LMP1 is the headline class. The class where the battle for the lead will be and the where the front pages of the newspapers and motoring magazines will be generated. It is also a class of change for 2012.
The biggest change is the absence of Peugeot, ending five years of the Audi-Peugeot battle that has come to define the modern, diesel dominated, era at Le Mans. The 908s may be gone, but in total – with Franck Montagny replacing injured Guillaume Moreau at OAK Racing – seven of the French team's drivers have redeployed elsewhere in top category.
Where these men have landed for the 2012 race is very much a show of where the challengers to Audi lay, though one of them – Marc Gene – has joined the Ingolstadt team in place of Timo Bernhard following the latter's Sebring test crash.
Toyota – Peugeot's successors in being the second manufacturer in class – employ three former 908 drivers in their six man team, with 2009 Le Mans winner Alex Wurz leading the #7 TS030 Hybrid.
Two of Peugeot's French drivers – Nicolas Minassian and Sebastien Bourdais – return to a spiritual home of sort as part of Henri Pescarolo's two car team for the race in the revamped Dome S102.5.
The addition of Toyota has somewhat skewed the battle to be the best petrol engine car, where recent seasons have battle has raged between Rebellion Racing, Pescarolo and OAK Racing – all of which will race again in 2012 with the addition of two of the latest spec LMP1 HPD chassis in the hands of British teams Strakka Racing and JRM Racing.
#1 – Audi Sport Team Joest – Audi R18 e-tron quattro
Marcel Fassler/Andre Lotterer/Benoit Treluyer
The combination of the Swiss, German and French driver scored an unlikely victory 12 months ago. They arrived last year as the least fancied of Audi's three teams and only emerged as leaders after well-publicised accidents for their two teammates. Once in the lead Lotterer and Treluyer particularly shone as they resisted the Peugeot charge for the victory. The question is: can they do it again? The answer is almost certainly yes, but despite the #1 plate on the car they probably start second or third favourite behind their fellow Audi squads.
#2 – Audi Sport Team Joest – Audi R18 e-tron quattro
Dindo Capello/Tom Kristensen/Allan McNish
It's almost too easy to make the three most experienced Audi men in the current team pre-race favourites, but it's hard to argue with three drivers with as much endurance racing success as they have. Some post-Spa car fettling by Audi aside whether the e-tron or Ultra cars have the better chance of winning depends on the weather. At Spa the hybrids, with their four-wheel drive advantage, had the better pace on the wet track, but as the track dried out the conventionally powered cars marched to the front as the hybrid's handling ebbed away. If the race is wet, expect Kristensen to be celebrating win number nine on the Circuit de la Sarthe.
#3 – Audi Sport Team Joest – Audi R18 Ultra
Romain Dumas/Loic Duval/Marc Gene
Audi's #3 line-up was shaken by the injury to Timo Bernhard in a testing accident in the days following the 12 Hours of Sebring, but Audi's quick signing of Marc Gene as first reserve driver, then Bernhard replacement, has made sure that they start Le Mans weekend potential winners and arguably as favourites following their WEC victory at Spa. Gene and Dumas already have Le Mans victories to the their names and Duval's would be a worthy addiction to the list of victors following strong showings by the Frenchman driving for Oreca. Just as wet weather should – incident and accident notwithstanding – direct the race towards McNish et al, a dry race may equal victory to the no.3.
#4 – Audi Sport North America – Audi R18 Ultra
Marco Bonanomi/Oliver Jarvis/Mike Rockenfeller
The relatively late addition of Rockenfeller to the new-for-2012 #4 team prevents the final R18 from having an 'also ran' feel to it. Jarvis has limited endurance experience after campaigns with Colin Kolles' team running the old R10 TDi, but Bonanomi will be logging his first Le Mans start after an Audi apprenticeship with customer teams in GT racing, driving the R8 LMS. There is no doubt that the team and the car have the potential to win, but the drivers may well prove the weak link.
#7 – Toyota Racing – Toyota TS030 Hybrid
Nicolas Lapierre/Kazuki Nakajima/Alex Wurz
That Toyota's TS030 ended the official test day splitting the four Audis was a pleasant surprise for those hoping for a battle between the two works teams . However expecting Toyota's program, delayed to the point of a Le Mans debut to be able to compete with Audi is probably asking a little too much of the newcomers, despite the starry driver line-up which picks up where Peugeot left off in combining sportscar stalwarts and F1 refugees (and often converting latter to former). There is also the unasked question that lurks behind the Hybrid mystique: can Toyota's petrol electric compete with the diesel fuelled R18s?
#8 – Toyota Racing – Toyota TS030 Hybrid
Sebastien Buemi/Anthony Davidson/Stephane Sarrazin
The driving team of the #8 is probably the stronger of the two ORECA run Toyota's with many – maybe optimistically – lining up late addition Sarrazin for an attention grabbing glory run for pole position in the midweek qualifying sessions. Excepting the crash that caused the cancellation of the panned Spa debut Toyota's testing (at least publically) has been relatively trouble free, but with this year's Le Mans likely to continue the recent endurance racing trend of '24 hour sprints' if there are chinks anywhere in the TS030's armour the necessary pace to stay even close to the Audi hoard may prove too much.
