Your Complete 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans Preview

The 2018 race has one factory LMP team, too many star drivers to name, and a balance of performance issue.

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The grid is set for this weekend’s running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and if you hear the faint sounds of mumbling from Northern France, it’s the prayers being said by most teams to Fuelinjecticus, the patron saint of Balance of Performance.

Of the 60 cars that will take the start on Saturday, the vast majority have been subjected to dreadfully inaccurate BoP settings enforced by the event’s organizers, and with that in mind, three of the four classes could have runaway winners unless changes are made before the parade laps.

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We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Outside of the technical talk, Le Mans has its most compelling field of super star drivers in ages. In LMP1, Formula 1 double world champion Fernando Alonso and 2009 F1 title winner Jenson Button will make their 24 Hour debuts. And in the second-tier LMP2 category, two-time Indy 500 winner Juan Montoya is also preparing to make his first Le Mans start driving for the team owned by Alonso’s McLaren F1 boss Zak Brown.

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Alonso will be driving the polesitting number 8 Toyota
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To think how folks swooned over the talented (but winless) F1 driver Nico Hulkenberg when he dropped in to drive during the 2015 race, and now, with the trio of Alonso, Button, and Montoya in mind, the pre-race attention has gone into overdrive. Le Mans finally has true giants to draw new fans into endurance racing.

The cars of Le Mans have traditionally held the most interest for those looking in, but after Audi and Porsche, two of its biggest supporters—and spenders—moved on, the shift towards famous international drivers has come at a crucial time.

Dating back to 2007, Le Mans has featured at least two big factory LMP1 protagonists to fight for the overall win, and in the greatest mental adjustment required for the 2018 race, Toyota is the last manufacturer standing.

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Toyota is the last factory team in LMP1
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Audi withdrew at the end of 2016, and sister brand Porsche followed the Four Rings out the door after it completed its dominant mission in 2017, leaving Toyota to play among a downsized class filled with privateers using non-hybrid LMP1s.

It means that after crushing failures for Toyota in consecutive years—snatching proverbial defeat from the jaws of victory—against its biggest rivals, the Japanese auto giant is effectively racing against itself in the quest to earn its first Le Mans win.

If, by chance, Toyota’s TS050 Hybrids falter once again (Alonso is sharing the polesitting car, which brings unparalleled attention to its plight), Toyota Gazoo Racing might be forced to change its name to the Cleveland Browns.

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Looking at how qualifying played out, the 4.072-second gap between the leading Toyota and the best non-factory car is alarming.

It’s hardly the topic anyone wants to discuss, but in applying artificial measures to balance the performance between different models to make them equally competitive, small errors can ruin the quality of a race like Le Mans. Take away too much power from one brand…give too much to its rival…saddle one with extra weight…allow another to go on a diet...and the stop watch will report a confusing state of affairs.

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The ACO/FIA’s approach to LMP1 is a bit different than the normal application of BoP. It’s stated goal is to allow different technologies to exist while massaging the rules to keep everyone in the hunt. Le Mans has a long history of missing the mark when asking the factory and non-factory prototypes to mingle, and the story is the same in 2018.

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Jenson Button in the BR1 LMP1 car for SMP Racing
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The final point of interest in LMP1 is the unproven reliability of the seven all-new non-hybrids. They don't appear fast enough on raw pace to trouble the Toyotas (without the ACO/FIA intervening before the race), and even if they do get a boost in performance, there’s no guarantee the BR1s, Ginettas, and Rebellions will make it to the finish line. Granted, with back-to-back epic collapses on its record, Toyota should be just as worried as its low-buck rivals.

The pro-am LMP2 class, as we’ve come to expect, is where the real knockdown action will happen. It's 20 cars, separated by tiny margins, in a swirling pack of doom. The one Le Mans class where BoP isn’t used just happens to be the closest on the stopwatch. Food for thought.

In the GT categories, Porsche’s 911 RSR model delivered a stomping to the Pro and Amateur entries.

