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The floodgates have opened at Le Mans | Thank Frankel it’s Friday

06th June 2024
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

What do Cadillac, Porsche, Toyota, BMW, Alpine, Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Peugeot all have in common? Simply this: each has a factory team entered in the top hypercar category at this year’s Le Mans 24 hours, that’s what.

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Now add Aston Martin, Ford, Lexus, Corvette, and McLaren into the mix; examples of these will also all be racing in France next weekend, in the brand new LMGT3 category, each with varying degrees of factory backing, too. It’s incredible.

I’ve been to the vast majority of the Vingt-Quatre Heures since I saw Jaguar win there the day before I became a motor journalist back in 1988. But I have never seen a race comprising this number of works, and works-backed teams. Indeed - and I stand to be corrected, but I’d eat my laptop if there has ever been this amount of top level interest in the race since the very first one was held 101 years ago. The combination of a top class in which teams can actually afford to compete, and a GT category that no longer disallows the most popular form of GT racer has opened the floodgates, and thank heavens for that.

Of course, everyone thought last year’s event was going to be ‘the one,’ with Porsche – far and away the most successful manufacturer in the race’s history – returning to the track alongside Ferrari, 50 years since it last raced as a factory team in the world’s greatest race. The event was so popular every ticket and camping spot had sold out before Christmas the year before, but those who were lucky enough to get there saw an epic battle between Ferrari and the long-time dominant Toyota team. The Italians ultimately proved successful, providing the fairy-tale ending so many had travelled hoping to see: A Ferrari win on the centenary, half a century since it was last officially there.

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To some however, it seemed too good to be true, and those pondering what they were looking at pointed out a last minute change in the infamous ‘Balance of Performance’ that benefitted Ferrari to the tune of around half a second a lap relative to the Toyota, which doesn’t sound like much over the course of a better than eight mile lap. But stretched over 24 hours, it actually equated to the best part of an entire lap’s advantage. At the flag, the chasing Toyota was less than half a lap behind…

Who cared? Well, Toyota obviously, which had won every race in the championship so far and would go on win all the others to come. But they, like every other team, would have sacrificed every race, and the title in a heartbeat if it meant winning Le Mans, because it's the only result anyone ever remembers.

Those who pointed this out were usually told that no one outside Toyota wanted to see it win its sixth in a row, while everyone wanted Ferrari to win, which is precisely what happened. But to me, the unquestionably controversial result of 2023 makes the 2024 race all the more enticing as a result. More different cars from more manufacturers and, I would hope and imagine, a lesson learned about the wisdom of changing the rules at the very last minute. My hope – and my belief – is that within broad parameters the cars will be allowed to just get out there and race.

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And if that is what transpires, the great news is I really haven’t a clue who might win. So far this season there have been just three races and while two have been won by Porsche, all is not as straightforward as it seems. For a start, the most recent of those victories at Spa was scored not by the factory Porsche team but the private Jota squad. And while Toyota did indeed win at Imola, it was only after Ferrari, having had the race apparently under control, then went and cocked up its strategy to let its rivals through.

I think in all honesty it is likely to come down to a fight between those manufacturers. BMW and Lamborghini are too new, Cadillac and Alpine seem to be not quite at that level, and Peugeot, despite home advantage, will need a massive reversal of fortune even to get on the podium, let alone trouble its top step.

But I see a battle royal coming at the front of the field, another in the LMP2 category which is now a one-make race series for Oreca-Gibson prototypes, and a third in the enormous gaggle of GT3 cars, all desperate to be the one’s remembered as victors at the category’s first ever outing at Le Mans. Think Le Mans 2023 was good? It’s just possible you ain’t seen nothing yet.

 

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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