FIA WEC

LE MANS: Field Breakdown LMP-1 Division

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LE MANS, France — With a fourteen-car starring cast, eleven of which have a realistic chance of winning the race overall, this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans could come right down to the final lap, something normally only seen in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in recent years. In fact, with sometimes as much as a five-second spread over the course of a single 8.45 mile lap of Circuit de la Sarthe among the top class cars, keeping the challengers close over a single lap in years past was a challenge in itself. That latter fact does not seem to be a concern this time around, however. With perhaps the largest manufacturer representation in the race since 1999, expectations of a closely matched, multi-way street fight should be met with flying colors in 2015.

Although current Le Mans juggernaut Audi claimed yet another overall triumph at Le Mans in 2014, the win was not in their trademark dominant form by any means. After being outgunned in qualifying by both Porsche and Toyota, the two challengers continued to hurry Audi over the majority of last year’s event, until reliability woes caught up with both, eventually tilting the balance in the R18 E-Tron Quattro’s favor in the final hours. Add a fourth contender to the pot in Japanese stalwart Nissan, and even more drama is on the cards.

So with that disclaimer lay out, here’s how the contenders in LMP-1 stand looking ahead to the new year and eventually their biggest meeting this June.

Audi Sport Team Joest: Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro

Ever since their entry into the sports car world in 1999, the Dr. Wolfgang Ulrich and Reinhold Joest-led program has been a contender and leader. Although unable to get among the fast cars for overall honors in their debut year, the manufacturer still managed to place two cars in the top five, amazing considering they went in two directions running both a spyder open-top and a coupe prototype. Focusing on the open-top in 2000, Audi outclassed the competition to begin a string of domination broken only by Bentley in 2003 (using many components from the original Audi R8, including the engine) and Peugeot in 2009.

However, during the course of the 2014 FIA World Endurance Championship Audi’s place as the rabbit of the LMP-1 family tree came under fire from Toyota, who eclipsed them to claim the overall championship. With the exception of their victory at Le Mans, Audi’s E-Tron Quattro was also struggling to keep Porsche’s new 919 Hybrid prototype behind them as well. Assuming the reliability has improved in the other camps, an increase in power from Audi’s V-6 diesel may be necessary.

The big driver names from years past are gone, but the trio of Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer, and Marcel Fassler who have won at Le Mans the last two years return to lead two equally capable driving teams. Despite that, this will be the first time recently that Audi enters Le Mans as a potential underdog and not the clear favorite.

Toyota Racing: Toyota TS040 Hybrid

If Le Mans was a speed duel, it’s clear that Toyota Racing would have likely claimed its long awaited first overall win at Le Mans, however a freak crash on the Mulsanne Straight claimed one car, while the other was plagued by multiple trips to the garage with mechanical issues. Based on a pole position for last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans and a resume that saw them lose only one other race all season, Toyota has to be viewed as a slight favorite for both defending its FIA World Endurance Championship from 2014 and perhaps reaching the top step of the podium after two rounds of the Rolex clock at the Circuit de la Sarthe finish line.

Toyota has always had speed a plenty at Le Mans, they have however lacked two major keys, reliability and maybe more important: luck. The 1999 race was a perfect example of this as a flat tire on the Mulsanne eliminated the Martin Brundle-led Toyota GT One, contact with a slower GT car wiped out the second car, while another flat tire denied the third and final entry from being able to claim a come from behind victory in the late stages. If those demons do not manifest themselves in 2015, the chances for glory look good.

The two-car team is loaded with experience in the driving department. Anthony Davidson, Stephane Sarrazin, and Alexander Wurz all date back to the former Peugeot sports car program when they were a constant rival to Audi, while Sebastian Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima, and ex-IndyCar road ringer Mike Conway all provide solid support. If the Hybrids can stay out of their garages on race day, Toyota will definitely factor in the final result when the checkered flag flies.

Porsche Team: Porsche 919 Hybrid

Riding the momentum of their season-ending win in Brazil, Porsche enters 2015 with essentially a brand new car, but that is nothing new based on their recent prototype history. After their first full season running the Porsche RS Spyder open top car, they essentially provided a greatly upgraded car for the second season, again nothing different from what’s ahead for the upcoming year. Based on their long tradition of winning at Le Mans with cars ranging from the 917, 935, 956, and 962 prototype and even the Porsche GT1 in 1998, the Weissach-based brand has been able to consistently put the pieces together in the biggest sports car races and even when they have passed on the big time divisions, they have continued to claim victories in the lower grand touring ranks.

