WEC Preview: 24 Hours of Le Mans

The FIA World Endurance Championship returns to the 88th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans on 19-20 September.

The world’s most historical and iconic sports-car endurance race is once again making its annual presence in motorsport, although in different times.

This preview will take a look at a handful of the endless talking points ahead of this 24-hour endurance race at this weekend.

Lack of spectators at the Circuit de la Sarthe

One of the biggest points of conversation, although not strictly detrimental to the display of racing, will be the significant lack of attendees at the Le Mans 24H.

Unsurprising to recent global circumstances, the race is to run behind-closed doors due to the risk with having such around 250,000 spectators in such proximity, also meaning that the traditional parade will not take place.

Despite this, and a limited number of personnel on a per team basis, there will be noticeable proportion as there are 59 total entries set to compete at Le Mans.

Le Mans
Parade at Le Mans ’19 – Credit: FIA WEC / Joao Filipe

Hisatake Murata, Team President of Toyota GAZOO Racing, gave his thoughts on the absence of fans: “Normally we look forward to sharing this challenge with the fans at the circuit, who create a unique atmosphere with their passion for endurance racing.

“We will miss them this year, so it will be a very unusual edition but we are grateful to the ACO for overcoming the difficult circumstances and giving us the opportunity to share the spirit of Le Mans once again.

“Although they cannot join us at the track, I hope we can be part of a Le Mans 24 Hours to remember for all the fans at home.”

Launched this week by the Automobile Club l’Ouest (ACO), the www.24h-united.com digital platform will help bridge the gap between the fans and the teams (and other attendees).

The United and Responsible digital platform aims to address three aspects of Le Mans.

In their own words, they will address:

The ‘making of’, which will feature interviews, insights into race control, and shots of the commentary box during the race.

The ‘history of the race’, with still and moving archive pictures from almost 100 years of the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans. A variety of themes, such as ‘Women in Motorsport’ are to be explored.

‘Technological innovation for tomorrow’s motorists’, with a particular focus on the Mission H24 project.

Toyota GAZOO Racing’s final LMP1 pursuits & shot at Le Mans 24H Grand Trophy

Toyota first made their Le Mans debut back in 1983, but have returned a number of times after making an assertive commitment to the beginning of the WEC era in 2012.

As one of the early manufacturers to state their interest in the then-new LMP1-Hybrid car, with their TS030, they find themselves naturally at the end of the journey for that same top category.

Alpine recently stated their commitments to have a go in an LMP1 car amongst the new Hypercar class for Season 9 next year.

It should be mentioned that an enforced Balance of Performance (BoP) system will be in place to ensure they would not be left behind.

More on TGR’s shot at the Le Mans 24 Hour Grand Trophy, it is awarded to those with three consecutive Le Mans victories in a row, as Audi (2012, 2013, 2014) and Porsche (2015, 2016, 2017) are the only others to do so (in the WEC era).

“We are proud to be preparing for this race as two-time winners and we are giving everything to win a third consecutive Le Mans” – Hisatake Murata, Team President

Even though the lack of LMP1 (Hybrid) competition means that they are highly likely to achieve this milestone, they resolve an outgoing conquest of redemption.

This redemption story follows the several times when the manufacturer missed out on a victory, with recent difficulties in 2016 and 2017 which allowed Porsche to take those wins.

They will be chasing up their sixth pole position (fourth in succession) in qualifying to sit on-par with Peugeot.

They ensured fans of their commitments towards a Le Mans Hypercar for next year, but before then, they want to get a hat-trick of Le Mans victories.

Toyota at the 1990 Le Mans 24H – Credit: Toyota GAZOO Racing

Adjusted running & scheduling of the race

Unlike the races of previous years, the 24 Hours of Le Mans will run over more of a race weekend rather than a race week.

Traditionally, there would be the test days in addition to the Free Practice and Qualifying sessions that would be spread out.

Instead, thanks to the proximity of the supporter series’ (running alongside) and the 24H Motos, there will be a condensed schedule which features four FP sessions and two qualifying (usual 45-min session and Hyperpole, rather than two days spent). There will be no test day.

