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Le Mans Preview, Part 3: LMP2

An enormous list, but just how many have a shot at glory?

A record 25 cars in the thoroughly new look LMP2 class is a record, and it looks like we’re certain, unless the weather intervenes, to get record breaking pace from the much more powerful, much more slippery, 2017 versions of the LMP2 formula.

The class features a standard 600 bhp Gibson V8 and a choice of four available chassis from French manufacturers ORECA and Ligier, Italian outfit Dallara and US-based Riley Multimatic.  All four are on a race entry in full LMP2 trim for the first time ever.

Controversy though is in the air after the Le Mans Test Day saw 13 of the 14 Oreca chassis line astern on the timesheets, well clear of the best of the rest.  It has rattled the opposition who have responded with reactions ranging from stunned amazement to outright annoyance.

The rulebook allows the race organisers to put in performance balancing, something they have shied away from thus far – but in these circumstances a move before race day to level the playing field would not be altogether a surprise, neither would it be a stretch to see some different aero on one or two of the cars than we saw at Test Day.  Scrutineering could be very interesting indeed!

#13 | Vaillante Rebellion | Oreca 07 | Nelson Piquet Jnr, Mathias Beche, David Heinemeier-Hansson | Test Day Time: 3:30.150

New class, new car, new driver line-up and new sponsor – all of that adds up to a very different looking Rebellion effort for 2017.  The basis though is much the same as aways, highly professional, great preparation and presentation, and shooting for a win.

Stepping down from a long and successful LMP1 Privateer campaign was the smart move for 2017 and after experience with the Oreca chassised R-One the new 07 was the smart move too.

The tie-in with the Michel Vaillant comic books is a smart move, adds interest, and an attractive livery to an effort that woulsd always be looking for an opportunity to shine in an effectively spec WEC LMP2 class.

Mathias Beche returns to the core programme after a season away with TDS in the ELMS, the Swiss a fast and consistent driver, he’ll be a good anchor for this effort.  Nelson Piquet Jr is a full season driver now too after driving at Le Mans last year for the team, his pace has been fine, though he is taking time to adapt to the endurance racing discipline.  David Heinemeier Hansson meanwhile is delighted to be back in an LMP car, thrilled by the pace, but like many others, critical of the bugs in the systems that have cost the teams time on track.

The car is very, very fast, capable of running at the front of the pack, if reliability allows, this trio is perfectly capable of sustaining the attack.

#17 | IDEC Sport Racing | Ligier JS P217 | Patrice Lafargue, Paul Lafargue, David Zollinger | Test Day Time: 3:35.968

An all French affair with a family-owned team.  IDEC Sport are one of those efforts that has long characterised a part of the race, aspirant, hard working but not truly in a position to challenge on pace.

They run with Michelin rubber, one of only three teams in the class to do so, and with the Ligier chassis that took a beating vs the Orecas at the Test Day.

The father and son Lafargues and Le Mans only third man David Zollinger need to be error-free to bring this one home.

#21 | 10star DragonSpeed | Oreca 07 | Henrik Hedman, Ben Hanley, Felix Rosenqvist | Test Day Time: 3:3:30.693

A rookie team at Le Mans, with three rookie drivers – easy to count them out then?

Errr No!  DragonSpeed, under the direction of Elton Julian have developed into a team with real race winning potential in an astonishingly short time.

Race winners in the ELMS already, their ‘rookie’ trio actually has real strength in depth.

The least experienced is Gentleman driver Henrik Hedman, though the US-domiciled Swedish businessman is the only one of the three with race experience on the full Le Mans circuit after running in the Ferrari Challenge support race in 2016.

Briton Ben Hanley is one of the full season ELMS trio, the ex single-seater and still international karting ace proving to be a real force to be reckoned with in an LMP2.

Swedish single seater ace Rosenqvist is a multiple Championship winner, current Formula E driver and twice winner of the F3 Macau Grand Prix.  His speed is undoubted, his endurance racing prowess as yet unproven – Could he be the magic ingredient in a breakthrough race for the #21 squad?

