Le Mans 2015 preview: the frontrunners and riders

Published: 08 June 2015

Le Mans 2015 factory LMP1 cars

► Four ways to win Le Mans: who's right?
► Factory LMP1 runners and riders for 2015
► It's Toyota vs Porsche vs Audi vs Nissan

Front-wheel drive versus four-wheel drive, big V8s versus tiny turbo V4s, and a Nissan from way out of leftfield: there are four factory teams at Le Mans 2015, with four very different ideas of what a winning car looks like. Who's got their sums right ahead of this weekend?

Toyota TS040: the rocketship

Toyota TS040

With V8 power and super-slippery aero, last year’s endurance 
world champions and Le Mans pole-sitters aren’t short of speed.

What makes it tick? The engine bit is a good old-fashioned petrol V8 – a 3.7-litre naturally-aspirated thug – supplemented by electric motor generators front and rear, driving both axles to the tune of nearly 1000bhp in total. Supercapacitors store the juice, rather than batteries.

Pedigree? The TS040 scooped the World Endurance drivers’ and constructors’ titles last year and led much of Le Mans, only to be foiled by electrical gremlins. For 2015 the car’s had aero updates, lost a bit of weight and had its suspension fettled to give the tyres an easier time. Presumably they’ve had another look at the wiring, too…

Who's driving it? Toyota is fielding two cars. Car #1 will be piloted by Brit Anthony Davidson and his World Endurance co-champion team-mate Sebastien Buemi, together with ex-Williams F1 driver Kazuki Nakajima. Car #2 features another Briton, Mike Conway, alongside Alex Wurz and Stephane Sarrazin.

They say: ‘It looks the same but we have redesigned 80% of the parts.’

We say: They were robbed last year – favourites. 

Porsche 919: the dark horse

Porsche 919 Hybrid

A baptism of fire last year, but plenty of lessons have been learned.

What makes it tick? A petrol-fuelled, turbo’d 2.0-litre V4 powers the rear wheels and an electric motor the fronts. The 919 boasts two energy recovery systems; one harvests kinetic energy from the front axle under braking, the other thermal energy from the exhaust gases under acceleration, topping up a centrally mounted lithium-ion battery pack.

Pedigree? Porsche has more Le Mans wins to its credit than anyone (16 to Audi’s 13) but endured a tough return last year. The 919 struggled for pace and reliability, with both cars failing to finish. Almost every component has been evolved for 2015.

Who's driving it? Porsche has entered three cars, each in a different livery. Ex-Red Bull F1 star Mark Webber's in the red #17 car, with Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard. Romain Dumas, Neel Jani and Marc Lieb share the black #18 919, and current F1 driver Nico Hulkenberg is taking a break from his duties at Force India to drive the white #19 car with Earl Bamber and another Brit, Nick Tandy.

They say: ‘Proven base has been extensively optimised’ – they’re German, by the way.

We say: Could spring a real surprise. 

Audi R18: the flying diesel

Audi R18 LMP1

A conservative design, but then the R18 has won every Le Mans it’s contested.

What makes it tick? A mid-mounted 4.0-litre diesel V6 drives the rear wheels, uprated this year with 549bhp and reduced thirst (by 2.5%). 268bhp recovery system harvests energy under braking, stores it in a flywheel and feeds it back to the front axle.

Pedigree? A thoroughbred. Victorious at Le Mans first time out in 2011, despite losing two cars in huge crashes, and has won every year since.

Who's driving it? Three cars; in car #7, Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer, car #8 Lucas di Grassi, Loic Duval and another Brit, Oliver Jarvis, and car #9 Filipe Albuquerque, Marco Bonanomi and Rene Rast.

They say: ’Significantly improved lap times with reduced fuel consumption.’

We say: Like Countryfile, the Audis are always there come Sunday afternoon. 

Nissan GT-R LM NISMO: the weird one

Nissan GT-R LM Nismo

New for 2015, Nissan’s contender is a front-engined, mainly front-drive oddball

What makes it tick? New for 2015, the GT-R LM’s curious layout – the petrol-powered 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 sits up front, and drives the front wheels – is a ballsy attempt to maximise aero performance. By putting the engine in the nose and driving the narrow rear tyres via a high-mounted differential, outboard gearboxes and a complex system of driveshafts, Nissan has created two huge aero tunnels running almost directly from front splitter to rear diffuser.
A kinetic energy recovery system harvests from the front axle but can deploy its power to all four wheels, and promises to at least equal the V6’s 500bhp-ish contribution.

Pedigree? An unknown quantity of Biblical proportions, the GT-R is a work-in-progress.

Who's driving it? Nissan has also opted for a trio of cars for Le Mans 2015. In car 21, it's Tsugio Matsuda, Mark Shulzhitskiy and former GT Academy winner Lucan Ordonez. Sharing car 22 are two British drivers, Harry Tincknell and Alex Buncombe with experienced German hand Michael Krumm. And there are two Brits in car 23 too, recent F1 racer Max Chilton and another GT Academy winner, Jann Mardenborough, with Frenchman Olivier Pla.

They say: ‘The first year has to be credible. We should qualify ninth.’

We say: Japan’s only Le Mans winner, the rotary Mazda 787B, was also a wacky racer.

By Ben Miller

The editor of CAR magazine, story-teller, average wheel count of three