Prototype Racing is the top level of sports car racing, creating some of the coolest cars in the history of the sport. Many iconic race cars have contributed to the storied series. A good example is the Porsche 917 of the 1970s. The 917 kick-started the dominant force that Porsche became in the following decades. LMP comes from the name Le Mans Prototype, as most of the prototype cars in the past have been specifically built to tackle the famous French endurance race.
Prototype cars have always been a way for manufacturers to both develop technology and demonstrate cutting edge innovation. In recent years it has become a more accessible option for both gentlemen and young drivers working their way up the motorsports ladder thanks to the introduction of LMP3 and LMP2 cars. In essence, creating a remarkably similar ladder system to both Open-Wheel Formula and the GT ladder system.
LMP3 is the introduction into the world of prototype racing, but it is by no means a slow car. The regulations state that they must weigh at least 930kg together with a 455 BHP 5.0-liter V8 (increased in 2020 from 420 BHP). It is an incredibly fast car. The regulations state that they need to have similar aerodynamic bodywork to LMP2 cars for both safety and speed.
LMP3 cars are all equipped with a shark fin to ensure the air is properly presented to the rear wing. The shark fin also doubles as a safety feature, reducing the risk of high-speed instability. The cars are also required to have openings in the bodywork above each wheel. The requirement is to facilitate the release of air that builds up above the tire. This gap significantly reduces the risk of the car getting airborne during an accident.
Four manufacturers make LMP3 cars; Ginetta, Ligier, Adess, and Duqueine Engineering. Each manufacturer can create their own look of their LMP3 creations; however, they all have a spec drivetrain (engine, gearbox, and electronics) to ensure that budgets do not get out of control. LMP3 is perfect for a gentlemen/lady driver because it is a simple car with a simple traction control system and no ABS.
LMP2 cars are the next step up from LMP3 and compete both on the world stage in the World Endurance Championship and in the European, Asian, and American Le Mans Series. LMP2 cars are exclusively for sale to independent teams unaffiliated with manufacturers. The cars are a significant step up, still weighing 930 kg, but with around 600 BHP from a 4.2-liter Gibson V8, the exclusive engine supplier for the class. They are much more complex to set up then an LMP3 car because of the superior aerodynamic grip and the increased use of electronics in both the ABS and traction control system.
The manufacturers include Dallara (who produce several race cars including the Indycar), Ligier Automotive, Oreca, and Riley-Multimatic (a joint venture between Riley Technologies and Multimatic, the company who built the Ford GT supercar). The gentlemen/lady drivers typically competing in LMP2 do so in the regional series such as the European Le Mans, while it generally is professionals competing in the World Endurance Championship.
The LMP1 regulations will go through a significant change in the next few years with the introduction of the ‘hypercar’ class. The new category will be the flagship of WEC, replacing LMP1, and manufacturers have started to leave LMP1 in anticipation of the new cars. However, with Porsche, Toyota, and Audi utilizing cutting edge technology to create the most advanced race cars ever seen, it is worth looking at what the top level of sports car racing is all about.
LMP1 regulations are different from other prototype regulations because their drivetrain is open for development, as long as they only use a certain amount of energy per lap. An LMP1 car is allowed to use 8 Mega-Joules per lap of the Le Mans circuit. However, it is up to the manufacturer on how to generate the energy, be it combustion or electric. This choice allows manufacturers to develop technology for use in their road cars. For example, direct injection, Audi TDI, LED headlights, and performance hybrids originated from LMP1.
From 2014 to 2017, three manufacturers were competing in this top LMP class, Audi, Porsche, and Toyota. Interestingly, each manufacturer created cars that were vastly different from the others. Audi used a lithium-ion hybrid system that gathered energy under braking and deployed it under acceleration. This innovation, combined with a V6 turbo diesel engine outputting 514 BHP, resulted in the entire system creating close to 1000 BHP to all four wheels.
Porsche utilized a similar hybrid system to Audi; however, their engine was a 2.0-liter V4 engine creating well over 500 BHP resulting in a combined power output of over 1000 BHP. Toyota also used a hybrid system, integrating it initially with a high revving V8 and a supercapacitor hybrid system. They later changed to a 2.4-liter V6 turbo with a lithium-ion hybrid that was producing close to 1200 HP at its peak.
Each team won the Le Mans 24 hours despite their different philosophies on how to achieve the ultimate racing car. The role of the gentlemen/lady driver does not really exist in the LMP1 world due to the complexity of the vehicles. Not to mention the significant factory involvement means the manufacturers do not want to sell their race cars to customer teams.
Prototype racing produces close competition and on-track battling as well as innovating technology. The technology is for the greater good of the manufacturers as it finds its way into the road car products they produce. With the global reach of multiple series competing around the world, it is the perfect marketing platform for both manufacturers and companies.