Opinion: Could LMP2 be the future of Le Mans one day?

Amid the headline-grabbing stories of Toyota’s heartbreak and Ford’s GT triumph, the LMP2 class of the Le Mans 24 Hours risked being overlooked. But, as Jamie Klein explains, the category might hold the key to the future of the event.

Opinion: Could LMP2 be the future of Le Mans one day?
#36 Signatech Alpine A460: Gustavo Menezes, Nicolas Lapierre, Stéphane Richelmi
Winning car #2 Porsche Team Porsche 919 Hybrid: Romain Dumas, Neel Jani, Marc Lieb passed the #5 Toyota Racing Toyota TS050 Hybrid: Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima after the checkered flag
#7 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18: Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer, Benoit Tréluyer
Anthony Davidson, Toyota Racing
#5 Toyota Racing Toyota TS050 Hybrid: Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima
#12 Rebellion Racing Rebellion R-One AER: Nicolas Prost, Nick Heidfeld, Nelson Piquet Jr.
Pit stop for #4 ByKolles Racing CLM P1/01: Simon Trummer, Pierre Kaffer, Oliver Webb
#36 Signatech Alpine A460: Gustavo Menezes, Nicolas Lapierre, Stéphane Richelmi
#26 G-Drive Racing Oreca 05 Nissan: Roman Rusinov, Will Stevens, René Rast
#44 Manor Oreca 05 Nissan: Tor Graves, Matthew Rao, Roberto Merhi
LMP2 podium: class winners #36 Signatech Alpine A460: Gustavo Menezes, Nicolas Lapierre, Stéphane Richelmi, second place #26 G-Drive Racing Oreca 05 Nissan: Roman Rusinov, Will Stevens, René Rast, third place #37 SMP Racing BR01 Nissan: Vitaly Petrov, Viktor Shaytar, Kirill Ladygin
#31 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P2 Nissan: Ryan Dalziel, Chris Cumming, Pipo Derani
Alex Wurz, Williams Driver Mentor and GPDA Chairman
#36 Signatech Alpine A460: Gustavo Menezes, Nicolas Lapierre, Stéphane Richelmi
#26 G-Drive Racing Oreca 05 Nissan: Roman Rusinov, Will Stevens, René Rast
#36 Signatech Alpine A460: Gustavo Menezes, Nicolas Lapierre, Stéphane Richelmi
#64 Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C7-R: Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner, Jordan Taylor
#67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT: Marino Franchitti, Andy Priaulx, Harry Tincknell
#49 Michael Shank Racing Ligier JS P2 Honda: John Pew, Oswaldo Negri, Laurens Vanthoor
#37 SMP Racing BR01 Nissan: Vitaly Petrov, Viktor Shaytar, Kirill Ladygin
#38 G-Drive Racing Gibson BR01 Nissan: Simon Dolan, Jake Dennis, Giedo Van der Garde
#2 Porsche Team Porsche 919 Hybrid: Romain Dumas, Neel Jani, Marc Lieb
Start of session: #44 Manor Oreca 05 Nissan: Tor Graves, Matthew Rao, Roberto Merhi

Porsche, Audi, Toyota: anyone who watched the 84th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours would have been impressed at the dazzling spectacle supplied by six of the fastest and most technologically advanced racing cars on the planet doing battle at such a ferocious pace, even without the late drama that this year’s edition will go down in history for.

But, all of this speed and innovation comes at a high financial cost – one which, sadly, means the current ‘golden era’ we’re enjoyed so much is unlikely to last indefinitely.

Indeed, speaking to Motorsport.com ahead of the Le Mans weekend, Anthony Davidson expressed fears that the current “spending war” among the LMP1 manufacturers is unsustainable in the long term, especially as the six hybrid machines in this year’s race are effectively financed by only two companies – Volkswagen (which owns both the Audi and Porsche brands) and Toyota.

“Basically, it goes in waves,” Davidson said. “You see good eras of racing, especially in sportscars, as the manufacturers come and go.

"And when they go, the series struggles to survive. So, for me especially, I just have to enjoy this moment.

"I’m lucky to be here as a driver, with three mega manufacturers fighting it out, spending a lot of money. But we all know deep down it’s not going to last.

"It’s a ticking time bomb. History proves that it is.”

So, what happens if Davidson’s vision of a manufacturer apocalypse comes true? Don't fear...

The current breed of hybrid LMP1 machines are too complex, not to mention costly, for privateer teams to seriously consider running unlike the Group C heyday with the Porsche 956/962s.

Even Roger Penske has shied away from entering the fray, despite his burning desire to win Le Mans outright and his previous efforts with its RS Spyder.

"You’ve gotta have an Audi or a Porsche right now," he told Motorsport.com at the start of the year. "We’d have to go with a manufacturer at this particular time."

