Subscribe

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Motorsport prime

Discover premium content
Subscribe

Edition

Global Global
Preview
Le Mans 24 Hours of Le Mans

Le Mans 24: Can Porsche win again at la Sarthe?

A record-extending 20th victory in the Le Mans 24 Hours looks a distinct possibility for Porsche in 2024. But amid intense competition in the Hypercar ranks, that doesn’t mean it will necessarily happen

#6 Porsche Penske Motorsport Porsche 963: Kevin Estre, Andre Lotterer, Laurens Vanthoor

One year ago, when Porsche made its first bid for outright honours at the Le Mans 24 Hours in six years, it didn’t look like a potential winner. Not in the run-up to the centenary running of the French enduro nor during the race itself, although it would be wrong to say that the 963 LMDh was some kind of also-ran. Twelve months on, it’s a different story.

The manufacturer is on a roll as it bids for win number 20 at Le Mans. The tide has truly turned for the German manufacturer’s latest sportscar programme. 

Porsche arrives at Le Mans having won two of the first three rounds of this year’s World Endurance Championship, and has been competitive in all of them. It has also won a twice-around-the-clock endurance race: the American arm of the Porsche Penske Motorsport squad took victory in the Daytona 24 Hours, the opening round of the IMSA SportsCar Championship. What’s more, its customer teams have shown that they are in the mix, too.

The British Jota team took victory last time out in the WEC at Spa last month, but on another day it might have been Proton Competition collecting the laurels with its 963 LMDh. That is significant. Porsche is going to Le Mans with six cars entered in the Hypercar class; or to put it another way, double the number of any of its rivals. 

Porsche has come a long way since this time last year when it was, says LMDh programme manager Urs Kuratle, “swimming against the tide”. The 963 might have been the first LMDh to hit the track in January 2022, but it endured a difficult development period that continued into its maiden campaigns across the WEC and IMSA. Neither should it be forgotten that both arms of PPM were still very new racing teams. 

“Last year at this time both the IMSA and WEC teams were trying to keep their heads above the water, just trying to survive,” says Kuratle. “That sounds a bit dramatic, but it really was a bit like that. Now the current is not so strong.

“With the improvements we have made in terms of performance and reliability, but also within our teams operationally, we are going to Le Mans thinking we can win this one, that we will be in the fight. That wasn’t the case last year.”

Porsche are aiming for a 20th outright win

Porsche are aiming for a 20th outright win

Photo by: Rainier Ehrhardt

What’s changed at Porsche?

There has been no silver bullet, no magic modification to the car: Porsche has chosen not to invoke any of the five so-called ‘evo’ joker performance upgrades allowed over the lifespan of a Le Mans Hypercar class racer. Rather, the upturn in performance and results have come from the passing of time and hard work in testing – miles, miles and more miles.

Ferrari, winner at Le Mans last year, gives almost exactly the same answer when it is asked how its 499P LMH has become a competitive proposition on all circuits. The modern breed of hybrid prototypes are complex pieces of kit. A lot goes into understanding what makes them tick.  

“It wasn’t the case that we introduced one thing, and bam, we found half a second,” explains Kuratle. “You cannot say this or that was the working point we had to overcome.”

It didn’t help that Porsche continued to struggle with reliability into its maiden season. None of the four cars – three from PPM and one from Jota – on the grid at Le Mans last year went through the race cleanly, and two of the three cars to see the chequered flag were last-lap specials sent out at the end to ensure a classified finish. 

Porsche has also made significant strides on reliability in the past 12 months, which has had a knock-on for performance. It was finally able in the months post-Le Mans 2023 to put in the kind of trouble-free testing it needed to wring speed out of the 963.

Porsche began to understand where and how “to put the car in the window”, says Laurens Vanthoor, part of the winning crew from Qatar in March along with Kevin Estre and Andre Lotterer that goes into Le Mans leading the Hypercar points.

“The electronics were part of it, but so too was understanding what direction we need to take to make the car work,” he says. “So that includes the mechanical set-up in terms of aero and ride height. It has been a mix of everything, improving our software and just grasping what the car needs, joining the dots if you like.”

Can the privateers beat the factory?

That may seem like a non-question after the events of the Spa 6 Hours. Not only did Jota win the race, but Proton led more laps than anyone else. The ability to race the works squad on equal terms is a big reason why the two customer teams on the WEC grid signed up for the challenge in the first place. 

There is a history of the Porsche factory team being beaten be privateers

There is a history of the Porsche factory team being beaten be privateers

Photo by: Shameem Fahath

“We got into this because we knew we would have a chance,” says Jota boss Sam Hignett, whose team has expanded to two 963s for 2024. “And the reason is that we have equal equipment. But we are racing against a factory team at the end of the day and pound notes count. Going to two cars has doubled our learning, but they have two teams and are out racing every other weekend. Being at their level every weekend is a challenge. 

