A few seasons ago it would have been unthinkable that the 2012 Le Mans 24 Hours would include a 20 car LMP2 field. After years of an almost laughable lack of reliability in the class big names Porsche and Acura entered the class and dominated subsequent seasons with the RS Spyder and ARX chassis respectively.
Now, a cost capped formula has been introduced and new engine manufacturers drawn into the class with Nissan providing the horsepower for thirteen of the entrants, mating their powerplant to four of the six different chassis represented. Seven of those contracts unite the Nissan engine with the ORECA 03 chassis introduced last year. The 03 has come to epitomize the new breed of LMP2 car and now – with eight teams in team – is the chassis of choice, overtaking previous favourites Lola and Zytek who only have seven standard bearers between them.
HPD are also there with two American teams using the latest variation on the ARX-01 design, though the almost unhealthy advantage the design enjoyed in 2010 has been eroded away to nothing.
With any luck the relative uniformity and quality of the different engine and chassis – only the Norma stands out as a real private design – should remove the lack of reliability from the equation that ends with the class victor, which should put the onus on the teams running the cars and drivers taking the stints behind the wheel.
In the wheelmen stakes too the class is in rude health. Experienced names rub shoulder with young drivers either graduating to the class from the various LMP feeder classes – SpeedSeries, VdeV or Formula Le Mans – or from single-seater careers frustrated by the constant need for more sponsorship – where the appeal of the new cost capped LMP2 comes into its own.
Less than a second separated the top six in class after qualifying for the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, and the top three ended the race on the same lap. Without much imagination there are as many of ten team and driver combinations you can picture on the top step of the podium.
LMP2 might just be the most competitive class at Le Mans this year.
#23 – Signatech Nissan – ORECA 03-Nissan
Olivier Lombard/Franck Mailleux/Jordan Tresson
Albeit against slim opposition Signatech Nissan won the class championship in the ILMC (predecessor of the WEC) last year and finished second in class at Le Mans. Off the three drivers who stood on the second step of the podium in 2011 only Mailleux returns for 2012. He is joined by Olivier Lombard – part of the winning Greaves team from last year – and Jordan Tresson, who follows fellow Playstation GT Academy winner Lucas Ordonez into the race seat. Their WEC season has got off to a troubled start, crashing at both Spa and Sebring through little fault of their own, so will need the luck to change if they are to get the result they deserve at Le Mans.
#24 – OAK Racing -Morgan-Judd
Matthieu Lahaye/Jacques Nicolet/Olivier Pla
OAK Racing mount a doubled pronged attack, with both LMP1 and LMP2 representation again at Le Mans with their two LMP2 Pescarolo chassis tagged in the name of British sportscar marque Morgan. Nicolet ticks the amateur racer box of the LMP2 regulations with Pla and Lahaye giving the car the necessary pace to compete in a very strong class. Layahe returns to Le Mans after having to sit out last year's race following a crash at Spa-Francorchamps. Together the three represent one of the stronger driver line-up and in the Morgan chassis represents a tried and tested platform, but could it be showing it's against the latest generation of LMP2 cars?
#25 – ADR-Delta – ORECA 03-Nissan
Tor Graves/Jan Charouz/John Martin
One of the surprises of the class, ADR-Delta were once of several new teams to appear on the Le Mans scene when the entry list was announced in February. After an impressive top five in class on debut at Sebring they finished second at Spa, though they picked up maximum points for the WEC despite having to make a late splash-and-dash pitstop that robbed them of the class win on track. Despite this strong start question marks have to remain over the driver line-up in terms of Le Mans experience with only Charouz having run at Le Mans in the past.
#26 – Signatech Nissan – ORECA 03-Nissan
Nelson Panciatici/Pierre Ragues/Roman Rusinov
One of the youngest driving line-ups in the race with all three drivers under 30-years-old, compared to the =23 this is very much the second Signatech entry. Ragues returns to team (nee Signature Plus) after a season with OAK Racing) to join two drivers making their first steps in LMP racing, Rusinov after a past in GT racing, Frenchman Panciatici after single-seaters. The team behind the trio is probably one of the most professional in the class, but in such a large, and strong class, and call to the garage for even minor repairs is likely to end a challenge for the lead.
#28 – Gulf Racing Middle East – Lola B12/80-Nissan
Fabien Giroux/Stefan Johansson/Maxime Jousse
In a line-up typical of LMP2 team owner Giroux joins young single-seater convert Jousse and experienced journeyman Johansson. As a team Gulf Racing have entered Aston Martins – in the GTEAm class of Le Mans last year – Lamborghinis, McLarens and now Lolas with a move into prototype racing. Of the two team cars on the entry list this is by far the strongest, but it is still unlikely to feature at the front of the class.