Essentially the original two driving lineups return for 2015, with Mark Webber, Timo Bernhard, and Brendan Hartley in the primary machine, and Mark Lieb, Romain Dumas, and Neel Jani in the second. Porsche will add a third car for Le Mans, led by current Force India F1 Team driver Nico Hulkenburg. However, neither he nor his teammates Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber have much experience in the prototype portion of the sport.

After coming so close to victory at Le Mans in its return last year, Porsche seems to be only a matter of time away from starting another run of victories at Circuit de la Sarthe.

Nissan Motorsports: Nissan GT-R LM NISMO

If the introduction of Nissan’s new LMP-1 challenger showed anything during Super Bowl XLIX, it is that the Japanese manufacturer has gone more outside the box with their hybrid car as opposed to its three rivals. The new prototype features a front-engine layout, smaller rear wheels as opposed to the front, and according to estimates could be able to reach an amazing 1200-plus horsepower. While all that is great on paper, will it be smoke in mirrors in reality?

The last two times Nissan has tried its luck at Le Mans (1990-1991 & 1997-1999), different issues have cropped up that have denied them a chance to win. The first foray saw inter-team squabbling ruin what should have been a seven-car domination of the race in 1990. The second foray in 1997 was plagued by overheating troubles, which were overcome the following year, but their challenge was hindered by a lack of pace compared to its rivals from Porsche and Toyota. The final year, a new car with limited mileage prior to the 24 Hours itself led to the team being a non-factor in the outcome yet again.

Obviously with all the new technology and the innovative design, reliability will be a big hurdle to jump for them in the early days. Beyond that, the base for a decent driving team has been formed. Olivier Pla and Harry Tincknell each have ample Le Mans experience in LMP-2, Tsugio Matsuda is new to the prototype game and Le Mans, but he does have ample road racing experience, while Marc Gene has driven for both Audi and Peugeot’s powerhouse teams at Circuit de la Sarthe and could be a driver the new team leans on for experience and guidance.

It would be largely unfair to expect a victory challenge in year one at Le Mans, but it would not be a shock if one were to come about.

Rebellion Racing: ORECA-Rebellion R-One/AER

The king of the non-hybrid LMP-1s continues to pick up the pieces when the mighty factory cars hit trouble, as evidence by a fourth-place overall result in last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. Despite a delay with getting their new R-One coupe online in 2014, one of the team’s two entries covered the distance with surprisingly few issues over the course of the event, providing a good base for the next two years.

However, things are a little different for 2015. The team has severed ties with Toyota in relation to their engine supplier. Advanced Engine Research’s (AER) twin-turbo V-8 has been acquired for their Le Mans and FIA WEC efforts this season, yet unfortunately like in 2014 a delay in their acquisition will keep them on the sidelines for the 2015 FIA WEC opener at Silverstone Circuit in England, costing them those always precious race miles.

The driving lineups are still in question for the new year for Rebellion. So far only Mathias Beche and Nicolas Prost have been confirmed by the Swiss-based squad. With their closest rival in the petrol-run LMP-1s still in a state of question marks, this is the best bet for a non-hybrid LMP-1 to steal some of the accolades at Le Mans this June.

Team By Kolles: CLM P1/01-AER

Numerous delays kept the lone rival to Rebellion in last year’s LMP-1 Lights division off the track until the FIA WEC American round in Texas. The Lotus-badged coupe was never a threat to the Swiss squad as development work topped competitive concerns in the remaining events of the 2014 calendar.

Skip ahead to 2015 and the program has changed hands. Former Force India and Midland F1 technical director Colin Kolles has acquired the coupe and based on his success with ex-factory Audi R10 TDIs in 2009, the machine is in a much safer and secure set of hands as opposed to last season. It is unknown as to how much further development work has been undertaken, but the entry should be legitimate enough to potentially avoid the “also ran” or “field filler” tags.

GP2 veteran Simon Trummer is the only confirmed driver for the team at this stage, but a positive impression in the FIA WEC season opener in England could attract solid talent and more importantly: funding. The team is not there yet, but the possibility of trumping Rebellion further down the road in 2015 exists.

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About Matt Embury

Matt Embury is the Senior SportsCar Writer at Rubbings Racing and can be followed on Twitter (@MattEmbury) for the latest sports car news and opinions. A native of Mishawaka, Indiana, he has been following sports car racing for nearly 20 years.

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