The 24 Hours of Le Mans works in cycles. It has a stretch of years where the race is a battle between highly-funded manufacturers followed by a mass exodus where the long-faithful privateers can swoop in and earn a little bit of glory. The last time a racing team rather than a manufacturer won the race was 1997 when a merely Porsche-supported Joest took the checkered flag with a modified Tom Walkinshaw Jaguar XJR-14 with the roof cut off. Since then it’s been Audi, Peugeot, Porsche, and Toyota.
For the first time in a long time a non-factory effort has a chance to win the most important endurance race in the world.
Last year’s race was a walk in the park for Toyota Gazoo Racing, qualifying 1-2 by nearly a second ahead of SMP Racing. Even without competition from Porsche or Audi the Toyotas were the clear head of the field. The Japanese manufacturer ended up finishing a steady 6 laps up on the competition. Judging by the races already run in the 2019-20 FIA WEC season, however, Toyota will have a much harder time taking home another Le Mans trophy this year.
The 2020 Le Mans 24 entry list has officially been released as of Thursday, and it features the smallest factory-supported contingent in quite a long time. Let’s look back to the height of OEM supported entries in 2015, when there were a massive 11 factory-entered LMP1 cars and an additional 11 factory-entered GTE classed cars. Compare that to 2020 and you’ll see LMP1 has dwindled to just seven entries total, with just two factory Toyotas. GTE has a pair of Ferraris, a pair of Porsches, and a trio of Aston Martins with factory entries. The GTE Pro class is down to just 8 cars,
How has the Le Mans entry list maintained its 62 car deep robustness? Motorsport has always been supported by privateer entries, despite the factory-entered cars typically taking headlines and trophies. This year the LMP2 category has ballooned to a massive 26 cars, while GTE Am has similarly expanded to 21 cars. And aside from those two Toyotas in LMP1, the entry list in that class is buoyed by two Rebellions, a ByKolles, and a pair of Ginettas from Team LNT.
In the 2019-20 season of the FIA WEC the current spec Toyota TS050 has had its hybrid system detuned significantly which has left the heavier Toyotas a little bit hamstrung in comparison to the Rebellion Racing R13 LMP1. With a serious squad of drivers in the form of Gustavo Menezes, Norman Nato, and Bruno Senna, the Rebellion team has won two rounds—the four hours of Shanghai, and the six-hour Lone Star Le Mans at COTA—on pure pace alone. Add in the fact that the second Rebellion will be driven by Romain Dumas, Louis Deletraz, and Nathanael Berthon, and you’ve got a real shootout for the overall honors.
While a six-hour race is a far cry from outright victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, I think Rebellion might have the juice to finally take an overall victory from Toyota. The R13 chassis has a much higher top speed than the Toyotas, which is nowhere more important than at Le Mans. At COTA, for example, the Toyotas could barely stay ahead of the LMP2 cars at the end of the longer straights.
Because we’re all visual learners, here’s a demonstration of that speed differential from the Shanghai race last November. Shown is a non-hybrid Team LNT Ginetta LMP1 passing a factory-entered hybrid Toyota TS050 like it’s standing still.
If the Rebellion crew can keep the car on the track, avoid contact, and stay out of the pits, it’ll be their race to take. Bet. I’ve seen Team LNT make too many mistakes this season to place any bets on them taking down the might of Toyota, and the ByKolles team usually isn’t running after the fourth hour.
With Porsche recently dropping two cars from its GTE entry, and Corvette dropping out of the race altogether, that class will be far less interesting than it has been in recent years as well. Obviously the Ford GT program is over, and the BMW M8 has left the WEC this season, so it’ll effectively be a Ferrari and Aston Martin battle with a pair of Porsches as a kicker. It’s still anyone’s race, and will likely be a tight one, but wasn’t it more fun with six manufacturers?
The point of all this is that Le Mans has banked too much of its future on manufacturer support. As soon as there is even the slightest whiff of economic downturn, the OEMs take their toys and run home. Maybe, just maybe, the FIA WEC should spend more time courting independent race shops to run cars in their series than mega buck entries from manufacturer teams.
It’s almost like they should have learned this lesson in the last economic downturn that wiped out Peugeot and Aston Martin-entered LMP1 efforts.