‘Audi wins Le Mans’ has been a familiar headline in recent years, with the brand victorious in 13 of the last 15 runnings.
For 2015, however, the competition is stronger than ever – particularly from Audi’s VW Group rival, Porsche.
Elsewhere, although Toyota won the 2014 World Endurance Championship (WEC), success at Le Mans has proven elusive and it’s hungrier than ever to win in 2015. This year also sees the return of Nissan to Le Mans, with a radical front-engined, front-wheel-drive car.
Le Mans 2015: who is going to win?
Audi is still the best place to start if you’re trying to pick a winner – especially as it has already won the Silverstone and Spa WEC rounds this season. Britain’s Oliver Jarvis has stepped up to a full-season drive this year, in the company’s R18 hybrid prototype for the first time. The 4.0-litre V6 turbodiesel car has proven extremely fast in corners – if a little behind Porsche in a straight line.
“Porsche definitely has more hybrid boost out of the corners,” Jarvis told us, “but on a very long straight, like at Le Mans, we’ll hopefully catch up once they’ve used their boost. The longer the straight and the higher the speed, the closer we get to them. Where we lose out is in tighter corners that are followed by short straights.
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“At Le Mans, the Porsches will be very quick out of Arnage corner and the first and last chicanes,” continued Jarvis, “but I think we’ll have an advantage in the high-speed Porsche Curves. It’s going to be similar to Silverstone and Spa, where they’re quicker in some parts and we’re quicker in others – it should be a fantastic, fascinating battle.”
Unlike in F1, qualifying isn’t always seen as hugely important at Le Mans, but Jarvis reckons that could change this year. “If we can get ahead of the Porsches in qualifying, and stay ahead on the first lap, that gives us the opportunity to pull out a gap,” he explained. “Whereas if we’re behind them, it’s very difficult to find a way past.”
Can Porsche make an impact at Le Mans 2015?
Among the big talking points surrounding the Porsche challenge this year is the presence of two F1 drivers on the roster. Ex-Red Bull man Mark Webber already has one Porsche start under his belt, while Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg becomes the first current F1 driver to contest Le Mans since Sebastien Bourdais in 2009.
Webber learned plenty of lessons in 2014 that’ll be foremost in his mind going into this year’s race. “I didn’t do much night driving ahead of last year’s event, so it was important to get lots of experience of that in the race and also note how the track changes – where the tyre rubber builds up, and so on,” said the Australian.
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“It changes so much once the race gets underway and this is something you can’t experience in practice. I’ve also become more confident about passing backmarkers, so I think I’ll be a lot more relaxed this time around.”
For Le Mans debutant Hulkenberg, the main adjustment will be to driving a car shared with two other drivers, rather than one that’s solely ‘his’. “It’s different, but it’s not too difficult to get used to,” he said. “It’s definitely a big change from F1. When some people hear ‘endurance’ they think of cruising, saving the car and the tyres, but I learned quickly that it’s not. We’re flat out for every lap – the tyres are very consistent and this lets us push hard throughout.”
Hulkenberg is also looking forward to one of the biggest challenges of Le Mans – battling your competitors while also finding a safe way around the slower GT-class cars. “The driver can make a big difference here,” he explained. “You’re trying to anticipate what the car in front will do, position yourself well and be smart about it.”
He’s also looking forward to night driving: “I’ve done a bit in testing and often find I do my best laps at night. It’s a different atmosphere – it feels like it’s just you and your headlights out there.”
Le Mans prototypes closer than ever to F1 performance
The sheer speed of the latest prototypes has also been a talking point, with lap times at Silverstone and Spa comparable to those of midfield F1 cars. “Le Mans is a dangerous race and we know that,” admitted Webber. “There have been some adjustments to Indianapolis corner and the entrance to the Porsche Curves, so it could be even quicker, but every time we get in these cars, it’s a real test for us – concentration is at maximum.”
Elsewhere, Brit Nick Tandy has stepped up from the Porsche 911 GT racer to the 919 hybrid – and it’s clear the prototype is something special. “I can’t compare it to any other car; when you put your foot down, it’s like being shot out of a gun,” he grinned. “It accelerates nearly as fast as it brakes – it picks up speed so quickly that when the boost stops, it almost feels pedestrian as you ‘only’ have 500bhp, not nearly 1,000.”
There’s British representation at Toyota, too, in the form of 2014 world champion Anthony Davidson (another ex-F1 talent) and new full-season recruit Mike Conway.
The Japanese manufacturer hasn’t had the strongest start to the season, but former IndyCar man Conway reckons that the low-downforce nature of the high-speed Le Mans track could suit the team better.
“We’ve done quite a lot of testing with the Le Mans aero package and we’re fairly confident with what we have,” he said. “Driving these cars and getting the most out of the hybrid systems is quite an art, so I’m looking forward to getting on track there – we do lots of work in simulators, but it’s never quite the same as doing it for real.
“Audi looked good with high downforce at Silverstone, and Porsche is very quick in a straight line, but top speed isn’t a problem for us – it’s just how quickly we get there.”
Nissan’s FWD Le Mans challenge
Last but not least, there’s Nissan, which stunned the racing establishment when it revealed its front-engined, front-wheel-drive GT-R LM challenger late last year. It’s had to skip the Silverstone and Spa WEC rounds and doesn’t look like challenging Audi, Porsche or Toyota for the win this year, but the concept is still a fascinating one.
“You have to adapt to understeer and, from a set-up perspective, what you ask your engineers for is often very different from what you’d ask for in a rear-wheel-drive car,” said Jann Mardenborough – one of three British drivers at Nissan.
“The steering inputs are similar – you try to be as smooth as you can – but the way you come off the brakes is different and you pick up the throttle a little earlier than you would in a conventional racing car.”
So with a win out of the question, whatis the aim for Nissan in 2015? “The more laps we do, the better,” explained the brand’s motorsport boss, Darren Cox.
“Last year, one Porsche retired and the other finished 11th. They got a car home and learned a huge amount about the tyres. Our aim has to be to get one car home, too, but we’re all racers – we’re not there just to tool around. We know that we’re not going to win or get a podium, but we want to be credible in terms of pace.”
In the UK, Eurosport will have full coverage of the Le Mans 24 Hours across this Saturday and Sunday.
Click through to page two for more detail – with our full set of Le Mans interviews uncut…