“But, as we all know, it takes a dose of good luck to win Le Mans. You can only control your circumstances, strategy, traffic management and all those things, up to a point.”

Spa proved Hignett’s point. Jota’s wasn’t the fastest Porsche, or even the fastest privateer Porsche, yet still came out on top. 

Is Ferrari the favourite pre-Le Mans?

It probably has to be, and not just because it goes into the 24 Hours as last year’s winner. The 499P has also on average been the quickest car so far this year. Only at Le Mans was that the case last season in race conditions when James Calado, Alessandro Pier Guidi and Antonio Giovinazzi took the laurels. 

That the Prancing Horse doesn’t now have a victory to its name this year – which would be a first in a regular WEC race – is purely down to circumstance. It called the conditions wrong when rain arrived at Imola, a race it was dominating, and its bid for victory at Spa was undone by the race stoppage – and subsequent controversial restart. The cars that finished ahead of the two factory 499Ps got lucky because they had pitted just before the red flag. 

Ferdinando Cannizzo, technical director on the 499P programme, doesn’t dispute that the shortest odds sit next to Ferrari’s name.

“In theory you can say that because we won last year.” he says. It is theoretical, he argues, because of the increased competition in 2024.

“It will be very difficult with more manufacturers and the incredible number of cars on track,” he explains. There are now three more major manufacturers with the arrival of BMW, Alpine and Lamborghini, and in total eight more entries in Hypercar.

After winning last year, could Ferrari go back-to-back

After winning last year, could Ferrari go back-to-back

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

But Cannizzo also admits that Ferrari has taken a step forward since last year: “We have improved in all areas and understand the car better, on the tyres, the engine and systems controls.” He points out that the 499P would probably have struggled at a track like Imola – a very different proposition to Le Mans – last year, yet it was the quickest car on home ground in April. 

What effect the improvements in the 499P as a raceable package will have at Le Mans isn’t clear. The car looks after its tyres better now than in 2023, but the Circuit de la Sarthe is a low-degradation circuit that doesn’t place a premium on rubber conservation. That was one of the reasons why Ferrari emerged as a force at the 24 Hours this time last year. 

Ferrari got both its cars to the finish in 2023 without serious reliability dramas. (The delay for the car that finished fifth resulted from an errant stone or piece of debris puncturing the hybrid system cooler at the front.) But it wasn’t confident of a clean run because in testing it had never completed anything approaching 24 hours.

Calado revealed over the winter that Ferrari’s computer simulations gave the car only a 38-40% chance of finishing the race without issue. Now Ferrari is much more confident, and has an extra bullet in its gun with the AF Corse-run satellite entry.

“We have made excellent work on reliability,” says Cannizzo. “We have confidence that the reliability is there, but we still have to be very attentive.”

What about Toyota?

It would be unwise to rule out the winner of the five editions of Le Mans from 2018 to 2022, one that has also taken a quintet of WEC drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles in a row.

“With the success and number of years we have been competing there it would be strange if we were going to Le Mans thinking we couldn’t win it,” says Sebastien Buemi, part of the winning Toyota line-up on four occasions. “We know the race, we know how to win it.

Toyota scored five wins in succession between 2018-2022

Toyota scored five wins in succession between 2018-2022

Photo by: Nikolaz Godet

“We haven’t had the fastest car this year, but we have still been scoring points and the #7 car won at Imola, not because we were fastest but because we executed a good race. We know that is important at Le Mans. You have to make the right decisions on strategy and stay out of trouble. You need the stars to align.”

Buemi’s point about Toyota knowing how to win at Le Mans is significant. There were times before its winning sequence that it threw victory away – former Toyota Gazoo Racing technical boss Pascal Vasselon once said “we seem to find new ways to lose Le Mans” – but since it got into its stride there have been years when it arguably shouldn’t have won, most notably in 2021 in the first year of the GR010 HYBRID LMH when the Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe team had to think on its feet to overcome a fuel system problem.

Will Le Mans be a three-horse race?

Almost certainly not. It would probably be too much to expect each of the nine makes – or the eight major manufacturers not counting minnow Isotta Fraschini – to be in the fight for victory, but the big three are at least expecting Cadillac to be in the hunt. That’s based on its form at Le Mans last year and in the WEC since. 

The best of the flotilla of Cadillac V-Series-R LMDhs took the final spot on the podium at the 24 Hours last year. but the sister car run by the Ganassi squad might have done even better. The visiting IMSA entry ended up fourth after a trio of delays. But this car had the pace to run with the manufacturers ahead of it. And this year Caddy has been competitive in two of three races. 

