Le Mans Is the Season’s Premier Event. So It’s Being Held Twice.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the biggest event in endurance racing. There are other 24-hour races, but none have its cultural resonance.
The race is so important, and draws so many fans, that the F.I.A. World Endurance Championship is holding it twice during the current eight-race season. The series altered its 2018-19 schedule to have Le Mans as the second race of the calendar and then as the last race.
That transforms the W.E.C.’s headline event into the season finale, giving the race a calendar slot befitting its status.
“We had talked for many years about making the biggest race in the calendar, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the final round, but it wasn’t easy to find a suitable time in the technical development and regulatory cycle,” said Gerard Neveu, chief executive of the W.E.C. “That opportunity presented itself to us last year so we have flipped the calendar.
“Having Le Mans at the end of the season allows the drama, excitement and anticipation to build through the season, focusing everyone’s attention on every round as they move towards championship titles, as well as the big race itself.”
In its nearly a century’s running, Le Mans has experienced extreme highs and infamous lows, including a 1955 crash in which more than 80 people died. In the last 15 years it’s been significantly safer on the track, but its difficulty now is a declining competition in the top tier, Le Mans Prototype, or LMP1, class. Over the last few years, the event, organized by the Automobile Club of the West since its inception in 1923, has struggled to retain manufacturers.
Toyota became the only factory-backed LMP1 when Porsche left in 2017 after three consecutive victories at Le Mans to concentrate on Formula E. The race is now very different from the close-fought mid-2000s, when teams such as Audi and Peugeot finished only minutes apart.
Toyota started racing there in 2012, and the field continued to grow with the return of Porsche and Nissan to LMP1 in 2014. But Nissan’s involvement ended after a single season. Audi, a consistent winner, left endurance racing in 2016
So Toyota has effectively been competing in a class of its own since 2018.
Despite close competition in the other racing categories — the LMP2 prototypes, and LM GTE-Pro and LM GTE-Am — the lack of a serious fight in the top class appears to have had an effect on ticket sales.
Organizers reported 256,900 tickets sold last year, down from 263,000 in 2014, a 2.3 percent decline. Data for this year’s ticket sales is not yet available.
For fans of endurance racing, Le Mans is Coachella with engines, a weeklong festival of excitement and noise irrespective of whoever stands on the winner’s podium.
“Enthusiasm for Le Mans is always high,” said Jean Todt, the president of the International Automobile Federation, known by its French acronym F.I.A., and the sanctioning body for the race.
“Endurance racing has very passionate and knowledgeable fans, and Le Mans is a special event,” he said. “In LMP2 and the GTE classes, we have very strong competition — anyone can win, which is always exciting. Ferrari, Aston Martin, Porsche, Chevrolet, a lot of manufacturers.”
One competitor in the LMP2 class is Ho Pin Tung of China, once a reserve driver for the Renault Formula One team and currently driving for Jackie Chan DC Racing in the endurance championship. Tung was part of the team that won the LMP2 class for DC Racing at Le Mans in 2017 and finished second over all.
“One thing the new format has done so far is to keep the championship open and very exciting to the very last race,” Tung said. “In Le Mans this time, a team can earn 1.5 times the points a team usually earns in a regular W.E.C. race. In terms of the preparation for the event itself, nothing really changes having two Le Mans in one season because Le Mans is such an extraordinary race; it almost stands by itself.
“Having Le Mans two times in a season keeps some parameters the same over the two races, which previous years would be different — the tires we use for the season remain the same spec. That’s something more familiar. We have already had experience from when we came to Le Mans last time. As former Le Mans class winners, we always aim at winning again. In this end, nothing has changed as well.”
While a driver might revel in the familiar, running two editions of Le Mans with the same cars goes counter to the normal operations of the technical department.
Cars change from year to year as technical regulations change. So a car run at Le Mans one year won’t be the same one racing the next. This year, except for making adjustments to solve problems discovered during the season, the cars on Sunday will be the same ones that ran last June.
“As we are in the same season, our Le Mans car is still homologated according to the 2018 specifications,” Rob Leupen, the Toyota team director, said. “This means our preparations have focused far less than normal on validating updates and fine-tuning performance, instead focusing on reliability and our ability to react in case of unforeseen circumstances.”
For Toyota, the challenge will be in maintaining harmony inside the team. The team is fielding two three-driver teams, both of which are fighting for the W.E.C. drivers’ championship.
“As an experienced team at Le Mans, the logistics and planning this year have been essentially the same as other seasons with the same organizational needs,” Leupen said. “Regardless of Le Mans being at the end of the season, rather than the start, we still have more than 100 team members who all need somewhere to stay, work and eat, and this challenge doesn’t change from year to year.
“We also have again six drivers who want to win Le Mans, and we will as always give them an equal chance to achieve that. This year the drivers’ World Championship will be decided at Le Mans, so in some ways the driver management challenge is slightly greater than previous years.”
For Stéphane Richelmi of Monaco, who won the LMP2 class in his Le Mans debut in 2016 and is racing alongside Tung at Jackie Chan DC Racing, team harmony is stronger this year than it was when he joined DC Racing in 2017.
“For sure we will be more prepared than the first one,” Richelmi said. “As a team, we already do everything together. We work with the same people, same engineers and mechanics, and we have the same driver lineup in car No. 38. We live together, we train together, attending meetings, almost going through everything together. It’s all the little things we have known that matter.”
Whatever the impact of having two top events in a single season, the two 24 Hours of Le Mans are not in the schedule for next season. Having had two Le Mans in the 2018-19 superseason, the F.I.A. and automobile club have achieved their goal of reshaping the calendar to make the 24-hour race the W.E.C. season finale. The 2019-20 W.E.C. season will start with the Six Hours of Silverstone in September 2019 and conclude with the 2020 running of Le Mans in June.
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