A field of 61 cars will roar to the French flag on Saturday afternoon 15:00 CET for the start of the 87th edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours. The much-coveted Grand Prix d’Endurance for the first time ends the FIA World Endurance Championship season after a 13-month long journey around the globe.
Despite Toyota Gazoo Racing chief Pascal Vasselon predicting tales of privateer domination in qualifying, the two TS050 Hybrids locked out the front-row of the grid as Kamui Kobayashi’s 3m15.497s in the opening minutes of Qualifying Two was enough to secure pole.
For a time, it appeared there would be just the one Toyota at the front as the sister #8 struggled to match the pace of the #7 in Wednesday’s practice and qualifying sessions, but a lap – set just before Kobayashi’s pole grabber – of 3m15.908 by Kazuki Nakajima was enough to ensure both cars will start ahead of the privateers.
While Vasselon’s fears of losing out on pole were unfounded, SMP Racing did top the speed trap times throughout qualifying, with the #11 – which will start fifth – hitting 347.8kph. That’s 13kph higher than the Japanese manufacturer managed, with both of its Hybrids slower than a number of the leading LMP2 cars.
The #17 SMP BR1 – second on the fastest speed charts – will start the race in third, joined on the second row by the #3 Rebellion Racing R13 as Gustavo Menezes gave the team something to smile about having lost most of the second two-hour qualifying session after the car’s Gibson engine gave up the ghost.
While privateers are fighting their own battle, a title fight is partly playing out between the Toyotas. The #8 of Fernando Alonso, Sébastien Buemi and Nakajima is 31 points ahead of the sister car with just 38 available. That means for Conway, Kobayashi and José María López to have any chance of snatching away the title, they need to win and hope the second car fails to finish or, at the very least, finishes last in class.
Who will win?: While the Toyotas are clearly favourites, mechanical issues for either car could see SMP Racing sneak through to claim victory. The pace of the BR1s has been remarkable all weekend, but Toyota’s Hybrid efficiency advantage could prove to be the decisive factor.
On the track, it appeared European Le Mans Series regulars Graff Racing had secured a hard-fought pole in the secondary prototype class. But, Vincent Capillaire “failed to stop at the weighbridge when instructed to do so” according to the Stewards so the team was stripped of its times set on Thursday and relegated to 14th using the car’s best time from Wednesday night’s session.
Graff’s demise promoted TDS Racing to the top spot thanks to Loic Duval’s 3m25.345s in the second session on Thursday evening.
Also starting on the front-row is the DragonSpeed #31 of Roberto González, Pastor Maldonado and Anthony Davidson which was involved in the biggest incident of note during qualifying as González, who was pulling back onto the track after a spin at the second part of the Ford Chicanes, pulled straight into the path of Mike Conway in the #7 Toyota.
With Conway blindsided by the Oreca, the Brit went straight across the nose of the LMP2 – causing serious damage to both cars. The repairs didn’t limit their respective track time too greatly but losing time as the track was speeding up denied DragonSpeed the chance to improve its time, having ended Qualifying One with the provisional pole.
Alongside the DragonSpeed is the WEC title contending Signatech Alpine. Four points ahead of the #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing entry – which qualified seventh – the Signatech team need to finish ahead to have any chance at securing the title. Making it a three-way fight for the LMP2 crown is the second Jackie Chan-supported car – the #37. Just a single point behind the sister car, the crew will have a lot of ground to make up if they are to swing title fight in their favour as they’re starting in 12th.
Who will win?: Outside of the GTE Pro class, LMP2 is shaping up to be one of the hardest-fought of the classes competing at the Circuit De La Sarthe. While it’s hard to pick a winner, the Signatech Alpine can’t be discounted. Combine a need for a strong finish to secure the title, and Nicolas Lapierre’s innate ability to win in LMP2 (having done so in 2015, 2016 and 2018), and Signatech has the most motivation to stand on the top step for a second year in a row.
In a prelude of what is likely to come during the race, the GTE-Pro class saw a highly competitive qualifying go the way of Aston Martin Racing with the #95 Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Marco Sørensen, Nicki Thiim and Darren Turner taking pole position. Sørensen managed a lap of 3m48.000s on late Thursday evening’s third qualifying session. #67 Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK driver Harry Tincknell made a last-ditch effort in the closing stages to grab the pole but missed out by just 0.112 seconds. The Ford GT squad will start from second place.
On the second row, and still within a second from the Aston Martin, Corvette Racing (#63 Corvette C7.R of Antonio García, Jan Magnussen and Mike Rockenfeller) and Porsche (#93 Porsche 991 RSR of Earl Bamber, Patrick Pilet and Nick Tandy) will embark on the twice-around-the-clock challenge, with BMW Team MTEK delivering a fifth different brand to the top 5 with the #82 BMW M8 GTE of Antonio Felix da Costa, Augusto Farfus and Jesse Krohn lining up fifth on the grid.
Last year’s Le Mans winners and drivers’ championship leaders by a whole 34 points Michael Christensen and Kévin Estre – this weekend again supported in the #92 Porsche 991 RSR by Laurens Vanthoor – were pipped to seventh towards the end of the evening, courtesy of the #68 Ford GT of Dirk Müller, Sébastien Bourdais and Joey Hand that shot to sixth place at the hands of Müller.
Christensen and Estre are certain of the drivers’ world title if they finish ninth or higher, regardless of where Porsche team-mates and last remaining title contenders Gianmaria Bruni and Richard Lietz finish. Bruni and Lietz, for their part, need to bridge of points gap of 36 with only 38 up for grabs.The Italian-Austrian duo – sharing the car with Fred Makowiecki for the French classic – starts 13th down the GTE-Pro field but stated bad luck with traffic simply kept them from starting higher up, remaining high-spirited going into the race.
Who will win?: Qualification proved the organisation got the Balance of Performance for the Le Mans 24 Hours correct and if past races — at both Le Mans and elsewhere — are any indication, this is the class where most of the action will take place. Picking a clear winner is impossible, but Aston Martin’s pole position is no fluke and neither is Porsche’s close third place on the grid. However, no brand can be ruled out.
Four-car strong Proton Competition locks out the front row in the GTE-Am class, with the Pro class Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE Evo splitting Dempsey-Proton’s GTE-Am pole-sitter #88 Porsche 991 RSR and second-placed #77 Porsche. It was young Italian Matteo Cairoli who powered the #88 Porsche to the car’s second Le Mans pole in a row with a time of 3m51.439s.
Completing a Porsche top 3 sweep was the #86 Gulf Racing, securing third place in class with a lap time of 3m51.944s set by Thomas Preining in the closing stages of Qualifying Three. The #84 JMW Motorsport Ferrari 488 GTE claimed best-of-the-rest honours, qualifying in fourth place with a 3m52.423s.
Team Project 1, starting its Porsche sixth in class, holds all the cards in the title battle, enjoying a 23-point lead over the Spirit of Race Ferrari squad. A first win of the season for Ferrari drivers Thomas Flohr, Giancarlo Fisichella and Francesco Castellacci would give them a strong chance of the title, but a win and four podiums for the Porsche driven by Jörg Bergmeister, Egidio Perfetti and Patrick Lindsey this year suggests they have the pedigree to take home the silverware.
Who will win?: Porsche holds all the cards in GTE-Am. If the Proton Porsches trip over themselves, Gulf Racing will be there to pick up the pieces — if not challenging the Christian Ried-led team outright.
Miguel Bosch contributed to this report.
Photos by Marcel Wulf.