There are some motor races that are prestigious. Then there are other races that are iconic – almost legendary.
The remarkable 24 Hours of Le Mans – often referred to as 24 HOLM – joins the Indy 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix to form the Triple Crown of Motorsport. But in some respect even this doesn’t do the 24 HOLM justice.
The 24 HOLM is, quite simply, a race of epic proportions and a step above in terms of challenge, endurance and spectacle. It takes months of preparation and only the best of the best can win.
The Best Endurance race in the world
This year marks the 85th edition of the 24 HOLM. Its format is relatively simple – four categories of cars all start at the same time and race over 24 hours.
The categories are determined by the manufacturer, budget and driver experience. It means that professional drivers mix with relative amateurs and cars worth many millions race alongside budget entries.
There is never a race ‘pack’ and instead the constant traffic makes every lap around the 13.6 km / 8.4 mile Circuit de la Sarthe a challenge.
Renowned for being one of the longest racing circuits in the world, the Circuity de la Sarthe uses local roads that are open to the public throughout the year and features long straights punctuated only by the Ford and Dunlop chicanes and the tight corners of Mulsanne, Indianapolis and Arnage.
The modern masterpieces spend over 85% of the lap at full throttle making this a low downforce track. But dialling in the setup isn’t easy when the engines are pushed hard over the long straights and the cold brakes are strained to slow the cars down for the turns.
All of this will test the cars in even the highest category. LMP1 is where the big manufacturers use the most advanced technology to claim the ultimate endurance racing victory. The cars can hit 60mph in just 2 seconds and have top speeds in excess of 200mph. This year, LMP1 will consist of two Porsche cars, one ByKolles car and three Toyota’s.
The next category, LMP2, has 25 entries and the cars look quite similar to those in LMP1. The main difference is that the teams don’t have the backing of a major manufacturer and the spending is capped to keep a level playing field. The cars in LMP2 lack a little in power and downforce but they make up for that with driver experience. In fact, previous Formula 1 drivers – like Bruno Senna, Nelson Piquet, Jean-Eric Vergne, Vitaly Pertrov, Sergey Sirotkin, Rubens Barrichello and Karun Chandhok – will all be in LMP2 cars this year.
Toyota vs Porshe
Toyota Gazoo Racing returns to the Circuit de la Sarthe looking to make amends for the heartbreak of their 2016 campaign.
The #5 Toyota TS050 prototype was cruising to victory only to lose power on the last lap because of a failed connector between the turbo and the intercooler. Toyota managed to restore the power but not quickly enough to complete the last lap in under six minutes, which is a 24 HOLM racing requirement.
Since then, Toyota Gazoo Racing has focused its efforts on developing the TS050 HYBRID to win 24 HOLM for the first time. So far in the World Endurance Championship the team is undefeated after victories at Silverstone and Spa-Francorchamps.
Early form at the Circuit de la Sarthe also looks promising with the Toyota landing the three quickest times during a recent test day and relegating Porshe to fifth and sixth.
Kamui Kobayashi set the best time with 3m18.132s on the #7 Toyota going 1.6 seconds quicker than the 2016 Porshe pole time.
The Japanese driver said afterwards he could have gone even quicker: “The laptime was not really brilliant. Actually I had a lot of traffic, so we were missing half a second of laptime, which I think is very positive for us.”
“It’s a really exciting feeling when the lap wasn’t really the best, but we still achieved a good laptime.”
It’s ominous news for Porshe who struggled to keep pace with Toyota.
“We’ve had a mixed test day,” said Porshe LMP1 team boss Andrea Seidl.
“Toyota’s speed was impressive, we could not match that. In the coming days we will analyse today’s data and draw our conclusions to improve our cars’ performance.”