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Le Mans 24 Hours: Race Preview, Part One, LMP1

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There’s a disappointingly small eight car entry in the premier class, with just three privateer cars stacking up against the Audi and Toyota factory squads.

The rapid octet though will be more than capable of providing the level of race long entertainment we’ve come to expect from what perhaps should now be renamed the Le Mans 24 Hour Sprint.

1 AUDI SPORT TEAM JOEST AUDI R18 E-TRON QUATTRO – André LOTTERER/ Marcel FÄSSLER/ Benoit TRÉLUYER
2 AUDI SPORT TEAM JOEST AUDI R18 E-TRON QUATTRO – Tom KRISTENSEN/ Loïc DUVAL/ Allan McNISH
3 AUDI SPORT TEAM JOEST AUDI R18 E-TRON QUATTRO – Marc GENÉ/ Lucas DI GRASSI/ Oliver JARVIS
7 TOYOTA RACING TOYOTA TS 030 – HYBRID – Alexander WURZ/ Nicolas LAPIERRE/ Kazuki NAKAJIMA
8 TOYOTA RACING TOYOTA TS 030 – HYBRID – Anthony DAVIDSON/ Sébastien BUEMI/ Stéphane SARRAZIN
12 REBELLION RACING LOLA B12/60 COUPE – TOYOTA – Nicolas PROST / Neel JANI/ Nick HEIDFELD
13 REBELLION RACING LOLA B12/60 COUPE – TOYOTA – Andrea BELICCHI/ Mathias BECHE/ Cong Fu CHENG
21 STRAKKA RACING HPD ARX 03C- HONDA – Nick LEVENTIS/ Danny WATTS/ Jonny KANE

Audi are defending Champions (again) and have turned the form books upside down with their start to 2013. Toyota’s fighting finish to the WEC in 2012 saw them hotly tipped for honours this season but the Ingolstadt army busied themselves in the close season, and, despite having an even more radical power boosting system barred for use this year, have so far dominated on both pace and reliability grounds.

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They’ll field a trio of diesel hybrid long tail R18 E-tron Quattros with their usual stellar line-ups and with strategic genius in depth on the pit wall to boot!

The #1 crew are defending Le Mans and World Champions Benoit Treluyer, Andre Lotterer and Marcel Fassler with the #2 car featuring the huge experience of Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish joined by (very) fast Frenchman Loic Duval. These full season WEC crews have both already had a win apiece in the 2013 World Championship so far.

The third Audi looks very strong too with Ferrari F1 test driver Marc Gene, a man who has won sportscar races for both Audi and Peugeot, including Le Mans overall in 2009 in the late lamented 908, joined by Le Mans rookie and recent F1 refugee Lucas di Grassi and long term Audi factory man Oliver Jarvis.

All three Audis will doubtless be fast, the Test Day saw Duval beat last year’s pole position time in slightly less than ideal conditions, but just how much faster in reality are they than the Toyotas?

That question comes about in the wake of what has looked like a very much less than ideal start to the season for the petrol powered hybrids.

Silverstone saw the 2012 spec cars that the team fielded comprehensively outpaced by the new (short tail) Audis with round two again seeing one year old car fielded alongside the debuting new spec TS030.

The new car though suffered a hybrid system failure of the terminal variety leaving the older car to do distant battle with the Audis ahead of a very public airing of discontent over the current balance or performance between diesel and petrol post Spa, TMG feeling that the Audis have something over a 50 bhp advantage over their petrol engine.

An adjustment in fuel capacity in the Toyotas favour came in the lead up to the Test Day but the Toyotas were still nowhere close on pace. Trouble? Or tactics? Either way Paul Truswell’s pre race analysis presents a range of mouth watering possibilities.

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Our guess is a little bit of both.

We’ll see soon enough but for now let’s revel in the prospect of an automotive industry giant, hugely hungry for a first Le Mans win, taking on the best endurance racing team in the world.

The LMP1 privateer entry numbers just three, but all three are capable of running with real pace throughout.

Strakka’s Honda engined HPD is the only all British crewed car in the race and arrives as the outsider after a poor start to their WEC campaign. Le Mans though is the scene of the team’s greatest triumph, their LMP2 class win was a real statement of intent and launched the team’s LMP1 ambitions into reality.

The car is quick, but perhaps not quite as quick as the opposition, Drivers Jonny Kane and Danny Watts are simply world class, and Nick Leventis is as hungry as ever for success, for this effort to have a realistic chance though he’ll have to have as consistent and faultless a run as he has ever managed to pull out of the locker.

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There’s more than a buzz around Rebellion Racing these days, the Lola Toyotas have taken another step forward in 2013, they’re reliable, as fast as some of the factory cars in some conditions and have a driver line up that is able to exploit any opportunity to profit from the misfortunes of others.

That might be enough to see off the Strakka threat but, unless we see a major meltdown amongst the factory teams and/ or very changeable weather, we’re unlikely to see either of the Swiss entered cars troubling the overall podium.

And that’s a shame because there is real grit and ambition here, and real quality in the driver line- up too.

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The #13 car has a good driver squad but the #12 trio would grace any factory entry, Nico Prost fast and consistent alongside the mercurial Neel Jani, the ex A1 GP Champ has caught the eye of the factories and with good reason. He’s special, and so too, undoubtedly is Nick Heidfeld, he’s yet to find his endurance racing smile but he did bring his ‘A’ game and would relish either a wet qualifying session, or a weather affected race.

GG