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.
It's amazing how far the LMP2 class has come, now in its second year of the cost-capped formula. The biggest presence in the class comes from Nissan, which powers 13 of the 20 class entries. While everything remains open spec, all LMP2 cars this year will run on Dunlop tires, so no team will be able to exploit a tire advantage in this year's race. The driver format requires at least one gentlemen (rated Silver or Bronze by the FIA) driver, so no team has an all-pro lineup; regardless, most of the entries in class have maximized their lineups as best as possible.
SIGNATECH – One of the fastest cars in last year's Le Mans, the Signatech ORECA 03 Nissans are probably among the best-prepped cars in the class, but struggled for results thus far in 2012. The lead and WEC-entered No. 23 has defending P2 class winner, youngster Olivier Lombard, alongside Franck Mailleux and PlayStation Academy winner Jordan Tresson in his 24-hour debut. The sister No. 26 with drivers Pierre Ragues, Nelson Panciatici and Roman Rusinov is down a bit on quality, but two of the three have some amount of Le Mans racing experience.
OAK – Jacques Nicolet's two P2 cars have split the Morgan chassis' engine choice – the lead and WEC-entered No. 24 runs a Judd for Nicolet, Matthieu Lahaye and Olivier Pla, while the sister No. 35 has upgraded to a Nissan for David Heinemeier Hansson, Bas Leinders and Maxime Martin. The No. 24 is a P2 class win contender while the No. 35 could quietly hang around and sneak a podium – they finished fourth in class of 18 P2 starters at Spa.
ADR-DELTA – Despite being a new team, this bunch showed surprising speed at Sebring with another ORECA 03 Nissan and probably would have won at Spa if there wasn't a need for a late race pit stop. Scheduled to have drivers Robbie Kerr, John Martin and Tor Graves, the team could figure into the P2 podium equation.
LEVEL 5 MOTORSPORTS – The singular ALMS focus with just the Le Mans trip factored in, rather than a joint ALMS and international schedule done in 2011, has thus far paid dividends for Scott Tucker's squad. The team has won all three ALMS P2 races thus far with the new HPD ARX-03b, and enters Le Mans having finished on the podium a year ago. Luis Diaz makes an overdue and welcome Le Mans debut alongside Tucker and Christophe Bouchut. Should contend for the class win.
GREAVES MOTORSPORT – Defending Le Mans 24 Hours P2 class winners, although none of their drivers are in the same seat! The team now competes against Tom Kimber-Smith and Olivier Lombard, while Karim Ojjeh is no longer driving. The lead No. 41 (Elton Julian, Ricardo Gonzalez, Christian Zugel) aren't quite the driver lineup to extract the maximum of their Zytek Nissan, while the sister No. 42 will gain a lot of attention due to its pairing of the Brundle father-son team alongside the impressive Lucas Ordonez. Still, as a whole, Tim Greaves' squad is one of the best in P2, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see either – or both – cars in win contention yet again come sunrise.
STARWORKS MOTORSPORT – Sebring WEC P2 winners, Peter Baron's squad has one of the best driver lineups in class. Swapping Stephane Sarrazin for Tom Kimber-Smith is a near wash – both are aces – and Ryan Dalziel and Enzo Potolicchio have starred together in their endurance races this year. The HPD ARX-03b is a good car to have underneath them, and in their Le Mans debut, Starworks could end up battling for a win or podium.
PECOM RACING – Despite a fraught start to the year, the car still has to rank as one of the contenders with the driver lineup of Soheil Ayari, Pierre Kaffer and Luis Perez-Companc, which is about as good as can be achieved within the P2 class structure. In need of a strong result for WEC points.
STATUS GRAND PRIX – One of two Irish teams entered, showed respectable speed in practice at Spa before an accident forced the team's withdrawal. Of the drivers, former BRDC award and GP3 race winner Alexander Sims is a promising youngster joined by GP2 veteran Yelmer Buurman and a several-time Le Mans starter in Romain Iannetta. Not a favorite, but should run above average with its Lola Judd coupe.
LOTUS – There's little “Lotus” about the Kodewa-run squad other than its engine badging, and the driver lineup isn't stellar, but this team was a lap away from finishing a respectable seventh in class at Sebring. Another car that is unlikely to contend on outright pace but could figure in if it's reliable.
JOTA – European LMS regulars, Jota snatched an unlikely but popular P2 class win at Spa as gentleman racer Simon Dolan drove what many considered the race of his career alongside regular Sam Hancock. Third driver Haruki Kurosawa provides stability with five prior Le Mans starts, including a prior P2 class podium in 2007. The team's Zytek Nissan doesn't have the best driver lineup in class but is a strong contender to punch above its weight.
BOUTSEN GINION RACING – Belgian squad is one that will probably fly under the radar. An ELMS regular is another with the ORECA 03 Nissan, and it's where Shinji Nakano will race this year. Finished a respectable fifth in P2 at Spa.
THIRIET BY TDS RACING – Won this year's ELMS opener at Paul Ricard, but the depth of field there versus Le Mans will make this race an uphill struggle to repeat. Its ace in the hole, though, is veteran Christophe Tinseau as part of the lineup in another ORECA 03 Nissan.
MURPHY PROTOTYPES – No, this isn't the realization of a rumor-mongering stuffed bear's dream to compile a P2 effort for Le Mans. Instead, the team led by Greg Murphy has a podium finish from Spa to carry it into the race, and an above-average driver lineup in Warren Hughes, Brendon Hartley and Jody Firth. In the class's pro-pro-am, nature, Murphy's No. 48 car is only one of three to have two platinum-rated drivers – the highest classification per FIA regulations. The team has the popular ORECA 03 Nissan package and could contend for a podium.
GULF RACING MIDDLE EAST – The team has done little to impress anyone in two races thus far. Rather amateurish spins at both Sebring and Spa, one car ranking outside the necessary qualifying threshold at Sebring (the No. 29) and a relatively weak driver lineup inspires little confidence with its two Lola B12/80 Nissans. The one upside is Stefan Johansson in the No. 28 car, but that's about it.
RACE PERFORMANCE – The Swiss-entered team has the lone ORECA 03 Judd package and Le Mans veterans Michel Frey, Ralph Meichtry and Jonathan Hirschi on board. Hirschi's respectable but the combination of car and a deep class will make scoring a result difficult. Sixth last year will be hard to beat.
EXTREME LIMITE ARIC – Merely starting will be an accomplishment for the lone Norma-Judd, which incurred a heavy accident at Spa. The combination of car, driver lineup and depth of the field will see this car firmly entrenched in the bottom half of the class.