Inside the real LMP1 battle at Le Mans

Leading privateer LMP1 teams Rebellion Racing and SMP Racing are predicting a close battle for 'best of the rest' in the Le Mans 24 Hours behind the dominant Toyotas.

Inside the real LMP1 battle at Le Mans

Despite the efforts of the FIA and the Automobile Club de l'Ouest to bring the Toyota TS050 Hybrids and the non-hybrid LMP1s closer together through its Equivalence of Technology formula, it's clear it will take serious misfortune to hit the overwhelming favourites for SMP or Rebellion to even get a sniff of a challenge for outright honours.

Even if the Russian and Swiss teams could equal Toyota’s one-lap pace, the Japanese brand’s faster pitstops, longer stints and better traffic management with the help of its hybrid boost are once again expected to yield an advantage of several laps over a 24-hour period.

If Toyota manages to stay out of trouble, it will be up to SMP and Rebellion to provide the real fireworks in the top category. Both teams were relatively evenly-matched in qualifying, with especially SMP having made significant steps with its BR Engineering BR1 challenger since last year.

In qualifying SMP driver Egor Orudzhev handed his team a third place on the grid with a best effort of 3m16.159s, just two tenths quicker than Rebellion’s Gustavo Menezes.

#10 Dragonspeed BR Engineering BR1: Henrik Hedman, Ben Hanley, Renger Van der Zande, #3 Rebellion Racing Rebellion R-13: Nathanael Berthon, Gustavo Menezes, Thomas Laurent

#10 Dragonspeed BR Engineering BR1: Henrik Hedman, Ben Hanley, Renger Van der Zande, #3 Rebellion Racing Rebellion R-13: Nathanael Berthon, Gustavo Menezes, Thomas Laurent

Photo by: Marc Fleury

Marrying its turbocharged AER power unit to an aggressive low-downforce package, the two Dallara-built cars are capable of reaching top speeds of over 350 km/h on the Circuit de la Sarthe’s long straights, some 10km/h faster than Rebellion is capable of with even its upgraded, naturally aspirated Gibson power plant and refreshed aerokits.

Rebellion’s Andre Lotterer fears SMP’s top speeds will prove to be a powerful weapon in the privateer battle, telling Motorsport.com: "Their turbo engine is pretty good. It’s definitely a strength, we’re lacking a bit there.

“Hopefully there will be a good fight. The thing is, even if we have the same speed over a lap or even maybe a bit quicker, on the straights they have a benefit in traffic. We can easily be stuck longer behind an LMP2 car than them. That factor could be the difference.”

Rebellion is also facing reliability headaches after both its cars hit engine trouble during qualifying, throwing into question one area Neel Jani had identified as his team's main strong point against SMP ahead of the start of qualifying.

“I did a 3m17s-low on a used set [of tyres]," Jani said of his qualifying effort. "So we knew we could go 16s-low, we could have challenged for P3, no doubt.

"We never had issues with the engine, it’s the first time. So now we have to find out if it’s something [with the new spec] or not. For sure there’s some head-scratching going on because it shouldn’t happen."

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#1 Rebellion Racing Rebellion R-13: Andre Lotterer, Neel Jani, Bruno Senna

#1 Rebellion Racing Rebellion R-13: Andre Lotterer, Neel Jani, Bruno Senna

Photo by: Marc Fleury

SMP’s Le Mans veteran Stephane Sarrazin is pleased with the compromises the Russian team has made for its second attempt at Le Mans.

“Rebellion look fast in the high-speed corners, we are faster on the straights,” he said. "Le Mans is a compromise with the level of downforce you use, where you want to be fast. This year we need an easy car to drive but it will be very similar to last year, a good battle with Rebellion.

"We were 9km/h quicker than Rebellion but it depends on the compromise. It’s important to overtake the LMP2s on the straight to gain time.”

Sarrazin’s rookie teammate Stoffel Vandoorne downplayed the top speed advantage of the BR1. “Of course it helps on the straights but it’s a compromise on downforce”, Vandoorne told Motorsport.com. “In the corners we can't follow as closely as we would have liked. The car feels pretty light there. I think it has its pros and cons."

Lotterer is not surprised by SMP Racing’s stronger progression over the 2018/19 WEC superseason, citing budget reasons for Rebellion’s more modest pace of development.

“If you look at the amount of power and fuel we’re allowed, if you give those regulations to a factory team I think they could be quite quick," he said.

#17 SMP Racing BR Engineering BR1: Stéphane Sarrazin, Egor Orudzhev, Sergey Sirotkin

#17 SMP Racing BR Engineering BR1: Stéphane Sarrazin, Egor Orudzhev, Sergey Sirotkin

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

"Whether it’s chassis or engine systems or aerodynamics, I think we’re pretty good but there’s so much potential to be unlocked. You can't expect it from teams like SMP or us because it just costs a lot more resources for everything.

"If they put a bit more resources into it, they can find big steps. We did also a big step with our aero package, so it’s more adjusted for Le Mans, but we’re also a bit limited with our resources. We would like to do more, but it’s what we have.” 

Sarrazin acknowledged the Dallara-built BR1 has been vastly improved since its Le Mans debut 12 months ago, but has also pointed at improvements within ART Grand Prix, which runs the two SMP Racing cars. The French superteam has a strong pedigree in single-seaters, but is still relatively new to sportscar racing.

"We improved a lot since last year here,” Sarrazin added. "We did a lot of development in the car, engine, aero, and chassis. We also improved the team, because ART was new in endurance and they learn quickly. We know each other and what we have to do, drivers and mechanics.” 

#17 SMP Racing BR Engineering BR1: Stéphane Sarrazin, Egor Orudzhev, Sergey Sirotkin

#17 SMP Racing BR Engineering BR1: Stéphane Sarrazin, Egor Orudzhev, Sergey Sirotkin

Photo by: Rainier Ehrhardt

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