24 Hours of Le Mans: Some post-qualifying über-geekery

Look, you Hooniverse readers know me and know I’m a tad nerdy. And you should, by now, know that I’m a huge fan of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. So when given complete access to the Le Mans timing data—and it’s very good, should you go look at it yourself—I naturally got a bit carried away trying to figure out what to expect when the green flag drops at 3 p.m. French time (9 a.m. ET) on Saturday and what may happen when the dust settles at the same time the next day. Follow the jump to bask in my nerdiness.
Be forewarned: There be charts after ye olde jumpe.
Basically, I did a very rudimentary analysis of lap times pulled from all sessions this year on the 8.5-mile Circuit de la Sarthe. That includes the two Test Day sessions nearly two weeks ago, Free Practice on Wednesday afternoon, and the three Qualifying/Practice sessions Wedneday and Thursday nights. Most of the relevant lap times were run in qualifying, but there are a few Test Day and Practice session laps thrown in. Feel free to decry my haphazard research methods in the Comments Section below.
But before you get all nuts about how I’m missing the point, here are some caveats:

  • This is only based on lap times because that’s the only really good source of data for someone who instead of being in France is in suburban Chicago, chained to a desk in his home office and sipping Discount Store Dark Roast Coffee, which I’m reasonably sure is just Maxwell House singed over an open flame.
  • Since it’s only based on lap times and who knows what kind of testing programs people were running, is any of this relevant? Well, most teams need data similar to race conditions to make decisions about what happens during the race, so it’s probably safe to assume that many teams spent the time running at or close to a race pace rather than going for outright speed.
  • I just spilled coffee all over my white shirt.
  • Lap times, especially in the Pro-Am classes, do matter. We’ll cover this.
  • What doesn’t this tell us? As best as I can tell, nobody ran a full fuel stint during any of these sessions so we can’t really tell us who has an advantage there. Ditto with tire wear, although the anecdotal and historical evidence suggests that in LMP1, Porsche will have a fuel mileage advantage, Audi will have a tire wear advantage, and who the hell knows what Toyota are doing?
  • Is there anything that gets coffee stains out of other stains?
  • Reliability is the big question mark for everyone in a 24-hour race. The lap times tell us what will happen under a best-case scenario for each team. For the most part, this race is about making the fewest mistakes and having a car that runs without issue. There are ways of measuring that, but only in the race, generally.