#22 | G-Drive Racing by DragonSpeed | Oreca 07 | Memo Rojas, Ryo Hirakawa, Jose Gutierrez | Test Day Time: 3:31.150

The first of two G-Drive liveried Orecas comes from the DragonSpeed stable, their #22 car the current pace setters in the ELMS points standings.

Toyota reserve driver Ryo Hirakawa is the pace man here, the Japanese ace will be feeling unlucky to have lost out to countryman Yuji Kunimoto for a Le Mans drive in the factory LMP1 team and will be set to prove that they made a wrong decision. His pace in the ELMS has been excellent, the new wave of LMP2s very much to his liking it seems.

He’s joined in the #22 by two Mexican drivers.

His full season driving partner from the ELMS Memo Rojas is having a much stronger year after an out of sorts 2016, he’s played a full part in the team’s successes so far.

He’s joined by Jose Gutierrez, IMSa and Indy Lights f=driver amongst other avenues, a young man looking for a career direction it seems.  Well a good run here might just settle that dilemma.

This is an effort with potential.

#23 | Panis Barthez Competition | Ligier JS P217 | Fabian Barthez, Timothy Buret, Nathaniel Berthon | Test Day Time: 3:33.690

A highly professional set-up, the now two seasons old Panis Bartez outfit brings together ex F1 and LMP1 driver Olivier Panis and ex Manchester United and French national goalkeeper Fabien Barthez.

Barthez drives, Panis directs and the teams choice of a Ligier chassis and Michelin rubber at the moment looks to have increased the odds against a good finish.

In truth Barthez’s pace needs to improve, the LMP2 class already a stretch before the advent of the new cars.  Young Timothe Buret is quick but needs more experience too in order to challenge, but Nat Berthon has pace and experience.  The team will lean heavily on both of those assets, they’ll look to try to head for a finish as fas as they are able.

#24 | CEFC MANOR TRS Racing | Oreca 07 | Tor Graves, Jean-Eric Vergne, Jonathan Hirschi | Test Day Time: 3:28.844

Manor’s opening season in the WEC was characterised by misfortune. Thus far 2017 has been much, much better.

The Test Day was a story of two halves, the #24 car, particularly in the hands of new signing Jean Eric Vergne, was super quick, second fastest on the day.

Tor Graves is a popular returnee to the team, reliable and consistent he’s the ideal true Gentleman Silver-ranked driver.

Jonathan Hirschi is capable of more pace and of just as much consistency, if the race comes down to attrition rather than raw pace, this could be the sort of crew that rises up the order.

#25 | CEFC MANOR TRS Racing | Oreca 07 | Roberto Gonzalez, Vitaly Petrov, Simon Trummer | Test Day Time: 3:30.570

In lineup terms, Gonzalez, ex-F1 driver Petrov and Trummer, who raced with ByKolles in LMP1 last year, is a noteworthy one. Manor as a team, as mentioned above, is having a much better season across the board, but still has a ways to go before it can begin challenging for race wins and titles on a consistent basis.

Graeme Lowdown’s crew will be working extra hard to ensure that its pair of Orecas get to the end on Sunday, and if they do, the potential pace that this driver crew is capable of could see them earn a finishing position worth celebrating. Let’s not forget that last year Manor’s Le Mans debut hit a high note early, when its single Oreca stormed to the class lead.

A year on, and with a ton more experience, Manor has a real foundation to build on here. Don’t count them out.

#26 | G-Drive Racing | Oreca 07 | Roman Rusinov, Alex Lynn, Pierre Thiriet | Test Day Time: 3:29.113

The G-Drive Racing colours have become very familiar in recent years with title-winning successes in WEC and ELMS. They haven’t though yet taken a win at Le Mans!

If that is going to change this year then it is the full-season FIA WEC car, handled by TDS Racing, that looks the better prospect on pace.

