Why Cadillac’s Le Mans experience proves it’s absolutely ready for F1

Elizabeth Blackstock
Whelen Cadillac Racing at the 2024 24 Hours of Le Mans

Whelen Cadillac Racing at the 2024 24 Hours of Le Mans

When the checkered flag fell on the 2024 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, it might have seemed strange to call Cadillac’s performance — one seventh-place finish, one several-laps-down 29th overall, and one DNF — a win. And yet it was, easily, when it comes to proving the American manufacturer’s readiness for Formula 1.

Cadillac’s reemergence in the top-tier of international endurance racing back in 2023 made headlines well before the thought of Andretti Global was on anyone’s mind. When World Endurance Championship regulations changed, Caddy was one of the first manufacturers to hedge its bets on the ultra-competitive Hypercar class, and that first year, the bet paid off with a podium finish at the 100th anniversary edition of Le Mans.

Things weren’t so easy coming into the 2024 season, though. The top-tier Hypercar class — composed of two different kinds of cars (LMH, where teams build their entire car from scratch, and LMDh, where teams are required to use several off-the-shelf parts) that feature a maximum power output and minimum weight but plenty of aerodynamic freedom throughout the initial development process —  exploded. 

At that 100th anniversary race, seven manufacturers entered 16 cars through nine teams. In 2024, the Hypercar field ballooned to 23 machines entered by 13 teams and nine manufacturers. In both years, Cadillac entered two cars under the Cadillac Racing team banner and one under Action Express Racing. After the 2023 podium and a quick start in practice, things looked good.

“We’ve done three 24-hour races so far, and we’re about to do our fourth,” Laura Wontrop Klauser, sports car racing manager for General Motors, told me in a pre-race interview.

“It just gives you that extra bit of confidence because you know what’s going to happen, you know how the tyres will degrade, and the team has made that many more strategy calls or that many more pit stops. We needed to find our rhythm, and we did.”

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Unfortunately at a race like the 24 Hours of Le Mans, nothing is guaranteed, and that practice pace failed to translate into the dominant race performance that Cadillac had hoped for.

Though the No. 2 car shared by Earl Bamber, Alex Lynn, and Alex Palou finished on the lead lap, it had been leading with three hours to go in the race before unstable weather conditions and an out-of-sync pit stop strategy nipped its performance in the bud. 

The No. 3 Cadillac shared by Sebastien Bourdais, Scott Dixon, and Renger van der Zande had all the makings of victory contention, but an oil leak in the 18th hour of the race after two off-track excursions spelled a DNF. The No. 311 Whelen Cadillac car slid broadside into a wall at Indianapolis; a series of repairs did see it return to the race, albeit fully out of contention for anything but a finish.

Nothing about Cadillac’s 2024 Le Mans experience suggests victory, but having been a guest of the team all weekend gaining an intimate, first-hand look at the team and its processes, I’d argue that there are plenty of reasons to be impressed.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this is a promising sign for Cadillac’s Formula 1 hopes. Let me explain what I mean. 

The ability to compete in a racing series doesn’t solely rely on any one factor; rather, you’re looking at a formidable smorgasbord of variables that all need to work together in order to make it to victory lane.

The car needs to be as fast as it is rugged, while its drivers need to be both bold and reliable. Engineers need to understand the nuance of strategizing a race. Pit stops need to be perfect. Both manufacturer-built and off-the-shelf parts need to hold up to stress. And that’s not even accounting for bad luck, changeable weather, penalties passed down from other races, and any number of other random issues that might arise over the course of 24 hours.

Behind the scenes, Cadillac is a well oiled machine. I spent hours in the garage, watching both pit stops and the tedium of safety car procedures. I spoke with executives and drivers, watched how they reacted to both tough questions and frustrating in-race situations. I saw nothing that indicated to me that the manufacturer wouldn’t be capable of competing at the highest level of international motorsport. In fact, I was deeply impressed by the way the team handled unexpected stressors.

As Wontrop Klauser told me, one of the most challenging obstacles to overcome in motorsport is learning the various processes that make the sport what it is. Even something as simple as navigating an unfamiliar garage area for the first time can make or break a team’s ability to succeed.

“Racing is a dance. Knowing where you’re supposed to be, when you’re supposed to be there, and how to react if it’s not exactly what you’re expecting is huge,” she said.

I had a clear view of that happening while in the garage. On Saturday night, a safety car neutralized the race just as rain began to fall. The shower wasn’t expected to last long, but it was forecasted to be heavy.

All three Cadillac crews leapt into action. They set both rain tyres and slicks out at the lip of the garage, as a pit stop needed to happen anyway, but it wasn’t clear how the weather would shape up by that point. Scott Dixon emerged in his race suit and helmet in the event that he’d need to climb behind the wheel. The pit crew got into position without fuss or tension.

As it transpired, the Cadillac Nos. 2 and 3 swapped to wet weather tyres. The No. 3 crew opted against a driver change, and Dixon disappeared back into the garage to rest.

The No. 311 team didn’t stop, rolling the dice on a different kind of strategic gamble. The entire process was quiet, quick, and efficient; there was no frustration, chaos, or arguing. Wontrop Klauser was right — it looked like Cadillac had mastered the steps to a complex dance.

Since it entered both the WEC and IMSA series, Cadillac has proven to be quick learners capable of competing on the big stage. If its sports car program is capable of mastering the complex dance of endurance racing, its Formula 1 program can be expected to be just as adept.

Read more: Five Formula 1 champions who also won the 24 Hours of Le Mans