#12 – Rebellion Racing – Lola B12/60-Toyota
Nick Heidfeld/Neel Jani/Nicolas Prost
In many ways Heidfeld has been one of the best drivers of the WEC so far. A man often labelled too slow for F1 seems to have found a home in endurance racing, despite only joining Rebellion for a limited schedule this year. Outside of the manufacturer teams the two Rebellion Lolas have the best all round combination of car and drivers where the privateer LMP1 rivals only have one or the other. That fact, on the back of their Spa-Francorchamps performance, makes them favourite to be the best of rest once again but which of the two Rebellion cars takes that honour will come down to which ever makes the fewest mistakes.
#13 – Rebellion Racing – Lola B12/60-Toyota
Andrea Belicchi/Jeroen Bleekemolen/Harold Primat
There is little between the two Rebellion cars in terms of drivers, former Pescarolo driver Primat joining regulars Belicchi and Bleekemolen to staff the #13. The team's two cars are also the highest profile Lolas in the field the month after the Cambrdigeshire company went into administration. Reports suggest that the only difference teams will experience at Le Mans is the lack of a dedicated parts truck at the track, meaning that teams will have to rely on their own inventories to solve the inevitable problems, but it is known all the teams received all the parts expected from Lola before the financial decision, Rebellion collecting a significant upgrade package before Spa last month.
#15 – OAK Racing – OAK Pescarolo-Judd
Bertand Baguette/Franck Montagny/Dominik Kraihamer
Before an test day crash injury that ruled him out of Le Mans with spinal injuries Guillaume Moreau was almost certainly the strongest member of this team alongside for FR3.5 and Indycar runner Baguette and Kraihamer, who has travelled from privateer team to privateer team in recent years. Replacing Moreau with Montagny (which begs the question why the Frenchman was a free agent in the first place) keeps some strength in the team, but question marks must remain over the pace and reliability of his two teammates.
#16 – Pescarolo Team – Pescarolo 03-Judd
Jean-Christophe Boullion/Emmanuel Collard/Stuart Hall
After the AMR-One assault latest just a combined six laps last year you could have been forgiven for never expecting to see the car at Le Mans again, but it's back. The 'new' Pescarolo 03 is based around the chassis of the disastrous Aston Martin and, worryingly, seems to retain he same looks as it too. The only silver lining – given that it was engine trouble that knocked out both AMR-One last year – is the Judd powerplant in the back of the car. In a late change Stuart Hall, once an Aston martin works driver himself, joins Pescarolo standards Collard and Boullion. They, and the rest of the Pescarolo part of the entry, are predictably sound and experienced the concern is remains with the Aston Martin part.
#17 – Pescarolo Team – Dome S102.5-Judd
Seiji Ara/Sebastien Bourdais/Nicolas Minassian
Not content with resurrecting one car for a second go at Le Mans Henri Pescarolo has breathed new life into the Dome S102. Unlike with the 03-Judd it's easier to be optimistic about the chances of the #17 team, not least because of the three drivers tasked with driving the car. Minassian and Bourdais – two stars from the Peugeot stable – took the car for its competitive debut in new spec at Spa, when only electrical problems prevented them from fighting the Rebellion cars for fifth behind the Audis. With those problems fixed and 2004 winner Seiji Ara completing the team, they are likely to be the Swiss team's nearest challengers again.
#21 – Strakka Racing – HPD ARX-03a
Jonny Kane/Nick Leventis/Danny Watts
Over the last few seasons Strakka Racing have been among the pace setters in LMP2, taking the class win at Le Mans in 2010 as well as winning the Le Mans Series race in Hungary overall. Obviously in LMP1 they come up against stronger opposition but in the opening two rounds of the WEC the team have shown well, finishing just behind the Rebellion cars in seventh place overall. In regular qualifying driver Watts they have another hotshoe who could surprise in the pre-race sessions. His two teammates, especially Leventis are unlikely to be able to match his performance at best, and could be the team's undoing at worst.
#22 – JRM Racing – HPD ARX-03a
Karun Chandhok/David Brabham/Peter Dumbreck
A more familiar name in GT racing, having helped developed the GT3 version of the Nissan GT-R last season the comparatively small team have made the leap into prototype racing for this season (though in this class, rather than the Nissan dominated LMP2). Their LMP1 campaign in the WEC has got off to a solid, if unspectacular start with a pair of finishes at Sebring and Spa. Brabham and Dumbreck – part of JRMs GT1 team last season – bring undoubted quality to the team, the Scot returning to the prototype classes for the first time since 1999 and that crash. Chandhok is less of a known in endurance racing, presenting the week link the team.
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