Le Mans and Porsche go together like long international flights and mediocre airline food. 16 overall victories and more than 100 total class victories at the famed track, Porsche has more experience and more success here than any other marque. As racetracks in the United States go, Le Mans has to be a favorite among Porsche fans, Porsche drivers, and Porsche Motorsport employees. As endurance races go, Le Mans is unquestionably the most grueling, and is the unparalleled number-one most important sports car race in the world. The race has a lot of history, and Porsche has been there every step of the way. As we move into a new generation of LMP1 racers, Porsche is there, and Le Mans is waiting.
Porsche's endurance race record has been pretty spot on lately, kicked off by the huge success of the 991 RSR's 1-2 victory at Le Mans one year ago on the chassis' first outing at the track. The GTE car grabbed a second consecutive 24 hour race victory on the high-banks of Daytona in January, and knocked out the triple-crown with a victory at the 12 hours of Sebring in March. You can rest assured that Porsche will be aiming squarely for a repeat GTE Pro victory, and will certainly stop at nothing in an attempt on the overall victory laurels.
Porsche's 911 RSR has proven itself thus far this year with three major endurance victories, and with luck will continue to prove itself successful with a repeat win this weekend. Equally, the 919 Hybrid effort has proven to be quite quick so far, including a podium finishing position at Silverstone, and as well as the pole-position for the Spa World Endurance Championship event. Prior to this year, Porsche's next nearest prototype program was started more than 7 years ago with the RS Spyder, and while that LMP2 program certainly helped springboard the company into the development process for the 919, current regulation LMP1 is a completely different animal. The LMP1 regulations are all new for this year, and likewise, the Le Mans circuit has also been the recipient of a few changes in the name of safety. There are several aspects of the new regs as well as the new changes to the circuit, that are still not proven to last the entire 24 hours. Toyota has won the previous 2 races, but they've both been 6 hours in length, and not much is known about how the cars will react to longer periods of hard-charging, close quarters, wheel-to-wheel racing.
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Porsche in the LMP1 Category
#20 and #14 - Porsche Team
After not having competed in top-flight sports car prototype racing for 16 years, Porsche is back at La Sarthe to fight for the win. It's been 16 years since Porsche's 16th overall victory, and if that isn't symbolism, I don't know what is. Porsche's entry, the 919 Hybrid, is the most advanced racer Porsche has ever produced, and with luck, will start a resurgence of Porsche Le Mans overall victories. A stellar driver lineup will pilot the pair of factory-built
spacecraft prototypes, comprised of Romain Dumas, Neel Jani, Marc Lieb, and Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley, and Mark Webber. Among them, the Porsche factory LMP1 drivers share a total of 37 appearances at the Le Mans 24, so it is safe to say that they are well accustomed to the track's nuances. Porsche has a history of winning endurance races on reliability, but it is not yet known how the 919 Hybrid racers will respond to a consistent pounding for 24 hours. The LMP1 category is going to be a mad grab for the checkered, and there are 7 cars stand a legitimate shot of taking the victory. The two Porsche 919s ended up setting times at the Le Mans Test Day that would place them 5th and 7th, but I'm not convinced that they were "showing their hand" just yet.
Fritz Enzinger, Vice President LMP1 -
"Porsche is facing the biggest moment of the LMP1 project – its first start in the top category at Le Mans in 16 years. Whatever the results, we have successfully completed a lot of stages to get here. Above all, we have established a strong, innovative engineering team in the Porsche Development Centre in Weissach. The new know-how generated in-house by the great efforts of all those involved is something that no one can take away from Porsche. The pole position in Spa showed that the Porsche 919 Hybrid is fast, and, as newcomers, we earned respect for this achievement. I am very proud of this young team, which is as competent in its technology as it is in its drivers. I wish each individual the best of luck and success in this marathon."
Alexander Hitzinger, Technical Director LMP1 -
"The challenge of developing a car for Le Mans was always to build a fast yet durable car. The constraints of the new race regulations have made this task even more difficult, but fascinating as well. Even in areas that were routine for the competition, we had no experience whatsoever. Nonetheless, we chose the boldest solution for our drive concept, because it offered the best future potential. In the pre-testing period, the aerodynamics that were once again modified to achieve lower air drag for the Le Mans event proved themselves, as did advanced developments that enhanced durability. The Porsche 919 Hybrid is our first LMP1 race car design. It is fast – but not all of its potential has been realised yet; that is the reality."
