The 2020 motor racing season will undoubtedly go down in history as the most unusual and disrupted year on record. Only twice has the Le Mans 24 Hour race been rescheduled from its traditional June slot, to a later date in September, the first being in 1968 when the race was run on 28/29 September due to ongoing unrest in Paris. The second occasion was this race just finished, this delay being due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, so it is quite significant that the race was still able to be contested at all in 2020.
Right on cue, just as was forecast, it rained overnight at Le Mans following a week of intense heat, which was so unusual for September. The first race of the day on Saturday was the Porsche Carrera Cup Deutschland Round 1 at 09h15. Usually, a number of these cars are eliminated at the first turn into the Dunlop Bridge chicane as they all try to pile into the same little bit of track at the same time. It’s a classic case of trying to win the race at the first corner, but on Saturday this was not the case. It was almost as though the drivers had had a good talking to because, as the pace car came through the Ford Chicane and onto the start/finish straight to release the cars, the driver and passenger in the pace car could be seen to be waving their arms out of the window in an up-and-down fashion, motioning the group to slow down and be careful of overdoing it at the start. Against all expectations, all the cars were well behaved…for the first couple of laps anyway.
But Saturday was of course primarily about the 24-hour race comprising a field of 59 cars that took to the track for the start of the 88th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours. The start was at the slightly earlier time of 14h30, in order to accommodate that other great road race that day, the Tour de France cycling event, which also finished on Sunday afternoon. While this race did not have the buzz of any past Le Mans races due to the race taking place behind closed doors, we did at least have a race and in the years to come, we will look back at this race as perhaps unusual, but also as a rather special race.
The field was made up of a very different set of cars this year. In the LMP1 class, there were just five contenders: two Toyotas, two Rebellions and the ByKolles. After the Hyperpole, it was the #7 Toyota on pole, followed by the #1 Rebellion, #8 Toyota and #3 Rebellion. In a class of 23 LMP2 cars, it was the #22 United Autosports that was on pole. The GTE Pro class was significantly depleted this year with just three manufacturers participating: Porsche, Ferrari and Aston Martin. After the Hyperpole shoot out, it was the #91 Porsche 911 RSR of Bruni, Lietz and Makowiecki who headed the class, followed by #51 Ferrari and the #95 Aston Martin. In the GTE Am class it was the #61 Luzich Racing Ferrari followed by two Porsches, the #77 Dempsey-Proton Racing and #56 Team Project 1 cars.
The race start
Leading up to the start of the race itself, the weather in the morning was first drizzly, then the sun peeped through the clouds which was an indication that the early morning dampness would soon burn off. And as expected it did, so that the lead up to the pre-race fanfare all took place in hazy, lazy sunshine. Despite the presence of Covid-19 precautions, the pre-race grid looked almost as packed as it usually does despite the need for social distancing, but the whole atmosphere was decidedly subdued. The ACO must, though, be congratulated for putting on an event of the magnitude of the Le Mans 24 Hours in such trying and challenging times.
At shortly before 14h30, the Porsche 911 pace car led the field away and about five or six minutes later the field arrived at the Ford Chicane, the final curve before the main start/finish straight. As the five red lights were switched off, the #7 Toyota led the field by a half a car length with the #1 Rebellion just itching to get going. By the time the lead cars reached Turn 1 at the end of the start/finish straight, the Rebellion had edged ahead of the Toyota. This position was short-lived though, as when the cars came around after completing the first lap, the #7 Toyota was a good 50 metres in the lead.
In the GTE Pro class, the class pole sitting #91 Porsche steadily fall back and by the end of the first hour it was lying sixth in class and eventually eighth in the third hour. The Porsche drivers were frustrated by the 911’s lack of pace down the long straights at Le Mans, where they found their rivals easily pulling away from them. Porsche commented in a press release: “After just a few laps, it became clear that the rivals had not fully shown the potential of their cars in the practice sessions and qualifying. The Porsche 911 RSR lacked the top speed to match the pace of the competition on the long straights.” Alexander Stehlig (Head of Operations FIA WEC at Porsche) put it this way: “The first six hours of the race were very difficult for us. We weren’t quite able to maintain the pace of our rivals.”
