Le Mans 2020: LMP1 Preview

A look at the LMP1 field of the 2020 Le Mans 24 Hours, running 19-20 September.

And so we reach the final Le Mans for the LMP1 class and the LMP1-Hybrid. What an era it has been! I’ve loved this class and I will miss it badly. The pinnacle of the non-hybrid era Audi vs Peugeot (pre WEC days!), and the hybrid era of Audi vs Porsche vs Toyota, will each stand the test of time as glory years for prototype racing, in the same way as Group C does for the 1980s. Sadly all good things come to an end eventually.

As ever, when an era ends it does so with a whimper. After all, there would be no point replacing a healthy class. And so it is that we see a grid of just five cars.

The future does look bright. After a lot of arguing and wrangling there are two rulesets coming. In 2021 we’ll see Le Mans Hypercar (ee-pair-car!) and the images released today from Toyota, ByKolles and Peugeot look stunning. If these are the cars they’ll really race, not a mockup for the cameras, we’re in for a treat.
In 2022 the US-based Le Mans Daytona (LMDh – what’s the h for?) rules start. These are considerably cheaper, with upgraded LMP2 chassis similar to the current DPi rules, and are attracting a lot of interest from other manufacturers. By 2025 we could see some big grids in the primary class/classes.

Or is it the end of LMP1? There was an announcement Signatech Alpine will use one of the non-hybrid Rebellion R13s for the 2021 season. This raises the question of how they will balance it with the new but slower Hypercar class, a point already made by Toyota, who have spent millions on Hypercar already. That’s an argument for the winter!

Entries By Class at 15th September:
LMP1 5
LMP2 24
PRO 8
AM 22
TOTAL 59

The main season introduced success penalties. A complete anathema to the classic purity of endurance racing, this adds weight based on the number of championship points you have. The idea being that as you get heavier you get slower, so someone else will win and get more weight, the faster cars get slower and slower so the midfield can win more. And it is based on car, not team.

That system does not apply at Le Mans and thank f**k for that.

Toyota as the last manufacturer standing, agreed to it to help the WEC have a fight for wins in the top class with the independent, non-hybrid teams. It seems strange to me because of course a hybrid is going to be better. It’s quite astonishing Toyota ever agreed – but they want to keep racing into the new era so it was in their interests in that way.

I’m all for better competition and closer racing but let’s do it properly. I hope Hypercar and LMDh will not require such a system once the grids fill up.

As for this year, Le Mans is worth double-points but only three cars have done the whole season.

WEC Points Standings
7 Toyota Gazoo 137 pts
8 Toyota Gazoo 125 pts
1 Rebellion Racing 109 pts
5 Team LNT Ginetta 27.5 pts

WEC Team Standings
Toyota Gazoo 151 pts
Rebellion Racing 109 pts
Team LNT 29 pts

7 Toyota Gazoo Racing TS050 Conway (P) / Kobayashi (P) / Lopez (P) WEC
8 Toyota Gazoo Racing TS050 Buemi (P) / Hartley (P) / Nakajima (P) WEC

After the awful luck Toyota suffered over the years, including the heartbreaking car failure just one lap away from winning, I don’t think anybody really begrudges the two “easy” rides to their two Le Mans wins. They’d already put in the hard work, done their time, taken their knocks in the most harshest of ways.

And way back in 2012, remember they joined the WEC a full calendar year before they wanted to, just to support the championship after Peugeot pulled out with weeks to spare.

They may well be a dominant manufacturer these days but that doesn’t make them ‘the evil enemy’. They never had an easy ride beforehand and they’ve done a lot for the sport outside of their on-track results.

That doesn’t mean watching it is always that exciting. I like the purity of a race not being manufactured. But I would like that countered by better competition, not by pegging them back.

“Easy” is in quotes because Le Mans is never easy! You still need to negotiate the traffic, the weather, the conditions, the reliability. And there will be a lot of traffic this year with the big sizes of slower classes.

In theory the race win will be fought over between the two Toyotas. Will the team let them race?

After their heartbreaking DNF, Toyota threw everything at reliability, and with only slower non-hybrids to worry about they can run their cars at 90% and cruise. Except if they have a problem, get hit by a GT, spin off in the rain, or something breaks. Then the comeback will be on.

The 7 crew are yet to win Le Mans but were incredibly close last year after dominating. After 23 hours and Conway driving like a demon, a sensor failed, it told them they had a puncture when they didn’t. The team made two stops to check it and change tyres and lost the lead to the 8. They never invoked team orders to switch it back.

Conway is the quiet assassin. Kobayashi is very fast over a lap. Lopez is still considered the weak link after he crashed the car a few times early on, possibly unfairly so these days. Are these guys due a win? Certainly Conway and Kobayashi are almost criminally under-rated. And they are slightly ahead in points after a good season. The run of form is with them.

The 8 crew are probably a touch faster as a trio? 2-time LMP1 champ and 1-time Formula E champ Buemi doesn’t have any questions to answer. I would argue Nakajima is the more level-headed of the two Japanese drivers on the team, which is to say he’s fast and consistent. The last two years this car has won with Fernando Alonso on the team – this time former Porsche LMP1 winner Brendon Hartley is here and I’ll bet Toyota found the comparison between cars interesting.

