One big question hangs over the Le Mans 24 Hours this weekend: if Toyota and Fernando Alonso succeed in winning for a second successive year, will it mean anything? After all, who will they have beaten?
It’s inescapable that the top LMP1 class in the World Endurance Championship has yet to recover from the double blow of losing Audi and Porsche. Toyota, the last factory team standing, is literally in a different league to the non-hybrid privateers headed by Rebellion and SMP Racing’s BR1s, despite ‘Equivalence of Technology’ tweaks that are supposed to level the playing field.
The test day last week proved it once again. Sébastien Buemi’s fastest time at the 8.4-mile circuit, a 3min 19.440sec lap set in his hybrid TS050, was a significant 1.883sec faster than André Lotterer’s best in the quickest Rebellion. Only accidents or car failures will give the privateers a sniff.
But does it matter that Toyota can only defeat itself? A win is a win, after all, especially at Le Mans, and at least the team allows its two crews to race – they genuinely have to beat each other. Added to that, Alonso, Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima hold a 31-point lead over Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and José María López in the race to be world champions, which for the first time will be decided at Le Mans as the novel 2018/19 ‘super season’ draws to a close.
But are we clutching at straws to talk it up? You’d be forgiven for saying so. Le Mans is always magical, but right now its lustre is diminished – at least in terms of the overall victory.
Thank goodness, then, for the class wars, which once again promise to be epic. LMP2, the prototype second division for privateer teams, is packed with ace drivers, with a dozen entries in with a shout of the podium. The LMP2 winner will almost certainly finish in the overall top six, too – perhaps even higher if attrition in LMP1 comes into play.
Then there’s GTE, the car makers’ playground, featuring a colossal fight between Corvette (fastest at the test day, but only just), Ford, Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin and BMW. That it’s a class rather than overall win won’t matter a jot to the crew that prevails at 3pm on Sunday.