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Le Mans 24 Hours: Race Preview Part One, LMP1

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LMP1

14 cars make up the Class Of 2015 in the premier LMP1 class. Of those, 11 come from factory teams, with three cars each from Audi, Porsche and new boys Nissan, plus a pair from 2014 world champion Toyota.

Add into the mix the privateer efforts of Rebellion Racing and ByKolles and there’s an LMP1 grid the likes of which has not been seen at Le Mans for many a year.

Toyota Gazoo Racing

Early-season form suggests that the Cologne-based outfit has been caught at least a little off guard by the massive leaps forward made by its Audi and Porsche opposition. While the upgraded TS040 is not as far off a whole-stint pace as some would have you believe, it certainly isn’t close enough to either Porsche’s one-lap speed or Audi’s whole-stint pace to be considered anywhere close to a favourite.

The basic concept of lat year’s TS040 is carried over, the normally-aspirated V8 boosted by Toyota’s supercapacitor storage medium and the car sticking in the 6MJ bracket – but certainly looking like it sits rather closer to the upper limit than in 2014.

It’s worth considering though that of the three 2014 LMP1 factory team, Toyota was the only one not to improve its times at the Test Day. A bad day? Working at the opposite end of the job sheet to the rest? Or perhaps tactical?

Time will tell, but while the other established factory teams both made progress from their 2014 Test Day times despite a track that was noticeably tricky and less-than-optimum weather conditions, Toyota was actually slower. That’s a tough one to explain unless either its plans have gone awry (highly unlikely) or it wasn’t pushing at this stage of the game.

Just about everyone agrees that the weakest element of Toyota’s attack is the continuation of a two-car Le Mans campaign against the three of Audi, Porsche and new kid on the LMP1 block Nissan. That may change in years two and three of Toyota’s now long-term commitment to the LMP1 programme, but for now two will have to do. At least it’s two cars with world-class crews.

#1 Toyota TS040 Hybrid
Sebastien Buemi
Anthony Davidson
Kazuki Nakajima

The world champions (plus the apparently – and very thankfully – substantially recovered Nakajima) arrive at Le Mans after a depressing start to their FIA WEC title defence.

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You’d have to go a long way to find a trio more pumped up by the competition in the WEC. Davidson and Buemi were deserving world champions last year and are keen to do the double.

Buemi has been the quiet man of the Toyota effort. Sportscar racing took time to grow on the Swiss, but last year the latent speed showed itself in spades and he was a perfect team-mate to fellow 2014 world championship winner Davidson, whose raw speed and aggression has never been in doubt.

Nakajima meanwhile is delighted to have a full-season opportunity, though cannot now be world champion this year as things stand after missing the Spa race due to the injury he suffered in a heavy practice shunt. He drove, and drove well, at the Test Day – a remarkable testament to the medical care he received after suffering a fractured vertebra just three weeks previously.

Kamui Kobayashi remains the nominated reserve driver, but looks set not to feature on the race entry.

#2 Toyota TS040 Hybrid
Mike Conway
Stephane Sarrazin
Alex Wurz

Wurz is the only man who has been a part of the Toyota attack at every race it’s contested in the current LMP1 programme. He’s smart, strategically adept and a real team player.

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Sarrazin is one of THOSE drivers who looks fast everywhere and in everything. The two together have a huge amount of experience and both are favourites with many neutral observers as deserving of a win (Wurz remember has two already).

Mike Conway is the addition to the full-season fold in 2015 and looks to be a man that Toyota is banking on for the future. He has reflected himself that his early form in LMP1 needs to improve. That’s a fair reflection on results thus far, but the raw speed is certainly there – evidenced by his prior pace in both IndyCar and LMP2.

This is a squad perfectly capable of producing a fine run, but it’s fair to say that the team likely expects the #1 car to be the pacier of the pair.

ByKolles Racing
#4 CLM P1/01
Pierre Kaffer
Tiago Monteiro
Simon Trummer (Le Mans rookie)

The car in its previous Lotus LMP guise was late, off the pace and unreliable (the effort not helped by a disastrous and terrifying fire at Fuji last year).

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The AER twin-turbo engine has plenty of straight-line grunt, but the now-redubbed ByKolles effort (complete with a new-for-Le Mans gunmetal grey livery) must still find a lot of pace and even more reliability than it has shown thus far if it’s not to feature on the shortlist of cars most likely to DNF at Le Mans.

