For the first time since 2017, this weekend’s Le Mans 24 Hours in France will feature a handful of cars from the major automakers competing for the top prize. Toyota which won the last five years as the only major automaker now faces a crowded field.

Factory cars Cadillac, Peugeot and Porsche, along with independent entries from Glickenhaus, Vanwall, Jota and Action Express Racing. But the main thing is the return of Ferrari, which has not been in the top class, now called Hypercar, for 50 years.

“When we decided to commit to this project, we embarked on a path of innovation and development, true to our tradition that sees the track as the ideal terrain for pushing the boundaries of cutting-edge technological solutions, solutions that will be transferred over time. to our road cars,” said John Elkann, chairman of Ferrari, when the new Hypercar was unveiled.

Porsche has the most wins at Le Mans with 19, earning its first win in the top class in 1970.

“We set our sights on a 20th overall win in France,” Thomas Laudenbach, Porsche’s head of motorsport, said earlier this year.

For years, major companies have left the top class of the FIA ​​World Endurance Championship, of which Le Mans is the most important part, because of the high costs of the races. Annual budgets in 2017 were close to 200 million euros, or about 226 million dollars. However, changes in the top class and cost structure brought the company back. Pierre Fillon, president of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, which has organized Le Mans since it was first run in 1923, said budgets are now about 80 percent lower.

The return of the big cars coincides with the race celebrating its centenary.

“Endurance racing has a new impetus and I’m sure the centenary also means something to them,” Fillon said of what has drawn carmakers, especially Ferrari, back.

Ferrari, Toyota and Porsche have 33 of the 90 overall victories at Le Mans. Ferrari and Porsche have only entered cars in the WEC’s lower Grand Touring categories in recent years. Having them compete against each other for overall honors has long been a dream of many enthusiasts and the car club that owns the WEC.

After Porsche and its sister brand Audi left Toyota as the sole manufacturer competing in the top category, then called Le Mans Prototype 1 or LMP1, after the 2017 season, Autoklub worked to lure the carmakers back. Central to the story is the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship hosted by the Florida-based International Motor Sports Association, or IMSA

As “the US market is very important for the manufacturers”, Fillon said, a new category would need to be created to replace the LMP1 car, which teams could race in both IMSA and WEC at the same cost as developing a car for just one. championship.

The new class had several goals: It had to be cheaper than LMP1; retain the greener hybrid technology already used in motorsport; they are characterized by an attractive car design; and give each team a chance to win.

The result was the new WEC Hypercar class, which was introduced for 2021. By then, both Ferrari and Porsche had expressed their desire to compete in the category once they had established their new endurance racing programs. In IMSA it’s called the Grand Touring Prototype class, with Porsche and Cadillac competing in both championships. BMW will join them in 2024, when Alpine and Lamborghini will also launch top racing programs.

A total of 16 cars will compete in the Hypercar class at Le Mans this weekend, up from five in 2022, with more likely next year.

To attract the cars, Fillon explained, there had to be an “evolution of the thinking of all manufacturers”.

“In the year 2014 [when LMP1’s heyday began as Porsche joined Toyota and Audi], it would be impossible to do something like that,” he added. “Because everyone wanted to have the best and most sophisticated cars.

“Now the thinking of manufacturers is different. They want to compete in two championships, not spend too much money and want to have a chance to win.”

He said it was now the start of a “new golden era of endurance”.

At the last WEC race at Spa-Francorchamps in April, around 70,000 spectators attended the race, up from 54,000 in 2022, as fans responded to a growing field from car manufacturers.

“We have more people interested in motorsport and also young people interested since the Formula 1 series ‘Drive to Survive’ on Netflix,” Fillon said.

“The young generation realizes that motorsport is not just about driving a car. This is a team, this is a human adventure, there are a lot of stories to tell.”

Toyota team principal Rob Leupen said his team, which won the first three WEC races this season, was the one to beat.

“We should be favourites,” he said, although Ferrari were closing in on Toyota, particularly at Spa. “But you still have to do a perfect job. With or without competitors, if you don’t do a perfect job, there is no mercy at Le Mans.”

A race unlike any other in the WEC The second longest race ends after eight hours. And there are about 60 cars competing in Le Mans in total, while the other races are expected to be 38. That means there’s a far greater chance of something going wrong with a car forcing it to stop or have accidents. The night phase of Le Mans is particularly risky, when fatigue increases and the driver’s vision deteriorates.

Toyota knows how quickly a winning position can be lost at Le Mans. Before her current winning streak, her cars crashed several timesmost notably in 2016 when he led close to the finish line.

For the new Hypercar class, there are rules for all cars to travel at similar speeds to keep the races close. This has the added benefit of reducing costs as teams don’t have to spend money trying to get up to speed.

The main way to achieve this is adding a metal ballast to cars. Faster cars gain extra weight, while slower cars gain less. At Le Mans, the Toyota must carry 13 kilograms more, or about 29 pounds, than the Ferrari and 34 kilograms more than the Porsche.

This theoretically gives the new entrants a real chance to beat Toyota, as its larger volume limits its lead.

“Le Mans is the event of the year for us and this year it is even bigger because after five victories these competitors are coming back now that we have today; that’s what we’re looking for,” Leupen said of Toyota’s new competition. “It will be hard, intense, emotional. Maybe it will make history” by winning the centennial race.

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