Text: Rick Kiewiet
Images: Rick Kiewiet, Toyota Motorsport, Aston Martin, Porsche.
The 2019 edition of the 24 hours of Le Mans is now some 2 months behind us, and the dust has settled. The 2019/2020 Prologue, this year in Barcelona is behind us and the Season 8 opener at Silverstone is at our doorstep. Time to look back at the biggest (endurance) race in the world, and also look forward to the start of the upcoming season 8 this weekend. What will we remember from the 2019 24 hours of Le Mans? And what can we look forward to in the 2020 season? Here's a breakdown by category.
Sadly, the 2019 edition of the 24 hours will not be remembered as a thriller in the LMP1 category. The EoT adjustments the ACO and FIA made after the test day, didn't sort the desired effect: Toyota was still miles ahead of the competition. We couldn't say we were surprised, we also couldn't say we were not disappointed. The no. 7 car lost the race in the last hour, when the tire sensors picked up a puncture, but pointed to the wrong wheel. After the right front of José Maria Lopez' car was replaced, the systems still noticed a puncture after which the team found out it was actually the left rear that was damaged. The time lost by crawling back to the pits, plus the extra stop, lost the #7 the lead to the #8. And so, Alonso, Buemi and Nakajima secured Toyota's second consecutive victory in the French endurance classic.
SMP Racing claimed the title for "Best of the rest" with third place. The most newsworthy item from this year's race came out of their corner: weeks after the race they suddenly announced the end of their WEC program. This might very well be one of the few things we'll remember of this race in a couple of years: as the last race of the Russian SMP-Dallara BR1 chassis. The two entries were withdrawn from the 2019/2020 season. Having achieved everything they could achieve in the SuperSeason, and clearly (6 laps behind the 2nd Toyota at Le Mans) not able to threaten the hybrids, SMP decided there was no point continuing. The race also marked the last race for the ByKolles and Dragonspeed entries.
Luckily, the empty space SMP leaves is filled by the reentry of the Ginetta's: Team LNT puts two Ginetta's on the grid at Silverstone. The #5 car will be driven by former SMP driver Egor Orudzhev, late Dragonspeed LMP1-driver Ben Hanley and Charlie Robertson. The no. 6 car will be driven by 2003 Le Mans winner Guy Smith. For Season 8 he's joined by Chris Dyson and Mike Simpson, although Dyson will be replaced at Silverstone by Oliver Jarvis, ex-Audi factory driver. Dyson suffered a wrist injury after a crash last weekend in a Trans-Am race. The Ginetta's, suited with an AER engine, showed a promising pace at the Prologue in Barcelona, measuring up fine against the other LMP1 privateers from Rebellion.
If we take the Prologue as a good indicator for the upcoming season, in which Toyota also brings an updated TS050 hybrid to the fight, competition might be a lot tighter than in last year's Superseason: the Rebellions were only three tenths of the pace after two days of testing, the Ginetta's a mere 5 tenths. After the Prologue, the Toyota's were dealt an additional weight increase for the 4h of Silverstone. We'll have to wait until this weekend to find out whether the privateers can really threaten the Toyota's.
After Chevrolet, Aston Martin and Porsche, this year Ferrari succeeded again in winning the endurance classic at the Circuit de la Sarthe. After a somewhat disappointing SuperSeason with only one other victory (Silverstone 2018), and Porsche mostly being the faster car, the victory was exactly what the proud Maranello brand needed. In a messy race, where the Porsche, Ford, Chevrolet and the Ferrari all showed good pace, the #51 driven by James Calado, Alessandro Pier Guidi and Daniel Serra was most lucky with the safety cars, most notably the one around the 10 hour mark that split up the top cars. Truth be told, the #51 car led most of the race. Porsche took 2nd and 3rd, 4th was initially the #68 Ford, but after its disqualification due to fuel tank infringements, its place was taken by the #67 Ford.
After the race, most talks were about the safety car regulations: when would a safety car come on track, and when would a full course yellow or even a slow zone suffice? Not for the first time on the iconic track, a great battle in the first half of the race that included all manufacturers was broken up by numerous lengthy SC-periods, where it seemed that a slow zone or FCY would be sufficiently safe for work on track to take place.
However, the 2019 edition might mostly be remembered as the last race of the BMWs and Fords as factory entries. At least in WEC. Ford never made a secret of their planned temporary participation in the series, but the withdrawal of the Bavarians came somewhat as a surprise. No less as a disappointment. The BMWs withdraw after only one season in WEC, as the series is no longer in line with the corporate global strategy. There seem to be openings still for both manufacturers to get an invitation for the 2020 edition, as both the M8 GTE as the Ford GT will remain active in IMSA. ACO is likely to at least invite both brands for next years' race.
