What to expect from the 2018 Le Mans 24 Hours

Race morning. Not long to go now before the start of the biggest race of the year. But after the intensity of qualifying on Wednesday and Thursday, what should we look out for in the prototype and GTE divisions?

LMP1

First things first, Toyota appears to be as dominant as we expected. The two TS050 HYBRIDs had a clear pace advantage in the day and night qualifying sessions, with Kazuki Nakajima setting an incredible pole position time of 3m15.377s to claim the top spot in the #8 car. Kamui Kobayashi wasn’t exactly hanging around either in the #7 entry, but his best lap was exactly two seconds off his fellow Japanese’s best effort.

And what of Fernando Alonso, the man who is likely to be the focus of so much attention during the next 24 hours? Well, the Spaniard knuckled down and learnt all about the incredible 8.4-mile circuit. The two-time Formula 1 world champion is known for his work ethic and he has left no stone unturned to be ready for this race. He completed an impressive 48 laps over the course of Wednesday and Thursday, trying all types of tyres in the process – and he showed a clear improvement in single-lap pace, too. By the end of Thursday his best lap of 3m18.021s was considered more than respectable.

Expect Alonso to more than hold his own during the race. The F1 star shouldn’t be the weakest link for the #8 team.

Behind the Toyotas, we can expect a tight and exciting battle between the two leading privateer teams running non-hybrid LMP1s. There was little in it between SMP Racing and Rebellion in qualifying, the latter’s ORECA-built car just edging the Dallara-built BR1s on Thursday. The teams are unlikely to threaten Toyota, but they should be a in great race of their own. Will reliability be the deciding factor about who contends for a podium finish? Yes, more than likely.

LMP2

Grid positions mean little in a 24-hour race, but qualifying is vital to give teams and drivers experience of track conditions and assess their pace. The surprise pole position winner in LMP2 therefore won’t be getting carried away, but IDEC’s ORECA will clearly be a contender for the class win after the team’s great form on Wednesday and Thursday.

On paper, there are stronger and better know driver line-ups than Paul-Loup Chatin, Memo Rojas and Paul Lafargue (the latter is the son of the team owner), but the trio have shown a good turn of speed from the Le Mans test day a couple of weeks ago through the practice and qualifying sessions this week. If they can maintain that pace, ably supported by team manager and former LMP1 racer Nicolas Minassian, IDEC could convert its pole position into a very special result.

But as ever, the class is likely to be wide open. ORECA’s chassis has maintained it advantage it enjoyed last year over the Dallaras, but the Italian cars are at least a little more competitive. Expect the unexpected from the most unpredictable class at Le Mans.

GTE

Porsche’s retro-liveried Manthey-run 911s were fastest, and from what we’ve seen so far, the German cars will be fighting it out for GTE class honours with the Ford GTs. With four cars in each camp in the PRO class, this fight promises to be one for the ages.

But Corvette’s duo of entries will still be hoping to mix it with the class frontrunners too. On its 19th consecutive appearance at the race, you can never discount the American cars, especially if they have clean, untroubled races. With their experience, a Corvette could well be in a position to steal the glory from Porsche and Ford.

Aston Martin? Perhaps not. The new Vantage has an impressive and extensive testing programme behind it, but so far at Le Mans 2018 it has been well off the pace in GTE. The British manufacturer to a famous class win this time last year – but that looks more than a long shot this year.

Still, with this race you just never know. You can bet the experienced Aston squad will be doing all it can to learn about its new car over the course of the 24 Hours, with one on the rest of the World Endurance Championship Superseason, and one on the race next year. Again, reliability can bring great rewards at Le Mans, too. With a clean run, the team might find itself with a nice surprise on Sunday afternoon.