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Opinion

The inevitable WEC change that will still be lamented

OPINION: LMP2 cars will continue to race at the Le Mans 24 Hours next season but will disappear from the World Endurance Championship as the casualty of an increasingly popular Hypercar class. The change has happened for the right reasons, but that doesn’t make it any less notable

It was inevitable really. The welcome accumulation of manufacturers in the Hypercar class of the World Endurance Championship means sportscar racing is in a state of rude health. And the onset of the LMGT3 class is expected to bring greater variety than the outgoing GTE class, which bode farewell to Le Mans last weekend. But all of this has put the squeeze on grid spaces, and something had to give.

News that LMP2 won't be part of the WEC next season, finally confirmed at the Automobile Club de l'Ouest's press conference on Friday, had long been anticipated. Hugues de Chaunac, whose ORECA company supplied all 24 cars to the class at this year's race, told Motorsport.com he'd been informed of the decision a year ago. 

“I fully understand, due to the success of the Hypercar and the LMDh, this is normal,” he said. 

The ACO has stipulated that at least 15 slots will be left open for LMP2 cars in the 24 Hours next year. These will be taken from entrants to the European Le Mans Series and Asian Le Mans Series, where LMP2 cars will continue to fight for outright honours, as well as the IMSA SportsCar Championship. Therefore, the familiar sound of Gibson V8-powered machines hammering around the Circuit de la Sarthe will be unaffected.  

But it wouldn’t be correct to say that everything will continue as normal. LMP2’s absence from the WEC next year will be the end of an era. And while the decision has been made for the right reasons, that didn't make it any less lamented by those who have seen the class provide some of the best racing at the 24 Hours in recent fallow years where the fight at the front has been somewhat one-sided. 

“It’s a real shame actually,” says United Autosports Oliver Jarvis, who finished second overall at Le Mans with Jota in 2017 when only a late recovery from the sole-remaining Porsche 919 Hybrid prevented an outright winner from the secondary class. “LMP2 just doesn’t fit from a pure numbers point of view. But when you think that at one stage there was literally Toyota and maybe one or two other Hypercars, LMP2 has almost been the backbone for many years. The LMP2 class provided the racing along with the GTs.” 

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the LMP2 class has become a de-facto spec class – the ORECA-Gibson 07 quickly establishing superiority over the Ligier, Dallara and Multimatic-Riley – the racing is always close. Four different teams have crossed the line first in the four WEC races so far this season. But in the bigger picture, that’s not the most significant reason its demise from the WEC is one tinged with sadness. 

Jarvis (left) finished second outright as part of 2017 LMP2 class-winning lineup at Le Mans for Jota and reckons it will be missed from the WEC

Jarvis (left) finished second outright as part of 2017 LMP2 class-winning lineup at Le Mans for Jota and reckons it will be missed from the WEC

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

LMP2 has been an important proving ground for drivers and teams planning a move up to the top class in the WEC. Penske’s arrival last year in P2 afforded it an opportunity to familiarise itself with the championship and its regulations while the Porsche 963 LMDh it now runs was under development. Now, latecomers trying to jump onto the bandwagon will have to do their learning elsewhere. Young drivers meanwhile will have less eyeballs on them racing in the ELMS, rather than under the noses of Hypercar team bosses, although the cream will surely still rise to the top. 

“It will be missed,” opines Louis Deletraz, who has won each of the last two ELMS titles and this year races for WRT in the WEC alongside an ELMS programme and racing for Acura in IMSA’s GTP class. “It has given a lot of opportunities to young drivers, created careers, brought people to Hypercar. I started in ’21 and without this LMP2 category in both ELMS and WEC I wouldn’t be where I am now, able to be in factory drives and running in the top class. 

“For manufacturers, you need Hypercar, fantastic. But for a bronze in IMSA and in ELMS or young drivers, LMP2 is fantastic and they should always keep it [at Le Mans]. The car is so reliable first of all, its relatively simple, there’s no hybrid. You don’t need as much money, you don’t need as many people. So for gentlemen and privateers [teams not linked to a manufacturer], it’s a fantastic category. Hopefully it will still provide young drivers opportunities and teams to learn for Hypercar.” 

“All these P2 cars have got to go somewhere so does that mean we get bigger Asian Le Mans, bigger European Le Mans, does it mean that IMSA gets a bolstered P2 grid," Oliver Jarvis

Jarvis predicts that “the landscape is going to change quite a bit” next year. That’s because when it doesn’t form part of the world championship, an LMP2 drive will be less attractive to pros who aren’t aligned with a Hypercar manufacturer. Albert Costa turned his back on Lamborghini when it became clear he wouldn’t be part of its LMDh plans and took a punt on joining Inter Europol that has made him a first-time Le Mans winner. But it seems less likely that such a move would be repeated next year.

