There’s always a heavy concentration on the cars and drivers for the Le Mans 24 Hours, but in 2017 three of the four classes also feature a battle between two major tyre manufacturers, Dunlop and Michelin.
After a major restructure just a handful of seasons ago Dunlop are back in full force, their Technical Partnership in GTE Pro with Aston Martin Racing helped the V8 Vantage GTE to two out of three available class titles, and a near thing for the clean sweep.
At Le Mans they are, once again, the sole non-Michelin takers in GTE Pro for 2017 whilst in GTE Am all three Aston Martins, and all four Porsches, have opted to race with Dunlop rubber.
The new for 2017 LMP2 class meanwhile is a real highlight on the entry, a record 25 of the 600 bhp cars provides both a technical and a logistical challenge, in particular for Dunlop who have secured 22 of the 25 teams as customers (including all of the dominant Orecas, all three Dallaras and all but two of the Ligiers.
In all that means that 31 of the 60 car entry have chosen Dunlop, only the LMP1 class is an all-Michelin affair.
We have a tyre war!
That’s good for on-track competition, both in terms of potential pace and longevity, good for both brands in terms of the pace of their development and good therefore for the customers who see the benefits of that development trickle down into their road car tyres.
Those benefits come, in no small part because of the challenges provided by the unique Le Mans circuit, 13.629 kilometres of mostly public road, a mix of super quick and much slower corners (38 in all) that test the car’s mechanical grip to the max.
Changes this year to the LMP2 class mean that there are even more challenges in finding a competitive advantage, The teams need to look harder to find competitive advantages, the all new cars mean less information available for set-up.
As an example, In 2016 Jota Sport had 80,000km of data for the #38 Gibson, in 2017 they have just 7,000 km for the pair of Oreca 07 Gibsons they campaign on behalf of Jackie Chan DC Racing.
There’s no doubt though that the new cars will be much, much quicker in dry weather than their forebears, pace even from the test day showing that the now decade old class lap record, 3:32.301 set by Jos Verstappen in the Van Merksteijn Porsche RS Spyder Evo in 2008 qualifying is set to be smashed. No fewer than 14 cars bettered that time at the Test Day.
Its not just in pace though that the tyres can, and will, make a potential race deciding difference.
More often than not the cars that win at Le Mans are those that can spend as little time as possible in the pits. Avoiding having to change the tyres as often as possible whilst keeping up the pace therefore can make a major difference.
With the teams restricted to just four pit crew allowed on pit road to change tyres making multiple stints is more critical than ever.
For LMP2 fuel stints are expected to be shorter than 2016 due to increased power vs fuel capacity: 9-10 laps per stint – 33-35 minutes (though some are aiming to stretch that to 11 laps with lift and coast tactics).
That all adds up to 40 to 44 stops expected compared to 30-34 stops in 2016 for the class.
Dunlop meanwhile say that Test Day showed that in the right conditions their dry weather tyres are capable of a quadruple stint (545km) with potential for five stints with the right set-up, weather and track conditions (680km)
The GT cars meanwhile are expected to remain at approximately 54 minutes per stint/ or 14 laps. Their tyres are expected to at least triple stint (572km). A trouble-free race should therefore involve 24-26 stops.
To service that little lot Dunlop will bring no fewer than 10 trucks to the race plus 80 specialist staff, 30 fitters (working on a shift system with 20 on site at all times), 30 pit lane and technical support engineering staff plus 20 management, logistics and PR personnel.
The business of providing the round things at each corner of more than half of the Le Mans entry is an involved task!