It doesn’t seem more than five minutes since we here last year for the test weekend, but looking back, so much has happened since then. So what are my Le Mans expectations this year? LMP1 is much closer with a big question hanging over reliability and the real, albeit remote, prospect of an LMP1 privateer team being on the top three podium on Sunday afternoon. Le Mans expectations indeed, the playing field has shifted.
The LMP2 class is performing just as the endurance racing authorities had hoped, with good close street fighting and lots of daring do. The fight for victory could go to the line.
Last year saw the somewhat understated launch of the Ford GTE PRO Ford GT which has rejoined the fight to celebrate the famous Ford victory over Ferrari in 1966. Not only do Ford have a new car this year but Ferrari have countered with the stunning 488 GTE. Ford have made steady and solid progress this year but unless they have been sandbagging with an eye on the LM24 prize, the Ferraris are well placed for victory being extraordinarily fast straight out of the box at Paul Ricard. It might be a little presumptuous, but I fear the likes of Aston, Porsche (even with last year’s LMP1 winners driving) and Corvette, will just be there to make up the numbers.
The GTE AM looks fairly evenly matched with Aston Martin just having the edge on the competition, and barring any disaster, could be on the top step…as they should have been last year.
The battle continues to improve safety at Le Mans. New barriers have been installed which have more impact resistance absorption but crucially, if damaged, can be replaced quicker. This removes the need for long VSC periods that results in the tyres and brakes cooling down and making the cars more dangerous when they recommence racing at the end of the VSC period. There have been massive changes in the Indianapolis/Arnage area, removing the public road from the circuit and ‘improving’ spectator access and viewing. What impact this has on the competitor/spectator experience, only time will tell.
The entry list yet again shows that the 24 Hours of Le Mans is an English race hosted by the French. No matter what your allegiance to a particular marque, with perhaps the exception of Porsche LMP1 or the Corvettes, you will find a British driver somewhere in the team. So there is plenty for the Brits to cheer about even if the football lives up to expectation.
It wouldn’t be right for an article written from a British perspective to not to comment on the national pastime of weather watching. So far, this year in the WEC series, we have had everything from snow to scorching sunshine, and while I doubt we will have snow at Le Mans, it has been a few years since we have had significant rain during the race. We have had the odd shower to spice things up, but generally the last few years have been at least dry and at times very hot. This year, the long range forecast appears to point to a scorcher, but hey it’s Le Mans and it always rains at Le Mans!
We left Portsmouth for the Test Weekend on a pleasant sunny early summer evening aboard one of Brittany Ferry’s finest vessels, arriving in Caen in late autumn, or at least that’s how the weather felt. It was dark dreary and damp, with patches of mist and fog en route, and as it happens, we did not see the sun again until late on Sunday as we made our way back to Caen.
Saturday was taken up with admin and all of the domestic chores that need to be addressed before venturing track side. Once these had been dealt with, it was time for a walk through the paddock and along the pit lane and although the cars and garages look similar from race to race, you can’t avoid that Le Mans tingle that goes down your spine. So much has changed over the years, and yet so much has stayed the same, so there is always that link to the past.
The garages and paddocks were a hive of activity with last minute checks, while other teams were carrying out major surgery on their cars in readiness for the two track sessions on the Sunday. But first there was the beauty pageant and the year book photograph of all the cars assembled on the grid for the class of 2016 picture. This is a monumental task coordinated by Jeff Carter and his team of unsung heroes. It’s a bit like herding cats, but for some reason this year it seemed to go without a hitch, maybe due to the influence of Jeff’s glamorous assistants, who for modesty reasons cannot be named. The cars in all of their finery were on display for all to see, rival teams peering into vents and ducts to try and find out the latest innovations and tweaks, while others looked on with genuine enthusiasm and interest at these amazing pieces of equipment.
This is the first time that new Le Mans liveries are on display, this is usually due to sponsorships which clash with French advertising law. Also on display were some cars from the ELMS, as well as other invitees, bolstering the numbers to 60 cars on the grid. The spectacle of the grid formation certainly whets the appetite for what is to come over the next few short days, as well as that very long day which still lies ahead.
Sunday was the day when the teams first experienced La Sarthe in 2016. For some, it was the first time ever, but for others it was just another chapter in a very long history. The first session started in very gloomy conditions, but instead of raining, the air was laden with moisture that was illuminated in an eerie glow around the cars as the modern lighting systems pierced the air. After the excitement of Spa where several LMP1 cars experienced mechanical issues, all the LMP1 cars were performing on cue. Other cars were taking time finding their way round, some appeared to be on a Sunday leisure drive but before long the session was in full swing with most cars posting respectable race times. But this is testing, and who knows who is doing what and what their agenda is?
The afternoon session carried on pretty much as the morning session had, as the track and atmosphere had dried somewhat and the drivers were getting down to business. Their aim was to find their limits, but in some cases these limits were exceeded so much so that the last session was red flagged with about 40 minutes still to run. As a result, a barrier was impacted so severely by one car that it could not be repaired in the remaining time which was a shame because the final time sheets could have been so different. The short term bragging rights will remain until the first timed runs during race week.
This year, perhaps more so than in any other year in the recent past, all four classes could be won by almost anyone in that class. The outcome is simply too close to call, and will only be known at 15h00 on Sunday.
What are your Le Mans expectations? Virtual Motorpix will be at Le Mans again, from as early as scrutineering on Sunday 12 June, right through to the popping of champagne corks on Sunday 19 June. Be sure to drop by and see what we are getting up to.
Photos and words by: John Mountney
[more images can be found on the Virtual Motorpix Website]
The GT-PRO class is the show this year. This Ferrari-Ford rivalry will not be much of a rivalry this year, the Ferrari 488’s pace at Silverstone and Spa is such the lights will go out and the other cars will not see them again except when getting lapped. Risi with their LeMans winning experience and superior pit crew will be challenging for that top step, now for at least one race, out from under the insanely restrictive anti-Ferrari IMSA BoP. I just don’t want to be a repeat of last years so lucky Vette win, I was sick for 2 months. Vilander drove magnificiently to run down and pass the Vette with 90 minutes remaining. When at 55 minutes to go in the race Vilander ran over some debris on the track that ruined the Ferrari gearbox…sending Vilander in for a 36 minute garage fix. That allowed the #63 Vette by for the luckiest win I’ve seen in 25 years of going to and watching LeMans. Very strange, an American who hates Vettes…with the pace shown by Ferrari, they just might be a Ferrari lockout of the podium….sorry if it’s posted twice, I don’t know if the first one was posted…