With all of that said, Pierre Kaffer was hugely complimentary of the efforts of the team leading up to the great race in working hard on development and reliability.

The German is likely to be the quickest of the three drivers, hugely experienced in endurance racing and a real team player. Ex-GP2 racer Simon Trummer is the other full-season driver, with Portuguese ex-F1 and LMP1 and current WTCC Honda driver Tiago Monteiro completing the crew.

Audi Sport Team Joest

Audi’s record in the 21st century has been one of almost utter dominance. Its use of emerging technologies, astonishing teamwork and some of the most talented people in motorsport has yielded 12 wins in 14 years – an astounding level of achievement and consistency.

The 12th win though was one of few highlights in a 2014 season that saw Toyota and Porsche comprehensively outpace Audi.

The response from Audi Sport was far from the withdrawal that some unwise commentators predicted.

Instead, it has emerged in 2015 with an updated R18 e-tron quattro whose performance has taken a massive step forward.

That has come courtesy of a package optimised in every way. Whilst to the untrained eye the car seems little different, the truth is that huge attention had been paid to almost every aspect of the car.

While the Audi retains its 4.0-litre V6 diesel engine and mechanical flywheel hybrid system, power from both elements of the powertrain is improved, with the flywheel in particular enhanced to lift Audi into the 4MJ energy category.

Perhaps more significant still though are the changes (or rather the revolution) in the Audi’s aerodynamic concept. Here, the car that raced to the win at Silverstone was barely recognisable from the 2014 version. Its aerodynamic grip was astounding, keeping it in touch with the clearly ultimately faster Porsche and allowing Audi to fully exploit the opportunity when Porsche faltered.

We won’t be seeing that car at Le Mans, because Audi’s low-drag, lower-downforce R18 for this race is another utterly different version of the car. At Spa it performed the astonishing feats of not only giving up little in the way of Audi’s advantage in aerodynamic grip, but also managing to completely close the gap on the Porsches in straight-line speed.

Audi arrives here as championship leader and many people’s race favourite once again.

#7 Audi R18 e-tron quattro
Marcel Fassler
Andre Lotterer
Benoit Treluyer

There’s little doubt that Audi’s #7 crew is one of the greatest of the modern era.

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With a world championship and a trio of Le Mans wins already to their credit, the Fassler/Lotterer/Treluyer combo is already in the history books.

Their blend of stamina, consistency and raw speed makes this crew an ominous prospect for the opposition. Lotterer has for sometime been regarded as one of (if not the) fastest sportscar drivers on the planet. Both of his team-mates though can be just as quick – as was shown to great effect at Silverstone this year.

Add into the mix the unrivalled discipline of the Audi pit crew and the proven strategic genius on the pitwall and it would be a brave (or rather unwise!) commentator who would place this crew very far from the top of the list of favourites for the race win.

#8 Audi R18 e-tron quattro
Lucas di Grassi
Loic Duval
Oliver Jarvis

The #8 car crew lacks nothing in terms of ability or speed – only experience together as a unit.

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Loic Duval is now in his fourth year with Audi Sport’s full-season LMP1 effort and is therefore, at 32, the old hand of the trio.

Lucas di Grassi made his first appearance for the team in 2012 as a one-off, raced at Spa and Le Mans the following year and finally made it to a full-time seat replacing the retiring Allan McNish in 2014.

This year sees Oliver Jarvis complete the new-look squad as the replacement for Tom Kristensen. He too first raced an Audi factory LMP1 in 2012 but makes his first full-season appearance this year.

As a combo this trio may lack the ultimate edge of their more experienced LMP1 colleagues, but there’s plenty of pace, hunger and discipline on tap here.

#9 Audi R18 e-tron quattro
Filipe Albuquerque
Marco Bonanomi
Rene Rast

Audi’s third car is always a heady cocktail of promising talent and not quite as much running or prep as the full season cars – and once again that’s the case here.

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Marco Bonanomi has plenty of seat time in R18s as one of the busier Audi test drivers, but while his pace is undeniable, there’s been relatively little race practice – in particular at the wheel of the 2015 Le Mans-spec car, as the #9 crew campaigned the higher-downforce car at Spa.

Filipe Albuquerque has benefitted from being placed with Jota Sport for the past two seasons of ELMS racing and his confidence in the LMP1 has been boosted as a result. There’s little doubt that the hugely affable Portuguese driver is far more at home in an LMP car than in his previous berth in DTM.

