This past weekend, sports car racing held its biggest event of the entire year, the 24 Hours of Le Mans in Northwestern France. While the biggest story of the week revolved around Ford’s announcement that it is creating a four-car assault on the GTE-class (two in TUSC’s GT-Le Mans class and two in the WEC’s GTE-Pro class), the racing took precedence.
While the Porsches were very fast in qualifying, sweeping the top 3 starting spots, few believed that they could keep up the pace over the full distance. Those observers were wrong. While the pole-sitting No. 18 Porsche 919 Hybrid fell victim to braking problems that resulted in two trips to the tire barriers at Mulsanne Corner, the other two Porsches were nearly bulletproof.
The competition fell back due to their own issues. Audi’s No. 8 R18 e-tron quattro driven at the time by Loic Duval, crashed on the run down to Indianapolis due to a stack-up as other drivers slowed for a 80 kph Slow Zone, displayed due to debris. Duval tried to avoid the nearly stopped traffic in the grass, then had contact with the No. 51 Ferrari driven by Giancarlo Fisichella and spun into the wall. Duval was able to drive back to the pits for repairs, but lost a lap and fell out of contention.
The No. 17 Porsche shared by Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley and Mark Webber dominated the early hours. However, their charge was derailed by a one minute stop-and-hold penalty in the ninth hour that Webber had to serve due to an illegal pass under a local yellow. At the time, Webber was in a fierce battle for the overall lead with Marcel Fässler in the No. 7 Audi. Both drivers pitted at the same time, but Webber had to return for full service a lap later. The issues put the No. 19 Porsche shared by Formula One driver Nico Hulkenberg, Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber into the overall lead.
The Audi challenge fell by the wayside as the No. 7 lost the engine cover on track. A brief visit to the garage resulted in the loss of two laps. The No. 9 Audi dropped 17 minutes due to what Audi Sport described as a front left driveshaft change in the garage. As a result, the No. 9 would finish eight laps down at the finish.
With the No. 19 Porsche 919 Hybrid being able to keep up a blistering pace over the distance, an incredible 3345 miles were covered on the way to the overall win. Their margin was one lap over the No. 17 Porsche. Audi’s No. 7, shared by Fässler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer were another lap back in third.
Unlike his teammates, sports car racing is a part-time gig for Hulkenberg. Regardless, he was very happy to be able to bring home the hardware.
“Our goal was to have one car on the podium, but a 1-2 victory is amazing,” Hulkenberg said in the post-race press conference. “I am very proud of what we achieved. We had a flawless race with a great pace and we didn’t make any mistake. The last lap was a bit weird because it was drizzling and people got nervous in the garage. After the finish line, it is amazing to see thousands and thousands of people cheering up. I am very happy that we’ve done it.
Tandy, who is quite new to prototypes, having previously raced 911’s as a professional prior to joining the Porsche factory, did a number of great laps at night to help extend their lead. After the race, he talked about the transition to the V4-powered prototype.
“Honestly, racing in an LM P1 is very different from racing in a GT car,” Tandy said after the race. “It is much simpler because you are not overtaken that often, especially in the quickest car. We had an amazing race. The temperature came down this morning and it suited the way our car was working. We are able to do four stints with the tires and we had the pace for victory.”
For Bamber, he’d only competed in two races for Muehlner Motorsports America in TUSC at this time last year. Now, he’s a Le Mans Champion on debut. It’s a rather startling change for him.
“The last 12 months have been incredible,” Bamber said. “I was in the same go-kart club as Brendon Hartley and he actually taught me how to drive. This victory is beyond my dreams. I hope I can come back many more times because it is a great race and come back next year with those guys.”
In P2, KCMG dominated the day. After Richard Bradley won the class pole with his lap on Wednesday night, the team dominated the proceedings with their No. 47 ORECA 05-Nissan. Granted, it was not a perfect race. Like Webber, the team was held in the pits for a minute during the ninth hour due to Bradley passing under the yellow. Later on, the team had to change an LED headlight and lost three minutes in the process. However, once their primary competition, the No. 46 Thiriet by TDS ORECA05-Nissan shared by Ludovic Badey, former Champ Car racer Tristan Gommendy and team co-owner Pierre Thiriet, was eliminated when Gommendy was booted off course at the Dunlop chicane after contact with an Aston Martin.
From that point on, KCMG was home free as much of the rest of the class struggled with issues. Ultimately, the margin of victory of 48 seconds over the No. 38 Jota Sport Gibson 015S of Simon Dolan, Oliver Turvey and Mitch Evans with the No. 26 G-Drive Ligier JS P2-Nissan another minute back doesn’t tell the true story of the race as KCMG essentially led from start to finish.
In GTE-Pro, the race was an outright duel between the factory Aston Martins, the sole remaining Corvette Racing entry, and Ferraris from AF Corse. However, as often happens in endurance races, attrition took its toll. The No. 97 Aston Martin V8 Vantage of Darren Turner, Rob Bell and Stefan Mücke were forced to retire with mechanical woes. Contact between the No. 64 Corvette and the No. 99 Aston Martin forced the Aston Martin to make a trip to the garage to repairs. Aston Martin’s No. 95 dropped back down the order with their own issues.
That left Corvette Racing’s No. 64 alone at the top of the heap. Despite their teammates having to withdraw on Thursday after Jan Magnussen‘s crash, the No. 64 had a near-flawless race with hard racing and fast driving. They were only eighth quickest in qualifying, but they had speed when it counted. The team’s fastest lap in the race was more than two seconds faster than their best time in qualifying. That improved pace, plus issues for Aston Martin, AF Corse’s Ferraris and the factory Porsche Team Manthey entries allowed the team of Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Jordan Taylor to take a five-lap victory over AF Corse’s No. 71 Ferrari F458 Italia.
In GTE-Am, the Aston Martins were expected to dominate, especially given Pedro Lamy‘s pace in qualifying (second overall of the GTE cars, just two-tenths of a second off of the GTE-Pro pole). However, both of the entries were eliminated in crashes. The team’s No. 96 entry, driven by Roald Goethe at the time, suffered the biggest crash of the day in the 17th hour. Goethe was trying to get out of the way of the overall leading No. 19 Porsche when he lost control exiting the Porsche Curves and went hard into the wall head-on. At last update from Aston Martin Racing, Goethe was released from the on-site Medical Center, but went to the hospital to have what the team described as precautionary x-rays.
With the Astons out, the race fell to SMP Racing’s Ferrari F458 Italia, which had been fighting tooth and nail with the No. 98 for most of the night. The trio of Aleskei Basov, Andrea Bertolini and Viktor Shaytar held on to win the class by a full lap. However, it’s arguable that the teams they beat may get more publicity than SMP Racing.
One lap down to SMP Racing’s No. 72 was the Dempsey Proton Racing Porsche 911 RSR shared by Patrick Dempsey, Patrick Long and Marco Seefried. For Dempsey, he managed to get himself onto the podium in GTE-Am for the first time in his fourth attempt at Le Mans. Another lap back in a one-off entry was the No. 62 F458 shared by TUSC regulars Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler, along with Jeff Segal for Scuderia Corsa. All involved (drivers and team) are first-timers at Le Mans.
For now, the World Endurance Championship takes a long break. Round No. 4 of the eight-race season is scheduled for the Nürburgring in Germany at the end of August.