood on the top step of the podium in 1998, and is back with a trio of 919 hybrid racing cars which combine a 2-litre turbopetrol engine with an electric motor.
To celebrate the company’s first two Le Mans wins in 1970 and 1971 with the iconic Porsche 917, two of Porsche’s LMP1 entrants in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans will be painted to honour the victorious 917s. The 919 hybrid, to be driven by Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley, and Mark Webber, is red like the car that won the 1970 race.
The second car is white, a tribute to the Martini-liveried car that won in 1971, and behind the wheel will be Earl Bamber, Nico Hülkenberg, and Nick Tandy.
The third car, painted black, will be driven by Marc Lieb, Romain Dumas, and Neel Jani. Also ready to break Audi’s Le Mans hegemony is Toyota with its pair of four-wheel-drive TS040 hybrids, which mate a 3.7-litre naturally-aspirated engine with an electric motor. Since its return to the World Endurance Championship in 2012 the Japanese team has been very competitive and won last year’s overall championship, but has yet to score that coveted Le Mans victory.
The number 1 car sees drivers’ World Champions Anthony Davidson and Sébastien Buemi joined by Kazuki Nakajima, who earned pole position for Le Mans last year.
Kazuki returns to racing after a rapid recovery from a back injury sustained in practice for the Spa-Francorchamps race at the beginning of May. In the number 2 car, two-time winner Alex Wurz is joined by three-time pole position man Stéphane Sarrazin and Mike Conway.
This year marks a special anniversary for Toyota as it represents 30 years since the company’s first official entry at Le Mans. Coincidentally, that original 1985 entry featured Satoru Nakajima, the father of current racer Kazuki.
A newcomer to the LMP1 flagship class this year is Nissan, which has entered three GT-R LM Nismo hybrids with unique front-engined, front-wheel-drive layouts, in contrast to the mid-mounted engines with rear- or all-wheel-drive setups of their rivals. Nissan is no stranger to offbeat Le Mans cars after in 2012 fielding the DeltaWing, a narrow-nosed racer with the rear wheels placed much wider than the fronts.
Le Mans is the third round of this year’s eight-race World Endurance Championship with six-hour events already having taken place at Silverstone and Spa, and with Audi winning both those events its Le Mans prospects look good. However, at the Le Mans test day held on May 31 it was the Porsche 919s that topped the time sheets with a slight advantage over Audi followed by Toyota, while newcomer Nissan was around 30 seconds off the pace.
Apart from the LMP1 and LMP2 classes for racing prototypes, the Le Mans 24 Hour is also contested by two LM GT categories for production-based sportscars like the Aston Martin Vantage, Chevrolet Corvette, Ferrari 458 Italia, and Porsche 911 RSR.
The 83rd Le Mans will be waved off at 3pm this Saturday and televised live on Supersport (see TV schedule elsewhere in this issue).
Notably absent from the racing grid this year will be “Mr Le Mans”, nine-times winner Tom Kristensen, who hung up his helmet last year.
However, he returns as the Grand Marshal for this year’s race.
Original source: Big guns primed for Le Mans 2015