All the teams must go through scrutineering on June 2-3, which is one of the more unique aspects of the great French sports car race.
LMDh cars share common hybrid components.
Except doing things like everybody else is a formula for finishing second at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The Americans will be at Le Mans in full view this year. What are the chances that one of the new LMDh Cadillacs backed by GM or one of the Porsches being run by Roger Penske can score an overall victory? Will American driver Ben Keating bring home a second straight winner’s trophy in the GTE Am class, this time with Corvette Racing. Can Glickenhaus repeat its podium performance?
It’s a 24-hour, so anything can happen. But first, all the teams must go through scrutineering on June 2-3, which is one of the more unique aspects of the great French. Held at the Place de la Republique in the city center, scrutineering is akin to running a gauntlet.
It will be the first-time through for the new LMDh cars of IMSA’s GTP class.
Once through, the scrutiny is not over. At the dawn of the Group C prototype era in 1982, the Mirage M12 entered by Harley Cluxton, which Mario and Michael Andretti were scheduled to drive, was pushed off the starting grid just before engines were fired when a violation was spotted by inspectors.
Jonathan Diuguid, the manager of Porsche Penske Motorsport’s three Porsche 963 entries, took an LMP2 car to Le Mans last year with Team Penske in part to get familiar with the grand tradition of scrutineering and its station-to-station approach in front of fans and other competitors, often equipped with cameras for spy shots. After inspections on Friday and Saturday, the Test Day will take place on Sunday.
“Each team is required to bring the encyclopedia that is their homologation document to tech,” said Diuguid. “They can randomly pick five pages out of that and say, ‘I want you to show me this part.’ They can compare it to the picture and the drawing and then say, ‘We’re going to weigh it.’
“I think with that approach,” continued Diuguid, “teams don’t really operate outside the technical regulations too much, because the technical inspection is there and we rely on the FIA and ACO to tech all the cars the same and make sure everybody is operating in the box they should have and focus on our team and try to maximize that.”
It’s the same for everybody, right? Especially since the LMDh cars share common hybrid components. Except doing things like everybody else is a formula for finishing second.
Mike O’Gara, who will manage the two Cadillac V-Series.R entries of Chip Ganassi Racing, experienced his first trip through Le Mans scrutineering with Ford’s GT LM in 2016 – and won in the top GT class.
“How we interpret homologation and how we interpret series rules, I think that’s one area where Chip Ganassi Racing has excelled over the last 30 years,” said O’Gara. “Taking all those restrictions and perfecting and maximizing certain restrictions. Yes, the cars have to look a certain way. We have to use parts from our manufacturer. Where we tend to rise above is how all that goes together to make a good and reliable race car.”
Gary Nelson, the longtime NASCAR crew chief who was hired as the fox to guard the henhouse when he became the Winston Cup director in 1991, will take the Cadillac V-Series.R of Action Express Racing prototype through scrutineering.
He once guided Bobby Allison to victory in the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, because their Buick got nearly 10 miles more mileage on a single tank in the final green flag stint than any other entry. The year was 1984 and a rare complete post-race teardown by NASCAR, including the removal of all the quarter panels, revealed no clues.
Nelson will be making his first appearance in the Place de la Republique. “It’s like walking into a dark room, turning on the light and hoping everything is in the right places,” he said. “We don’t want to get something wrong and look silly and cause ourselves more problems.”
If the first three rounds of the World Endurance Championship and the performance of the LMH entries is any indication, the teams in the LMDh category will need to find an advantage.
“Toyota and Ferrari have come out strong and Toyota has a lot of experience at Le Mans,” said Diuguid. “We expect them to operate as a really competitive and flawless organization especially when it comes to pace. Beyond that, we have to focus on what we can control, maximizing our pace potential, whatever that may be, and also minimizing mistakes and making sure we execute to the best of the team’s ability. At the end of the race, if we do all that, we can look ourselves in the mirror and say we did everything within our control to be able to win. Sometimes the race chooses you.”
Safety Car Protocol Twist
Another element of complication at Le Mans with its 8.5-mile track are safety car periods.
This year’s race will have a new procedure, resembling the one used by IMSA, albeit initially utilizing three safety cars before the field is closed up for the re-start. That is expected to keep more cars in each class on the lead lap and perhaps stimulate closer finishes. It may set up a late-race battle between the LMH entries, but could also keep the LMDh cars in the hunt along with Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus, whose 007 chassis finished third and fourth last year behind the Toyotas.
“I love the new rule,” said O’Gara. “We’re all for it. We want to go and race at the end. When we went (with GT cars) you could lose two minutes under the safety car and never make it up again. For us, this style of racing that was different from what we were used to in the states, we were disappointed. The new procedure is going level the playing field a bit and hopefully put more cars in the fight at the end of the race to compete for the win.”
The fact teams can and do get through scrutineering with some advantages as well as through the Balance of Performance process has been clear to Keating, an annual competitor at Le Mans. “Once the race started last year, the Porsches were two seconds a lap faster,” said the Texan, who co-drove an Aston Martin Vantage.
“I’m so proud of how we won,” he continued. “Not one Porsche qualified in the top seven last year, but by the end of the first hour the top six were all Porsches and they were two seconds a lap faster. Porsche played the game and saved it for the start of the race. We won because we had a perfect race.”
Keating thinks the jury is out on the new safety car procedure. He welcomes the return of tire warmers only for the WEC race at Le Mans as safer, but does not think it will help the Corvette team’s chances.
Warming the Tires, Watching the BOP
Racing for more than two decades in IMSA, where tire warmers are not allowed, the Corvette team developed techniques for quickly bringing tires up to operating temperatures without hurting their performance at the end of stints. “I think that’s why we won two races (this year),” said Keating, who co-drives with Nicky Catsburg and Nicholas Varrone and won the WEC rounds at Sebring and Portimão, where the new rule disallowing tire warmers was in effect.
Because it’s the last year of the GTE Am category and its cars, the Corvette, Aston Martins, Ferraris and Porsches are likely to be flat out without regard to any future BOP penalties. Focused as always on being the fastest gentleman driver, Keating said he hopes his Corvette team will have enough pace in its “back pocket” once the race starts to cover what all the other competitors have gotten through scrutineering and the BOP process.
“It’s going to be interesting to watch,” he said. “If you ask any of the teams whether they’d rather win Le Mans or the season championship, they’d say Le Mans.”