Rene Rast is the new addition to the LMP1 fold. A proven talent in GT cars, he raced at Le Mans last year in the Sebastien Loeb Racing Oreca to good effect. Much interest will be shown in Rast’s form as everyone looks to where Audi’s next superstar may come from.

As a combo here, the only weakness is a lack of time to gel between drivers and pit crew. Do not be surprised at all though to see the car well up the order in both qualifying and the race proper.

Rebellion Racing

It’s a late start to the 2015 season for Rebellion Racing’s pair of newly AER re-engined and re-engineered R-Ones after the team switched from customer Toyota V8s at the end of last season. The decision on engine choice counted it out of the first two races of the WEC season.

There was time for shakedown testing only before the Le Mans Test Day, with the cars still suffering the inevitable niggles but showing some encouraging early signs of performance (though clearly nowhere close to the leading factory cars).

Rebellion Racing perhaps deserves a little more than the rapid factory development in LMP1 has left it with. Remember though this is a strong team that knows how to finish an endurance race – it was twice winner of Petit Le Mans and fourth overall here in the final year with the Lola Toyotas. It’ll be looking to have a clean, fast race and pick up places if and when the factory cars stumble.

#12 Rebellion R-One AER
Mathias Beche
Nick Heidfeld
Nicolas Prost

The Rebellion ‘A’ team once again sees Messrs Beche, Prost and Heidfeld teamed in the #12 car – this entry in a predominantly white livery for Le Mans.

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The task for this crew is a simple one – be faultless!

They’ll no doubt be doing a rain dance, but realistically for the Rebellion to get amongst the factory cars, a fault-free run from the R-Ones and problems for the others will be needed.

The raw data shows that there should be an improvement in performance over the 2014 car, but not nearly enough to make a race-long difference.

#13 Rebellion R-One AER
Daniel Abt (Le Mans rookie)
Alexandre Imperatori
Dominik Kraihamer

The task is almost precisely the same for the metallic-red-liveried #13 car as for the sister R-One. Imperatori is a great signing for the team after impressing in KCMG’s LMP2 battles last season in the WEC, while Kraihamer was until the end of 2014 an ever-present face in the FIA WEC.

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Daniel Abt is an unknown quantity in LMP racing, but has plenty of single-seater experience, most recently in GP2, GP3 and Formula E.

Porsche Team

Year two of the return of the Porsche factory team to top-class international sportscar racing has seen the 919 Hybrid breaking records and a groundbreaking move to an 8MJ hybrid package (moving up from 6MJ with battery development seeing NO weight disadvantage), coupled with the team’s jewel-like 2.0-litre, four-pot turbo that has the 2015 919 displaying astounding traction and acceleration.

It’s already given us outstanding battles at the front of the field in the opening two rounds of the season, coupled with unbeatable single-lap pace.

There have though been some downsides. The 919 seems harder on its tyres than the Audi and there have been some reliability woes. Both could be crucial factors in the battle to come.

Porsche fields a third car for the Le Mans 24 Hours and that could be a real advantage if it splits strategies – but who will be the hare and who the (relatively speaking) tortoise?

#17 Porsche 919 Hybrid (red)
Timo Bernhard
Brendon Hartley
Mark Webber

There’s no doubt about the speed of any of this trio, with Mark Webber looking a different man this year after a year bedding in during 2014.

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What the #17 crew has lacked is racing luck – and that has to change sometime. Timo Bernhard is one of the very best – a previous Le Mans winner (with Audi) and a man who makes remarkably few errors. Webber has found all of the speed he always had and Hartley never lost his! Better still, this is a happy crew and a popular trio with the fans, too.

#18 Porsche 919 Hybrid (black)
Romain Dumas
Neel Jani
Marc Lieb

Most of the success for the Porsche team thus far has come from this trio. Again, the three drivers are all quick, with Jani consistently the quickest of all. Dumas is another man that knows how to win this race and Lieb bows to nobody in terms of big-event ability.

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The form book says that this is the trio most likely to succeed amongst the Porsches.

19 Porsche 919 Hybrid (white)
Earl Bamber
Nico Hulkenberg
Nick Tandy

Porsche’s third car has the interesting blend of current Force India F1 man Hulkenberg, who has already shown real speed, and a pair of Porsche GT graduates.

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Nick Tandy is just plain quick in everything, whether it’s a GT or the KCMG LMP2 Oreca he races in most of the FIA WEC.

Earl Bamber is perhaps the surprise name here – the Kiwi was a new addition to the Porsche factory GT roster this year and then immediately elevated to the LMP1 team. To do so, he had to outshine reserve driver Fred Makowiecki and that will have required quite a performance in testing.