Porsche in the GTE Pro Category
#91 and #92 Porsche AG Team Manthey
As mentioned before, Porsche's 991 RSR program is continuing to prove its value with victory after victory. The team 1-2 last year at Le Mans was certainly a highlight of the season, and success has continued into 2014 with a 1-2 victory at Silverstone to open the year. The team is gelling well, and the cars are pretty quick. Unfortunately, the runaway victory at Silverstone led to a few changes to the balance of performance, adding ballast and a smaller air restrictor to slow the cars relative to the competition. Even with the performance balancing, the #92 car laid down a cracking 3:57.26 lap at the Test Day, netting them the first position on the time sheets (the #91 car suffered crash damage on Saturday and could do no better than a 4:00 lap before the accident). Like LMP1, though, I'm not certain that we're seeing the entirety of the class' performance levels. We'll have to wait until the first qualifying this Wednesday to see the full potential of the gathered competitors.
Hartmut Kristen, Head of Porsche Motorsport -
"Le Mans is the highlight of the year. For our teams and drivers this race represents an exceptional challenge – and we’re feeling highly motivated and very well prepared. After our double victory at the season-opener in Silverstone, our car now has to carry 25 extra kilograms of ballast and the diameter of the two restrictors is now 0.3 millimetres smaller than last year’s. When considering the additional changes made, as against 2013, at one or the other competitor one has to question to what extent is the Balance of Performance actually balanced. We feel it is a matter of utmost urgency in the spirit of the sport to find a regulation for the classification of vehicles where you don’t have to fear being punished for a good performance, like what happened to us after Silverstone. Nevertheless, we’ll work extremely hard to do a good job at Le Mans – just like last year.”
Porsche in the GTE Am Category
#67 and #76 IMSA Performance Matmut 997 911 GT3 RSR
IMSA Performance is a team accustomed to competing at Le Mans. Based out of a large dealership just down the road from the track, the Matmut team have carved out their place in the GT sportscar world, and are nothing to shake a stick at. This year, as last year, they are running a two-year-old 997 RSR chassis. The narrower chassis does allow for a slight top-speed advantage, but it seems to simply be a little bit slower than most of the competition around the full lap. This team of two cars will be banking on a reliability and fuel-savings run to get them up within podium contention. Last year, a similar strategy netted the IMSA Performance Matmut team the GTE Am category victory, so don't count them out of anything. I'm not placing any bets on this team for a repeat victory, but they aren't slow enough to count them out, either. If they can stay in touch with the leaders, the cautions fall their way, and they stay out of the pits, they just could do it. A squad of reliable and quick Frenchmen will pilot the two cars around central France for a full day, and they'll look mighty good doing it, because at a minimum they've got one car with a wicked Richard Mille livery this year.
#75 and #79 Prospeed Competition 997 911 GT3 RSR
ProSpeed, like IMSA Performance, will be using the now-obsolete 997 chassis for their assault on Le Mans. Like IMSA Performance, ProSpeed will be looking to optimize fuel strategy and stay out of the pits in order to remain in contention. They've got a heck of a driver lineup already, with hot shoes like Jeroen Bleekemolen and Emmanuel Collard in the driver's seat, and that could make all of the difference. Those guys certainly know when to put the right foot down, and they'll be well versed in fuel strategy as well. I rate this team slightly higher than the 67 and 76 teams, but only just.
#77 Dempsey Racing - Proton 991 RSR
Last year, Dempsey flat out impressed me. The team was leading the class on pace for a long time, and were only knocked out of contention through contact with an LMP2 car that necessitated an extra long stop for repairs. They've got a stellar driver lineup with Pat Long being the hottest shoe clicking off quick laps, Joe Foster playing the part of the reliable lapper, and Patrick Dempsey bringing the spotlight, and quicker lap times than he has any right to be turning. Over the last handful of years, I've been watching Dempsey develop into a right solid performer in his own right. Last year was a good indication of what he's capable of, and this year could be the team's break out victory on the world stage. Dempsey and Foster have not had a lot of practice in the 991 RSR, so that could be a negative, but the car is so good that it hopefully won't take them long to come up to speed with the changes. Pat Long, on the other hand, has plenty of practice behind the wheel of a 991, and would be quick no matter what car you put him in. That kid is a machine. The Dempsey team, run again in conjunction with Proton Competition, prepare a decent car, and shouldn't be counted out. Keep your eye on the #77 black and white Dempsey car, as it just might pull off the GTE Am win.
