Audi has won 12 of the last 15 events, the scion of Auto Union is trying to make it 13 this year. To do so, it will have to overcome a situation faced only three other times during its dominance of La Sarthe: underdog status. Toyota has won the first two races of the year and claimed pole for this race, the rumor being that this year it's Toyota's race to lose.
And then there's Porsche. It's been 16 years since the Stuttgart brand raced on the top rung at Le Mans, three years years since it announced its return, just a year since it acquired Mark Webber in a signing that wasn't subtle and a few months since we got eyes on the 919 Hybrid.
Based on the number of incidents over the past few days, we expect the race to be less than subtle, too. Head below for our notes on what we've seen and heard and read so far.
CLASH OF THE...
This will be a fabulous year for those who just want to know what kind of novel designs engineers can conceive when given free reign. The race pits a 513-horsepower, naturally-aspirated 3.7-liter gasoline V8 (Toyota) against a 510-hp 4.0-liter turbodiesel V6 (Audi) against a 2.0-liter turbocharged gasoline V4 (Porsche), all with hybrid assistance that push the total hp number for each car to about 1,000.
Both the Toyota and Porsche have superior top speed and downforce compared to the Audi. Key for pole-sitter Toyota is that in conjunction with its larger fuel tank and greater allowable rate of fuel usage than the Audi, and its expected six-megajoule energy usage per lap, watchers guess that the Toyota can do one lap more than the Audi, 14 laps to 13. Toyota has said that's not nearly as big an advantage as people make out, and Audi knows about overcoming top speed and lap deficits from its fights with Peugeot. Nevertheless, everyone agrees that the best strategy at Le Mans is to stay out on track; a TS040 can lay down some serious distance over 24 hours at an average speed of 150 miles per hour while the R18 e-tron Quattro is in the pits.
Porsche fell just short in its bid for pole position, the #14 919 Hybrid driven by Romain Dumas, Neel Jani and Marc Lieb lining up in second place 0.357 behind the #7 Toyota of Kazuki Nakajima, Alexander Wurz and Stephane Sarrazin. Pole position would have been a coup for this race, allowing the brand to make huge news before the race even began since it's not expected to finish in its first year back. Technical Director Alex Hitzinger told Autosport, "We think we have addressed the issues that we have encountered before, but the probability that we will find new issues in the 24 Hours is high. Our car has 7,000 parts and you only need one part to break to stop you."
The Audis lined up fifth, sixth and seventh on the grid, the fifth-placed car 1.5 seconds behind pole position, but the brand hasn't historically been worried about starting at the front. With all its been through over the week so far, though, it will be happy to have three cars still on the grid and lapping well, even if the driver's seat of the #1 car – which has had incidents at the Porsche Curves and the Esses – seems to be a tricky place to spend time.
Elsewhere on the grid, the two stiffer, faster Corvette C7.Rs look to have shaken off the poor showing of the C6.R last year, lining up in second and fourth in the LMGTE Pro class. If only there were two Vipers to join them...
During the Saturday morning practice the Nissan ZEOD RC completed the first all-electric lap of Le Mans and looks to do it again during the race after the sun goes down and temperatures drop.
THE RED FLAG OF COURAGE
Red flags have very nearly been the most ubiquitous symbol of qualifying this year. We went out on track to take pictures of the first of two qualifying sessions on Wednesday, and almost as soon as we got to the Ford Chicane we saw the flag come out for an errant Ferrari (when it comes to tire walls this year, Ferraris have been heavy hitters). With practice and qualifying sessions repeatedly interrupted by crashes there have been something like seven red flags in 24 hours. Le Mans always sees plenty of incidents, but the question is whether the pox of red flags is a harbinger for the race, especially with the new inclusion of "Slow Zones," meant to slow the field down to 60 kph around areas where cars being removed from the track. The slow zones, which are in place while the field is racing on-track, are an effort to lessen the need for safety cars. But with so many different kinds of cars traveling at such different speeds, no one knows how it's going to work out in the race.
We took a shuttle bus around the track, with terrific John Hindaugh of Radio Le Mans as our tour guide and color commentator. It is frankly impossible to understand just how historic, wild and tricky the track is until you've traveled its length. The climb up to Dunlop Bridge (Dunlop didn't just buy that signage, we were told it is the most successful tire manufacturer at Le Mans, followed by Michelin) is nearly as steep as the ramp to the first turn at Circuit of the Americas, only a lot longer and with two tricky turns.
Over the blind crest, the track falls away into the the Chicane and the Esses. At one spot in the track by the Bugatti Curve (used for the Moto GP race but not Le Mans), the massive downforce of the Porsche 919s causes their titanium undertray plates to scrape the ground and they've left gouges in the track. After that comes Tertre Rouge, where the barrier at the very end of the curve has been moved back in the wake of Alan Simonson's fatal crash last year.
Then comes the 3.5-mile-long Mulsanne Straight, the first stretch of the track that's normally a public road - there's an on-ramp to enter it at the beginning and a roundabout at its end. But we didn't realize how public it was until we saw that the barriers are laid right up against grocery store parking lots, the back yards of private homes and sometimes the back walls of shops and homes. Later on we got in a helicopter, and followed one of the Corvettes blasting down the straight. With the dashed line separating the two lanes, it looked felt like we were in a news helicopter following a high-speed chase. Because it's a public road, French law dictates that it's built with a crown at the center. It doesn't disturb private traffic or our tour bus, but the prototypes choose a side to run down so they can avoid humping it over the crown.
Standing at the end of straight really put the point on Anthony Davidson's crash last year. We were told that prototype cars are still going flat out at the Mulsanne kink just before the 90-degree right-hander at the Muslanne corner, then have about 100 meters to slow down. Standing there, it's hard to believe slowing down from such speeds is even possible.
After that it's all old-school Europe, with huge stands of trees and wide belts of grassland until you get to the narrow and concrete-wall-lined Porsche Curves.
For now, enjoy our gallery of 100+ photos, many courtesy of friend-of-Autoblog George Achorn at Fourtitude. We'll be back with a mid-race update and another gallery later tonight.