As always Roman Rusinov is behind the effort, the Russian now back to a gold ranking as a driver, a move that almost saw him leave the arena.  That is now behind us and unfettered by the need to keep his pace down to that which he hoped would retain a Silver ranking he’s proved to be very quick in the #26 thus far.

Pierre Thiriet replaces him as the Silver ranked driver, and he’s one of the best of the non-Pros, fast, error-free a real asset here.

Alex Lynn meanwhile is a star in the making, the young Englishman very fast, and a great ambassador for the sport.  His search for a factory drive fell just short but he re-gathered himself, and found one of the best seats in the LMP2 house.  This is a real contender for class honours.

#27 | SMP Racing | Dallara P217 | Mikhail Aleshin, Viktor Shaytar, Sergey Sirotkin | Test Day Time: 3:33.787

Though it hasn’t opted to race its Dallara so far this year, SMP Racing’s Le Mans effort could well be one to watch.

The Russian crew will field IndyCar driver Aleshin, along with WEC/Le Mans GTE Am winner Shaytar and GP2 driver Sirotkin. The trio could prove to be quick, among the non-Oreca runners.

The only potential issue is the team’s lack of experience with the car, which so far has only tested and not raced. With the team’s enormous amount of sportscar experience over recent years though, across multiple series, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see it finish fairly high up the order.

#28 | TDS Racing | Oreca 07 | Francois Perrodo, Emmanuel Collard, Matthieu Vaxiviere | Test Day Time: 3:30.375

The second TDS Racing -run car runs under the team’s own brand with another attractively liveried Oreca for 2016 WEC GTE AM Champions Francois Perrodo and Manu Collard, joined by single seater talent Matthieu Vaxiviere.

The team got off to a great start in the opening round at Silverstone, scoring a podium finish after great drives from all three on the squad, with Vaxiviere’s pace proving excellent.

An accident in training though saw the young Frenchman miss round 2 with the Test Day effectively determining whether he would be fit (after broken bones and ligament damage in his foot) to tackle the race.  At time of writing he seems good to go, setting the team’s fastest time of the day, with Nick Catsburg waiting patiently in the wings should he have been required.

Perrodo has been keen to play down expectations, this is another learning year after a big step up from GTE Am.  he’ll be aided and abetted in that though by the evergreen Manu Collars, this his 23rd consecutive Le Mans 24 Hours, the last four shared with Perrodo.  They finished second in class at Le mans last time.  It would have to be an extraordinary set of events to repeat, or better, that feat this time around in an altogether tougher class to crack.

#29 | Racing Team Nederland | Dallara P217 | Rubens Barrichello, Frits van Eerd | Test Day Time: 3:33.304

Racing Team Nederland’s entry to Le Mans this year is certain to attract a lot of attention, with F1 legend Rubens Barichello making his debut alongside Dutch hero Jan Lammers and Frits van Eerd.

The jury is out on Barichello’s sportscar racing ability, as he’s yet to race with the team, but his years spent in Formula One should mean he’s more than accustomed to driving cars with lots of aerodynamic grip.

This isn’t an entry with the aim of taking on the field on pace though, Lammers and van Eerd have not yet been able to match the best in the class.

At this point the Dallara doesn’t look like it can either, Barichello in particular outspoken about the direction of the Le Mans aero, which appears to weigh too much on straight-line speed at the expense of its cornering ability and subsequent lap time

This is nevertheless an entry to watch though!

#31 | Vaillante Rebellion | Oreca 07 | Nicolas Prost, Bruno Senna, Julien Canal | Test Day Time: 3:30.535

Rebellion’s second car ticks all of the same boxes as the sister #13 with arguably an even stronger driving squad.

Julien Canal is looking for a fourth class win at Le Mans in a third different class, the Le Mans local has impressed since moving over to LMP2, helping to claim the WEC class title with G-Drive two seasons ago.  He’s quick and considered, usually entirely error free.

