MEET THE DRIVERS: 2018 Le Mans LMP categories

Welcome to part two of our Le Mans preview with a rosbifs-style touch. Zack Evans brings us all the news from the LMP1 and LMP2 field Brits, a cohort that is oozing in star quality. Part one of our preview – Pat Wotton’s piece on the GTE competitors – can be found by clicking here.

In 2016 and 2017, British drivers outnumbered any other single nationality amongst Le Mans drivers. In 2018 the French have overtaken, but there are still 13 British drivers in Prototypes this year, with some very significant seats.

Mike Conway retains his long-standing drive with Toyota, and he is not sharing the 7 car with new boy Alonso. The 7 and 8 haven’t really evened out in Test sessions or at Spa, and the 7 was even the faster for most of FP, so at this point it’s clear Toyota will run some sort of split strategy across the cars. 3:17.377 (from Kobayashi) was good enough for second on grid, but oddly came in the first session. In Q2 Conway had two issues, with a right-side lockup taking him straight on at Dunlop, and after a pause for red flag, an outright spin at the Esses. Conway rarely makes mistakes so this is another pointer to experimentation, and both moments were on cold tyres. Finally, when the drizzle arrived in Q3 he was in and out of the pits three times in six laps, trying out wet setups, with no attempt at a quick one. Toyota also have a persistent issue with deleted lap times due to exceeding the EoT fuel limits.

Jenson Button in SMP’s 11 car is famous for his smooth and consistent style – Eric Boullier, McLaren racing director, has already commented on how well this fits with endurance racing – and there is nobody better in changeable conditions. He has talked in several interviews about confidence in the car but also mentioned that the tiny cockpit is a new experience – even in comparison to F1 – and his recent experience is in tin-tops in Super GT. Sharing a car may mean compromises in setup, but it’s clear in interviews he has a good relationship with Petrov, and Button was told to push rather than build consistency for the final two laps of FP – which resulted in a 3:21.304, slightly FASTER than the qualifying lap of 3:21.408, which Aleshin put in for 7th place.

Button has made positive comments about extra downforce, particularly through Porsche Curves, following changes made to mitigate the lift issues understood to have contributed to Isaakyan’s spectacular accident at Spa. These will have brought down straight-line top speed, but Button has never been about that, and Petrov and Aleshin can provide aggression if needed. A stint in the small hours for Button following by Petrov beasting Magic Hour would make a lot of sense for SMP Racing.

Speaking of the weather (this is a British website, after all), the official text commentary from Scrutineering includes a claim from Mike Simpson in the #5 Ginetta G60-LT-P1 MechChrome that he has never raced in the rain. The ACO journalist must have missed the glint in his eye, because the Hankook Silverstone 12h Series included a solid dose of drizzle (and mud), yet his #4 car took overall victory there. Meanwhile, Charlie Robertson has several championships (including ELMS) and a 24h podium on his CV, and has been with Ginetta since 2011, but he is just 21 (born, or possibly hewn directly from Stirling granite, on New Years Day.) However, Charlie will have learned a lot working with an experienced athlete like Sir Chris Hoy, and just needs Simpson to dodge the puddles, and he always appears wiser than his years in interviews. Perhaps this is because he seems to be the jinx in terms of weather, yellows, slow zones, and a sudden need to reboot the car with an hour to go in Q1 – fortunately the reset worked after an uncomfortable few minutes hard up against the barrier trying to keep out of the way at pit exit. In Q2 he had an off at Indianapolis around the same time as Simpson finally started setting decent 3:25’s.

The other Ginetta G60-LT-P1 (#6) is the only all-British lineup, featuring Oliver Rowland, Alex Brundle, and Oliver Turvey. Brundle may be Gold and the others Platinum, but he won ELMS in 2016 and has a season of WEC experience with Jackie Chan DC Racing. This could be another weather-proof team given that Brundle was fastest in the ridiculously damp 2017 Fuji FP1. The other two drivers, meanwhile, are key to the world record attempt in 2018 for Most Olivers Appearing In An Entry List (four!) – if only Mazda had made it across from IMSA with Oli Jarvis. Platinums Turvey and Brundle are undoubtedly providing cascade learning around both teams.

