This year’s Le Mans 24 Hours, the 91st staging of the race, is the centenary edition as it marks the 100th anniversary of its first running in 1923.
And the 2023 edition of the centrepiece World Endurance Championship round boasts a leading category of cars befitting of such an occasion, with 16 entries from seven brands in the Hypercar class that the outright winner will, bar a near-unprecedented set of circumstances, emerge from.
What does the form book say? Have recent technical changes turned that on its head? And why is there a NASCAR in the field? We’ve attempted to answer those key questions and more ahead of the start of practice on Wednesday.
The fight at the front
Less than a fortnight ago, this appeared certain to be a question of whether anyone could take the challenge to Toyota. And the evidence of the first three rounds of the season – a winning whitewash between the two GR010 crews – suggested the answer to that question was likely to be ‘no’.
But now? It’s not quite ‘all bets are off’ territory, but the probability of a shake-up is undeniably higher following changes to the balance of performance parameters designed to keep the top class – which accommodates cars built to two different prototype Hypercar specifications – equal issued by the WEC Committee at the end of last week.
There’s more on those changes below, but the headline figure is a 37kg hike in minimum weight for the Toyotas up to 1080kg – a decision Toyota is understood to be privately very unhappy about.
Toyota may have had a head start over its rivals – its GR010 first competed in May 2021 after all – but even so the jump it had on its Hypercar competitors was quite something, both cars finishing the Sebring 1000 Miles season-opener two laps clear.
It’s the #8 crew of defending Le Mans winners Sebastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Ryo Hirakawa that leads the standings having not finished outside the top two, but the sister #7 car has won two of the first three races – victories at rounds one and three punctuated by a ninth place at Portimao as Toyota had to replace a torque sensor on the car.
The #7 was also delayed during the test day following an off for Mike Conway in the car he shares with Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez at Tetre Rouge, the fast right-hander that leads onto the Mulsanne straight, in the morning session – though this only caused bodywork damage.
That car ended the test day third, with the sister car ninth in the times.
Ferrari, which has been Toyota’s closest challenger on its return to the top class for 2023 and was always likely to be closest again at Le Mans, appears best-placed of the rest to step up to the plate. It’s been fast right away on one-lap pace – Antonio Fuoco stuck it on pole at the Sebring 1000 Miles season opener – has been gradually improving its consistency in race conditions and, though it too has been saddled with additional weight, ended the Le Mans test day on top, ex-Formula 1 driver Antonio Giovinazzi setting a best time of 3m29.504s in the #50 499P.
The feeling in the paddock was that there was significant sandbagging all round at the test, though – expect sub-3m27s lap times when things get going in earnest in qualifying.
Splitting the Ferrari crews in the championship standings after three rounds is the sole full-season Cadillac V-Series.R entry being run by Chip Ganassi Racing on behalf of Cadillac. The #2 car driven by Earl Bamber, Alex Lynn, and Richard Westbrook is yet to finish on the podium but has not been outside the top five – fourth, fourth, and fifth – at the start of the campaign.
Its sister #3 car is in action at Le Mans just as it was at the previous Spa round, but its crash there means the team’s IMSA SportsCar Championship chassis will be used at Le Mans, while a third Cadillac run by crack IMSA squad Action Express Racing – which triumphed at Sebring in the corresponding 12 Hour IMSA race – is also present.
Porsche is the best-represented manufacturer – its three Penske-run factory cars are bolstered by a customer entry from Jota – but its WEC form is yet to take off.
Is that about to change? The #6 car was second fastest come the end of test day, but would have been top of the pile had Laurens Vanthoor not had his best time scrubbed off.
Vehicle dynamics have been Porsche’s biggest obstacle, but Andre Lotterer observed that even though he had the “impression that the bumps have become more extreme” in corners such as Indianapolis compared to previous years, the 963’s “drivability got better and better”. Porsche’s pre-event release meanwhile boldly declared that outright victory – which would be its 20th in the race – was its “one goal”.
What about Peugeot?
Peugeot is the one ‘big’ manufacturer among the Hypercar ranks at Le Mans not in the above list.
Its radical, wingless 9X8 showed promise but some reliability sketchiness during its first half-season in the WEC at the back end of 2022, but Stellantis Motorsport senior VP Jean-Marc Finot declared after an off-season in which 10,000km-plus were covered “to improve the performance of the car and validate its reliability” that Peugeot’s aim was “to fight for the victory, at every races” – even if he conceded “we also know that nothing should be taken for granted and it will be hard as we are not the only one on the grid with this aim”.
