24 Hours of Le Mans 2019: a guide to the cars and drivers
Historic endurance event features hi-tech prototypes and luxury GT racers
The 2019 edition of the gruelling 24 Hours of Le Mans race will see 60 cars battling to put in the most miles on the historic Circuit de la Sarthe this weekend.
Many of the premier endurance events of yesteryear, such as the Mille Miglia in Italy and the Nurburgring 1,000km, have been significantly altered or permanently shut down over safety concerns. Motor racing is dangerous, after all.
But the 24 Hours of Le Mans has remained largely unchanged since its inception in 1923, with the organisers merely making safety improvements and circuit tweaks to keep the race up to date.
This year’s event gets under way at the 8.5-mile Les Mans circuit on Saturday 15 June at 3.00pm local time (2.00pm UK) and ends at the same time on the following day.
The race can be difficult to follow, with so many cars on the grid - three times the number featured in a Formula 1 Grand Prix, in fact. Here is a handy guide to the different categories of racing cars and the teams to look out for:
The premier category of car in the 24 Hours of Le Mans is LMP1 (Le Mans Prototype 1), which features some of the fastest and most technologically advanced racing models on the planet. The sophisticated powertrains and aerodynamics mean an LMP1 machine is all but guaranteed to win the event outright, unless mechanical gremlins throw a spanner in the works.
Porsche had three consecutive wins in the event with its 919 Hybrid, before stepped away from top-tier endurance racing in 2018 to focus on the electric single-seater series, Formula E.
Toyota claimed the top spot for the first time last year, with two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso and co-drivers Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima at the wheel of the Japanese marque’s TS050 Hybrid race car.
As with that race, Toyota is the sole hybrid-powered LMP1 manufacturer competition in this year’s contest. Previously, Volkswagen-owned Porsche and Audi dominated the endurance race throughout the 2000s and most of the 2010s, although the VW emissions scandal of 2015 saw the German car giant shift its focus away from top-tier LMP racing.
This year, Toyota is entering two cars. The No.8 will be driven by last year’s winning team, while the No.7 will be piloted by former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi, along with Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez.
But Toyota isn’t alone in the LMP1 category, with the carmaker’s racers competing against a number of non-hybrid prototypes entered by privateer teams. These include series veterans Rebellion, the US-based DragonSpeed team and a pair of Russian SMP Racing cars, one of which will be driven by former McLaren F1 driver Stoffel Vandoorne.
Although non-hybrid cars are slightly slower than their electrified competitors, they could pose a threat to Toyota if its teams either crash out or encounter mechanical problems.
Cars tagged with LMP2 (Le Mans Prototype 2) stickers are slightly slower than their LMP1 rivals, despite looking almost identical to the top-tier cars. Around 20 LMP2 cars have been entered into this weekend’s race - more than double that in the LMP1 class.
They may lack grunt on the circuit’s massive Mulsanne straight, but LMP2 cars have proven to be competitive in the past.
In 2017, Toyota’s TS050 suffered mechanical problems that dropped the team out of contention for victory in the closing stages of the race. A Jackie Chan Racing LMP2 car, owned by the martial artist, then led the race for several hours, before it was passed by a Porsche LMP1 car. But the Jackie Chan Racing car still won the LMP2 class and finished second overall.
Jackie Chan Racing will once again be a team to look out for this weekend, along with the DragonSpeed and G-Drive teams. DragonSpeed has recruited grand prix winner Pastor Maldonado for the event, while one of the G-Drive cars will be driven by reigning Formula E champion Jean-Eric Vergne.
Last, but certainly not least, is the GTE (Grand Touring Endurance) class. These machines will be far more familiar to car fans, as they all take the form of sports and supercars that can be bought in showrooms.
The racing vehicles are not identical to their road car counterparts, though, thanks to the edition of specially developed race engines and an assortment of wings to help the GTE versions generate grip around the circuit’s high-speed corners.
This year’s running will include the Ferrari 488 GTE, the Chevrolet Corvette C7.R, Porsche’s 911 RSR and the Ford GT. Aston Martin is also running its new Vantage AMR for the second time at Le Mans, and will be hoping for a better result following an uncompetitive showing at last year’s event.
The GTE category is arguably the most fiercely fought group on the grid, with a range of fairly evenly matched competitors. Ford’s advanced GT supercar took victory on its debut in 2016, only to be beaten by Aston Martin’s older Vantage GTE the following year. And Porsche took the class win at last year’s race with a 911 RSR inspired by the firm’s 917/20 “Pink Pig” one-off, which won Le Mans outright in 1971.