There’s few things in the world that compare to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the annual twice-around-the-clock endurance test in France, that is celebrating its 90th running this year. It has survived two World Wars, several strikes, idiotic rule changes, and the worst accident in the history of sports, and it still thrives to this day.
This weekend, about 300,000 fans will pour into the Circuit de la Sarthe, that fabulous 8.5 mile circuit near the town of Le Mans for this year’s race. The question on everyone’s mind, of course, is: Who will win?
For those who don’t know, there will not just be one winner of the race, but rather four. There are four classes that run in the 24 Hours, based off of the type of car, engine size and driver ability. We’ll cover all four classes – LMP1, LMP2, GTE-Pro, and GTE-Am, give you an overview of the classes, and tell you just who will win.
LMP1 – The era of Audi domination
The LMP1 class consists of the fastest and biggest-budget race cars. The major automobile manufacturers will run cars here. Presently, the manufacturers that run in LMP1 are Toyota and Audi, the winners of the last three Le Mans races, and 10 of all the Le Mans races held since 2000. Like the 1980s with Porsche, Le Mans is currently in the era of Audi domination, but that soon may come to an end, as Porsche will be returning to the top class of sports car racing next season, and could turn out to be a very formidable rival to Audi in 2014.
As for this year, the question of “who will win overall” is not quite “what car”, but “what Audi”. The three Audi R18s qualified 1-2-3 on the grid during qualifying this week, over four seconds clear of the two Toyotas in 4th and 5th, with the pole going to the #2 of Tom Kristensen/Allan McNish/Loic Duval. Starting 2nd is the #1 of Andre Lotterer/Benoit Treluyer/Marcel Fassler, a driver pairing that has won the past two 24 Hours, and the smart money could be on either of those two cars.
However, if both of those two run into trouble – and this is plenty possible, as seen in the 2011 race, the #3 car driven by Marc Gene, Oliver Jarvis, and Lucas di Grassi will run away with it. While the Toyotas may have potential, the truth is that they’re outclassed at the present time. Maybe Porsche will provide Audi with a little more competition than Toyota has so far.
A sentimental favorite could be the #8 Toyota, co-driven by Anthony Davidson. You will recall that a year ago, he was severely injured in a frightening accident, but he returns for this year’s race.
LMP2 – The land of Nissans
If you check the entry list for this year’s 24 Hour race, you’ll find that under the LMP2 class, 15 cars out of the 22 entrants are powered by Nissan engines. These LMP2 cars are, as the title suggests, slower, cheaper versions of the LMP1 cars. The fastest LMP2 car – the OAK #24 driven by Olivier Pla/Alex Brundle/David Heinemeier Hansson – is some 16 seconds slower than the overall polesitter.
There is a wide variety of skill and speed between the fastest and slowest cars in LMP2. The fastest LMP2 car is just over two seconds slower than the slowest LMP1 car, while the slowest LMP2 car is slower than seven GT cars, cars that are supposed to be slower and heavier than the prototypes. Between the field is almost a 20 second gap.
As for who will win the class, this answer is less cut-and-dry than in LMP1 – there are three or four cars that could win the class, and unless something happens to them, the OAK #24 could very well take class victory at 4 p.m. on Sunday. If something happens, however, and being Le Mans, it almost always will, look for the #38 Jota Sport Zytek/Nissan driven by Simon Dolan, Oliver Turvey and Lucas Luhr to take victory.
GTE-Pro – Aston Martin vs. Corvette
The GT field is not divided up by the type of car, or the speed of car, but rather the theoretical experience of the drivers. In the top GT class, GTE-Pro, all of the drivers are professional drivers that take the sport of automobile racing as their profession, and are, ideally, more talented and quicker than their amateur counterparts. These cars are more like the vehicles you would see on the roads – the Porsches, Corvettes, Aston Martins, Ferraris, and Vipers.
In years past, the story of GT would involve a battle between Corvette and Aston Martin. Those days are past, however. Practice times will show the Corvettes off the pace compared to the Astons and even some of the Ferraris, and qualifying tells the tale as well. They are over four seconds off the pace of the fastest of the GT cars (the #99 Aston driven by Frederic Makowiecki/Bruno Senna/Rob Bell) and are even almost a second slower than the fastest GT-Am car (the #95 Aston driven by Allan Simonsen/Christoffer Nygaard/Kristian Poulsen). Don’t expect them to be a factor.
Look for the Astons to walk away with the class at 4 p.m. on Sunday.
GTE-Am – Was that the guy that nearly hit me in the Oak Deck back in February?
While the GTE-Pro class features professional race car drivers, the GTE-Am class features drivers that, well, aren’t. The cars are the same. Some of these amateur race car drivers are decidedly more famous than others—with the most glaring example being actor Patrick Dempsey in the #77 Porsche—and the biggest concern in the field has to be how some of these drivers handle Le Mans.
I will admit, I haven’t heard of quite a few drivers in this class, and it’s very conceivable—yet exceedingly unlikely—that the driver that you see crashing at the Mulsanne kink could very well be the jerk in the Mercedes-Benz that nearly mowed you down at the Oak Parking Deck back in February when you were rushing to get to class over at West Hall.
Granted, there are some very experienced drivers in GTE-Am, such as Emmanuel Collard (two-time class winner at Le Mans and former F1 test driver), Wolf Henzler (former class winner and four-time winner at Indianapolis, in the Porsche Supercup), Patrick Long (Porsche factory driver), Jason Bright (9-time race winner in the Australian V8 series, the top racing series in Australia) and Allan Simonsen (who is driving the pole-winning Amateur car).
As with the Pro class, the winner of this class will most likely be driving an Aston Martin Vantage. The cars are just too strong, and unless something goes wrong with them, expect Aston to sweep the GT classes.