Since 2006, victory at Le Mans has been the preserve of the turbodiesel racers.
This year the technological focus is on hybrid power, with both Audi and Toyota fielding races using sophisticated energy recovery systems.
But they’ll have to prove themselves against the best conventional technology has to offer as Audi are also running two of their R18 ultras, which took victory in last year’s thrillingly close race.
Also look out for three drivers who were on the F1 grid last year who are competing this year – along with a pair of Sky’s Formula 1 pundits.
Audi vs Toyota
Last October Toyota finally confirmed they would be making their long-awaited return to Le Mans with a new hybrid racer.
For a few months we had the enticing prospect of a three-way content between major manufacturers at Le Mans. Sadly, in February, Peugeot made the shock announcement it was cancelling its Le Mans programme.
It’s a lot to expect of Toyota to be able to challenge Audi for honours in the first year with their new LMP1 car. Particularly following the major crash which destroyed the first of their prototypes in testing, forcing them to cancel their planned appearance at Spa.
The team have declared their aim to be the quickest of the hybrid cars. That’s ‘quickest’ not ‘most reliable’. This is a team that has learned the hard way how easy it is to lose a win at Le Mans – recall how close the GT-Ones came to success in 1999 before one was hit by a rival car and another suffered a race-ending puncture.
Toyota at least have extensive experience of racing with hybrid power, although not on on their TF109 in their final year in Formula 1. They began with the Lexus GS 450h used in 2006 and the following year won the Tokachi 24 hours with a hybrid Toyota Supra.
Several ex-Peugeot drivers have found a home at Toyota including Anthony Davidson and Alexander Wurz. Former F1 pilot Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima also feature in their line-up.
Audi’s track record at Le Mans is nothing short of formidable. Since 2000 – the year after Toyota last competed – they’ve won ten times, missing out on victory only twice.
Last year the team’s single remaining car prevailed after its two sister entries were destroyed in huge crashes. Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler came home to win by 13 seconds after a day of solid racing.
Audi vs Audi
Not for the first time at Le Mans, Audi are racing two substantially different cars. Their four-car assault includes two R18 ultras with turbodiesel engines and a pair of the new e-tron quattros which feature hybrid power and four-wheel-drive.
Audi’s all-star driver line-up of Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Rinaldo Capello share one of the e-trons and last year’s race winners occupy the other hybrid.
Like Toyota, Audi also suffered a major testing crash involving one of their cars, and driver Timo Bernard was subsequently declared unfit to race. Marc Gene, who won the race with Peugeot in 2009, has taken his place alongside Romain Dumas and Loic Duval.
The second ultra is piloted by Mike Rockenfeller, Oliver Jarvis and Marco Bonanomi.
Radical DeltaWing racer
There’s one car in the field this year which you don’t need a spotters’ guide to see. The DeltaWing, being raced by Highcroft, was originally conceived as a potential replacement for the 2011 IndyCar, before the series opted for Dallara’s more conventional DW12.
The concept behind the DeltaWing was the radically reduced the frontal area of the car to allow high speed to be reached with a smaller engine capacity and less fuel. Power is supplied by a 300bhp 1.6-litre turbochanged Nissan engine.
Despite looking like racing’s answer to the Reliant Robin, it has a pair of narrow wheels at the front.
Some changes have been made from the original design created for IndyCar. The car is now based on a monocoque from an Aston Martin AMR-One. It’s also been shortened so it can fit in the pit boxes at the La Sarthe circuit.
The car will be driven by Marino Franchitti (brother of IndyCar racer Dario and cousin of Paul di Resta), Michael Krumm and Satoshi Motoyama. It has been given an entry under Le Mans ‘garage 56’ rules, which allow a 56th entry outside of the normal rules which will not be part of the official classification.
The team behind the entry hope it will achieve a performance level between the LMP1 and LMP2 categories. Having had little testing it will be a tremendous feat if this remarkable car makes it to the end of the race. Even if it doesn’t, it’s great to see there’s still room in some forms of motorsport for such radical thinking.
The GT class will be contested by the class-leading Ferrari 458s and last year’s victorious Corvette squad. AF Corse has a trio of 458s, is co-running another with Michael Waltrip, and there are a further five of the Ferraris in the field.