His Pro team-mates Nico Prost and Bruno Senna will add further punch, both cheerful sorts that are enjoying their racing, Senna had a run at the title last season with RGR Sport and will relish the opportunity for another competitive effort, Prost looking forward to a season long battle thst had been somewhat lacking in LMP1-P in recent years.

#32 | United Autosports | Ligier JS P217 | Will Owen, Hugo de Sadeleer, Filipe Albuquerque | Test Day Time: 3:31.907

Anglo-American outfit United Autosports is set to be a one to watch outside of the Oreca contingent. The team asserted its authority in the LMP2 division with a win off the bat at Silverstone, and by being the fastest non-Oreca at the Test Day. It’s well run, and has a firm place in sportscar racing, as the UK LMP3 dealer for Ligier.

Its lineup, headlined by former Audi LMP1 racer Filipe Albuquerque, has a lot of potential, as both Will Owen and Hugo de Sadeleer have proven so far to be quick, and getting quicker despite their limited prototype experience. Both will have a lot to learn in their first Le Mans.  If Ligier can in fact take the fight to the Orecas come race time, expect United to be there or thereabouts at the head of the queue to mix in at the front.

#33 | Eurasia Motorsport | Ligier JS P217 | Jacques Nicolet, Pierre Nicolet, Erik Maris | Test Day Time: 3:43.817

Another team that earned their invitation thanks to a dual ELMS and Asian LMS effort, Mark Goddard’s team have ceded their seats to Pere et fils Nicolet, the owners of Onroak Automotive, builders of the Ligiers and their racing buddy Erik Maris.

A solidly all-gentleman effort this will not win on pace, but the trio will enjoy their Le Mans, and with the hard work of putting the commercial plans in place for a successful range of LMP3 cars, and with a no doubt difficult post Test Day week behind them trying to find a solution to the lack of pace of the P2 Ligiers, they deserve their day out!

#34 | Tockwith Motorsports | Ligier JS P217 | Phil Hanson, Nigel Moore, Karun Chandhok | Test Day Time: 3:34.385

It’s been a fast rise to LMP2 for Tockwith Motorsports, which is still relatively fresh from its AsLMS campaign with an LMP3 Ligier. This year it’s been racing in the ELMS, and took part in the WEC at Spa as a guest entry.

As a team, it has a lot to learn still, especially in organisation and experience terms when competing in longer races. Its young up-and-comer Phil Hanson does too. Both the team and Hanson have a ton of potential though, and are set to stick around in the ACO scene for quite a while.

At Le Mans the team has brought with it Gulf backing for the first time, making for what will certainly be a popular livery among fans. DSC readers will be familiar with Hanson’s teammates in the JS P217 too, with ex-F1 driver Karun Chandhok, and Nigel Moore, who broke the record for the youngest ever British Le Mans starter with LNT back in 2009.

It’s unlikely that Tockwith will be able to feature at the sharp end at this stage. But this isn’t a one-year effort, and the lessons learned in 2017 will go a long way in preparing it for the future.

#35 | Signatech Alpine | Alpine A470 | Nelson Panciatici, Pierre Ragues, Andre Negrao | Test Day Time: 3:28.146

The #35 Alpine crew was one of the big surprises of the Test Day. With the #36 aiming to defend its title in LMP2, and heading to Le Mans with reigning Le Mans winner Roman Dumas in its lineup, it would be easy to overlook the #35, which isn’t a full-season competitor.

The #35 set the fastest LMP2 time at the test, late on in the afternoon in the hands of Panciatici, and in the race, could well feature at the head of the field. Pierre Ragues has multiple Le Mans starts under his belt, as does longtime Signatech driver Nelson Panciatici. Negrao is the unknown, but if his racing record in single-seaters is anything to go by, climbing as high as GP2, then he could prove to be one of the quicker drivers in the category.

Unlike last year, Signatech Alpine appears to have a second car capable of contending.