But even so, what a rude awakening the 2023 campaign has been. Fourth and fifth on the Sebring grid was a promising start, but both cars had gearbox issues in the first hour of that race, with its #93 then encountering an ignition problem in the final hour. The #94 car was stopped with a hybrid issue and, though it took the chequered flag like the sister car, it did so without being classified.
There were further niggles next time out at Portimao but that remains the high mark in terms of results for Peugeot, with fifth and seventh at the finish, albeit two and three laps down.
But if there is any encouragement to be had it’s that the 9X8 was unaffected by the BoP change, and that the #94 car completed the most laps of any Hypercar – 70 – during the test day, with the sister car lapping within a second of the pace.
The Hypercar entries are completed by two independents; the Vanwall Racing-fronted ByKolles entry that has been in the headlines in the build-up to the Le Mans 24 Hours following its split – with contradictory claims from both sides – with 1997 Formula 1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve in the lead up to the event, and the Glickenhaus Racing outfit.
Villeneuve’s place in the sole naturally aspirated, Gibson-powered Vanwall Vanderwell 680 has been taken by Tristan Vautier, who will drive alongside Esteban Guerrieri and Tom Dillmann, while Glickenhaus is the only Hypercar squad fielding an additional car that will only race this year at Le Mans.
The full Hypercar entry
#2 Cadillac Racing (Cadillac V-Series.R) – Earl Bamber; Alex Lynn; Richard Westbrook
#3 Cadillac Racing (Cadillac V-Series.R) – Sebastien Bourdais; Renger Van Der Zande; Scott Dixon
#4 Vanwall Racing Team (Vanwall Vandervell 680) – Tom Dillmann; Esteban Guerrieri; Tristan Vautier
#5 Porsche Penske Motorsport (Porsche 963) – Dane Cameron; Michael Christensen; Fred Makowiecki
#6 Porsche Penske Motorsport (Porsche 963) – Kevin Estre; Andre Lotterer; Laurens Vanthoor
#7 Toyota Gazoo Racing (Toyota GR010 – Hybrid) – Mike Conway; Kamui Kobayashi; Jose Maria Lopez
#8 Toyota Gazoo Racing (Toyota GR010 – Hybrid) – Sebastien Buemi; Brendon Hartley; Ryo Hirakawa
#38 Jota (Porsche 963) – Antonio Felix Da Costa; Will Stevens; P Yifei Ye
#50 Ferrari AF Corse (Ferrari 499P) – Antonio Fuoco; Miguel Molina; Nicklas Nielsen
#51 Ferrari AF Corse (Ferrari 499P) – Alessandro Pier Guidi; James Calado; Antonio Giovinazzi
#75 Porsche Penske Motorsport (Porsche 963) – Felipe Nasr; Mathieu Jaminet; Nicholas Tandy
#93 Peugeot (Peugeot 9X8) – Paul Di Resta; Mikkel Jensen; Jean-Eric Vergne
#94 Peugeot (Peugeot 9X8) – Loic Duval; Gustavo Menezes; Nico Mueller
#311 Action Express Racing (Cadillac V-Series.R) – Pipo Derani; Alexander Sims; Jack Aitken
#708 Glickenhaus Racing (Glickenhaus 007) – Romain Dumas; Olivier Pla; Ryan Briscoe
#709 Glickenhaus Racing (Glickenhaus 007) – Franck Mailleux; Nathanael Berthon; Esteban Gutierrez
What’s the new BoP?
As the Hypercar class has for 2023 been populated by Le Mans Daytona h (LMDh) cars in addition to Le Mans Hypercar (LMH) entries, some of which competed in the category last year, a balance of performance system is employed both in a bid to achieve parity among brands and two different rulesets – three if you account for the non-hybrid LMH cars run by Vanwall and Glickenhaus – and as a deterrent against an escalation of costs. Why spend money to enter an arms race if your performance is going to be restricted by an external body?
The original BoP, which is set by the WEC Committee comprising figures from the FIA and Le Mans organiser the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), was issued before the start of the season and should have applied to the first four rounds of the season – including Le Mans. Small adjustments were permitted in the interest of balancing the LMH and LMDh cars.
