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24 Hours of Le Mans: Automakers Have Expanded the Top Class

Rewind 12 months to the centenary edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France, and the big story was the return of Ferrari and Porsche. Ferrari won that event at its first attempt back in the top class of Le Mans for 50 years. Now, three more major carmakers are trying to do the same.

Alpine, BMW and Lamborghini have joined the Hypercar class for this year. These are prototype machines that lead the multiclass racing for which Le Mans has long been famous. Slower LMP2 prototypes and GT cars that more closely resemble road cars make up the rest of the field.

The number of Hypercar manufacturer entrants had swelled to five last year from three in 2022. Now, with the addition of the Isotta Fraschini team, the factory entries from Alpine, BMW and Lamborghini make it nine manufacturers competing for overall Le Mans success. In total, these squads provide the cars that have the best chance of winning the race.

“We will have an event bigger than last year,” said Pierre Fillon, president of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, which has organized Le Mans throughout its 101-year history.

More established teams head into this year’s race as the favorites. Ferrari is seeking to defend last year’s win in front of about 325,000 expected spectators. Toyota, which won the previous five races, came close to beating Ferrari last year. Toyota has also won one of three F.I.A. World Endurance Championship events this year. Porsche has won the other two.

But for the newcomers, what Ferrari achieved in 2023 is “a great inspiration,” said Vincent Vosse, who is an owner of Team WRT, which will run BMW’s two cars at Le Mans this year.

“It was something very important,” Vosse said in an interview in May.

This is reflected in the club’s measurements of interest in the W.E.C., which it organizes. While Le Mans is the championship’s most famous race and typically sells all its tickets, the other seven races on the calendar are much smaller. This is also in comparison to Formula 1, which is holding events on six of the same tracks as the W.E.C. in 2024.

Fillon said the Belgian W.E.C. race at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit had about 90,000 spectators in May. This is up from about 70,000 last year and 54,000 in 2022. Fillon said the increase was evidence that additional carmakers’ taking part was fueling interest.

“It’s this virtuous circle,” he said. “The grid is fantastic, so you have more fans. You have more fans, so you have more media. You have more media and so on.”

The Hypercar rules are now four years old. They focus on keeping the cars from different manufacturers racing at similar speeds. Costs are also lower compared with old Le Mans classes, such as the Le Mans Prototype 1, or LMP1, cars that formed the top class before 2021. Team budgets are also around 80 percent lower than previously typical totals that were approaching 200 million euros, or about $226 million. The Hypercar designs also must feature hybrid engines.

“Hypercar is a good balance between financial impact, competition, what we learn and how big the audience is,” Rouven Mohr, Lamborghini’s chief technical officer said.

In 2022, Lamborghini decided to enter the Hypercar class with a factory team for 2024. It has previously built cars to compete in GT racing and organizes its own championship only for Lamborghini models called the Super Trofeo series. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it produced engines for several Formula 1 teams.

Lamborghini at Spa-Francorchamps in May. The automaker has also entered the Hypercar class at Le Mans.Credit…Kristof Vermeulen/Eurasia Sport Images, via Getty Images

Mohr said Lamborghini viewed motorsport as “one of the central pillars of our company’s strategy” for selling its road cars. But it also uses competition experience to increase the knowledge and skills of its road car engineers.

“We are deeply convinced that motorsport is always a good training level,” Mohr said.

Alpine has entered the Hypercar class before. It was allowed to run an adapted LMP1 car in 2021 and 2022 within the class, which was new at the time. But its 2024 car is Alpine’s first bespoke Hypercar design. The brand is owned by the Renault Group and has a Le Mans pedigree: It won the race in 1978.

“The Alpine strategy is to develop brand awareness globally thanks to motorsport,” said Bruno Famin, Alpine’s motorsport vice president. Famin is also the team principal of its Formula 1 team.

“Two of the key pillars [in that strategy], one is much bigger than the other — Formula 1, the most globally known motorsport championship in the world,” Famin said. “The second one is the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a global event as well, where Alpine has a history. And with the awareness of this incredible race, this is why Alpine is racing in the W.E.C.”

When BMW ran its Hypercar in testing in 2022, Franciscus van Meel, chief executive of its motorsport and high-performance road cars division, said the rules were ideal “to show how exciting electrified BMW M cars will be in the future.”

But BMW also is bringing a new Art Car to Le Mans this year. It will be the latest iteration of its long-running program in which artists create the car’s livery. Since 1975, 20 artists, including Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, have contributed designs, with six used on cars that raced at Le Mans. This year, the Ethiopian-born artist Julie Mehretu will produce the latest art car.

“It’s a great feeling,” Vosse said of this element of BMW’s Le Mans history.

Vosse has a special connection to this, too. When BMW last won Le Mans — in 1999 — he was racing for a Porsche GT team that occupied the pit lane area next to BMW’s team.

“I could not believe that 25 years later I’m sitting there with the people from BMW, trying to achieve our goals [of winning again],” Vosse said. “It’s something very special.”

Famin and Mohr said Le Mans would be a learning experience, but wanted their new cars to be competitive against the established front-runners.

BMW is “in a very different situation,” Vosse said. This is because in 2023 its car started racing in the International Motor Sports Association, or IMSA, championship, which shares the Hypercar rules under its Grand Touring Prototype class. Porsche and another Hypercar competitor, Cadillac, also raced in IMSA last year, but these teams also raced in W.E.C., gaining a year of experience on the tracks that championship visits. Vosse feels this hands them an experience edge on BMW.

“We know how difficult this is,” he said. “We know that BMW, when they started the program, they started a bit late — if you compare to other manufacturers, who were there already [in W.E.C.] in 2023.”

This is the biggest hurdle for all three newcomers seeking to match Ferrari’s success at Le Mans last year. Andrea Piccini, the Lamborghini team principal, said it was “like David and Goliath” for such expectations for his team, considering Ferrari’s W.E.C. entry is engineered alongside its Formula 1 car.

But when brands come to Le Mans, ultimately “their target is to win,” Fillon said.

“After so many years with only Toyota, it was fresh air for all the fans to see Ferrari win last year,” he said. “But I think it was very important to have that fresh air,” to have new winners.

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