Cadillac, represented by two cars from Ganassi and another IMSA team on an away day in the form of Action Express Racing, is heading into the race believing it is going to be a contender. 

“We going there with confidence,” says Alex Lynn, who shares Ganassi’s solo full-season WEC entry with Earl Bamber and IndyCar champion and race debutant Alex Palou. “I think we will be good there, as we were last year. Everyone turns up at Le Mans with their best foot forward, so we won’t know how good until we get there, probably not until the race starts.”

If Porsche, Ferrari and Toyota are expecting Cadillac to be a contender, then the General Motors marque is also casting an eye over its shoulder at others who could be in the mix. Alpine is one that Lynn singles out.

It's not only the top three teams that are in the mix

It's not only the top three teams that are in the mix

Photo by: Marc Fleury

“They made really big strides with their car at Spa and we know the spine of that car is very good,” says Lynn, the last point a reference to its partnership with ORECA. The French constructor has also been responsible for the IMSA-only Acura ARX-6 LMDh, a winner of the Daytona and Road Atlanta (last year) and Sebring (this year) enduros in North America.

What do we know so far?

Porsche reaffirmed its status as one of the pre-event favourites over the course of the Le Mans Test Day last Sunday, the first time that the cars had run with the Balance of Performance that will be in force this weekend. Or if you believe Toyota, the absolute favourite, one that has victory to lose.

PPM ended up 1-2 in the times, with Kevin Estre at the top and seven-tenths clear of the Toyota in third place. The Japanese manufacturer was pretty dogmatic in the aftermath of the six hours of testing on the full 8.47-mile Circuit de la Sarthe on where Porsche stands.

“I think it’s clear: if Porsche doesn’t win they have done a pretty bad job,” said Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe technical director David Floury on the conclusion of the test. “They have the edge in every aspect from what we can see today. We will see more during the week [when practice and qualifying begins on Wednesday], but clearly Porsche is looking strong.”

He reckoned Porsche’s performance over the Test Day was “no surprise” given its form so far in the WEC and the BoP as it stands. Reading between the lines, Floury appeared to be suggesting that the 963 has been given a favourable BoP for Le Mans: its LMDh has gained 5kg in minimum weight but at the same time been given an upwards tweak in power of 4kW, equivalent to 5bhp. It is unaffected by the new power gain component of the BoP that adjusts maximum power above 250km/h or 155mph.

Porsche stressed that the Test Day was just that - a day of testing. You can’t read too much into it, argued Kuratle.

“All we know is that we made our programme and that was the result of it, but we are not dreaming to be so much ahead [in the race],” he told Motorsport.com at the end of the day.

Porsche topped the times on the test day

Porsche topped the times on the test day

Photo by: Nikolaz Godet

What effect will the absence of tyre warmers have?

The ban on pre-heating tyres before they are put on the car at the start of last season was a controversial one. So much so that, after a spate of accidents at Spa, there was a volte-face. Tyre warmers were allowed back on a one-off basis for the 24 Hours in 2023. 

The absence of tyre warmers has been a non-topic so far this season. That’s perhaps not surprising given that the opening race took place in the Middle East and that Spa was run in unusually hot conditions for a high-altitude venue known for its fickle weather. Whether it will become one at Le Mans will no doubt depend on the weather and specifically the temperatures at night.

Lynn reckons that the teams and drivers are now just plain better at getting heat into the rubber.

“It’s not an issue anymore,” he says. “It’s just come down to everyone learning what each tyre does and doesn’t do. We’ve all got better at warm-up.”

Yet it could change the dynamic of the race, and in particular the length of time that the softest of the three specifications available from Hypercar tyre supplier Michelin is used. Mitigating the time lost warming up the tyres on an out-lap is going to be crucial. Without tyre warmers, that could lengthen the period in which the soft is the tyre to be on, potentially extending it on Saturday evening and bringing its usage forward on Sunday morning. 

Some cars seem to have a liking for the soft, the Cadillac for example. Lynn, using the medium, only just snuck into the Hyperpole qualifying session for the 10 quickest cars in the first session in 2023, but on the soft mandated for the final round he put the car on the front row.

“We feel comfortable on that tyre,” he confirms. “When the soft tyre comes into play we are more competitive.”

Whether a race with more soft usage will help Porsche or its rivals remains to be seen. But everything points to the German manufacturer making a genuine bid for Le Mans win number 20.

Can Porsche secure victory on Sunday?

Can Porsche secure victory on Sunday?

Photo by: Marc Fleury

Be part of Motorsport community

Join the conversation
Previous article Fixed "major top speed issue" will help Peugeot at Le Mans
Next article MissionH24 unveil next generation hydrogen prototype at Le Mans

Top Comments

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Motorsport prime

Discover premium content
Subscribe

Edition

Global Global