As is often the case at Le Mans the overall LMP1 spoils will be contested by Porsche, Toyota and Audi. It will of course be an epic battle – with Nissan expected to join the three way fight sooner rather than later.
But what about the sub plots embedded within the great race? In particular the scrap between the handful of GP2 and GP3 Series drivers aiming to make waves at the finest endurance race on the planet.
Mitch Evans, Zoel Amberg, Nathanael Berthon, Marco Sorensen and Richie Stanaway are the representatives from GP2 while GP3’s Jann Mardenborough will be competing at Le Mans for the third time and is the only one of the above list of drivers taking part in LMP1, for Nissan.
What i’ve been wondering ahead of the great race is what does Le Mans mean for these drivers?
Well, the fact that all of the above drivers – with the possible exception of Mardenborough who has a unique career path – are currently competing in single seater racing it would appear obvious that their career goal is and always will be Formula One.
Unfortunately for these drivers they’re very much a part of a difficult time for F1. Securing a race seat is nigh on impossible these days, even the possible inclusion of new teams offers little to no hope unless they’re happy to dwindle away at the back of the grid.
So do they see this foray into endurance racing as more of a career progression than a one off? Very possibly. You just have to look at some of the names that the World Endurance Championship has already attracted.
Don’t worry i’m not going to sit here and compare F1 to the WEC because many people have done that already and quite frankly it doesn’t need to be done, they’re separate series and should be seen as such. However the point still stands are these youngsters being forced into other avenues because of F1’s problems?
Lets look at the driver’s in question. First off we have Mitch Evans who is competing in LMP2 for the front-running Jota Sport team alongside Simon Dolan and Oliver Turvey.
Joining a race winning team speaks volumes about what Evans wants to achieve. He wants to take the class win in Le Mans and if his current bad luck ridden GP2 season is anything to go by – which according to his exclusive interview with The Checkered Flag may well be his last – he may wish to pursue endurance racing full time next year.
But knowing what I know about Evans this won’t satisfy him one bit. The press in New Zealand want him to make it to F1, that’s abundantly clear, and based on previous years he should, but is time running out for the Kiwi to realise his dream? It seems that way and the WEC may be his way to reach the top.
Another driver under intense media pressure in New Zealand is Richie Stanaway. Fresh off the back of his GP2 sprint race win in Monaco the Kiwi is a sought after man. For the majority of his career he has jumped between sports car racing and single seaters which means he has the ability to be flexible to whatever challenge he faces.
Like his compatriot Evans many New Zealander’s want Stanaway to succeed and make it to Formula One. There’s no doubt that the talent is there but are the fortune and the funds that come with securing an F1 seat there too? Only time will tell.
Amberg like Evans is part of an ambitious LMP2 team. Team SARD Morand suffered severe financial issues but have bounced back (pardon the Partrdige pun) and look strong. Amberg’s career so far though has been anything but strong.
The Swiss driver hasn’t won a single seater race since 2011 in European F3 Open but coupled with the Morand team at Spa-Francorchamps he was able to pick up a podium which equalled his podium haul for the past three years. With very little in the way of career progression in single seaters Amberg may be wise to jump at a full time WEC opportunity if it comes up.
Amberg’s Lazarus GP2 team-mate Berthon has also teamed up with a strong outfit. Murphy Prototypes are running a solo ORCECA this year with Frenchman Berthon lining up alongside former F1 driver Karun Chandhok and Mark Patterson.
Berthon is a GP2 race winner with Trident back in 2013 but has showed little in the way of improvement since then. I personally can’t see Berthon moving any higher in single seaters, though i’ve been wrong before. He should seriously consider making a permanent move into the WEC where he could thrive.
In comparison to Amberg and Berthon the world is Sorensen’s oyster. The Dane, who picked up a GP2 win in his debut season with MP Motorsport, has bags of potential and clearly Aston Martin know it.
The AMR squad have added Sorensen to the elusive #95 ‘Danish’ car that wiped the floor with the Am class last year. Sorensen though is having a troubled start to his GP2 campaign with Carlin but has time to improve. By the time he does improve though he could be up against another class of talent graduating from GP3 that could leapfrog him.
Last but by no means least is Mardenborough. The GT Academy winner as mentioned before is the only one on the list of drivers above that is competing in LMP1. Mardenborough has a strong background in endurance and GT racing of course – finishing third in class on his Le Mans debut in 2013 – but is also currently competing in GP3.
Based on his strong endurance background Mardenborough seems a shoe-in for the WEC for many years to come and may well cement his place in the series this year. However, Mardenborough is unique in the sense that he would be a marketing dream for any F1 team or sponsor. He’s a real rags to riches story, basically going from his sofa to a race seat and fortunately for him his story alone speaks louder than any on track results.
So Mardenborough could very easily make it to F1, no doubt about it, but ultimately it’s his decision. In my opinion he should concentrate on the WEC as he is part of a very special project with Nissan and he could make history with them and for some reason, I think he already knows this.
So to answer my earlier question of are drivers like those mentioned above being forced into other avenues due to F1’s problems? It has to be a resounding yes. But is that a bad thing? That has to be a resounding no.
Ultimately F1’s loss is the WEC’s gain. For every driver that secures a race seat in F1 more than 10 could find themselves with a drive in the WEC, for a young driver it’s becoming a no-brainer. And with the big manufacturers on board and exciting racing from top to bottom in all classes the WEC is pulling the rug from underneath F1.