Is Le Mans Porsche’s race to lose?

So, a 1-2-4 for Porsche Penske Motorsport in the combined Le Mans Test Day times yesterday, and no major mechanical dramas or incidents to report from the German marque’s factory program. That’s it then, might as well hand over the trophy and head home…

Not so fast!

As ever, drawing firm conclusions from testing is unwise. With each team working towards a different set of objectives, too much shouldn’t be read into the lap times.

There is so much more to come from the pace of the Hypercars as race week wears on, if it stays dry. The pole time last year was a 3:22.982, four seconds faster than the best lap achieved by Kevin Estre in the No. 6 Penske Porsche during the test.


However, you often get the odd hint of where things stand from post-test body language, conversations and lap counts.

On that basis, should we expect the Porsche 963s to be the class of the field this year? After all, Penske won in Qatar, JOTA won at Spa, and the Penske team appeared upbeat after its performance in the test yesterday after its three-car fleet topped the times on pace and completed 196 laps and 2,671 kilometres during the six hours of track time.

Toyota certainly thinks so.

“The hierarchy is clear,” said Toyota Gazoo Racing’s technical director David Floury after the test. “If Porsche doesn’t win they will have done a pretty bad job. No surprise (after seeing the BoP).”

It was by no means a quiet day for Toyota though, despite Floury’s downbeat tone. The No. 7 GR010 HYBRID topped the Morning session and went on to set the third fastest time in the Afternoon run, the best lap just seven-tenths off the No. 6 Porsche.

Jose Maria Lopez has wasted no time getting reacquainted with Toyota’s Hypercar program. JEP/Motorsport Images

Both GR010 HYBRIDs also began to turn up the wick at the end of the afternoon session, with fast individual sector times from Sebastien Buemi and Kamui Kobayashi before the latter brought out a red flag at the end with an off at Indianapolis.

Nevertheless, Floury feels this year’s race will be Porsche out front, with a competitive fight between multiple manufacturers behind.

“I think (Porsche) has the edge on every aspect and I wonder what Ferrari and Cadillac are doing. Clearly, Porsche is looking very strong,” he said. “BMW looks good as well. Behind Porsche, it should be a good fight.”

Toyota is, however, satisfied that Jose Maria Lopez is already up to speed on his return to the Hypercar team on short notice after Conway’s late withdrawal from the event due to injury.

“By the look of the lap time, it was like he drove the car yesterday,” said Floury. “He was up to speed immediately. There were no issues and he was clearly motivated. He has worked hard to get up to speed with the car’s systems and he is on top of things. We are confident there will be no issue in the race.”

Porsche meanwhile, believes it has a real shot at a 20th overall victory this year. The 963 looks like an entirely different animal in Year 2 and looks to be significantly more capable at the Circuit de la Sarthe for the 2024 event.

While Urs Kuratle, Porsche Motorsport’s director of factory racing, doesn’t believe there can be a standout favorite for this race, he was positive about the team’s prospects ahead of practice and qualifying.

“We will be in the mix, we will be there, but I am not sure you can be favorites because so much can happen.

“We had a really easy, relaxed preparation for this one. During the session, besides a rear-right flat spot on the No. 5 car we had no technical issues and are high on the timing board. It will not be representative of the qualifying ranking though, we are realistic.

“The fact we are in the mix with so many other cars is such a nice thing for the whole sport.”

Elsewhere, there were notable performances from some of the cars that are entirely new to Le Mans.

The No.20 BMW M Hybrid V8 set the sixth-best time and completed plenty of mileage (though the sister car did need an engine change during the day) and the No. 63 Iron Lynx Lamborghini SC63 ended up seventh after 73 tours.

Peugeot’s 2024-spec 9X8 also got its first taste of the La Sarthe asphalt. Its 9X8s ended up 13th and 21st on lap time, but the team believes that the new car is effective on the circuit and there is plenty more to come from the car in performance terms.

“I’m happy to be here compared to last year when I did not do the Prologue,” No. 93 driver Jean-Eric Vergne told the media. “It’s a massive help to get me acquainted to the car and build confidence.

“I think we have a good indication of where we need to go with the setup of the car, and I am happy with the feeling behind the wheel. There are no areas where we are bad, so that’s a positive.

There could be more to come from Peugeot. Jakob Ebrey/Motorsport Images

“Obviously the lap times are not representative, all I care about is the feeling in the car. We know where we can improve and it should be easy to do. We focused our car on setup, the other car on long runs, so we have a lot of data gathered.

“It seems to have improved last year, but frankly that was not difficult.”

Jean-Marc Finot, the senior VP of Stellantis Motorsport, was also keen to stress that the new car is showing signs of improvement.

“It’s ok. We had a software issue on the No. 94 because we downloaded the wrong file, but everything is going well. This track is very specific and difficult, we have a simulator but it’s hard to anticipate the tuning of the car on the aerodynamic and chassis side.

“We also spent a long time seeing the behaviour of tires on long runs.

“For Le Mans, it’s too early to say (where we are in the pecking order), because we don’t know the run plan of our competitors.”

He did however give some insight into his thoughts on the new “two-stage” BoP process that has been introduced for this event, which regulates power output below and above 250 kph, handing the rule-makers greater control over the top speed of the cars.

The hope is that it will prove to be another valuable tool to balance the cars more effectively, particularly on a circuit like this one, which features long stretches of straight road.

The general consensus appears to be that this addition is a positive one. However, Finot downplayed the difference that the percentage of power gain tweaks above 250 kph will make in practice.

“If you change 1 per cent of the power at high speed it will change the top speed of one-third of a percent. So I don’t think it will change a lot. For instance, five kilowatts should be 1 kph or 1.5 maybe, no more.”

Floury from TGR also raised the point that he’d rather it was introduced earlier in the season, rather than right before Le Mans.

“It would have been more comfortable to run it in a previous event. Generally, It’s a good thing, it was needed and it is doing what it was designed for.”

What about Cadillac and Ferrari? Both manufacturers have been coming up in conversations surrounding the OEMs in the fight for victory.

The 2023 pole-sitting No. 50 499P enjoyed a quiet day that resulted in the fifth-fastest time. Cadillac’s three V-Series.Rs on the other hand, would slot in 14th, 16th and 19th, with the No. 3 Ganassi entry having its track time limited by a fuel line issue.

There doesn’t appear to be any sense of panic within the Ganassi or Action Express ranks at this stage though. After achieving an overall podium last year, the Cadillac has form here, and as we all know, you cannot win the Test Day…

“I think we’ve made a significant step forward on systems,” No. 3 driver Sebastien Bourdais said. “We’ve been focusing on race trims and trying to get the balance where we want it, get good tyre data and make sure that balance and grip stay fairly consistent over two or three stints.

“In general, the track seems a bit harder on tires than last year, so there is a bit more sliding around and that’s where we’re trying to see how much margin we have as far as adjustments on the setup to regain the grip that we’ve lost.

“Overall, the car is responding well and the engine side I feel like we have a better handle on things and the systems in general are a lot smoother and predictable than our first time here last year.

“We just have to fine-tune some things to bet ready for qualifying practice.”

Story originally appeared on Racer