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GTE-Pro, where the Aston Martin, BMW, Corvette, Ferrari, Ford, and Porsche factories compete for class honors, is most ripe for pre-race BoP adjustments. Without them, the 911 RSRs are set for a lonely event as the 1.677s qualifying gap to the other marques is further evidence of widespread imbalance.

(And don't blame Porsche. Ford was the lucky recipient in 2016 and clobbered the opposition. Aston Martin was handed the baton last year and won with relative ease. Using recent history as our guide, when it comes to GTE-Pro, we've come to expect one 'have' and a grumpy group of 'have nots.')

Some of the best sports car drivers on the planet ply their trade in GTE-Pro. The desire to see those aces locked in gripping duels is a big part of Le Mans’ allure. But when the technical regulations cast favor in one direction and dampen the ability for other models to perform at a similar level, driving talent becomes an afterthought.

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It’s the trickiest aspect of BoP. When the technical regulators nail their sums, the six GTE-Pro brands have a legitimate chance to win. And when they’re off, the manufacturers on the wrong side of the equation are left to pray for miracles to erase the extra seconds and tenths found in their lap times.

GTE-Am is no different. In the hands of pro-am teams, Porsche’s 911 RSR went 1.228s faster than the other brands in qualifying, and the same prayers for BoP relief (or Porsche misfortune in the race) will be needed.

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If it were any other 24-hour race, we’d place less of an emphasis on qualifying performances, but with the unique approach to caution periods adopted by the ACO/FIA, a lack of speed in time trials is usually a death knell come race day.

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In NASCAR and IndyCar, cautions bring out a pace car, leads are erased as the field falls in line behind the pace car, and once the trackside problem is addressed, the race resumes with cars positioned nose to tail. And for the cars that are a lap down, they get waved around the pace car to join in at the back of the field–on the lead lap–before the restart takes place.

For the final time, I’ll mention how much I hope the ACO/FIA take another swing at leveling LMP1 and both GT classes today. Heck, maybe I need to pray to Fuelinjecticus as well.

And here’s why that re-balancing is important (provided the organizers want a close race).

At Le Mans, most leads are protected and lapped cars are out of luck when a caution occurs. With the widespread use of ‘slow zones’ in the case of an accident or stranded car, the field is required to reduced its pace and run at a slow pre-set speed through the zones created throughout the 8.5-mile circuit. And if a pace car is needed when a significant crash has occurred, multiple cars are dispatched to lead smaller, independent groups around the track.

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Where this matters is in the preservation of leads with slow zones; if a five-second gap from first place to second place is held entering a slow zone, it’s maintained within the zone and again when normal racing speed is attained. No bunching up, no erasing of leads.

And with the multiple safety cars, the timing of the return to green gives the pack closest to the start/finish line a healthy jump while the trailing packs fumble along behind their pace car and wait for it to move aside.

Why the deep explanation on slow zones and safety cars? Speed is what the 24 Hour holds dear. A slow car in qualifying will be slow in the race, and if it’s missing two seconds per lap to the leader, cautions won’t act as a savior. As a car falls back at Le Mans, the familiar North American racing tricks to get back into the game under a caution, or by using an alternate pit strategy aimed at getting laps back under cautions, aren’t an option.

Come on, Fuelinjecticus. Don't let us down.

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So, who will win the race?

Depending on which model lasts in LMP1, it could be a crapshoot. If Toyota wins, it’s a dream scenario—an achievement that’s been elusive since its first factory entries appeared in the 1980s. But without Audi and Porsche to vanquish, will beating up on privateers ring hollow? Watching Kevin Durant beat LeBron James in one-on-one play? Plenty rewarding. Watching KD dunk on people at the local gym? Not so much.

And if Toyota loses? Let’s avoid exploring that nightmare altogether.

LMP2 is too close to call, and unless we have attrition or breakages in GTE-Pro and GTE-Am, prepare the champagne for Porsche if the BoP is left in place.

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