“Enough, caffeinated Excel berserker!” my imagination shouts. “Show us the numbers!”
“Wait, is this just a screenshot from Excel?!” the imagination roars. “Unacceptable!!!”
Well tough, Imagination. I’m pressed for time and you’ll have to make do. Things that are on the graph: fastest qualifying lap, the average of the car’s 20 fastest laps, the average of each driver’s 10 fastest laps, and the car’s fastest speed through the speed trap (which is actually not at the track’s fastest point, but whatever).
If you’re not familiar with the cars, go back and listen to my preview with Brad Brownell or read one of the many fine print versions on Other Websites. The basic idea, however, is that the first eight listed are factory-backed efforts all with a chance at winning. Nissan’s GT-R LM Nismo is running its first ever race and doing so without the hybrid system, which means it will make about 500 horsepower less than it should. It won’t be competitive and that’s OK, Nissan. It’s OK. We like you for who you are. Rebellion’s R-One, meanwhile, is quicker than last year’s car and has been very fast through the speed trap, but it will ultimately be hoping to pick up scraps and luck into a podium.
[By the way, speed-trap speeds (which are in kilometers per hour; convert to miles per hour here) don’t really affect lap times, but they’re neat to look at.]
Anyway, so what should you be looking at? The pole time—Neel Jani in the #18 obliterated the previous record for the current Le Mans configuration in much the same way that coffee is obliterating my kidneys this week—does not really represent the race pace at all, but the 20-lap average should be pretty darn close to what you’ll see from just about every car in the LMP1 and GTE-Pro categories. The closer each car’s fastest lap is to that average, the higher the chance they were spending qualifying working on a race-pace program.
As such, I would absolutely expect Porsche and Audi to duke it out and since the starting grid is Porsche-Porsche-Porsche-Audi-Audi-Audi-Marcia-Marcia-Marcia. That will probably have the TV cameras glued on it for the race’s opening hours. And it will be spectacular. Don’t miss that, like I miss the out-of-doors and a heart that doesn’t have a static rate of 138 beats per minute.
Toyota are interesting in that their car qualified two seconds slower than it did last year, but the car was two seconds faster at the previous WEC rounds this year. That tells me they likely have more speed than they’re showing,  can’t ultimately keep up with Audi and Porsche, and have elected instead to run a tightly controlled and extended testing program. They’ve been grinding out laps—393 of them since Test Day started, to be accurate—and all running in a lap-time bracket, it seems. Expect them to have a plan and stick to it; that’s exactly how Audi beat them last year.
The Nissans, well, it’s the GT-R LM’s first race. There has been an awful lot of hype and expectation over this car, but if they have any of the three running at the half-distance mark, they should be high-fiving each other.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can look for with Nissan. ACO regulations for next year could make this car very competitive if the hybrid system works and Nissan can sort out how to make the car quick through Sector 1 at Le Mans. If the front tires, which will be doing most of the work on the front-wheel-drive car, can go three stints and the rears can go much farther (as has been suggested), then they might have something next year. Add to that the fact that the car runs very low drag and it may very well be able to go a lap longer on a tank of fuel than anyone (I don’t think anyone outside Nissan has any idea yet). If they can run 14 laps (Porsche’s expected fuel number) or more, then I think 2016 may be a good year for Nissan.
As for driver lap time comparisons? It won’t matter much in this class or in GTE-Pro. The drivers are all world-class and anyone off the pace compared with teammates just didn’t get enough seat time in a development car.
“You didn’t tell me there would be color coding,” the imagination groans. “What’s that all about?”
LMP2 is a cost-capped, pro-amateur class. Driver statuses are determined by a color rating (Top to bottom: platinum, gold, silver, bronze) and LMP2 cars must have at least one “amateur” (silver or bronze) driver in them. As much as anything, success in this class and the GTE-AM class hinges on how good your amateur is because pro drivers are, generally speaking, capable of turning laps within 1 percent of each other. If you want to know who is rated what in each car, check out Andy Blackmore’s amazing spotter guide, which has driver rankings and a whole bunch of great information on it. It looks pretty, too.
There are a variety of cars in this class and many of the new closed-top prototypes (Ligier, BR01, Oreca05, and Dome) seem well on the pace. The Oreca05, in fact, seems like a real winner with a slippery shape that works well on Le Mans’ long straights.  That said, the older open-top prototypes (Oreca03/Alpine, Gibson/Zytek, and Morgan) are perfectly capable so coffee. Coffee.
Empty coffee mug.
If you want to look at how well these cars are capable of performing, look at how the amateur drivers have performed (third driver column up there). The Thiriet by TDS, KCMG, Jota, and Signatech Alpine cars are all going to be tough to outpace over a full driver rotation. The minimum driver time is four hours so if one team’s amateur is 10 seconds off the pace of another team’s much-better amateur, they’re going to lose probably most of two laps in that time, if not more.
That said, many of these cars have never run a 24-hour race. Of the new LMP2 chassis, only the Ligiers have been at Le Mans before while all of the older open-top cars have multiple Le Mans appearances (and wins, in some cases) under their five-point harness belts. Problems plagued the entire LMP2 field last year so it’s conceivable that this is a last-car standing scenario, although with a huge 19-car field, that seems unlikely.
Refill that mug, Imagination.
“Alright, the discussion with your imagination is trite and you need to stop incorporating it,” my brain at last told me.
Look, you can see where I left a column highlighted like a complete idiot. Jeez, what a rube I am.
There’s not much to say here, other than the #63 Corvette is now withdrawn after Jan Magnussen’s huge wreck in the Porsche Curves in Qualifying Session 2. Magnussen emerged without injury, but the car was unfixable. That leaves only the #64 Corvette that—along with the Porsches—was probably running race pace the entire time without any attempt at going berserk like the Astons and Ferraris did.
Young Kiwi Richie Stanaway in the #99 Aston Martin is blindingly quick, by the way. Not only did he set the class pole, but over 10 laps he averaged times faster than three cars’ qualifying times. Whoa. That said, the #97 Aston in its blinding art-car livery (top photo) is the model of consistency and experience. That can also be said of the remaining Corvette, both Ferraris (young James Calado in the #71 was nearly as quick as Stanaway), and the #91 Porsche.
I said blinding twice in that paragraph. Mug is empty again.
Basically, the balance of performance is close enough here that while the Astons have a slight edge, it’s likely not enough to keep AF Corse from dogfighting them in the early going while Corvette and Porsche let the race unfold from a relatively safe distance.
“OK, I’ve stopped with the imagination thing,” I say aloud.
“Did you say something?” my coffee cup asks.
Like LMP2, the GTE-AM class features pro-am driver lineups. Unlike LMP2, the GTE-Am rules require two amateur drivers instead of just one.
In the driver lap-averages chart, you can see there’s not a ton of variance among the pro drivers. However, things get very different in the next two columns and the real difference is going to be in the third column.
Aston Martin Racing’s Paul Dalla Lana—a veteran but not-professional driver—somehow is rated a bronze while his teammate, Mathias Lauda (Yes, his dad raced against Chris Hemsworth), is similarly capable as a silver driver. Why does that matter? Dalla Lana’s average lap times are faster than four pro drivers in the class and more than three seconds faster than any other bronze-rated driver, that being Francois Perrodo from AF Corse. And Perrodo is certainly no stranger to Ferraris, nor is Aleksey Basov, who is SMP Racing’s bronze driver and third-quickest bronze in the field.
Beyond that, I have to say that Patrick Dempsey looks great, as  the racecar rockstar actor always does, in the #77 Proton car as the team’s bronzed driver. With Porsche factory driver Patrick Long anchoring that team, they should be a factor along with the second car of the team with Khaled Al Qubaisi in the bronze coffee pot.
The Riley Viper has come along nicely and certainly looks like it could factor in, as well, with Le Mans rookie Marc Miller (the silver driver) looking pretty good and with I’ll-drive-anything-faster-than-it-has-any-right-to-go pilot Jeroen Bleekemolen in the pro seat, I actually like their chances.
Hmm…I’ve written for considerably longer than I’d intended, so this is probably a good place to stop. Feel free to chime in with anything you notice in those graphs that my jittering eyeballs missed. If anyone needs me, I’ll be munching coffee grounds, muttering about sandbagging, and checking my watch every 17 seconds to see if it’s 8 a.m. Chicago time on Saturday yet.
[Editor’s note: Eric wrote this of his own volition. He’s OK, we think.]
[Source: FIA WEC Timing | Lead photo source: Aston Martin Racing. All other images copyright 2015 Hooniverse/Eric Rood]