The trio combined have undoubted pace, but comparatively little in the way of endurance-racing experience – either individually (with the exception of Tandy) or as a crew. Stranger things have happened, but we’ll have plenty of entertainment for sure watching them gel and learn!

Nissan Motorsport

The return of Nissan to the top flight of sportscar racing has caused quite a splash. Not just a fourth factory LMP1 effort – but with a car unlike any that has come before.

Ben Bowlby’s design promised huge power and an absolute revolution in terms of layout: a front-engined twin turbo V6 boosted by a Flybrid mechanical hybrid system and the whole powertrain situated ahead of the cockpit, along with an extraordinary aerodynamic concept giving the GT-R both a family resemblance to Nissan’s halo road car and a look like no other race car ever.

Initial promises of a second ERS driving the rear wheels were an early casualty (for this year at least) with further difficulties with the primary Flybrid hybrid system causing further disappointment for a package that initially promised north of 1,500bhp!

The car’s racing debut was delayed as a result but the level of excitement about the appearance of the car on track has barely been dulled.

Le Mans Test Day finally saw all three GT-R LMs hit the track in public, with huge straight-line speed but off-colour overall lap times.

There are likely to be chunks of time to be found in rapid order, but the final gaps will be tough to close quickly, given the well drilled and budgeted and strategically savvy competition.

There’s plenty of work to do, but the team is motivated to close the gap and has plenty of fan support willing it on. Will Le Mans be too early? Probably. For this effort, for just now at least, a finish will be as good as a win. But sportscar followers love a trier!

#21 Nissan GT-R LM NISMO
Tsugio Matsuda
Lucas Ordonez
Mark Shulzhitskiy

The Le Mans-only #21 car features an Andy Blackmore-executed tribute to the 1990 pole-setting Nissan R90CK and was an immediate fan favourite at the Le Mans Test Day – the first day that the newly completed third car had turned a wheel

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Matsuda is the reigning Super GT Champions and has undoubted pace. The Japanese is joined in #21 by a pair of Nissan GT Academy winners.

Lucas Ordonez was the first winner of Nissan’s astoundingly successful initiative to find motorsport talent from the ranks of online gamers. He was the first to prove the concept too and has long been regarded as a ‘proper’ pro driver by his peers in Europe and in his other 2015 programme: the GT500 class of Super GT.

Mark Shulzhitskiy is the first-ever Russian LMP1 driver – a late addition to the driver squad after Marc Gene was re-assigned to a non-driving role in the team.

Combined this is an interesting squad with no little ability but precious little available seat time.

#22 Nissan GT-R LM NISMO
Alex Buncombe
Michael Krumm
Harry Tincknell

The all-red #22 and #23 cars are the full-season pair for Nissan, with the team for the remainder of the season likely to be fulfilling the dual roles of race and development drivers in equal measure.

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Alex Buncombe, once described as Nissan’s secret weapon, just seems to get better and better, with Nissan insiders praising his testing performances and feedback. An early plan to field the Englishman in the Le Mans-only car was reversed in response to Gene’s reassignment

Michael Krumm is the elder statesman of the team, with plenty of LMP experience on his CV. He could be a valuable steadying hand on the crew.

Harry Tincknell meanwhile sits at the opposite end of the experiential scale to Krumm, but is certainly a star in the making. His move via LMP2 into sportscar racing turned heads right along the pitlane, with a Le Mans win coming in no small part due to his speed and consistency. It was no surprise when a factory team came knocking.

#23 Nissan GT-R LM NISMO
Max Chilton
Jann Mardenborough
Olivier Pla

Another intriguing trio sees ex-Marussia F1 man Chilton return to sportscars in search of a career move and a programme that will give him a reputation for being more than just a finisher – though a 100% Grand Prix finishing record is a rare thing indeed!

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Jann Mardenborough is perhaps the biggest star thus far to emerge from the Nissan GT Academy. He’s shown race-winning form in GT and single-seater machinery and world-class pace in LMP2. The GT-R LM programme though is something else altogether and it’s possible that this is where we’ll see Mardenborough truly come of age.

Finally, Olivier Pla. A man who’s deserved an LMP1 factory seat for years finally found a berth with the GT-R LM programme. The fast Frenchman will have to be patient for a little longer before the car is ready to show off his undoubted talents. In the meantime his experience, like that of Krumm, could be a powerful asset.