After around 40 minutes, the #91 pole-setting car served a five-second penalty at its first pit stop. However, Richard Lietz managed to remain within striking distance of the frontrunner during his stints, but an early puncture forced Estre in the #92 car to pit early. Christensen then underlined the strengths of the 911 RSR and stayed within reach of the leading group but in the fifth hour, his teammate reported a problem with the power steering. The entire power steering system was replaced and these two pit stops for repairs cost the crew 40 minutes, after which they unfortunately lost contact with the other GTE-Pro cars.
At 20h30, after six hours of racing, the gap between the sixth-place #91 Porsche and the leading GTE-Pro car was around one lap, while the #92 Porsche was two places further back in eighth place. Richard Lietz (#91) commented, “We’re faster in the corners, but we just can’t get past. We’re unable to do anything against the higher top speed of the other cars on the straights.”
Unfortunately the #88 Dempsey Proton Racing Porsche was involved in a collision early in the race. Just 24 minutes after the start, the #61 Ferrari had an accident at Turn 1 and Thomas Preining, who was driving the Porsche, tried to avoid the spinning Ferrari. However, there was little Preining could do other than to take avoiding action which saw him collide with the tyre barrier. The car sat abandoned for about two hours in the recovery area at the Dunlop Bridge before being returned to the pit garage where it remained for lengthy repairs.
From third place in class at the start, the #56 Team Project 1 Porsche maintained a steady pace and in the third hour, the car moved up to second in class. The young Dutchman Larry ten Voorde, the newly crowned champion of the Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup who had won the Porsche Carrera Cup race that same morning, put in a spirited drive.
In eighth place after three hours in GTE Am was the second of the Team Project 1 Porsches, the striking #57 Wynn’s-sponsored Porsche driven by Jeroen Bleekemolen, Felipe Fraga and Ben Keating. However, balance issues and a collision with another car early on and the subsequent repair work also cost the team dearly, severely denting their chances of running at the front of the class. At 01h30 on Sunday morning, the #57 Porsche 911 RSR was back in the pits for a fresh set of front dampers.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, the #89 Team Project 1 Porsche 911 RSR driven by Steve Brooks, Andreas Laskaratos and Julien Piguet experienced first-hand why the Le Mans gravel beds are best avoided. An unplanned excursion into one of these gravel beds resulted in a return to the pits for minor repairs, but the car was soon up and running again.
At the halfway mark, at 02h30 on Sunday morning, the Porsche standings in the GTE Pro class were as follows: #91 Porsche 911 RSR was fifth with the #92 Porsche 911 RSR in eighth place. In the GTE Am class: the #56 Project 1 Porsche occupied fourth place, the #77 Dempsey Proton Racing car was fifth followed by Gulf Racing’s #86 Porsche in sixth place. In ninth place in GTE Am was the #99 Dempsey Proton Racing Porsche with the #78 Proton Racing car in tenth and the third of the Team Project 1 cars, the #89 Porsche, was down in 17th place in class. The #57 Porsche was in 18th place with the #88 Dempsey Proton Racing Porsche 20th in class.
At around 06h00 on Sunday morning, the #91 Porsche had to pit for around 20 minutes for repairs to the electrical system. Gianmaria Bruni and his teammates Richard Lietz and Frédéric Makowiecki were down in sixth place, with the #92 Porsche occupying seventh place.
At three-quarter distance and with 18 hours of racing behind them, the two works Porsche 911 RSRs were placed sixth (#91) and seventh (#92). In the GTE Am class at this time, Matt Campbell, Christian Ried and Riccardo Pera were running in second place with the #77 Porsche 911 RSR, while the #56 Project 1 Porsche was one place further back in third.
At 11h00 on Sunday the #57 Porsche 911 RSR called into the pits. In just 10 seconds flat, the Team Project 1 pit crew exchanged the door of the car as the mirror had been damaged.
With just three hours to go, the #91 Porsche 911 RSR and its sister car the #92 still occupied the same positions that they had three hours earlier, being sixth and seventh places respectively. In the GTE-Am class it was the same story, with the #77 Dempsey Proton Racing Porsche holding second place with the #56 Team Project 1 car in P3.
For the two works Porsches in the GTE Pro class the result was already certain, they were to finish second last and last in class. This is such a pity for the 4.2-litre Porsche RSRs which featured this new, larger engine at Le Mans for the first time. This new engine was designed and intended to provide the Porsches with extra torque for improved acceleration out of corners, and to allow them to reach their top speed quicker. Alas, this was not to be, and reading between the lines of the press releases, this was a sore point with the teams as well.