#29 – Gulf Racing Middle East – Lola B12/80-Nissan
Jens-Denis Deletraz/Keiko Ihara/Steve Quick
A few seasons ago this would have been an average LMP2 team, now it looks out-classed by those around it. Deletraz is the one bright spot in a team of Quick, who has done little aside from minor sportscar series in GT equipment and Ihara who holds the honour of being the only female driver in this year's field. The entire Le Mans field in strong enough for no-one to turn in a JLOC or AMR-One like performance, but there is potential here.
#30 – Status Grand Prix – Lola B12/80-Judd
Yelmer Buurman/Roman Iannetta/Alexander Sims
Sims and Buurman join the ever growing list of drivers to jump over to endurance racing after they have found themselves without the funding to ascend to and a sustain a drive in the upper echolons of single-seaters – a fact that can only good for the health of sportscars and has no doubt helped boost the strength of LMP2 in recent years. The Irish owned team is completed by Iannetta, making his second Le Mans start. A third place at Paul Ricard, when Sims and Buurman were joined by Dean Sterling showed the potential, but a big crash at Spa kept them off the grid, so knowing exactly how they compare to the WEC line-ups is unknown.
#31 – Lotus – Lola B12/80-Judd
Thomas Holzer/Luca Moro/Mirco Schultis
Though their problems are well documented Lotus' tentacles have expanded into LMP2 with a glorified rebadging operation on a Lola under Colin Kolles stewardship. The three drivers come with exactly no Le Mans starts between them and little sportscar running with Moro and Schultis having come through the VdeV and Formula Le Mans ranks to this point while Holzer is fresh out of junior single-seater formulae. A finish would be a good result.
#33 – Level 5 Motorsports – HPD Honda ARX-03b
Christophe Bouchout/Luis Diaz/Scott Tucker
Tucker's Level 5 concern have become one of the stalwarts of the American Le Mans Series, rapidly accelerating from LMPC into LMP2 in the space of a year, taking the final step on the class podium last year running an HPD engine Lola coupe. The only LMP2 team who are contesting the full season American Le Mans Series this season they fared well against the WEC entrants when the series combined at Sebring, chasing home Starworks for second place. Bouchut and Diaz are two of the stars of the class, though despite his front-running seasons with Adrian Fernandez in the ALMS Acura this will be Diaz's first start at la Sarthe. However, you feel he should cope better than some of the other less experienced rookies. Tucker himself is the Am driver of the three, but surely one of the better Am drivers in the class after years of Grand-Am and ALMS experience, and a Le Mans past as part of the Kolles Audi R10 team.
#35 – OAK Racing – Morgan-Nissan
David Heinemeier Hansson/Bas Leinders/Maxime Martin
Leinders logs his third consecutive appearance at Le Mans, having run with Marc VDS in the final year of LMGT1 before joining Martin in the Kronos Racing Lola-Aston Martin last year. Almost without doubt the pair come into Le Mans off the best season to-date of any driver in the race, though how much their two wins in the GT3-spec Blancpain Endurance Series means in LMP2 at Le Mans is up for discussion. Like their OAK teammates – despite the different engine – they have the reliability safety net of one of the elder cars in the class and one of the more experienced teams. The only concern, aside from the age of the car, is whether Am driver Heinermeier Hansson is capable at this level.
#38 – Jota – Zytek Z11SN-Nissan
Simon Dolan/Sam Hancock/Haruki Kurosawa
Jota are something of dark horses for the class win, and should – if they run without major incident – at least lead those teams not entered for the full WEC season, and so fulfil the same role as they did at Spa. In Belgium Dolan and Hancock combined to beat the assembled LMP2 field and while the giant killing performance was a surprise the fact Hancock qualified the car third in class lends some legitimacy to the performance.
#40 – Race Performance – ORECA 03-Judd
Michel Frey/Jonathan Hirschi/Ralph Meichtry
Pretty much an average LMP2 team, the small Swiss team start the 2012 with an inviable record of two finishes and two top six class results from the last two starts – including a 2010 swansong for the Radical SR9 chassis when they became the first tenants of the 56th garage. On sheer pace alone the driver line-up in unlikely to trouble the top teams, especially in qualifying. As part of the team for the last two years Frey and Meichtry have acquitted themselves well and Jonathan Hirschi – once of French team Hexis' FIA GT1 and GT3 teams becomes the third different driver to join the team for Le Mans in as many years.
#41 – Greaves Motorsport – Zytek Z11SN-Nissan
Ricardo Gonzalez/Elton Julian/Christian Zugel
Three names that should be familiar to followers of the American Le Mans Series, as all three have come to Le Mans via the LMPC class of that championship – using the same cars as the short lived Formula Le Mans in Europe. Only Julian has a previous start at Le Mans, as part of the Racing For Holland effort back in 2005 but all three – in the ALMS – have proven to be reliable drivers, Gonzalez sharing the LMPC drivers' title last year with his teammate. Translating that form the relatively short tracks and races in America to the Circuit de la Sarthe is going to be the crucial factor for this team.
