2013 24 Hours Of Le Mans Preview: LMP1


2013 24 Hours of Le Mans (Credit: Audi Motorsport)

A year ago the Circuit de la Sarthe and the 24 Hours of Le Mans was set to play host to the first endurance battle between Audi and Toyota, with the German manufacturer expected to sweep all before it. However, before fate started to pull Toyota’s race apart the then new TS030 Hybrid proved to be a match for the R18. Nicolas Lapierre briefly led before accident and incident claimed both Toyotas and Audi swept to the first hybrid powered victory at Le Mans.

12 months on the lie of the land between the two rivals who should – barring a twist of Foinaven proportions, or perhaps even greater – battle for overall victory this weekend is very different, but yet somehow also very similar.

Toyota ended the 2012 FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) season the stronger of the two manufacturers with that advantage expected to be continued into 2013 once they debuted the new-spec TS030 Hybrid.

But though the old-spec car stole the front row at Silverstone to start the season Audi went on to take a comprehensive victory. The same result was repeated at the Six Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, a fact made only more worrying – for a Toyota fan – as the first race for the new car ended in a retirement.

Concerns that a Le Mans expected over the winter to be a closely fought battle could turn into a week of Audi domination would only have been increased when the four rings took the first three places at the test day earlier this month with the best Toyota five seconds off the ultimate pace.

In Toyota’s defence the test day times were decided as much by traffic and finding the right conditions in a day on which all but the final laps were completed on a damp track. However, it would be a strange list of decisions from anyone who installed Toyota as favourites before running begins.

After last year’s four car entry the Audi contingent shrinks back to three cars, all three of which are e-tron quattro.

By virtue of the WEC title Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer – also defending Le Mans winners – lead the entry list, though the new combination of Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen and Loic Duval are every part a match for them, shown in the winning of the RAC Tourist Trophy at Silverstone and Duval’s heading of both the wet and dry parts of the test day running.

Just like their rivals the two Toyota teams are evenly matched, superiority during the race more likely to come down to mistakes by one team or the other of mechanical problems rather than a fundamental difference in speed between the two squads. Likewise as drivers alone they have the ability to match any of the Audis. The big question of the week will be whether their cars can do the same.

Sadly, given the strength of the ‘LMP1-B’ class a few years ago when entries from Aston Martin, Pescarolo, ORECA and a heap of smaller privateer teams were the norm the class has contracted, with just three cars fighting over the LMP1 teams title in the WEC.

Just as in the battle between the works teams two wins from two races gives the upper hand coming into the week to Rebellion Racing, whose chances are further boosted by fielding two cars compared to the single HPD ARX-03c entered by Strakka Racing.

The all-British team’s chances are, unfortunately, hurt still further by possessing the only gentleman driver in the class in Nick Leventis. Leventis is by no means a liability, with several starts (and finishes) at Le Mans already to his name. However, faced with all-pro line-ups they need to get the better of Strakka will need misfortune to befall their rivals if they are to avoid being the class tail end charlies.

Having got the better of their teammates in both WEC races so far this season it is the Rebellion team of Nick Heidfeld, Nicolas Prost and Neel Jani who are the favourites – on paper – to take another LMP1 privateer win. Mistakes and problems will, of course, set them back and perhaps give a chance to their sister team of to Strakka, but problems for the Toyotas or the Audis ahead – neither are by any means infallible, just ask anyone who was stood at the first Mulsanne Straight chicane last year for evidence against the Audi squads could offer a chance to grab a spot on the overall podium.

Regardless of whether the chance fell to Rebellion of Strakka the reward would be surprising, though just, for a team that has stuck by the LMP1 class as numbers ebbed away. It would also be historic in them becoming the first privateer team to take an overall podium since Pescarolo Sport in 2007.

2013 24 Hours of Le Mans LMP1 Entry List

#1 – Marcel Fassler/Andre Lotterer/Benoit Treluyer
Audi Sport Team Joest
Audi R18 e-tron quattro

#2 – Loic Duval/Tom Kristensen/Allan McNish
Audi Sport Team Joest
Audi R18 e-tron quattro

#3 – Lucas di Grassi/Marc Gene/Oliver Jarvis
Audi Sport Team Joest
Audi R18 e-tron quattro

#7 – Nicolas Lapierre/Kazuki Nakajima/Marc Gene
Toyota Racing
Toyota TS030 Hybrid

#8 – Sebastien Buemi/Anthony Davidson/Stephane Sarrazin
Toyota Racing
Toyota TS030 Hybrid

#12 – Nick Heidfeld/Neel Jani/Nicolas Prost
Rebellion Racing
Lola B12/60 Coupe-Toyota

#13 – Mathias Beche/Andrea Belicchi/Congfu Cheng
Rebellion Racing
Lola B12/60 Coupe-Toyota

#21 – Jonny Kane/Nick Leventis/Danny Watts
Strakka Racing
HPD ARX-03c-Honda