Yesterday’s 42-car provisional entry list for the 2019 Le Mans 24 Hours oddly leaves more questions than answers. With no explanation, the first tranche announcement was shortened by eight cars from the planned 50. And, remarkably, race organizers have thus far not confirmed any members of the IMSA GTLM pack that have joined the FIA WEC GTE Pro teams to varying degrees over the past three years, or, in the case of the factory Corvette team, the past 19 years!
This means that a number of teams from IMSA, as well as from the European Le Mans Series and Asian Le Mans Series paddocks hoping to gain entry to the French endurance classic, will have to wait until March 1st when the final entries are due to be confirmed to see if they made the cut. That’s a full month less than usual for the teams concerned to plan their campaigns at Le Sarthe.
But why was this? Why 42? With no public-facing explanation from the organizers, speculation is the inevitable result. And once you delve into the numbers game, and the bout of musical chairs going on behind the scenes ahead of the second phase of the entry reveal next month, there’s plenty to consider.
Yesterday’s announcement included eight automatic entries and the 34 ever-present FIA WEC entries – all of which were known prior – with no major surprises outside of the TRSM Ginetta G60-LT-P1s being an omission. RACER understood that Ginetta filed entries for both (now AER-powered) cars after gaining control of the entry from its original customers, but has (thus far at least) been refused a slot on the grid. It’s a surprise, considering the ACO’s pressing need to keep LMP1 alive and well through to the start of the new regulation cycle in 2020/21.
So, in what is now an increasingly unpredictable process, who is still in play for an entry, and which direction will the ACO go with the tough decisions that lie ahead?
As it stands the entire IMSA GTLM contingent has been made to wait, and it begs the question: Is it those entries causing the issue here? With four automatic invites still to be handed out from the conclusion of the Asian Le Mans Series season later this month, three of which look set to be won by ELMS regulars, is the ACO just waiting it out, seeing who they don’t need to cater for in the remaining 18 slots?
That way the ACO can make a choice. Does it bring in additional factory cars from IMSA (RACER understands that both Porsche and Ford are hoping for two extra cars apiece and that Risi has put in an entry) and gain the additional punch and marketability that a class stacked full of factory entries brings, or be loyal to customers in Europe and Asia?
With just 18 slots left, and 33 cars in with a shout (as the ACO revealed that 75 cars total were applied for), there will be lots of disappointed parties next month. And, to be fair, there were plenty of stakeholders left disappointed and confused yesterday also. Corvette Racing for instance, the race’s longest-serving current team, set for a big 20th anniversary year and its last with the C7.Rs, wasn’t part of yesterday’s batch. Now one would assume by looking back in the history books that Corvette will, of course, receive two entries. If that’s the case though, why didn’t the ACO just hand the entries out?
So just how many of the IMSA entries will get a place? If things take an unexpected turn at Sepang in the Asian Le Mans finale, will the ACO cut the IMSA factories to just one apiece? Will Risi get in? At present they have not ticked the box of making a full-season commitment anywhere, a proviso for a Le Mans entry in normal circumstances.
It would be easy to discount the importance of privateer cars and assume that the ACO wouldn’t ever turn down factory entries, but that, in the long run, maybe wouldn’t be such a smart move. With uncertain times over the horizon (particularly at the top of the tree with the 2020 Hypercar regulations), and privateers constantly proving to be the ever-present backbone to ACO sports car racing, turning them away isn’t easy.
Almost the entire European Le Mans Series LMP2 and GTE fields are in the running for an entry, aside from automatic invitees RLR, JMW, Proton and G-Drive Racing — with the LMP2 teams in particular eyeing the numbers game with no little interest. They’ll be encouraged by one other factor: the ACO’s recent attempts to balance the entry at Le Mans 50/50 — or rather 30/30 — between their combined LMP grid and combined GTE grid.
Look at loyal teams like United Autosports (which fields 11 cars across three series plus a limited IMSA program and a 2019/20 WEC entry planned), and Algarve Pro (also fielding multiple cars in Europe and Asia), that are yet to have entries guaranteed through merit (though the Asian Le Mans finale will come into play) and could, depending on the ACO’s preference, end up with no cars on the list at all.
Then you have to factor in teams that don’t enter multiple cars in multiple series, but have performed well recently such as French LMP2 teams Panis Barthez Competition and IDEC Sport, and that’s without mentioning teams like High Class Racing and Cetilar Racing that are investing heavily into ACO championships – the former buying new cars for 2019, and the latter opting to step up from the ELMS to the WEC in 2019/20.
Add into the mix other wild-card entries, such as the potential for an all-female LMP2 entry from Michael Shank Racing (albeit serviced by an existing ELMS team) and it only gets tougher to decide who to put on the reserve list.
It’s therefore more understandable for the ACO to decide to wait it out until March to reveal which of the remaining applicants won’t be making the list. The nature of the last-minute decision to change the new two-phase format with no explanation, though, is strange and for those most closely involved, rather jarring.
It leaves more questions than answers, and at this point all we do know, beyond the 42 cars that we already figured would be at Le Mans, is that Part 2’s reveal will provide the answers to some very pressing questions.