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Le Mans 24 Hours Preview: Part 4, LMP1

Toyota's race to lose? Or do the privateers have other ideas?

It’s eight cars for the LMP1 class this year, two down on 2018 with the absence of the Ginettas, and again the factory Toyotas will arrive in France as white-hot favourites.

Behind there’s been progress for several of the non-hybrids, and some spectacular individual performances, but it will take a stumble, or bad luck, for anything other than a hybrid to top the order by 3 pm on Sunday.

This is the final part of DSC’s class-by-class Le Mans preview, if you missed any of our other class previews, you can find them with the links below:

GTE Am | LMP2 | GTE Pro

Rebellion Racing

#1 | R-13 Gibson | WEC | Neel Jani, Andre Lotterer & Bruno Senna | Test Day time: 3:21.323 (3rd LMP1)
#3 | R-13 Gibson | WEC | Nathanael Berthon, Thomas Laurent & Gustavo Menezes | Test Day time: 3:22.194 (5th LMP1)

Rebellion has a fine record at Le Mans, taking the fight to the factory efforts. This is its tenth year under the current team name (plus a couple more under the Sebah/Speedy Garage banners) with three fourth-place finishes overall and last year’s overall third place to its name.

It will be looking to repeat that feat at the very least this time out and to achieve it they field new low-downforce aero, a mildly upgraded Gibson GL 458 (some 20bhp up on the units fielded by DragonSpeed and ByKolles) and its usual stellar driver line-ups. Its R-13s won’t be hard to spot either, as both are running in (bright) new colours (above).

The #1 car has the big names, ex-WEC World Champs and Le Mans winners Lotterer and Jani plus the mercurial Bruno Senna. That line-up though simply has not delivered in the way that this writer expected. Perhaps because the trio has been a little deflated over the inadequacies of the EoT process, some of the spark that you’d expect has been missing. On this stage, though you can expect them to be back with a vengeance.

The #3 car meanwhile fields the young(er) guns. Thomas Laurent, who is making his final appearance for the team before leaving for a season with Toyota as Test and Reserve driver (plus some LMP2 action in the WEC), has excelled in the R-13. Gustavo Menezes has too, and knows how to win here (in LMP2) and wants to show that he can produce that level of speed and consistency in the premier class. Finally Nat Berthon, a driver capable of blinding speed, stepped in from Sebring replacing Mathias Beche, is another that needs to dig deep and find the consistency and error-free delivery that can put a team in good shape to take advantage of anything that this extraordinary race offers.

ByKolles Racing Team

#4 | ENSO CLM P1/01 Gibson | WEC | Tom Dillmann, Paolo Ruberti & Oliver Webb | Test Day time: 3:26.991 (8th LMP1)

With a new-Gibson-optimised chassis debuted at the Test Day together with a new colour scheme and aero, will that be enough to push the ByKolles effort forward?

The driver trio is far from inexperienced and all have speed, though Ruberti is very new to LMP racing.

The key is going to be reliability and consistency because the raw pace from an effort that is a dictionary definition of the word ‘underdog’ looks set not to be a feature.

The whole team will be working as hard as always to get to the finish.

Toyota Gazoo Racing

#7 | TS050 HYBRID | WEC | Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi & Jose Maria Lopez | Test Day time: 3:20.249 (2nd LMP1)
#8 | TS050 HYBRID | WEC | Fernando Alonso, Sebastien Buemi & Kazuki Nakajima | Test Day time: 3:19.440 (1st LMP1)

Defending Champions Toyota Gazoo Racing come into the race as clear favourites with their two star-studded crews the only ones in contention for the WEC Drivers’ World Championship.

The TS050 is, by far the most advanced car in the field, and with the Hybrid punch it possesses, they hold big advantages in traffic and in adverse weather too.

Unfortunately for its LMP1 opposition, the Toyotas are remarkably reliable too, a mark of the team’s drive to develop its LMP1 tech over more than half a decade during this extraordinary programme.

As far as the driver squads are concerned the clear leaders in the points are the #8 crew with Fernando Alonso, Seb Buemi and Kaz Nakajima favourites for the title. To nail it though, they need to finish. Racing luck, and reliability are then the key, because second place, or indeed third, fourth or fifth, will not be good enough to see the other Toyota take the title.

The EoT for Le Mans meanwhile sees the Toyotas regain the lap advantage in fuel stints too, probably for the final time as the message is underlined, with some regulatory assistance, that the Toyotas are not only faster and more reliable, but very significantly more fuel efficient too!

DragonSpeed

#10 | BR1 Gibson | WEC | Ben Hanley, Henrik Hedman & Renger van der Zande | Test Day time: 3:25.211 (7th LMP1)

It’s been a troubled year for DragonSpeed’s LMP1 effort. It started badly with a huge and damaging shunt for Pietro Fittipaldi at Spa 2018 and has got little better.

Reliability of the BR1 Gibson has been shaky, but some raw pace has been there too, often courtesy of Ben Hanley.

After a lead-in to Le Mans that was somewhat unusual, DragonSpeed arrives in good order, and with a surprise to be sprung.

They’ll be looking to get in amongst the leading non-hybrids if possible but more than anything the finish is the target as the team bows out of the FIA WEC full-time.

SMP Racing

#11 | BR1 AER | WEC | Mikhail Aleshin, Vitaly Petrov & Stoffel Vandoorne | Test Day time: 3:22.061 (4th LMP1)
#17 BR1 AER | WEC | Egor Orudzhev, Stephane Sarrazin & Sergey Sirotkin | Test Day time: 3:22.199 (6th LMP1)

The SMP Racing AER-powered BR1s are the fastest cars in the race, in terms of top speed at least, Stoffel Vandoorne the first man in WEC history to top 350 km/h in the Test Day last weekend.

First the downside. There’s no Jenson Button for the race, the ex-F1 man deciding to stay at home with his first child expected imminently, this after a disappointing time with the team that simply did not yield the hoped-for results.

Aside from that though there is much to savour. The two driver squads are of high quality, the car, whilst at times looking something of a handful, is remarkably quick, certainly able to go toe to toe with the Rebellions. Certainly, watch SMP in qualifying – and expect significantly quick times if the weather holds out.

The remaining questions are around reliability, though the P60B looks way, way better on that front than its AER predecessors, and on whether or not this team can get either car to the checkered flag without on-track incident or garage-bound issues.

If they can stay out of trouble then expect a potential battle for a podium overall.