And it seems unlikely that the ACO would allow the greatest race in the world to go ahead with just non-factory squads Rebellion Racing and ByKolles entered in the top class – unless there was an influx of more top-level teams (GP2's Racing Engineering, for example).

Instead, the answer perhaps lies in the burgeoning LMP2 class, which could well hold the key to Le Mans’ future if the current manufacturers were to suddenly get cold feet, and no new ones were found to replace them.

Strength in depth

Gone are the days when the LMP2 battle at Le Mans was something of a sideshow, comprising a motley bunch of Lolas and Courages ran by teams of wildly varying quality that would often finish well behind the bulk of the factory GT runners.

Now, the baby prototype class is awash with well-financed, well-run teams competing with ex-F1 stars (Will Stevens, Roberto Merhi, Vitaly Petrov, Giedo van der Garde) and less-heralded but super-talented drivers capable of giving some of the established LMP1 stars a run for their money (Rene Rast, Laurens Vanthoor, Pipo Derani).

Just look at the class-winning line-up that guided the #36 Signatech Alpine A460 to victory in this year’s race. The combination of former Toyota LMP1 driver Nicolas Lapierre and two fast rookies with single-seater backgrounds, Stephane Richelmi and Gustavo Menezes, is a testament to how far LMP2 has come from the bad old days of the early-to-mid 2000s.

And, in a hypothetical scenario where the six manufacturer LMP1 cars simply never existed, the above trio would have been crowned overall winners at Le Mans, as the best-placed Rebellion – and the sole LMP1-L car to be classified – finished 27 laps down on the #36 Alpine, which came fifth overall.

"Insurance policy”

One man who was impressed by what he saw of the LMP2 class at Le Mans this year was former Toyota driver Alex Wurz, a self-confessed fan of watching the ‘race within a race’ unfold during the course of the 24 Hours.

Speaking to Motorsport.com about the future of Le Mans, the Austrian said he could envisage future races being fought out by LMP2 cars given a performance boost to help them reach speeds close to those being attained by the top category currently.

“I think LMP2 is vital, as it will offer longer-term security of the Le Mans event,” said Wurz. “Pushing LMP2 is a very good insurance policy.

“If LMP1 disappeared, you could upgrade the LMP2s to do 325km/h [currently they reach around the 310km/h mark], and you would have 12 or 15 cars that could win.

“In the worst case scenario of LMP1 collapsing, it would mean we still have a strong field.”

The GTE case study

It wasn’t so long ago that we last had a class at Le Mans going extinct, as the GT1 class was axed after a 2010 race won by a Larbre-entered Saleen that finished seven laps down on the best of the GT2 cars.

That paved the way for the GT2 class to become what is now known as GTE, with Corvette’s step down being followed by the arrival of works teams from Aston Martin (after its disastrous flirtation with LMP1), Porsche and, of course, Ford.

And the way GTE is split into Pro and Am offers a potential model for how LMP2 (which could be renamed simply LMP) could operate in a post-LMP1 world, so that those teams that rely heavily on amateur funding would still have their own prize to compete for.

That would also allow organisers to lift the restriction of having to run a ‘silver’-rated driver for the contenders for overall victory, which, with the influx of fast single-seater converts like Menezes into the category, has now lost much of its relevance anyhow.

Numbers-wise, such a scenario wouldn’t be an issue. There were no fewer than 23 LMP2 cars on the grid this year (24 if you include the SRT41 entry of quadruple amputee Frederic Sausset), with a further four on the reserve list that could have been pressed into action if required.

Combine that contingent with the 27 GTE entries present at La Sarthe this year, and there you have it – a full, recession-proof grid of 55 cars, split into the four classes: LMP Pro, LMP Am, GTE Pro and GTE Am.

New LMP2 coming for 2017

Of course, the above is far from an ideal scenario, especially with new rules coming into force next year for the LMP2 class that mandate the use of one of four different chassis, as well as a spec engine manufactured by Gibson Technologies.

It goes without saying that, in a post-LMP1 Le Mans, there would be less diversity in terms of machinery, and laptimes would increase considerably even with a horsepower boost.

But what the current LMP2 class lacks in groundbreaking technology and speed, it makes up for in providing a sustainable framework for privateer teams that don’t have tens of millions of dollars to spend to be able to race each other on a relatively level playing field, or at least as level as you’re likely to get in the modern era.

Le Mans survived the collapse of Group C; it survived the mass manufacturer exodus at the turn of the century; it survived Peugeot’s sudden exit in 2012. It is also part of a strong FIA-backed World Endurance Championship, which gives huge added value to the manufacturers by globalising their big investment in key markets.

Thanks to the boom in LMP2, it has put Le Mans in a good position to not only survive, but thrive when the next downturn inevitably hits.

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