#88 Proton Competition 991 RSR
The other Proton Competition car, the #88, will also be a good fighter for class contention. With a driver lineup including Christian Ried, Klaus Bachler, and Khaled Al Qubaisi, I could not pick a much better Am category threesome. Ried is an accomplished driver/team boss, Bachler is a Porsche Junior team driver, and Al Qubaisi has driven just about everything, including a WRC rally car, and won the 24 hours of Dubai twice with Black Falcon Racing. They'll be hard pressed to fend off a number of other well prepared cars in the GTE Am category, but I wouldn't count them out of the proceedings. They're a well assembled team, and have shown they have the potential. They've definitely got the speed, so if they can keep the car in one piece, they've got an opportunity this year.
Who Is Porsche's Competition?
Everyone, really. Porsche, in 2014, will have a hand in three of the four classes at Le Mans, faulting only LMP2.
In the LMP1 category, Porsche's competition comes in the form of three Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro cars, and a pair of Toyota TS040 racers. Two of the Audis will be running in the standard "high-downforce" configuration, but the third car is a special bullet in their gun, a long-tailed low-downforce version. If I were a betting man, I'd wager that Audi will use the langheck car as something of a "rabbit", running it hard from the word go, as an attempt to get the Toyotas and Porsches to speed off after it and potentially breaking something. Toyota, on the other hand, has proven both reliable and quick, taking two 1-2 wins in the World Endurance Championship thus far (Silverstone and Spa). The TS040, and its team of six drivers, have proven infallible in 2014, and are heading into Le Mans well in the lead. Not only that, but the TS040s were more than half a second faster than any other racers at the Le Mans Test Day. Again, the testing doesn't mean much, as Audi and Porsche could both be sandbagging, but don't discount Toyota this year, as they've got a great setup. It was very smart of Toyota to hire Monsieur De Chaunac and his Oreca team to assist with their endurance racing development.
In the GTE Pro category, Porsche has less competition than in years past, but none of them are anything less than world class. Three Ferrari 458 will be running the race, two entered by AF Corse, and one by Ram Racing. Interestingly, Ram Racing have chosen to run their car in 2012 aerodynamic specification, rather than the updated 2014 bodywork, as the older aero skin is a bit slipperier, running slightly lower downforce, but a bit better coefficient of drag. All three of these cars are right quick, and shouldn't be given an inch, as they'll certainly take a mile. Outside of that, Porsche will have to contend with a pair of factory-effort Aston Martin Vantages, and a pair of brand new Corvette C7.R fresh from the USA. Last year the Aston's were the closest competition, and with their stellar driver lineup, they could well be again. The Corvettes have not been running in the WEC, and therefore have not had the same opportunities for balance of performance that the others have had. The FIA held a private test to homologate the new Corvette chassis, but I fear that they have not balanced them well. At the test, the best Corvette was about a second off the pace, so we'll see if that carries on through race day.
In GTE AM, Porsche will have to overcome the might of the raft of Ferrari 458s competing. 11 cars in all, the Ferrari contingent is running deep, and they've got some mighty good teams fielding them. Five cars from AF Corse, and one each from Ram Racing, SMP Racing, 8 Star Motorsports, Sofrev, Taisan, and JMW. AF Corse is always going to be competitive, but I think that the 8 Star car might be the pick of the litter in this case. Outside of the Italians, there is a pair of Aston Martin Racing Vantages that could prove meddlesome. The "Dane Train" #95 Aston of David Heinemeier-Hansson, Nicki Thiim, and Kristian Poulsen will be a contender as well.
Resources and How to Watch/Follow Along
The 24 Hours of Le Mans on Twitter for Porsche Fans
Where And How To Watch The 24 Hours of Le Mans
Entry List: Find it here.
Timing and Scoring: Find it here.
Andy Blackmore's annual spotter's guide: Download it here.
Television: Fox Sports networks will be providing 25 hours (flag-to-flag, plus lead in, and fade out)
Saturday, June 14 – 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. (FOX Sports 1, LIVE)
Saturday, June 14 – 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. (FOX Sports 2, LIVE)
Saturday, June 14 – 5:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. (FOX Sports GO, LIVE)
Saturday, June 14 – 6:30 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. (FOX Sports 2, LIVE)
Saturday, June 14 – 1:00 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. (FOX Sports 1, LIVE)
Sunday, June 15 – 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. (FOX Sports 2, LIVE)
Streaming/Radio: Click here
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Video Series: Mark Webber’s Road To Le Mans
Photo Sources - Porsche, FIAWEC.com, Andy Blackmore Designs, Motorsport.com, and Imsa-Performance.com