Le Mans preview: the race Toyota must not lose

This time, surely. That’s the overriding sentiment of the 2018 Le Mans 24 Hours at the start of the biggest week of the motor sporting year. Toyota will finally banish the 30-year curse and win the big one – won’t it?

Well, it really should. The Japanese giant is the last manufacturer standing in the top-class LMP1 hybrid category, following the withdrawal of both Porsche and Audi over the course of the past two years. For pace alone, the band of plucky privateers and their non-hybrid LMP1s really shouldn’t be able to live with the pair of TS050 HYBRIDS.

Then consider Fernando Alonso, the McLaren F1 driver considered by many to be the greatest active racing driver in the world. At 37, the Spaniard’s hopes of a third F1 world title have probably slipped away with McLaren’s failures to deliver him a competitive car. Therefore, his focus has switched to motor sport’s unofficial Triple Crown: the Monaco Grand Prix, which he has won twice, the Indianapolis 500 and the Le Mans 24 Hours. All-round racing greatness awaits if he can equal the feat of winning all three that only Graham Hill has previously managed.

Alonso has a great shot at ticking off Le Mans this week. Fastest at the recent test day, the great man knows only misfortune (and a rapid team of drivers in the sister TS050, of course) stands in his way of glory on his debut at the greatest race in the world.

But that’s where the intrigue is: Toyota’s misfortune at Le Mans is the stuff of legend. Agonisingly close to the tune of just three minutes in 2016, it missed out last year too, following four previous occasions in the past three decades when the manufacturer looked set to win this race. Nothing can be taken for granted at La Sarthe. The team must conquer the 8.4-mile track first, but also its own psychological barriers to finally deliver what should be a victory of sheer relief on Sunday afternoon.

Privateers on parade

If Toyota does falter – and history shows quite plainly it might – the privateer entries could pick up the pieces for an incredible Le Mans story.

Rebellion is established as the best of the privateer teams in long-distance endurance racing at this level and has three top-six Le Mans finishes to its name already. Its pair of ORECA-built Gibson-powered prototypes mixed it with the Toyotas at the test day and with drivers such as former Audi race winner Andre Lotterer among the line-up, the experience to achieve greatness is in its grasp. The rules favour Toyota and its hybrid, in terms of stint length as well as out-right pace – but if Rebellion can run a clean race for at least one of its cars, you never know.

Of the other privateers in the top LMP1 category for the fastest prototypes, Bykolles Racing’s singleton entry and the three BR Engineering cars will all hope to be contenders. Ex-F1 world champion Jenson is among those hoping to spring a surprise, driving for the Russian SMP Racing team. In Mikhael Aleshin and fellow F1 old boy Vitaly Petrov, he has quick team-mates, but as is the case for all the privateers, avoiding new-car reliability problems is a tough task at Le Mans. New racers have won first time out at the 24 Hours in the past – but not often. Top six finishes and podium aspirations are more realistic than a victory. But again, with this race, you never know.

Can LMP2 pull off the shock of the century?

If Toyota does implode once again, it might be just as likely that an overall winner comes from the slower LMP2 prototype class. Once upon a time, such a suggestion would have been scoffed at. But last year, it almost happened – and with doubt always nagging away at Toyota and the LMP1 privateers coming to the race so unproven, the reliable LMP2 brigade of seasoned campaigners could be in with a shout of an unforgettable result.

Among the entries, the throng of teams running ORECAs could all contend for the class victory (and maybe more), but the good news is the Ligiers should be more competitive than last year following an aerodynamics rules break. Driver talent in this class is becoming richer by the season and boasts this year such stars as Le Mans debutant and former F1 grand prix winner Juan Pablo Montoya, a veteran of the Daytona 24 Hours in the US. As ever, the form guide suggests the class is wide open.

To spot the difference between LMP1 and LMP2, look out for the blue number squares instead of red for the secondary prototypes, and the ‘P2’ stickers on their flanks.

GTE: supercar heaven for the big manufacturers

While LMP1 has struggled to retain interest for car manufacturers frightened off by multi-million dollar budgets to build sophisticated hybrids, the ‘grand touring’ GTE category for familiar-looking supercars continues to attract massive attention from some of the world’s most famous makes.

This year, the race within a race presents Porsche vs Ford vs Ferrari vs Corvette vs BMW vs Aston Martin… what a stunning prospect.

One of four Porsche 911s entered topped the test day times, but Ford’s GT was mixing it for pace too. Aston Martin won the race last year with its ageing Vantage, but returns with a stunning new version of the car this time and with an impressive testing programme under its belt, the British team has high expectations. Can Aston win again in its new bright green livery?

Ferrari’s factory-blessed AF Corse team is full of ambition to take the Prancing Horse back to the top at Le Mans, while BMW’s stunning new M8 promises to offer more than just good looks. And you can never rule out the Corvettes, which are almost becoming ubiquitous at a race the American Pratt & Miller will take on for a 19th consecutive time. That’s simply remarkable.

Honours in both the Pro and Am GTE classes are wide open. Look out for the green square backgrounds for the numbers on the Pro-class cars, while the Am entries feature orange number squares. These stunning looking cars are more than just traffic for the prototypes to negotiate. The will contribute plenty to what looks certain to be another unforgettable Le Mans 24 Hours.

Enjoy the biggest race of the year!