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  1. Dave Avatar

    You getting enough sleep there, buddy?

  2. Cameron Vanderhorst Avatar
    Cameron Vanderhorst

    I’m going to miss part of the race for a Dirt Rockets concert, but I’ll be wearing a Porsche teeshirt onstage as a sign of support.

    1. Bradley Brownell Avatar
      Bradley Brownell

      I’m missing the first few hours for an Open House at Canepa Design.
      Worth it? Yeah, probably.

  3. Greg Kachadurian Avatar
    Greg Kachadurian

    Good stuff. I watched a few of the qualifying sessions and was pleased at how competitive [almost] everyone seems this year. Should be a good race and I can’t wait to sit and drink for 24 hours.
    But I’m really interested in the Nissan’s performance. Their average lap times are almost 20 seconds off the pace of ze Germans; how much can their supposed fuel advantage really help make up for that? And regarding the hybrid system, I thought their options were either to run with the motors powering the rear wheels independently or simply adding power to the front? I didn’t realize they were going without it all together. I want Nissan to do well with such a crazy car but I’m a bit worried for this weekend.

    1. The Rusty Hub Avatar
      The Rusty Hub

      Nissan’s fuel advantage wouldn’t help them this year, no. But if they are making 14 laps on a tank of fuel using the ICE only, then you would think they will be able to go at least as far (if not much further) when the hybrid is eventually working.
      They decided in April that they weren’t going to be able to have the rear-wheel drive (all-wheel drive, whatever) system ready for homologation, so they opted to run FWD only for 2015 while they develop it in testing this year. They can’t change homologation so they’re stuck with FWD this year and if the hybrid works, it will be a power-adder to the front wheels.
      They do have to carry the hybrid system’s weight around at Le Mans also, which isn’t helping their lap times.

      1. Greg Kachadurian Avatar
        Greg Kachadurian

        Ah okay. Thanks!
        “They do have to carry the hybrid system’s weight around at Le Mans also, which isn’t helping their lap times.”
        That… really sucks.

      2. The Rusty Hub Avatar
        The Rusty Hub

        Mostly, this are all interesting things, performance-wise, when
        anticipating how they’ll run next year. The ACO is already talking about
        slowing the performance of the LMP1 cars because the closing speeds are
        huge this year. So if they reign in Porsche, Audi, and Toyota based on
        mechanical levels and Nissan’s hybrid and/or all-wheel drive setup buys
        them another, say, 10 seconds a lap (which I think is believable) as
        they develop it, then I think it’s possible that fuel and tire
        advantages will make a difference by next year.
        Of course, fuel and tire wear is all related: If you’ve going to 15 laps instead of 14 laps on fuel and you’re triple stinting tires, then your tires have to go an extra 25 miles on them over your competitors.
        Anyway, Nissan’s aero levels will remain unchanged through next year and they’ve already shown that with 400 or so fewer HP, they have as much straightline speed. The aero concept is working; they just need to make the car turn by next year. Since the air-through-body concept works, reigning in their mechanical components will have less effect on Nissan than it will on the other three unless they make drastic changes to the cars (always a possibility).
        I’m ranting again because I found more coffee.

        1. Greg Kachadurian Avatar
          Greg Kachadurian

          This is your body on coffee, kids.
          Good point about their top speed. They’re already competitive in that regard even with half their powertrain not working. Oooh man I’m pumped for tomorrow.

          1. The Rusty Hub Avatar
            The Rusty Hub

            Exactly. It’s the car’s first race so their priority is keeping them running, but they’ve shown flashes of potential. If they stick with it and keep grinding out development, I really think they’ll make it interesting next year.

  4. Fuhrman16 Avatar

    So some gourmet coffee would make a good bride for the 24 hour Lemon’s race next month then?

    1. The Rusty Hub Avatar
      The Rusty Hub

      Sure. It’s really just been this week that’s been nuts and coffee-fueled.

  5. dr zero Avatar
    dr zero

    I came for charts but found only tables!

    1. nanoop Avatar

      You have more freedom now, and can make the pie chart any colors you want!