Aston Martin return to the category after three years racing at the prototype level. That began with the attracted Lola coupe and ended last year with the disastrous AMR-Ones, both of which retired after four laps.
They can expect a much more competitive showing with their Vantage GTE. Darren Turner is retained from the squad which scored their last victory at this level in 2008, and is joined by Stefan Mucke and Adrian Fernandez.
F1 drivers in the 2012 Le Mans 24 Hours
There will be 22 former F1 drivers in the field this year.
Among their number are a trio who raced in F1 last year: Nick Heidfeld, Sebastien Buemi and Karun Chandhok.
|Allan McNish||Audi||2||R18 e-tron quattro||LMP1||Single season of F1 with Toyota in 2002, two Le Mans wins|
|Marc Gene||Audi||3||R18 ultra||LMP1||Ex-Minardi racer and Williams substitute, 2009 winner|
|Alexander Wurz||Toyota||7||TS030 hybrid||LMP1||Three podiums for Benetton, McLaren and Williams|
|Kazuki Nakajima||Toyota||7||TS030 hybrid||LMP1||Took Wurz’s place at Toyota-powered Williams|
|Anthony Davidson||Toyota||8||TS030 hybrid||LMP1||Former Super Aguri racer and Sky F1 pundit|
|Sebastien Buemi||Toyota||8||TS030 hybrid||LMP1||Red Bull reserve driver making first Le Mans start|
|Stephane Sarrazin||Toyota||8||TS030 hybrid||LMP1||One-time F1 racer with Minardi|
|Nick Heidfeld||Rebellion||12||Lola-Toyota B12/60||LMP1||Raced for Mercedes at Le Mans in 1999 before F1 debut|
|Franck Montagny||OAK||15||OAK-Pescarolo-Judd||LMP1||Substituting for injured Guillaume Moreau|
|Jean-Christophe Boullion||Pescarolo||16||Pescarolo-Judd 03||LMP1||Ex-Sauber driver piloting little-tested AMR-One-based car|
|Sebastien Bourdais||Pescarolo||17||Dome-Judd S102.5||LMP1||Skipping IndyCar ovals to race in home town|
|David Brabham||JRM||22||HPD ARX-03a||LMP1||Son of triple-champion won Le Mans in 2009|
|Karun Chandhok||JRM||22||HPD ARX-03a||LMP1||Car only completed at first round, not unlike HRT in 2010|
|Stefan Johansson||Gulf Racing Middle East||29||Lola-Nissan B12/80||LMP2||Lost “most second places without F1 win” record to Heidfeld|
|Jean-Denis Deletraz||Gulf Racing Middle East||29||Lola-Nissan B12/80||LMP2||Mid-nineties F1 backmarker returns to prototype class|
|Martin Brundle||Greaves||42||Zytek-Nissan Z11SN||LMP2||Racer-turned-commentator sharing berth with son Alex|
|Shinji Nakano||Boutsen Ginion||45||ORECA-Nissan 03||LMP2||Tested Dome’s unraced F1 car, last Le Mans start in 2008|
|Pedro Lamy||Larbre Competition||50||Chevrolet Corvette C6.R||GTE Pro||Runner-up with Peugeot in LMP1 last year|
|Gianmaria Bruni||AF Corse||51||Ferrari 458 Italia||GTE Pro||Minardi driver now a fixture in Ferrari’s GT squad|
|Giancarlo Fisichella||AF Corse||51||Ferrari 458 Italia||GTE Pro||Ended lengthy F1 career at Ferrari, still driving for them|
|Olivier Beretta||AF Corse||71||Ferrari 458 Italia||GTE Pro||Joined Ferrari from Corvette, raced F1 in 1994|
|Jan Magnussen||Corvette||73||Chevrolet Corvette C6.R||GTE Pro||Failed to fulfil F3 promise in F1, son in Formula Renault 3.5|
The Le Mans 24 Hours on F1 Fanatic Live
F1 Fanatic Live will be running throughout the 2012 Le Mans 24 Hours.
Join us on Saturday afternoon for the build-up and all 24 hours of the race.
Over to you
Will you be watching the Le Mans 24 Hours? Who are you supporting? Have your say in the comments.