#36 | Signatech Alpine | Alpine A470 | Gustavo Menezes, Matt Rao, Romain Dumas | Test Day Time: 3:30.501

Despite the #35’s showing at the test, the main focus for the Signatech Alpine squad will be furthering the #36. Gustavo Menezes, who won last year, is racing with former Manor WEC driver Matt Rao and Roman Dumas, who needs no introduction.

The fate of the #36 though, is on the performance of Rao and Dumas. Menezes has been the class of the field on pace in the WEC this year, whereas Rao and Dumas are still adjusting to the very different style of driving that the new P2s require.

The experience of Dumas though, could go a long way when the chips are down during the race though, after years spent racing at the top of sportscars with factory teams, and emerging victorious.

#37 | Jackie Chan DC Racing | Oreca 07 | David Cheng, Tristan Gommendy, Alex Brundle | Test Day Time: 3:29.104

It’s been a tough start to the season for the #37. While the #38 leads the points standings, after Silverstone and Spa, Tristan Gommendy, Alex Brundle and David Cheng have just five points to their name. It’s getting to the point where a good points haul at Le Mans is vital for their WEC ambitions.

Thankfully, both Brundle and Gommendy are fast and at Le Mans are unlikely to do anything erratic. The same can be said too for Cheng, who isn’t necessarily the quickest Am over a lap, but is one of the more consistent in the field.

Having Jota Sport behind the effort too is also a massive plus, after its 2015 Le Mans win, it knows how to win, which plays a big part in deciding who ends up on the podium on Sunday at La Sarthe.

The ORECA has the speed, the team have the know-how and there’s no shortage of drive amongst the crew, one for the short-list if it comes down to a race of pace!

#38 | Jackie Chan DC Racing | Oreca 07 | Ho Pin Tung, Oliver Jarvis, Thomas Laurent | Test Day Time: 3:29.924

The sister car is one of the class favourites certainly.  The #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing crew, which leads the WEC points standings after winning the opener at Silverstone and finishing third at Spa, will be looking to continue their fine run of form at Le Mans.

Oliver Jarvis is one of the class’ best, yet still has some adapting to do, after years spent in LMP1 with Audi, asking him to drive in a very different style. That though is payimng dividends already with fuel and tyre conservation tactics likely to be a key part of success in LMP2 this year.

Thomas Laurent and Ho Pin Tung meanwhile are both quick.

Up-and-comer Laurent has been nurtured by the team and is improving all the time, his form here includes a win last year in the Road to Le Mans support race

Ho-Pin Tung is relishing this new programme and seems in the form of his life just now.

This is an entry to be treated very seriously.

#39 | GRAFF | Oreca 07 | Eric Trouillet, Enzo Guibbert, James Winslow | Test Day Time: 3:34.404

Graff Racing have a long heritage at Le Mans that goes back to Group C days but their current story started last year with a high quality LMP3 campaign.

This season they have taken a big step up with a pair of LMP2 ORECAs, both of which have shown real pace in their full season ELMS racing thus far, though the new car niggles have bitten both Graff cars repeatedly, and did so again at the Test Day when the #39 suffered alternator problems that restricted their running.

Aussie-domiciled Brit James Winslow joins the team for Le Mans, he’s a favourite of the team and should have pace to bring to the party as proven in his recent LMP2 and LMP3 outings.

Eric Trouillet is the Gentleman driver and has proven to be steady and reliable.

Much of the pace for the car so far though has come from Enzo Guibbert, something of a revelation, the LMP2 newcomer has done battle with some much more established names and come out on top. If the car doesn’t let them down this could be a dark horse for a good finish.

#40 | GRAFF | Oreca 07 | James Allen, Richard Bradley, Frank Matelli | Test Day Time: 3:30.525

Like the sister #39 Graff Oreca the #40 has shown real pace, but also has had woeful reliability, in particular of the Ctrl, Alt,Delete variety!

James Allen arrived after some mixed form in Formula Renault but is finding his feet in this new discipline for him.

Franck Matelli has shown some really solid form, all too often masked as the car has let the team down.

