More than half of the 56 cars entered in this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans are prototypes - 13 LMP1, 20 LMP2 and the unclassified Nissan DeltaWing, selected by the ACO as the Garage 56 entry to demonstrate new and alternative technology. The two giants will once again have their day in LMP1, while LMP2 is particularly wide open between anywhere from half a dozen to roughly 10 legitimate winning contenders.
AUDI – Like both of the first two races of the 2012 FIA World Endurance Championship, the only shock will come if Audi doesn't take home the win in this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans. Although Toyota is now active for the first time in three races, that doesn't change the fact it's the Japanese manufacturer's debut with a brand new car, while Audi has had a full six hours of running at Spa in race mode with its hybrid and the stalwart R18 Ultra ready to go for good measure.
The intriguing aspect from an Audi standpoint is whether the weather conditions will adversely affect the race. In dry running, the R18 Ultra had the measure of the e-tron quattro, but the e-tron was quicker in the wet. The opening line of the original Truth in 24 (which Audi followed up with Truth in 24 II this year), of course, is “It always rains in Le Mans,” and if it does this year, the hybrid could have its day.
Interestingly, with Audi's pair of unheralded trios winning the last two Le Mans – the Bernhard/Dumas/Rockenfeller car in 2010 and Lotterer/Treluyer/Fassler last year – the question becomes whether another of the non-champion teams will raise the mantle this year. Hybrid responsibilities have been entrusted to the defending champions and the veteran McNish/Capello/Kristensen team. In the Ultras, ex-Peugeot shoes Loic Duval and Marc Gene join Dumas – Gene still filling in for the injured Bernhard – while Rockenfeller makes his only endurance start of the year with Oliver Jarvis and Marco Bonanomi in the No. 4.
TOYOTA – The wild card because of its lack of running, the simplest goal for Toyota in its debut is that it must avoid embarrassment. Toyota poured millions upon millions into its Formula 1 program for nearly a decade and had nary a win to show for it. While it's done an admirable job in helping save the WEC from a manufacturer involvement standpoint, the reality is that in year one, it most likely won't be a realistic win contender, and should shoot for outright reliability with its pair of TS030 hybrids and at least one podium position.
Both driver lineups are impressive, with four of the six drivers formerly from Peugeot. Alexander Wurz and Nicolas Lapierre are in the full-season No. 7 car, with Anthony Davidson and Stephane Sarrazin in the Le Mans-only No. 8. Respective third drivers and ex-F1 racers Kazuki Nakajima (No. 7) and Sebastien Buemi (No. 8) are new to endurance racing, and that's their biggest hindrance entering this year's 24 Hours. Some have been able to make the transition to multiclass racing better than others, and keeping their wits about them while learning the nuances of the sport will aid their development.
REBELLION – Rebellion's 2012 has shown promise, with one result nearly in the bag and another achieved at Spa. The fully updated Lola B12/60 Toyotas premiered last race and finished best in the unofficial gasoline P1 subclass, fifth and sixth overall behind the quartet of Audis.
While they're not going to be contending for an overall podium at Le Mans, a respectable fifth or sixth-place run behind the factory efforts could be in the cards for either car. F1 veteran Nick Heidfeld makes his Le Mans debut alongside Nico Prost and Neel Jani, with Andrea Belicchi, Harold Primat and Jeroen Bleekemolen a trio of dependable – if not speed demon – racers in the sister car.
OAK – The team's P1 car is probably the biggest underdog in class. The team was already up against the odds with the sole Oak Pescarolo-Judd in class, also the lone car on Dunlops, and things were made more complicated with the accident incurred by lead driver Guillaume Moreau. The Frenchman's health is of greatest concern; Moreau underwent surgery to stabilize the broken 12th vertebrae on his spinal cord.
Franck Montagny – Moreau's last-minute injury replacement – will flatter the car's pace. Teammates Dominik Kraihamer and Bertrand Baguette have only one Le Mans start between them, and frankly, finishing is the goal more than any result. One has to wonder Montagny's mindset now that he doesn't have a ride in LMP2 with Level 5, which he raced for at Monterey in the American Le Mans Series, and would have had a chance at a class victory.
PESCAROLO – At the moment, more questions than answers about what's one of the more intriguing teams in this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans. Henri Pescarolo has a two-car squad, but the lead and WEC-entered No. 16 Pescarolo 03 Judd is a new car this race, and unlikely to threaten the leading gasoline entries. The No. 17 Dome S102.5 Judd (LEFT) hasn't raced at Le Mans in four years, but is now fully updated to 2012 specs, it has a solid driver lineup (Sebastien Bourdais, Nicolas Minassian and former Le Mans winner Seiji Ara) and could be quickest of the oil-burners.
STRAKKA, JRM HPDS – The HPD ARX-03a package showed particularly strongly at Sebring in the hands of American-entered Muscle Milk Pickett Racing, while the two WEC entries were a tad behind after taking later delivery of their chassis. Neither Strakka (RIGHT) nor JRM has got the big result, as yet.
Strakka's at a disadvantage within P1 with the only gentleman driver in class, team principal Nick Leventis. The team would be fine in P2, but with Leventis cast up against factory or near-factory drivers as third shoes in other cars, he's genuinely down on pace. The JRM crew of David Brabham, Karun Chandhok and Peter Dumbreck are a better trio than their results have shown thus far.
NISSAN DELTAWING – There's realistically nothing to lose for one of the most ambitious motorsports projects in years. In roughly 100 days, the team has built up, tested, and put the radical prototype through its paces, and its test day performance was rather stout. Running more than 50 laps on one set of tires – more than 400 miles around the 8.4-mile Circuit de la Sarthe – is an incredible accomplishment.
Finishing is an ambitious target, but seeing its lap times, the length between pit stops, durability of the tires and how the car handles despite its abnormal weight distribution will be the intriguing items to watch.