#42 – Greaves Motorsport – Zytek Z11SN-Nissan
Martin Brundle/Alex Brundle/Lucas Ordonez
Since father and son Brundle announced they would race together at the end of 2011 there has been a predictable amount of attention on the pair, and last year's Le Mans class winners Greaves Motorsport. Brundle the elder makes his Le Mans return after 10 years away from La Sarthe, his son continues a parallel sportscar career he started this year alongside a stuttering single-seater progression. However, while the Brundles have attracted much of the spotlight Ordonez – the original Playstation GT Academy winner – is probably the strongest driver of the three, joining Greaves after winning the ILMC LMP2 title with Signatech last year. They have the capability to challenge for the podium, but a second class win for Greaves is improbable.
#42 Extreme Limite ARIC – Norma MP 2000-Judd
Phillpe Haezebrouck/Fabien Rosier/Phillipe Thirion
When the new LMP2 regulations were rolled out the Norma was the first car to hit the track, initially hopelessly outpaced by the older cars during the transition period. Now, as the whole LMP2 class comes to terms with the new regulations, big names like HPD and ORECA have gazumped the little French team that got there first. With question marks still over the car and weak driver line-up against those pushing the Pro/Am balance to the limit it's not really a case of whether they retire, unfortunately, but more case of when and why.
#44 – Starworks Motorsport – HPD ARX-03b
Ryan Dalziel/Tom Kimber-Smith/Enzo Potolicchio
Another dark horse for class honours. Established names in Grand-Am in America Starworks joined the WEC for the full season and got off to a perfect start with a win at Sebring in March. Dalziel and Potolicchio – both regulars in Starworks' Rolex Series entries – are join by Tom Kimber-Smith, the Briton bolstering the line-up. As class winner last year Kimber-Smith is a known quantity, but Dalziel's sportscar prowess has been a little under the radar to European audiences, despite a Daytona 24 win in 2010 and a second place finish in the same race earlier this year as part of a team than also featured Potolicchio and a certain Allan McNish.
#45 – Boutsen Ginion Racing – ORECA 03-Nissan
Bastien Briere/Shinji Nakano/Jens Petersen
Both his teammates have previous Le Mans starts, but without the past results to show as the bounced around between lower LMP2 teams including Bruichladdich Radical (Petersen), Intersport and Welter Racing (both Briere). Despite the ageless Shinji Nakano, who has carved out a fine, if quiet, career in LMP competition after the curtain fell on his open wheel journey this car is one that will likely have to rely on other falling off the track in order to come away with a good result in such a strong class.
#46 – Thiriet by TDS Racing – ORECA 03-Nissan
Mathias Beche/Pierre Thiriet/Christophe Tinseau
Winning the European Le Mans Series opener at Paul Ricard, with a lap advantage over a Sarrazin and Minassian driven Sebastien Loeb Racing car is a result that has to mean something. However, though the beat tough opposition then how they compare to most of the Le Mans rivals is unknown as the didn't race at Spa. At Paul Richard Beche and Thiriet split the driving between them and the team at Le Mans is completed by Christophe Tinseau, who already has ten starts at Le Mans, most recently in LMP1 machinery fielded by Henri Pescarolo. If his two teammates can repeat their performances from earlier in the season the Tinseau should be able to make them contenders.
#48 – Murphy Prototypes – ORECA 03-Nissan
Jody Firth/Brendon Hartley/Warren Hughes
Yet another possible contender for the win. After a DNF at Paul Ricard they bounced back with a third place at Spa-Francorchamps after running in the lead groups throughout the event. Warren Hughes represents the rock at the centre of the team, coming with as much experience as anyone in the class – and a class victory with RML in 2005. Firth and Hartley are newer to LMP racing. For Hartley his start at Spa-Francorchamps was a first taste of endurance racing in a Red Bull backed career that has him racing in FR 3.5 and GP2 this season. For Firth (Hughes's Team WFR teammate in British GT) his first Le Mans start is the end of journey through Formula Le Mans and SPEED EuroSeries. There is much promise for both, but perhaps still too much inexperience.
#49 – Pecom Racing – ORECA 03-Nissan
Sohiel Ayari/Pierre Kaffer/Luis Perez Companc
This team has potential. Ayari has established himself as one of the best drivers in LMP2 in recent seasons, not least because of his past with team turned manufacturer ORECA, Kaffer is a veteran of GT campaigns, most notably in Ferraris with CRS Racing and Risi Competizione before joined Pecom for last season. The big unknown comes with team owner Perez Companc. The former rally driver lunges between appearing to be a surprise package – his big GT racing debut at Sebring a number of seasons ago was the perfect way to start a new career – and looking like an unguided missile – his ill-advised move on a GT car at Spa ended any hope of a decent result there.