But for the upcoming round in Silverstone we'll have to do with only three manufacturers at the start: two updated 911's, two AF Corse 488 EVO's and two Aston Martin Vantages will add up to a six car grid, where we got used to at least 8 in recent years, and even 10 in the SuperSeason. On the plus side, the cars match up really well to each other so we can look forward to an exciting battle nonetheless.
©Aston Martin Racing
The LMP2 race in Le Mans was a lot less tense than in previous years. Like 2018, the race was won by the #36 Signatech Alpine of André Negrão, Pierre Thiriet and Nicolas Lapierre. Although a year ago, the race was initially won by the #26 G-Drive Oreca, which later got disqualified for pitstop infringements. This year too, the main contenders for victory were the G-Drive and Signatech squads. After three quarters of the race, the #26 car failed to restart after pitstop. The repairs took over 20 minutes, ending the hopes for victory for the Russian TDS-operated squad. The #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca, run by Jota, and the #28 TDS racing Oreca finished a lap down, never in a position to really threat the Alpine.
British pride United Autosports again was the best Ligier chassis at the finish, although this year that didn't bring them the podium: after third place in 2018 they now finished fourth. Best Dallara was found as far back as 13th, the Cetilar-squad outrun the Racing Team Nederland after a late crash from the yellow #29 car.
In season 8 of the World Endurance Championship, the LMP2 class will be dominated again by Oreca chassis'. After the SuperSeason, the teams of Larbre Competition (which entered a Ligier) and Dragonspeed won't return on the grid, while TDS teams up with Racing Team Netherlands, entering another Oreca chassis. This takes the Dallara of the Dutch squad off the grid. Furthermore, Jackie Chan DC Racing (by Jota) goes back from fielding 2 cars to only 1. On the other hand, we also see a couple of new entrants: Jota now fields a car under their own name, with a Good Year livery. The American tire brand celebrates its return to the World Endurance Championship this season. Jackie Chan DC Racing and other new entrant High Class Racing (Oreca), will also use the American rubber. United Autosports and Cool Racing are the other new teams in the championship that will field Oreca's (United doens't bring their Ligier chassis, that one will compete in ELMS). The only non-Oreca on the grid will be entered by another newcomer: Cetilar Racing switches from ELMS to WEC with a Dallara P217 chassis.
The LMP2 class is set to be yet again one of the most competitive classes in the championship. With experienced teams as Jota, TDS, United Autosports and reigning world champions Signatech, there are in theory 5 or 6 cars that have a good chance of winning the title. Consistency and reliability will be key in winning the championship.
Le Mans 2019 might be remembered most for the events after the GT Am race. In an absolute thrilling final hour of the race, in which the #56 Project 1 Porsche closed the gap to the #85 Keating Ford in its stand out retro purple Wynn's livery, the latter managed to cross the finish line first. Jeroen Bleekemolen managed to increase the gap to 44 seconds again at the finish in his final stint. After the race however, the #85 Ford first lost the win due to a time penalty, as the fuel rig refueled the car 0.6s under the obligatory 45 seconds. Later, the car was disqualified completely, as the fuel tank was also 0.1 liter too large, the same fate as suffered by the #68 Ford GT. The win was dealt to the #56 Project 1 porsche, with the ELMS contender JMW Motorsport Ferrari 488 in 2nd, and the IMSA Weathertech Ferrari in 3rd.
Another remarkable fact was the withdrawal of the #88 Proton Porsche. After a big accident where the #64 Corvette with Fässler at the wheel, drove into Hoshino, ending the race of the #64 Chevrolet, Hoshino limped back to the pits. The car was withdrawn, it was rumored that Hoshino refused to drive any further after three spins in one stint and the following collision with Fässler. Fässler was appointed guilty of the accident by the stewards, although it was clear Hoshino simply missed the Corvette in his mirrors.
The 24 hours marked the end of the participation of Clearwater Racing in the World Endurance Championship. The red and black Ferrari, that used to be completely chrome before, will not return on the grid for the 4 hours of Silverstone. They will be replaced by Red River Sport. Johnny Mowlem's motorsport management and mentoring team expands its services towards the World Endurance Championship with drivers Bonamy Grimes, Charles Hollings and Johnny Mowlem himself. The car is run by the AF Corse / Spirit of Race team. AF Corse and Project 1 both add a car to their line up. An extra Ferrari 488 is driven by Francois Perrodo, Emmanuel Collard and Nicklas Nielsen, while Project 1 racing enters an extra 911 RSR to accommodate Ben Keating, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Felipe Fraga for a complete WEC season. British teams Gulf Racing (911) and TF Sport (Aston Martin Vantage) continue their involvement in the series.