In the GTE Am class it was a different matter completely, as Team Project 1 founder Hans-Bernd Kamps explained, “Everything was coming together perfectly! But this time it just wasn’t enough. We had a perfect strategy and had been performing excellently throughout the race. Second place looked to be ours, but a safety car in the closing stages cost us our time advantage over our competitors and we fell back down to fourth.”
A podium place would have been a just reward for Egidio Perfetti, Matteo Cairoli and Larry ten Voorde. The trio were among the fastest in their class throughout the race, fighting among the lead cars and barely putting a foot wrong. In the end, just eight seconds was the gap between the #56 Porsche 911 RSR and a podium place.
In fifth place in GTE Am was the #86 Gulf Racing 911 RSR driven by the all-British trio of Michael Wainwright, Ben Barker and Andrew Watson. Finishing in tenth place was the #99 Dempsey-Proton Racing 911 RSR with the #78 Porsche in 12th place. The second Project 1 team of Ben Keating, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Felipe Fraga crossed the finish line in 14th position. Steve Brooks, Andreas Laskaratos and Julien Piguet finished 16th in the third Project 1 Porsche 911 RSR, with the Le Mans experience much more important to the crew than the result.
The race was dry throughout, warm and humid, although slightly cooler than earlier in the week. From the track side, in the GTE Pro class, the Aston Martins sounded as fresh at the end of 24 hours as they did at the start, and the Ferraris too, sounded and looked good. But, if truth be told, the Porsches looked as though they were struggling for air at any part of the circuit.
A total of 16 cars were classified as non-finishers: NC – 5 cars; Retired – 10 cars; Disq – 1 car. This means that there were 43 finishers, and in many cases the competition was intense right up to the end. In these modern times, the teams regard the Le Mans as a 24-hour sprint, the much-improved technical reliability of the race cars making this a distinct possibility.
This was indeed a Le Mans 24 Hours with a difference. Besides the absence of spectators, the paddock was sparsely populated and there was no contact between journalists and the teams or their PR representatives. All communication in this respect, including the annual ACO press conference, was done electronically most of which worked, in a fashion.
I certainly considered it a privilege to be included amongst those members of the media invited to attend, as the total number this year was down from the usual 750 personnel to just 150. This covers all aspects of the media and includes journalists, photographers, TV and radio, so this was huge honour for us at PORSCHE ROAD & RACE.
The 2021 season will not see the field divided up the way we have become familiar with, so no more LMP1, but we will see the new Le Mans Hypercar (LMH) class in action. Toyota has confirmed its participation for 2021, as has Alpine, Glickenhaus and ByKolles, while Peugeot will return with a Hypercar for the 2022 season. However, current spec LMP1 cars will be permitted to be ‘grandfathered’ for use in the 2021 season.
The 2021 WEC season, the ninth in this current WEC series, will consist of only six races in the year, but these dates are still provisional at this stage. The 2021 season will also mark the return to the traditional annual calendar and will no longer follow the Super Season format split across two calendar years.
|Pre-season testing||Sebring Int. Raceway Florida, USA||13-14 March 2021|
|1||1000 Miles of Sebring||Sebring Int. Raceway Florida, USA||19 March 2021|
|2||6 Hours of Spa||Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium||1 May 2021|
|3||24 Hours of Le Mans||Circuit de la Sarthe, Le Mans||12-13 June 2021|
|4||6 Hours of Monza||Autodromo Nazionale di Monza, Italy||18 July 2021|
|5||6 Hours of Fuji||Fuji Speedway Oyama, Shizuoka, Japan||26 September 2021|
|6||6 Hours of Bahrain||Bahrain International Circuit Sakhir, Bahrain||20 November 2021|
Numerous announcements will be made in the coming months which we will bring you as and when the news breaks.
It emerged after the race, following routine tests, that three members of the Porsche team have tested positive for COVID-19. As a result, Porsche has decided to send only a reduced number of participants to the 24-hour race at the Nürburgring. This affects the factory-contracted racing drivers as well as members of Porsche Motorsport and Manthey-Racing who worked at the 24 Hours of Le Mans last weekend. This involves a total of nine racing drivers who were to drive the six 911 GT3 Rs for four customer teams this coming weekend. Porsche is in discussions with the affected teams to look for solutions so that the remaining 911 GT3 Rs can compete. For the same reason, it means that the Porsche GT Team will also not be participating in the seventh round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship on September 27th at Mid-Ohio.
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale