All change, again
While the program of the 24 Hours of Le Mans itself is set in stone, the official Test Day has been subject of continuous change. After a two year absence, it returned last year on the traditional date in April. For some of the competitors, especially the American entrants, this was far from ideal, so this year the Test Day was scheduled a fortnight before the race. While the test was only mandatory for cars, teams and/or drivers new to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, all but one of the 56 confirmed entries lined up to take part in the first of two four-hour practice sessions. They were joined by six additional entries, including Sebastien Loeb's LMP2 Oreca and the cars that remain on the reserve list. Most eyes were on the sharp end of the field, where Toyota has taken the place left by Peugeot, in more ways than one; the speaker even briefly referred to the cars as Peugeots. With Toyota forced to cancel its entry at the WEC race at Spa, this was the very first opportunity to see how the new rivals stacked up. Another 'brand-new' car making its debut was Henry Pescarolo's latest LMP1 racer, which bore more than a passing resemblance to the ill-fated Aston Martin AMR-One it is based on.
Our reporters ventured to the Circuit de la Sarthe for a first glimpse of what to expect during the 80th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which also serves as the third round of the FIA World Endurance Championship. This has resulted in the following class-by-class report, which doubles as a preview for the race and is illustrated by a 120-shot gallery
GTE Pro and AM
Split in Professional and Amateur categories, the GTE class is disputed by just four different types of cars, which are fortunately all capable of winning. In 2011, Corvettes won both GTE categories; Larbre in AM and the works Corvette team in Pro. Both squads will field two cars, the fastest of which placed second in their respective categories. It was not all good news for Corvette Racing as one of their cars was returned to paddock on the back of a truck after skidding along the wall halfway through the second session. In GTE Pro, the difference was just 1/100 of a second with Fred Makowiecki in the Luxury Racing Ferrari that topped the tables with 3:59.869. Also able to break the 4-minute barrier were one of the AF Corse Ferraris and the Aston Martin V8 Vantage entered in the GTE Am category for an all-Danish line-up. On raw pace, the ageing Porsches struggled with the IMSA Matmut Porsche setting the best time for the German manufacturer at 4:00.128 in the morning practice. At Le Mans, Porsches can never be counted out, so in both GTE categories we expect a four-way battle.
Certainly the closest and also the biggest of all classes will be the cost-capped LMP2 with no fewer than 20 entrants. Among them will be three of the Nissan-powered Zyteks that won last year. One of the Greaves Motorsport entered cars will boast the father and son driver pairing of Martin and Alex Brundle, complemented by Playstation Academy winner Lucas Ordonez. They finished the sixth fastest, less than two seconds adrift from Olivier Pla in the Oak Racing 'Morgan', which featured Nissan power for the first time this weekend. Veteran sports car racer, Christophe Bouchut placed second in the quickest of the Level 5 Motorsport HPD. Placing fourth, the quickest of the Judd-engined cars was the other Oak Racing Morgan. The Oreca 03 was dominant in numbers only with Sebastien Loeb setting the type's fastest time but the WRC champion's car is not among the 56 entrants of the race. For the LMP2 class the 24 Hours of Le Mans is a more a race of attrition than for any other class, so a constant and reliable run will make the difference, rather than raw pace.
As mentioned earlier, the Audi vs Peugeot rivalry has morphed into an Audi vs Toyota battle. More importantly, this will mark the very first time that a manufacturer built petrol car will take on a diesel. Toyota's debut was very strong with the hybrid-engined TS030s able to mix it with the conventional Audi R18 Ultras. Fastest of all, though, were the two hybrid R18s with Allan McNish clocking a 3:25.927; 1.3 seconds faster than the quickest Toyota. It was not an easy day for McNish's #2 Audi as it suffered a diesel leak in the morning session and the wee Scott ended the day in the barriers at Tertre Rouge. Whether either team had shown their full potential is hard to say, but we reckon that after 24 hours of racing either an Audi or Toyota will cross the line first. Despite gearbox issues, Strakka Racing's HPD ARX-03a proved to be the 'best of the rest'. Set in the morning session, Danny Watts' 3:34.243 was a full 8 seconds off the pace of the lead Audi. The new Pescarolo 03 Judd still struggled for pace but did complete more laps than the car in Aston Martin AMR-One guise had ever done at Le Mans. Halfway through the first session, Guillaume Moreau had a very big off at the exit of the Porsche Curves with the Oak Racing's Pescarolo 01. In hospital he was treated for a broken 12th vertebrae, and will not be able to compete in the race. We wish the unfortunate Moreau a speedy recovery.
Grabbing plenty of attention was the highly unusual, Nissan-powered 'DeltaWing', which is the sole runner in the 'Garage 56' experimental class. Entered by Highcroft racing, the car was initially conceived by designer Ben Bowlby as a potential new Indy-racer and subsequently converted into a two-seater sports racer. Designed to be very aerodynamically efficient, the narrow nose and lack of wings allow it to slice through the air with remarkably ease. The required downforce is generated by a ground-effect underfloor, which generates little to no drag Powered by a bespoke Nissan engine, the Deltawing weighs just 485 kg. When the DeltaWing was launched, some critics doubted that the car could even properly corner. Having seen the car in action, we can confirm that the unconventional machine works very well, especially through corners. Running in an experimental class, the DeltaWing will not be classified and the ACO have asked the team to run a lap-time of around 3:45, so as not to upset the top runners. Hopefully later in the year, we can get a glance of how fast the car can really go. During the weekend, the Automobile Club de l'Ouest announced that next year's Garage 56 slot will be taken by the hydrogen-powered GreenGT.
Following Peugeot's sudden withdrawal, it was comforting to see that Audi will not have it all their own way. However, it will also surprise us if one of the TS030s will have a trouble-free run in the ever gruelling event. With a four-car entry and the benefit of experience, Audi is still the favourite. The other classes are much closer to call and will certainly provide plenty of entertainment come race day. The 80th edition has the makings of a classic and we have a front-row seat. To properly warm you up, we would again like to refer to our 120-shot gallery
of the Test Day weekend.