Speaking of Hyperpole, the ACO introduced this new qualifying session where the top six (five for LMP1) will set their flat-out lap times without the established complaint of traffic that potentially ruined drivers’ qualifying runs in previous years.

24 Hours of Le Mans Schedule (BST)
Thursday 17th September Friday 18th September Saturday 19th September Sunday 19th September
9:00-12:00 / Free Practice 1 9:00-10:00 / Free Practice 4 9:30-9:45 / Warm-up 13:30 / End of the race
13:00-16:00 / Free Practice 2 10:30-11:00 / Hyperpole 11:45-13:12 / Grid and Start Ceremony
16:15-17:00 / Qualifying 11:00-11:45 / Hyperpole Trophy Presentation 13:30 / Start of the race
19:00-23:00 / Free Practice 3

Further on the different scheduling would be the fact that over half of the race will be enveloped in the dark due to its displacement in early Autumn rather than mid-Summer.

This subject area was addressed in the Nicki Thiim story when he gave his initial reactions on the deferred date from 13-14 June to 19-20 September.

Honorable mentions concerning teams & driver line-ups

A key GTE team seen at the race for the last 20 years was Corvette Racing, who will not attend for the first time since their bespoke endurance programme’s establishment in 1999.

The iconic American name has made successful appearances in numerous sports-car and endurance championships over their existence like the American Le Mans Series, and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in recent times.

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Although struggling after the C8.R’s WEC debut in Austin’s Lone Star Le Mans where a lack of pace only got them a sixth-placed finish in the GTE-Pro class, they achieved the team’s 100th victory (and three consecutive ones) earlier this year at IMSA’s Daytona 240.

The team’s history is littered with success, and continues to do so, but their most recent Le Mans victory in 2015, and ‘that’ down-to-the-wire fight with Aston Martin in 2017, will add to their halted 2020 efforts.

It would have also been 60 years since their first presence at Le Mans in 1960, with the #2 C1 Corvette of Cunningham Team.

Another brief mention would be the rookie LMP2 teams, Nielsen Racing and Eurasia Motorsport.

The latter squad recently competed in their WEC debut at the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, finishing in 28th out of 28 finishers. They will be keen to take on the fellow LMP2s, including the reigning class winners Signatech Alpine.

The Nielsen Racing have yet to debut in the WEC, but will be just as determined to compete amongst ELMS, ALMS and WEC regulars.

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The two all-female ELMS regulars of Richard Mille Racing (LMP2) and Iron Lynx (LM-GTE Am) are also set to make an appearance at Le Mans. The first team’s crew are set to assert their rookie efforts this weekend.

A word of mention should also be put for Eurasia Motorsport, having debuted in the WEC at Spa last month. This will be the team’s first Le Mans.

The oldest and the youngest…almost

A final mention would be the record that is set to be broken for the oldest competing driver at the 24 Hours of Le Mans by Domonique Bastien at 74 years old and 295 days, on 19 September.

Following years of preparation, he will beat the likes of Jack Gerber (68 years, 110 days old) who raced back in 2013 and even stood on the GTE-Am podium.

Bastien, born on 25 November 1945, has recalled his earliest memories of Le Mans at the age of 9 and will now race for the WEC/Le Mans regulars Dempsey-Proton (GTE-Am) in the Porsche 911 RSR.

On the other end of the spectrum, Algarve Pro Racing’s Matthew McMurray will return to Le Mans after establishing his affinity and experience with the team’s endurance commitments as well as success in his own.

Credit: European Le Mans Series / Dan Bathie

At just 16 years and 202 days old in 2014, he was (and has been) the youngest ever competitor at Le Mans to start and finish in the Nissan-powered Caterham Racing LMP2 with his fellow drivers Tom Kimber-Smith, and Chris Dyson.

The now-22 year old may not be at the age of 16, but he has brought an IMSA title and more in the form of experience to once again race in LMP2.

Once again, we arrive at one of the most iconic annual races in motorsport, albeit under different times.

Whilst the global circumstances have been difficult, the race itself still obtains the particular roots that assert its iconicity, like the 24-hour duration irregardless of what car one is racing in.

Even the fans will see a 24 hour race just like all the last 87 times, apart from the unique nature that defines each one.