The 80th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans remains as true to the original intent of the event as ever.
It was intended as a way for manufacturers to showcase their road cars and in recent years, though manufacturer support for the legendary endurance test those that remained have used the race more and more overtly to test and promote the technology of its road cars.
That campaign takes an even more overt turn in 2012 as hybrid technology invades the top echelons of the Le Mans entry list. The technology – now increasingly widespread in racing, with KERS and flywheel systems used by several series and team – made its Le Mans debut last year with the distinctly unimpressive Hope Polevision car. Now Audi – the big name in the recent history of Le Mans – has opted to run a pair of diesel-hybrid cars alongside two conventionally powered entries.
A hybrid victory at Le Mans has the potential to be a massive coup for the technology and Audi as a manufacturer, but the challenge of winning has almost certainly been lessened by the off-season shock departure of Peugeot from the sportscar racing world.
Into the large, French, void have stepped Toyota with the TS030 Hybrid. Despite a troubled development program with a testing crash forcing the cancellation of an intended race debut at Spa-Francorchamps in May, both of the Japanese marque's cars showed promising pace in the official test day. That does, however, come with the normal caveats applied to the importance of testing times.
The experimental nature of this year's race goes beyond the manufacturer based teams and into the first real of Garage 56 by Le Mans organisers the Auto Club de l'Ouest. After initially housing a 56th regular entry last year Garage 56 gains a capital letter and begins it's time as the place for experimental designs and technology. First to take the ACO's invite is the Nissan Deltawing – the design that could have just run the Indianapolis 500 as the 2012 Indycar. Like much of the LMP2 field the car will be powered by a Nissan engine and run by multi-championship winning Highcroft Racing the car has an eye catching driver line-up but will run outside of the traditional class structure for the race.
In terms of trying of predicting a winner the task remains as impossible as ever – especially finding real difference in quality between the four Audis set to line-up – despite knowing the most about the runners and riders ahead of the June classic in recent years.
As much as half the field has already competed against each other twice in the World Endurance Championship, with other teams travelling to Le Mans after contesting the Le Mans Series on either side of the Atlantic, the American contingent especially prevalent in the GTE classes led by Corvette Racing, returning to Le Mans as defending class champions for the first time since their switch to GT2-spec cars a few years ago.
The official test day gave the 56 entrants for the race their first run on the Circuit de la Sarthe of the year, but race week running begin at 3pm UK time on Wednesday June 13 with a four hour free practice session before the first of three qualifying sessions that evening, starting at 9pm UK time.
After two more qualifying session on Thursday (6pm-8pm and 9pm-11pm UK time) and the normal down day on Friday the race begins at 2pm UK time on Saturday June 16 with the traditional wave of the French tricolour.
TCF will be once again covering the full 24 hours of the race, make sure you check back for hourly updates and the latest news direct from Le Mans.