The 2014 Le Mans 24 Hours: the Speed Chills Preview

You’ve been waiting for almost a whole year. 360 days ago the sun did a whole revolution while the greatest race in the world unfolded beneath it, from light to dark and back, the world following along in its wake.

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Audi took the victory then, as they have seemed to do for the last decade and a half, before returning to Ingolstadt to prepare for some big changes. And now after a long, long year of build up and excitement it’s come around once again. This time tomorrow the field will be out and vying for the crown as we start the run up to the Le Mans 24 Hours.

So why the hype? What makes the 2014 edition the most highly anticipated 24 in recent years?

There’s no denying that a certain German endurance legend and a certain Australian F1 graduate are dominating the fan discussions around the world. Porsche are back to protect their place in the record books, while Mark Webber’s return (after a few spent promoting energy drinks) brings a bit more star status to proceedings.

But it’s more than that, it’s the prospect of the most competitive Le Mans in recent history that’s got the fans salivating. For the first time in way too long we have three manufacturers vying for the overall win, and all have a chance of taking that sought-after top step.

Audi have enjoyed a long run of being the favourites; a record of 12 wins in 14 years has given the current kings a fearsome reputation. But with two rounds of the 2014 World Endurance Championship having gone the way of their Japanese rivals, not even their astonishing trophy haul could make them the bookies favourites.

That honour instead goes to Toyota, whose pace and reliability have been a big middle finger to the established order in the opening stages of this year’s racing season. Neither Silverstone or Spa managed to defeat their brilliant new car, the TS040, and it’s surely to be expected that La Sarthe will have to go some way to break either them or their winning streak.

On the other hand we have Porsche, who occupy an awkward third position reserved for brand new teams: the also rans. Or maybe that’s a bit unfair as their pace in recent rounds has been higher than anyone could have expected and has given rise to some fans quietly suggesting that they could cause a major upset.

Whatever you believe, it would take some extraordinary Weissach magic to take Porsche to the top of the podium on Sunday afternoon. Do we all hope they pull something out of the bag? Of course. Do we think they can? That’s for them to decide, but we’re going to have to wait a little longer to find out.

And the great thing is that the top three constitute just seven of the grid slots. There will be battles all the way through the field; LMP2 with its ELMS vs. WEC dogfight, GTE Pro with a second tier of manufacturer intrigue and GTE Am with its inherent unpredictability. For the fans at the track and watching at home there’ll be no shortage of action available, and with a whole day’s worth of it we’re in for a treat.

LMP2 sees the WEC-leading G-Drive team turn up in one of three brand new Ligier JS P2s, a car which will make its race debut this weekend. It’s definitely a looker with its nosecone slashes and coupe stylings, and its Test Day pace showed that their 24 won’t just be a run-out session.

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Others to watch include British team JOTA Sport in their Zytek, Signatech-Alpine in their Alpine and Chinese outfit KCMG who arrive at Le Mans with a heavily updated Oreca and a stellar line up. The P2 field is huge and ultra-competitive however, so don’t place your bets just yet.

GTE Pro will almost be a repeat of last year’s three-way between Corvette, Porsche, AF Corse and Aston Martin, but this year also sees a privateer entry from Ram Racing in a 458 Italia. Where the Pro battle will really differ from 2013 will be in the relative pace of the cars; performance balancing measures seem to have skewed the difference, leaving AF Corse in a very strong position and Aston Martin slightly miffed.

Porsche will be as reliably reliable as they always are, but their sextet of slightly wild (and often belligerent) drivers will be sure to give us some action throughout the race. Ram have taken on a huge challenge after winning the GTE class in the ELMS last year; taking it to the factory teams will be a big task but they have the talent in both the car and the garage to cause a few upsets at the very least.

And then there’s GTE Am. Comprised of teams with both pro and amateur drivers it’s certain that the orange-stickered class will provide its usual glut of highs and lows. Over half the Am field are running Ferraris (by the end of the race you’ll be sick of the sight of them) which, as in GTE Pro, seem to have had the better of performance balancing measures.

The AM AF Corses will be hot favourites for the podium but you can never predict a result when you have such a range of talent on the track. Superstar Patrick Dempsey will be keen to improve on his fourth place last year while French ex-international keeper Fabien Barthez will make his first assault on the great race. Aston also have an outside chance with their two Vantage V8s and there’s always the spectre of a Porsche or two running well come 3pm on Sunday.

Finally there’s this year’s ‘Garage 56’ entry, which is a much sexier title than the given one of ‘Car Displaying New Techonologies’. Nissan are easing themselves back into the Le Mans lifestyle with their spacey ZEOD RC, best described as looking like Batman’s racing fridge. They’re aiming to be the first team to complete a full electric lap of the track and have enlisted two GT Academy winners and the Deltawing legend Satoshi Motoyama to help them do it.

But of course it’s not just about the racing; we’ll be hosting hundreds of VIPs at our campsites next to the track who are here not just to watch the race but to experience it. The track is where Le Mans is alive; it’s more than just the greatest race in the world, it’s a festival, a carnival, a celebration of nationality and cultures and excess. Fireworks, loud music, stunning road cars in their Le Mans liveries, everything contributes to the 24 being the biggest racing spectacle you could wish for.

It’s a different place for everybody who comes here. Some camp out on the grassy hillsides, trying not to drop off in their sleeping bags as Chevy V8s shout past at four in the morning, Some come for the parties, letting their hair down in an atmosphere of round-the-clock noise, lights and celebration. Others just do it all, queuing for hours to catch the start, filing up to Tertre Rouge and back, checking out the concert with a beer and hearing the roar of engines just metres away. It’s what Le Mans is all about.

The Le Mans 24 Hours will be live on Eurosport in the UK and on the Le Mans 24 Hours website and app. We’ll be live for the whole race posting updates, photos and reports, so get involved by following @speedchillsview on Twitter and liking Speed Chills on Facebook.

Qualifying begins (all times BST) with a 9-11pm session on Wednesday with a further two on Thursday between 6-8pm and 9-11pm. The race itself begins at 2pm UK time on Saturday, so by 2 o’clock on Sunday we’ll be celebrating one team claiming the most famous title in sports car racing.

Will it be a thirteenth win for Audi, a maiden for Toyota or a victorious resurgence from Porsche? In five days time it’ll be decided, and those who get to stand on the top step will go down in the history books forever. We’ve been waiting for a long time but now it’s back, another chance for us to experience the greatest race in the world, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Jamie Snelling is a freelance motorsports journalist and 10-time Speed Chills veteran. Tweet him @speedchillsview