But an official bulletin issued last Wednesday announced changes, primarily to the minimum weight of two LMH cars – the Toyota and the Ferrari – and two LMDh cars – the Cadillac and the Porsche – as well as modest adjustments to the maximum usable energy allowed in each stint for Toyota, Ferrari and Cadillac.
Pre-Le Mans 24 Hours minimum weight increases
A joint statement from the FIA and ACO described the changes – which were enforced ahead of the test day – as a “correction” on account of the opening rounds of the WEC season having “shown differences between different LMH-spec cars competing in the Hypercar class to be greater than initially anticipated”.
“Considering these factors, and following an in-depth analysis of available data, the WEC Committee has decided that the goal of ensuring a level playing field within the Hypercar class will be best achieved by implementing correction between, but also within, the LMH and the LMDh platforms,” the statement added.
How are the other classes looking?
The Hypercar entry for the Le Mans 24 Hours may represent a ballooning of top-class numbers – the last three editions featured just five LMP1 (2020) or Hypercar (2021-22) entries from three brands – but they’re still overshadowed by the allocations for the LMP2 and GTE Am categories.
Among the 24 entries in the LMP2 class, in which all cars are using ORECA 07 chassis and are powered by spec 4.2-litre Gibson engines, it’s some of the more familiar names from sportscar racing that are likely to be among the big hitters: Jota also has one car in LMP2 in addition to its customer Porsche Hypercar and its entry was fastest in the afternoon session at the test day with Pietro Fittipaldi at the wheel, 0.8s up on 2021 Le Mans LMP2 winner WRT, though the fastest time of the day was set in the morning by the Cool Racing squad.
Alpine, which is expected to reveal the Hypercar it will enter the WEC’s top division with on Friday at Le Mans, is represented in the secondary class by Signatech and was also in the mix, while other names to look out for are the United Autosports squad and single-seater powerhouse Prema – a sister team to the Iron Lynx outfit that will serve as Lamborghini’s factory LMDh outfit when it too joins the Hypercar ranks.
The Corvette Racing line-up has been the class of the GTE Am field so far this season with Nicky Catsburg, Ben Keating and Nicolas Varrone taking two wins and a second place from the opening three rounds of the season, but it was the British JMW Motorsport Ferrari outfit that was fastest among the 21-car field in both sessions at the test day.
Thomas Neubauer’s best time of 3m56.088s in the Ferrari 488 GTE Evo was however 2.3s slower than the one remaining car in the field…
There’s a NASCAR taking part
Yep, you read that right – a (heavily modified) Next Gen NASCAR Cup beast is the final car on the 62-strong entry, under what is often called the ‘Garage 56’ entry.
Formally known as the innovative car entry, often reserved for concepts that test new automotive technologies, the one-car class was first used at Le Mans in 2012. Projects such as the radical narrow-fronted DeltaWing originally intended as an IndyCar project, the DeltaWing-inspired hybrid electric Nissan Zeod RC, and a modified Morgan LMP2 car for quadruple amputee Frederic Sausset have all entered under that banner – though the Garage 56 entry has not been used every year since the concept was introduced.
This year’s NASCAR-led Garage 56 project is a collaborative one between the series, its most successful team Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, IMSA, and tyre supplier Goodyear, and features a stellar driver line-up: seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, 2009 F1 world champion Jenson Button and 2010 Le Mans 24 Hours winner Mike Rockenfeller, who set the car’s quickest time during the test day last Sunday.
The Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 competing at Le Mans is based on the Next Gen version currently racing in the NASCAR Cup but features a raft of aerodynamic upgrades including a diffuser and enhanced bodywork, plus carbon brakes, a paddleshift system and of course lights – but the manual jack that’s standard in NASCAR remains for Le Mans.
Those changes are estimated to make the car somewhere in the region of 7-10s faster than the standard version on a normal circuit, and were enough to place it (comfortably) ahead of all the GTE Am cars in the test.
Johnson, who has made no secret of his desire to contest the Le Mans 24 Hours, completed the mandatory 10 laps needed for all rookies to be eligible to race – an experience he described as “just insane”.
“What is really neat about this track is that the straights are so long, you can actually sit and savour the moment,” said Johnson.
“Each lap I made, it became more real and intense the amount of fun I was having out there. That was incredible.”
Wednesday June 7
6pm Qualifying 1
Thursday June 8
Friday June 9
No track activity
Saturday June 10
3pm Le Mans 24 Hours race start
Sunday June 11
3pm Le Mans 24 Hours race finish
*All times UK