With the full set of LMDh regulations now finalized and manufacturers coming to the business end of their studies ahead of making a decision on a program, we now eagerly await the first OEM to formally commit.
One of the ‘dozen’ current prospects is McLaren. It has kept a close eye on the developments at the top level of sports car racing in the U.S. and globally in recent years, but thus far has been reluctant to sign up to anything. Instead, it has focused on its customer racing efforts in the GT3 and GT4 ranks alongside its Formula 1 and IndyCar exploits as a factory.
Nevertheless, its CEO Zak Brown still has a clear ambition to take the brand back to the Le Mans 24 Hours, the site of perhaps its most significant victory outside of F1 in 1995. GTE appeared to be the chosen route for McLaren a handful of years ago, but the much-discussed program based on the Senna GTR platform didn’t see the light of day. With GTE’s future looking uncertain – at least in the medium-term – LMDh appears to be the current formula under evaluation.
“We have a desire to go back to Le Mans, we have a great history there and a great automotive company, so it’s very relevant for us to race in the 24 Hours,” Brown told RACER. “If we do, it’ll be in LMDh as we like the regulations and the direction they are headed in.”
He was encouraged by the appointments of Bosch, Williams and Xtrac as technical partners, as well as the atmosphere in the technical working group, confirming that McLaren has been in attendance for every meeting.
Budget-wise he’s satisfied too; he expects a two-car WEC effort to cost in the region of 25 million euros, as opposed to a Le Mans Hypercar effort, which he said would likely cost “around 10 million more”. An LMDh program would also coincide with the Formula 1 cost-cap, potentially freeing up resources and enabling McLaren to seamlessly add a third factory motorsport program.
That’s not to say he doesn’t have concerns, though. The key issue, he says, surrounds the balancing of LMDh cars with LMH cars.
“There is a little bit of concern from our side over how difficult it will be to balance LMDh and LMH cars,” he said. “Specifically in tricky conditions, because one set of rules features two-wheel-drive cars (LMDh) and the other features four-wheel-drive. How are going to ensure parity at two in the morning at Le Mans when it’s raining and the Hypercars can power out of the corners with four-wheel-drive?
“They need to be careful. They are confident they can find a way. We just need to make sure it can be done.”
Should McLaren become convinced that the ACO and IMSA’s convergence vision can work, what else would help convince McLaren’s stakeholders that LMDh is a worthy investment? Could Brown’s ties to United Autosports, as co-owner, form part of the plan?
The last time RACER spoke at length with Brown, back at the FIA WEC meeting in Bahrain last year, he expressed a desire for McLaren to sell LMDh cars to customer teams to help ensure that financially, a potential effort would be viable.
“I’d like to think we (United) are putting ourselves in a position to be considered on a shortlist as a technical partner for a manufacturer as they come in,” he hinted.
For now though, United isn’t ready to make such a leap. Fresh from winning its class at Le Mans, it has revealed that it is expanding, but not in the WEC or ELMS. Instead it has planned to return to GT racing (in GT4, as a McLaren customer team) in 2021 following the acquisition of Strakka Racing’s assets. In prototype racing meanwhile, it is looking at ‘more of the same’ in the short term.
“We want to carry on in the FIA WEC and keep winning,” he says. “It’s an extremely difficult championship. The drivers have been great, Richard (Dean), the team has been fantastic. We’ll see how things go with LMDh, and stick with LMP2 and LMP3.”
So where does this leave us? If and when McLaren greenlights an LMDh program, when would we see tires on tarmac, considering the introduction of the new formula is expected to be pushed back to 2023? Brown gave RACER a glimpse at the timeline for the program when asked how far down the line McLaren was in its evaluation. If McLaren did enter the LMDh ranks, he said, it would do so before the 2025 season. “We wouldn’t see the value in entering a formula with less than three years left in the ruleset,” he said.
An entry as soon as 2023 cannot be ruled out. The 2023 Le Mans 24 Hours is set to be a big one, as it will be held on the 100th anniversary of the first edition. It is also a very important year for McLaren.
“There is a real appeal in 2023, as it’s the 60th anniversary of McLaren Racing. Le Mans is like Disneyland, there’s a big anniversary to celebrate for something every year, it seems!”