The Manor-Ginetta outfit are focused on simply keeping it together and keep improving, and put the funding issues that caused them to miss Spa behind them; and indeed by the end of Q3 they seemed to have binned the electrical issues that plagued both cars, and were building some consistency. It will have helped that they managed a complete engine swap for the all-British 6 car between FP and Q1. It doesn’t help that they started the chassis “from a blank sheet of paper” (says Simpson) and they have a problem getting the front tyres switched on, although he also says in Q3 they got front aero sorted. This has put them 9th and 14th on the grid, with 3:23.757 from Rowland and 3:25.268 from Simpson.

Oli Webb in the #4 ENSO CLM P1/01 – NISMO is already on the naughty step, deemed to have caused contact with the 64 Corvette Racing in FP, losing him a point before he starts. The ByKOLLES team have now established some reliability, as Webb was careful to point out to Bruno Vandestick in the team interview during Pesage. (Vandestick then asked Webb if HE was reliable – apparently yes.) Dillman had laps deleted for exceeding the instantaneous fuel limit for LMP1-NH, so this may catch Webb out during the race. The ByKOLLES will start 8th with a 3:22.505. Like many other teams they had problems gaining a clear run, and the tyres are only at their peak for a couple of laps, with cooling/heating cycles also a barrier to performance; so Webb explained they picked their moments carefully. They had already decided to pass on the last 25 minutes of Q2 even before the red flag was shown. They made some big changes to the car between Q2 and Q3 , causing consternation with the new exhaust smoking whilst it bedded in.

The Ligier of Panis Barthez has already taken one honour; it was the first to go through scrutineering. The aero is likely to have had a closer than usual look; the eight Ligiers in LMP2 (including Phil Hanson’s United ride, below) were allowed extra aero changes to close the gap with the Oreca overachievers, and Will Stevens says all credit to them for giving them a car with race balance as well as one-lap performance. Panis Barthez were another team plagued by finding clean laps amongst slow zones, but in Q3 Stevens finally got a clear run and fielded a 3:25.376 to put the car 15th.

Harrison Newey is part of the BRDC Superstars programme in 2018, with the BRDC providing mentoring and physical and mental fitness training. (Charlie Eastwood in the 90 Aston in GTE-Am is also a Superstar.) Newey collected his debut drive thanks to the regulars for the LMP2 SMP Racing effort moving across to LMP1. He has one race behind him in ELMS (with Algarve Pro), and three wins and a second place from last winter’s Asian LMS series – plus a strong F3 and F4 brag sheet. All the LMP2 drives were in Oreca chassis, in contrast to the SMP Racing LMP2 Dallara; he is new to two-hour stints; and new to his team-mates for this race. SMP are 26th on the grid with 3:28.629 set by fellow new boy Nato. Newey did not break 3:32 but showed composure dealing with a puncture in Q3, getting the car back unassisted and without any damage to bodywork.

Phil Hanson in the 22 United Autosports Ligier is the youngest driver at Le Mans this year, and the previous year – which does mean he has last year’s experience to call on. He says every lap is more experience of the “amazing” track, and is another driver who has talked about how important tyre management will be. In the same car Paul di Resta missed some testing through DTM duty but is a seasoned hand and has already shared this seat with Hanson at the Rolex 24 and Sebring 12, as well as the opening ELMS 4h races. Hanson may be young but he has more 12 and 24 experience than many others on the grid, and Albuquerque has provided extensive mentoring. Oh, and he was faster than Montoya at the Test Day. 3:26.772 is good for 18th.

Ben Hanley has been working with DragonSpeed for the last couple of seasons, and shared the car with Hedman last season. He is 33 but has a five year gap on his CV – however he didn’t struggle to re-establish himself with a pole at Silverstone last year and a win at Spa the year before. It’s even possible the downgrade to Silver because of his hiatus helped him get a drive. (He is now back to Gold.) The #10 LMP1 is sixth on the grid with 3:21.110, tenths quicker than Button’s 11 SMP Racing which shares the BR1 chassis, but considerably off the third similar car, the 17 SMP.

With 13 British drivers across LMP1 and LMP2, and so many new contenders in LMP1, this year’s race will be fascinating to watch.

Zack can be followed on Twitter @savoirsarthe. Follow the progress of the British racers participating in all Le Mans categories via our Twitter feed, @BritPackDrivers.

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