From the pages of RACER: Can customer 963s vie for a Le Mans win?

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With 20 factory cars on the Hypercar entry list for the 2024 24 Hours of Le Mans, it would be easy to look past the trio of privately-run Porsche 963s that are part of the storied German marque’s six-car fleet tasked with earning it a 20th overall victory. But ignore them at your peril, as both HERTZ Team JOTA and Proton Competition are in it to win it, and both believe they have a shot.

Privateers have long been the bedrock of sports car racing. Through thick and thin they’ve been on hand, pushing hard to keep factory-funded outfits honest. The 963 customers are no different and have been threatening to win races since JOTA became the first to run one at the 6 Hours of Spa in May of 2023.


Offering customer 963s so early was a colossal task for Porsche, and significantly impacted its ability to deliver cars on time and focus on results in year one of the LMDh/Hypercar era. Now, though, the gamble is beginning to pay off and it heads to the year’s biggest race with six expertly-run challengers.

Since JOTA’s Hypercar debut, there have been real flashes of potential from the Porsche privateers. JOTA led the centenary Le Mans into the fifth hour before an off at the Porsche Curves, and came achingly close to winning the 2024 FIA World Endurance Championship opener in Qatar. Proton, meanwhile, scored a ’23 podium at Petit Le Mans in IMSA’s GTP class and challenged the front runners in the final hour of the Twelve Hours of Sebring in March.

Of course, matching and beating the likes of Toyota, BMW, Ferrari, Peugeot, Cadillac and Porsche’s revitalized Penske factory effort will be a monumental task. But for the first time since the mid-2000s, it genuinely feels like a privateer could win Le Mans on merit, without relying on a wafer-thin entry or disaster striking the factory teams.

Previously, JOTA gained a reputation for operating at the highest level in LMP2, winning titles and Le Mans three times. Now in the top class, the feeling is that it’s taken a further step and is on par with the factories. That’s why it’s equipped to throw a cat among the pigeons with its pair of handsomely-liveried 963s, crack team of engineering staff, and suite of high-end commercial backers that includes HERTZ, Singer… and NFL legend Tom Brady.

The work behind the scenes to build up the team’s resources has been tireless and began long before the program was launched in March 2023. Looking back, the efforts of co-owners David Clarke and Sam Hignett were worth their weight in “HERTZ Racing Gold.”

JOTA’s 963 started at the back in the 2023 24 Hours, but led into the fifth hour before a crash put it out of winning contention. Image by Steffen Heise

“It’s been a crazy journey going from zero cars, to surviving Spa last year, to now running two,” says Hignett. “To do it, we’ve stuck to what we know. There’s a lot of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ in this paddock. We’re not in that game. To make this happen, all the money we have we invest in human talent, keeping our group together and giving them resources.”

The commitment to pouring as much of its resources as possible into the personnel side is why JOTA’s been able to attract star drivers like Jenson Button, Will Stevens and Callum Ilott. Button, who drives the No. 38 963, has a unique perspective on this. Prior to the start of the 2024 WEC season, he drove an Acura ARX-06 for WTR with Andretti at the Rolex 24.

“Wayne Taylor Racing is probably the best team you’re going to find racing in the States,” he tells RACER when asked for a comparison. “I’ve come from that, to a pure racing team that is probably the best I’ve ever been with. Factory teams are different; this is a true out-and-out race team. That’s what’s exciting for me.

“It’s what I’ve always loved about Formula 1. The privateer teams stay, while manufacturers dip in and out. Coming here has been fun, yet so professional; I was surprised. Stepping up to two cars in Hypercar is a big challenge, but it’s been so natural to them. They focus on the fine details, more than some F1 teams. I certainly have more meetings with them on a race weekend than I did when I was in F1!”

Phil Hanson, who shares the No. 38 with Button and Oliver Rasmussen, raced against JOTA for years in the LMP2 class with United Autosports before signing for the team late last year. He feels the same.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find a team with a better Le Mans record,” he says. “It’s their strongest circuit, which is great, because it’s the one we all care about the most.”

The way a team operates is one thing. The capability of its car is another. The question, therefore, is if Porsche’s early-season wins in IMSA and WEC are a sign of things to come?

Jenson Button, the 2009 F1 world champion, is among JOTA’s driver firepower. Image by Porsche AG

“You have to look at the season on a race-by-race basis really,” Dieter Gass, JOTA’s team principal and previously a major figure in Audi’s all-conquering Le Mans efforts, says. “The BoP [Balance of Performance] is something you can’t influence, and with more than 20 Hypercars, anything can happen. You need to have good drivers; you need to stay out of trouble.”

The BoP table will clearly play a role in the outcome. It will have an impact on pace over a single lap and over a stint. But in WEC, racing is more than that. Raw speed alone cannot be the defining factor. “It really is a matter of who on the day does the better job,” says Gass.

And in the case of Porsche’s privateers, while some information and data is shared between Penske and the customer teams, both Proton and JOTA are left to their own devices when the track action begins. All six 963s are identical and there will be no pressure to play second fiddle to the factory cars.

“Being a privateer brings positives and negatives. We don’t have to do all the testing – Penske can do it for us,” Button says. “But the negative is…you’re not doing all the testing, so you’re taking information from another team…

“The big manufacturers like Toyota and Ferrari, who were up front last year, have to be favorites. But with JOTA’s experience, there’s no reason we can’t be challenging. You see what they did last year – they led the race from last on the grid.”

Two cars improves JOTA’s odds. During race week at La Sarthe, a second car to explore additional setup or strategy options is valuable, particularly if the weather’s changeable.

For Proton Competition, minimum time spent in the pits is essential for any podium challeng. Image by JEP/Motorsport Images

The 963 is also a more mature package now. It’s now reliable and far better on tire life over a stint. Gass is pleased with the progress both his team and the factory have made. This is a car, he feels, that’s finally ready to meet the challenges that Le Mans will throw its way.

“The Qatar podium, in a field of 19 Hypercars, was a huge reward,” he says. “I think the car’s good enough now, not only in performance, but because it’s improved so much in reliability.”

Proton Competition, on the other hand, is slightly less bullish about its prospects. Christian Ried, who co-owns the team, believes its 963, driven by Julien Andlauer, Neel Jani and Harry Tincknell, can fight up front. But he isn’t as confident that an overall win can be on the cards.

“In the end, we have to see what the BoP will be; it’s going to be interesting,” he says. “We have to be realistic. We have a great driver lineup, the car can do 24 hours, so if we stay out of trouble, do the basics and stay out of the pits, I think we could fight for a podium. We are still learning, though – even Penske is, too.”

Nevertheless, you shouldn’t underestimate Proton’s ability to win big races. This is a team that on the outside looks like a small, family-run unit, yet that paints a picture that couldn’t be further from the truth. The scale of its operation is astonishing. At Le Mans, it’s running five cars across the three classes and could nab a podium or better with all of them.

“Ultimately,” Hignett concludes, “we know there’s a huge amount of luck, experience and speed needed to win Le Mans. Luck is about whether the car breaks down or not. Experience, there’s massive value in that. Third is speed – if you have that, you can be there or thereabouts.

“I would put Christian (Ried) and his team in with a chance. He’s capable and things might go his way. Same with us. If one of us pulls it off, I don’t think the party would ever finish. We could dine out on it for the rest of our lives!”

Story originally appeared on Racer