Le Mans 2021: How new hypercar rules are shaking up the grid

Even before the opening round of this year’s FIA World Endurance Championship in Portugal on 4 April, it’s tempting to call the new hypercar era a smash hit. Why? Well, Toyota, for starters. Alpine, sort of. Peugeot, at least from next year. Later, Audi and Porsche. Acura, too. And very definitely not forgetting Ferrari.

Given that Toyota has spent the past three years competing against a bunch of well-intentioned privateers in the ailing, expensive LMP1 prototype class, the promised influx of manufacturers is testimony to the new hypercar regulations. The promise of lower costs, a level playing field, an arena to showcase new technology and the chance to compete in the iconic Le Mans 24 Hours is a winning combination.

The appeal is simple: every manufacturer will head to Le Mans knowing that, if they perform well, they should have a chance of victory. The rules themselves aren’t so simple, and there have been significant changes along the way as various authorities and manufacturers have had their input. The result is two similar-but-different packages: the WEC’s Le Mans Hypercar (LMH) rules and, from next year, the US-based IMSA Sportscar Championship’s Le Mans Daytona Hybrid (LMDh) formula. And, for 2021 at least, old LMP1 cars are allowed to compete, albeit with their performance pegged back.

How will it work?

The agreement between the various rules organisers (motorsport’s governing body, the FIA; Le Mans’ organiser, the ACO; and North America’s sports car racing sanctioning body, IMSA) has been key to ensuring that the two new rules packages converge. Essentially, LMH and LMDh take different routes to the same outcome.

In both classes, peak power output is pegged at 670bhp. Cars in both classes must be of an identical size and weight, while achieving a set downforce-to-drag ratio and strict controls on aerodynamic development, while ensuring that manufacturers are free to add styling touches to certain areas of bodywork.

The goal is to produce cars that lap Le Mans’ 8.467-mile Circuit de la Sarthe in around 3min 30sec – about 10 seconds slower than a current LMP1 car – while cutting costs and increasing competition. To ensure that, a Balance of Performance (BoP) formula will be employed – similar to that used in the GTE Pro class – to level the pace of each hypercar.

But while every LMH and LMDh car will theoretically be capable of the same pace and performance, the various rules still allow for vast differences and, vitally, creativity.

Le Mans hypercar

The LMP1 prototype regulations date back to 1992. At their core, they offered manufacturers powertrain and technology freedom that was absent from other top-level racing. As a result, manufacturers used LMP1 to showcase new technology, and in its final decade the focus shifted to highly sophisticated hybrid powertrains. It therefore became hugely expensive, leaving privateers unable to compete and prompting an exodus of road-car makers until, from 2018, only Toyota remained.

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Did your experience with the TS050 Hybrid LMP1 car help you with the hypercar rules?

“Even though the regulations went in a very different way in key areas, we made use of our past experience and knowledge. We’ve used the same processes, just reset the targets. When it comes to developing areas like the chassis or suspension, we did it in the same way; it’s just that the targets are different.”

How do you balance chasing pace while knowing there will be Balance of Performance measures used?

“It’s a different exercise. It’s true that, until now, we’ve always been pushing for maximum performance, so now we will have to approach it a bit differently. We’re in the process of working out what it will take to consistently perform in a Balance of Performance series.”

Has it been easier to develop your new car since the hypercar rules were made less complicated?

“The cars are less complex in some areas, but in some ways it’s a bit more complex in others, because we have to arrange the systems to maximise the new regulations.”