“So many top quality drivers race in LMP2 because for example a lot of the guys are also racing in Formula E or they race in America like Tom [Blomqvist] and it allows them to come [without racing against a rival manufacturer],” Jarvis points out. “If you look at the driver lineups in P2, it’s up there with the Hypercar.” 

LMP2 can be said to have served its purpose if many of its leading lights from recent years are racing hypercars in the WEC next year. It's also true that several top teams are moving on to Hypercar for 2024, so even without the decision to drop LMP2 from the WEC it would have had a different look anyway.  

Jota already has a presence with its customer 963, and it’s anticipated it will add a second car next year. WRT will run BMW’s LMDh factory programme, Prema will step up with Lamborghini and Signatech Alpine will return to the top class after a one-year stop-gap in P2. Vector Sport will also hope to gain a full season admittance with its Isotta Fraschini, which is targeting a debut in the WEC’s Bahrain finale. 

Several LMP2 teams will move up to Hypercar next year anyway, but United Autosports won't be among them and will instead head for IMSA

Several LMP2 teams will move up to Hypercar next year anyway, but United Autosports won't be among them and will instead head for IMSA

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

But that still leaves several top squads without a home in the WEC next year. United Autosports confirmed that it will be heading for IMSA next season, while last weekend’s winner Inter Europol is set for a return to the ELMS.  

“At this moment we don’t plan to move to GTs,” said Kuba Smiechowski when asked about his team’s plans for next year in the post-race press conference. “So we will try to do ELMS in LMP2. Who knows, maybe we will go to the USA as well if the opportunity arises. But for the moment I think this is what is left for us.” 

“It will be interesting to see what the P2 grid looks like,” remarks Jarvis. “All these P2 cars have got to go somewhere so does that mean we get bigger Asian Le Mans, bigger European Le Mans, does it mean that IMSA gets a bolstered P2 grid? I hope so because for the price and the budget, I don’t think there’s a better class out there than P2 at the moment. They’re having to de-tune these way below their capabilities so we’re not as quick as a Hypercar. But what you get for your money and the enjoyment of driving the car is really impressive.” 

Jarvis’ last point is a prescient one. When run in WEC trim, LMP2 cars may be significantly slower now with reduced aerodynamic efficiency and reduced engine power to ensure they don’t outpace the heavier, less complex Hypercar machines. To give you an idea, this year’s Hypercar pole time was just 2.37s quicker than Alex Lynn’s 2017 LMP2 pole time of 3m25.352s. And that would have put him second fastest in the qualifying session that decides the cars which transfer to the Hyperpole shootout, a format only introduced for 2020 that means fewer cars are on track when the all-important times are set and therefore facilitates quicker times.

But while the pared back LMP2 performance brings the cars more into a performance window that’s manageable for inexperienced silvers and bronzes – the latter mandatory for LMP2 entrants in IMSA – it makes the ultimate lap time that little bit harder to extract for the professionals. For that reason, Paul-Loup Chatin told Motorsport.com that this year’s pole position of 3m32.923s was “even more satisfying” than his 3m24.842 effort with the same IDEC Sport team from 2018 that is a regular in the ELMS.  

“Because we have less power, it’s even harder to be really fast,” he says. “We have to bring a lot of minimum speed into the corner because we lost a lot of horsepower, so if you are a little bit slower in the corner, you pay it for all the straight line after that. So the key is to be able to bring a lot of minimum speed, to stay high in the RPM and it’s even harder than before, so it’s even more satisfying in terms of driving style.” 

That goes some way to explaining the pedigree of drivers that have kept coming back to LMP2 year after year. The grid at Le Mans last week counted two Formula 1 podium finishers, an Indianapolis 500 winner and several Formula E regulars, all of whom will be angling after an opportunity to compete for outright success next year.  

Nobody can disagree that the success of Hypercar is a good thing for sportscar racing. It meant more eyes were on Le Mans than in any edition I’ve covered before, and that will only increase next year as BMW, Lamborghini and Alpine join the party. It simply can’t be argued that a class full of identical prototypes can rival manufacturers in either Hypercar or the LMGT3 division when it comes to fan appeal.  

Adding manufacturers that will compete for outright honours will put more bums on seats and make for more headlines than LMP2 can ever hope to produce – no matter how strong the quality of drivers. But the absence of LMP2 cars from the grid for the first time since the WEC began its modern era in 2012 will surely take time to get used to. 

Teams like Inter Europol Competition will have to find a new home next year when LMP2 departs the WEC scene

Teams like Inter Europol Competition will have to find a new home next year when LMP2 departs the WEC scene

Photo by: Eric Le Galliot

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