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The overall winner of each class is the car that completes the most laps in 24 hours of shared driving.
“From a driver’s perspective, it’s a race that calls on a lot of different skill sets,” Davidson said. “Managing a blinding sunset/sunrise with an incredibly dirty windscreen,” driving at night and competing on the same course with cars in other categories with different capabilities are among them, he said.
“From a team’s point of view, the main challenge is reliability,” he said. “Building an intricate modern hybrid racing car to undergo 24 hours of hard racing without the slightest of glitches seems like an impossible task, but that’s what is needed to take victory at Le Mans.”
The race is run under the direction of the International Automobile Federation — which oversees the World Endurance Championship (or W.E.C.), of which Le Mans is part — and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, which has traditionally overseen Le Mans.
This year, four classes are running: LMP1, LMP2, LMGTE Pro and LMGTE Am. The LMP categories 1 and 2 are the Le Mans Prototype classes, cars with closed cockpits and sleek, aerodynamic bodywork.
LMP1 attracts the bulk of manufacturer — and news media — attention, because the teams’ designers are given maximum room to maneuver within the technical rule book.
In recent years, both diesel and hybrid-powered cars have achieved success, with victory now dependent on energy recovery systems as well as outright horsepower.
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Manufacturers use LMP1 for high-speed research and development, and recent engine advances made at Le Mans can be directly linked to current road car technology (though this year brings no engine innovation from any LMP1 contender).
Last year’s LMP1 winner was the Porsche Team No. 2 car, a 919 Hybrid powered by a 2-liter 4-cylinder turbo engine and a battery hybrid system. Driven by Marc Lieb, Romain Duman and Neel Jani, the car returns this year, with Jani joined by the 2015 Le Mans winner Nick Tandy and the three-time Le Mans winner André Lotterer.
“A Porsche 919 at Le Mans is something everyone talks about,” said Mark Webber, a former Porsche driver. “It’s still something to behold. It’s pivotal we find a way to keep these powerful cars. Imagery-wise, emotion-wise, it’s important.”
After an early June test, Porsche acknowledged more work was needed on performance. “We’ve had a mixed test,” said Andreas Seidl, Porsche’s LMP1 boss. “Although we didn’t achieve the mileage we wanted, we still learned important lessons for the race regarding tire choice and tire wear. Toyota’s speed was impressive. We could not match that. In the coming days we will analyze today’s data and draw our conclusions to improve our cars’ performance.”
Toyota enters the race as the favorite, with its No. 8 car — driven by Sébastien Buemi, Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima — having won the first two rounds of the World Endurance Championship, six-hour races in Silverstone, England, and Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium.
While LMP2 cars share the spectacular looks of the LMP1 class, all the cars in the class have identical engines, which makes the LMP2 category cheaper and more appealing for private entrants.
After Audi’s withdrawal from Le Mans after the diesel emissions scandal, the 2017 race will have only six LMP1 entries: three from the Toyota factory team, two from Porsche and the semiprivate Nissan-supported ENSO CLM P1/01.
Having dominated the 2016 Le Mans until the race’s closing minutes, when its leading car suffered a mechanical failure at the beginning of the final lap, Toyota returns determined to win.
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“It’s a Porsche versus Toyota fight, and Toyota has thrown everything at W.E.C. this year,” said Sam Collins, deputy editor of Racecar Engineering magazine and commentator for Radio Le Mans.
“But nobody cares about W.E.C. as a championship — it’s about Le Mans,” he said. “The championship exists to sustain Le Mans, and Toyota are there to win.
“In LMP1, Toyota’s running three cars for the first time in a very long time,” Collins said. “They’re really going all-out to win it. There’s a Japanese driver in each car, which means they really intend to win. Porsche aren’t going so hard. They’ve won it now twice in a row.”
Webber said: “We still don’t really know who will win Le Mans. We have the competition between two brands, which is good, but hopefully more manufacturers come in the future.”
The LMP2 class has a new rule book for 2017, with the regulations making for a new car. To reduce costs, all cars run identical engines, leaving less room for innovation in the category as a whole. The upside is more entrants, with 25 cars running in this year’s LMP2 class, including private and factory-backed teams.
LMP2 cars run a 4.2-liter V8 engine, the Gibson GK428. “Those cars are far quicker than they were last year,” Collins said. “Much faster in straight lines, much faster in the corners. The cars are now so fast that it might be difficult for some of the LMP1s to overtake them, and that’s going to be key to the outcome of the race.”
Tire wear and fuel economy play a part in every class during the 24-hour race. The less often a car has to enter the pits for fuel or fresh tires, the more laps it will be able to complete before the clock runs out. So tire manufacturers and racers seek tires that retain high levels of grip during the race, helping to keep the cars planted as they corner at high speeds. One element to keep an eye on in LMP2 is the contest between Michelin and Dunlop (all of this year’s LMP1 entrants will be on Michelin tires).
While the prototypes command the bulk of the attention at Le Mans, the field is largely composed of LMGTE cars running in the Pro and Am classes, grand tourers from Aston Martin, Corvette, Ferrari and others, with their distinctive looks.
“There’s nothing new in LMGTE for 2017,” Collins said, adding that he anticipated a more open race this year after Ford’s easy win last year. Over all, he said, Le Mans is having a quiet year, “what you might call a year of transition.”