The real question is, how effective are the latest EoT rules at bringing the Rebellions into play?

1 Rebellion Racing R13 Menezes (G)/ Nato (G)/ Senna (P) WEC
3 Rebellion Racing R13 Dumas (P)/ Berthon (G)/ Deletraz (G)

Rebellion will pull out at the end of the season and possibly after the end of this race. They won’t drop to LMP2 as they did before. They will be missed. I hope the Sebah operation behind it finds another backer and continues.

The car is the Rebellion R13 Gibson, effectively this is the Oreca LMP2 car with reduced weight, better aerodynamics and an upgraded version of the engine (4.5 litre R13 vs 4.2 litre LMP2). Even though the team will insist you call it a Rebellion you can see the family resemblance when the car is next to the P2. It was a very smart way to go racing since the LMP2 car is excellent in its’ own right.

The R13 is quick over a lap, early in the race when the Toyota hasn’t charged its batteries yet you’ll likely see it in front of them! Unfortunately it has also been quite unreliable. If the car holds together and Toyota struggle they will push, if not they’ll just aim to get home in front of the LMP2 pack and the CLM.

No.1 – without being LMP1 champions! Anyway this is the full-season WEC car. Due to the success ballast in part, but also very good execution, they’ve won two races this season. Without that ballast system, but with changes to Equivalence of Technology, it’ll be interesting to see how close they get at Le Mans this year. Previously they were out-classed by Toyota, were a shade better than SMP, and totally dominated the ByKolles. And there’s no SMP this year.
Bruno Senna obviously anchors the car. Yes two of the drivers are rated Gold but honestly I can’t see why they aren’t Platinum. Menezes won the LMP2 title in 2016.

The no. 3 was meant to do occasional races through the year but this is actually their first start since Silverstone last September. Might be a bit race-rusty? Except Romain Dumas won’t be, he’s a badass and this is his 20th Le Mans! The last time he raced LMP1 at the 24 Hours he won it.
Berthon’s name I know and I thought he was meant to be reasonably good but his Wiki page doesn’t reflect anything other than midfield results. Deletraz I don’t know but he’s competing in Formula 2 this year and has 4 podiums. His lack of endurance experience may tell.

4 ByKolles Racing ENSO CLM Spengler (P)/Dillman (G)/Webb (G)
The plucky underdogs! A truly independent team and car, they build it entirely themselves. I have no idea where the money comes from as you rarely see a sponsor on it.

This is the very same organisation that ran the HRT/Hispania in F1, somehow getting that team through various seasons on no budget at all when others probably would’ve folded much earlier. They do like a challenge.

They’ve had an absolute nightmare the last six years or so. Car breaking down, catching fire multiple times, changing engine partner so many times… They get ridiculed by fans and radio & TV broadcasters alike for it. But I like them! I really enjoy how they just keep coming back no matter what happens and that they’re truly independent. More of that please.

Various versions of the CLM have been around since 2014 albeit it has seriously changed since then, I doubt it’s the same physical car. They’ve changed engine suppliers multiple times to try to solve reliability and are now running the same 4.5 ltr Gibson as Rebellion, the team says it is less powerful than the previous Nismo but very much more reliable. And since Gibson are there supporting 20 cars anyway, it makes sense.

Webb has been with them a while and is the anchor man. He’s definitely keen to see this project end well. Unfortunately he hit some debris in the opening laps in 2017 which caused the engine to overheat – and that was when all the hybrid cars hit trouble and an LMP2 nearly won. That could’ve been their year! Still, if such things can be avoided he’s a good man to have in the car.

Dillmann is rated highly but I’m not seeing the results on his sheets, maybe that’s circumstances, some background I don’t know? And 2012 DTM champ and current US BMW GT man Spengler is only now making his Le Mans debut!

And despite the reputation of the team boss, the team themselves always have a smile on their faces! And when everyone else has a standard quad bike to get about the paddock they have a funky pit vehicle with a rear wing.

ByKolles pit buggy

I really do hope they have a clean run to the finish. They will be slowest in class by some distance and barely a second or two ahead of (what are very quick) LMP2s. But if ByKolles can just stay reliable enough to keep running, if anything happens to the Toyotas or Rebellions, they may get an LMP1 podium. If they managed the harder feat of staying ahead of the ultra-reliable LMP2 pack they may well get an outright podium!

MY TOP THREE

You can’t look past the Toyotas. Even if they get caught up in incidents I expect them to rebound. I think this might be Conway’s year. And for 3rd you can’t look further than the 1 Rebellion. It writes itself. But this is Le Mans. It won’t follow the script.

LMP1 class result:

7 Toyota (Conway/Kobayashi)

8 Toyota (Buemi/Nakajima)

1 Rebellion (Senna/Menezes)

But will this be the overall podium? Last year it was actually the privateers that got delayed. The ByKolles is a bit flaky. The two Rebellions have got caught up in incidents. And the Toyotas can come back from almost anything.

Will we see an LMP2 car on the overall podium? I think yes we will.

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