WeatherTech Championship Teams from Both Manufacturers Are Joining Their WEC Brethren in Seeking Victory at the Famed French Endurance Race
By John Oreovicz
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – With 109 class wins since 1951, Porsche is by far the most successful manufacturer in the history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. More significantly, Porsche has claimed overall victory at Le Mans a record 19 times, the most recent in 2017 completing a run of three consecutive triumphs under the discontinued LMP1 formula.
Fast forward to 2023, and years of behind-the-scenes work between IMSA, the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) and the ACO (Automobile Club de l’Ouest) have created the opportunity for cars built to IMSA’s hybrid-electrified Le Mans Daytona h (LMDh) specifications to compete with current Le Mans Hypercars (LMH) for overall race wins in both the FIA World Endurance Championship and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
For Porsche, which fields the new 963 built to LMDh specs in both championships, it marks the first time it will compete for the overall win at Le Mans since 2017, the final year of the 919 Hybrid LMP1 program. Three cars are entered in the French endurance classic, which celebrates its 100-year anniversary this year: Porsche Penske Motorsport’s regular No. 5 and No. 6 WEC entries, along with a No. 75 car featuring a driver lineup culled from the team’s IMSA roster – Mathieu Jaminet, Nick Tandy and Felipe Nasr.
But Porsche isn’t the only IMSA regular that is splitting its 2023 effort between WEC and the WeatherTech Championship with an LMDh challenger. At Le Mans, Cadillac will be represented with three V-Series.R prototypes, with its full-time Cadillac Racing No. 2 WEC contender bolstered by a second entry also prepared by Chip Ganassi Racing (No. 3, with IMSA regulars Sebastien Bourdais and Renger van Der Zande plus IndyCar star Scott Dixon) and the No. 311 Whelen Engineering car that normally competes in IMSA as No. 31 with Pipo Derani, Alexander Sims and Jack Aitken.
While Cadillac has not compiled Porsche’s illustrious record at the Circuit de la Sarthe, it still has significant history that predates Porsche’s first involvement by a year. Cadillac’s last Le Mans effort ran from 2000-02, and the marque has high hopes of mixing it up with Porsche – not to mention WEC regulars Toyota, Ferrari and Peugeot – for its first overall victory.
“Competing for the overall win at Le Mans with an iconic American brand like Cadillac is an honor,” stated Laura Wontrop Klauser, GM sports car racing program manager. “The entire team is excited to continue building Cadillac’s racing legacy by competing against the very best internationally and in the world’s toughest race.
“I think we’re bringing America pretty loud and strong with our Cadillac, and we’re proud of that.”
Cadillac’s modern V-Series sports sedans are considered some of the world’s finest performance cars, a far cry from when Cadillac last ran Le Mans two decades ago and it catered to a very different luxury car audience. That Le Mans program, which featured a turbocharged version of the company’s recently introduced Northstar V-8 engine, was one of the first attempts to transform Cadillac’s image.
“I would say from a marketing perspective it succeeded because back then ‘Art & Science’ was the Cadillac marketing theme and this was the bridge from the vinyl top Cadillacs to the CTS-V, which 2003 was the first year of the production car,” recalled Jeff Kettman, manager for the 2000-02 Cadillac Le Mans program. “The whole reason that Cadillac got involved in motorsports was to shift the public perspective of Cadillac to more of a sporty vehicle. We didn’t have the results on the track, but the fact that we didn’t have major problems was impressive.
“I have a lot of respect for the (current) program, and it blows me away the amount of technology they are doing with the hybrid,” Kettman added. “I see parallels to what we went through in the late ‘90s, early 2000s in that it is new technology for the time.”
Porsche is commemorating its legacy of Le Mans success with a special livery for the No. 75 “IMSA” car that incorporates colors from significant winning cars from over the years, including iconic Gulf, DHL and Martini liveries.
“We embraced the vehicle designs from Porsche’s rich and illustrious history at Le Mans,” said Thomas Laudenbach, vice president of Porsche Motorsport. “The 917 as a ‘pink pig’ and the ‘hippie car’ from 1970 – these liveries have made racing history and are still popular today. With our special design on the third Porsche 963, we’re continuing this great tradition at Le Mans.”
“Motorsport, and endurance racing in particular, is a core element of our Porsche DNA, and this year we are celebrating 75 years of Porsche sports cars,” added Detlev von Platen, member of the Executive Board, Sales and Marketing. “Therefore, the 100th anniversary of the Le Mans 24 Hours also has a special significance for the Porsche brand as well. The color scheme of the three works race cars connects both anniversaries. Every color on the Porsche 963s has its own Le Mans history. And we are very proud of every single one of them.”
A subplot to Cadillac and Porsche seeking an overall Le Mans victory is the fact that legendary American racing team owners Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi are also in pursuit of that same goal. Ganassi owns an LM GTE class win, achieved with a Ford GT and drivers Bourdais, Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller in 2016; Penske drove at Le Mans in 1963 and fielded a Ferrari for Mark Donohue in 1971, but Team Penske didn’t return until last year, when it finished fifth in the Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2) class.
Team Penske recently won the Indianapolis 500 for the 19th time, has claimed NASCAR Cup Series championships, Daytona 500 victories and even tasted victory in Formula 1. An overall win at Le Mans is arguably the last major accomplishment Roger Penske could achieve in the sport.
“Porsche has such great tradition and a special legacy in racing,” Penske said. “Their commitment to winning has always aligned well with our goals and objectives.
“Certainly, for me personally, winning Le Mans is a goal we want to achieve.”
(Photo credits: Porsche for Porsche Penske Motorsport; Richard Prince for Cadillac Racing)