2015 Le Mans LMP2 winner Richard Bradley has continued to impress in terms of pace, has been a very public critic of the lack of reliability of the 2017 package and could be a front runner here this week again.

#43 | Keating Motorsports | Riley Mk.30 | Ben Keating, Jeroen Bleekemolen, Ricky Taylor | Test Day Time: 3:38.671

It’s going to be an important week for Riley/Multimatic, having just a single chassis in the race against a fleet of Orecas, Ligiers and Dallaras. Keating Motorsports though, is the sort of team you want to have representing you.

The Riley Mk.30 is debuting in Europe and this is, of course, it’s first Le Mans.

This specific car hasn’t had much testing, as the team has only had the car for six weeks, and completed three short tests. As a result, the Test Day proved difficult, the team managing just 38 laps after a teething problem cost it a lot of running in the morning. The car was also 10.5 seconds off the pace in the afternoon.

The saving grace could be though, that its driver talent is strong, with IMSA points leader Ricky Taylor, the ultra-fast Dutchman Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating behind the wheel.

For so many reasons, it’s going to be a crucial Le Mans for the sales of these chassis going forward, so being able to eke out a good result would go a long way.

#45 | Algarve Pro Racing | Ligier JS P217 | Mark Patterson, Matt McMurry, Vincent Capillaire | Test Day Time: 3:36.544

Algarve Pro are back for a second consecutive year courtesy of a title-winning run in the Asian Le Mans Series, this though is a step up again with a new for 2017 Ligier.

The car features a new livery, the orange and black courtesy of So24!, a regional business promotion group that had their own entry a couple of years ago before the team evaporated.  Vincent Capillaire is the man behind that enterprise here, a driver with plenty of experience and some good pace too.

It wouldn’t be Le Mans without Mark Patterson would it? The veteran South African/ American racer back again as he works towards his goal of being the oldest ever starter at Le Mans.  His speed is still there, and his consistency too, an asset to any team in LMP2.

Matt McMurry moves forward, the youngest ever starter at Le Mans a couple of years ago, his experience level and confidence is growing, his races for the team in Asia showed a real step forward.

This is a team that will be targeting a finish on their own terms, if they make it then who knows where they’ll be in the class, or overall, order?

#47 | Cetilar Villorba Corse | Dallara P217 | Andrea Belicchi, Roberto Lacorte, Giorgio Sernagiotto | Test Day Time: 3:32.567

The Villorba Corsa crew has been one of the pleasant surprises of the ELMS field this year so far. The Dallara in its high-downforce trim is very competitive and as a result, Belicchi, Lacorte and Sernagiotto have been able to mix in with the front runners.

Le Mans may be a different story though. The Italian-run car went quickest past the speed trap at the Test Day (341kph), but wasn’t able to produce a lap time close to the Orecas. That’s much the story of all the Dallara, Ligier and Riley runners though.

If the Test Day form continues into race week then this crew may well be firmly in the fight for best-of-the-rest though.

Belicchi will use his ex LMP1 (Rebellion) experience well and both of his Italian team-mates are in the mood to impress.

#49 | ARC Bratislava | Ligier JS P217 | Miro Konopka, Konstantins Calko, Rik Breukers | Test Day Time: 3:38.905

Another entry making it to the grid here courtesy of the Asian Le Mans Series, Miro Konopka having committed a pair of Ginetta LMP3s to the Series.

His entry gets a ‘Yes’ from the ACO after several disappointments in the past decade or more, his new Ligier in the team’s traditional bright yellow livery.

He’s joined by the affable, and quick Latvian driver Konstantins Calko and by young emerging Dutch talent Rik Breukers.

An all rookie line-up in a car that is known to be down on pace to the ORECAs doesn’t sound like a recipe for success.  But it does reduce the pressure, the ARC/ Lanan Racing crew will find a pace to keep to and try to get through in metronomic fashion. A finish for this effort will be as good as a win for others.