Endurance racing should be a test of sustained strength and stamina over a prolonged period of time. It is not a sprint, because that is a test of a race car’s high speed capability over a short distance, such as Formula 1. As a result, race cars in these two very different classes of the sport are built in very different ways, for example, to satisfy the rigours of running for 24 hours and repeatedly riding kerbs or ‘baguettes’.
I was once told by a seasoned endurance racing driver with many Le Mans races under his belt, that to be successful at Le Mans, you needed to stay out of trouble, drive consistent laps and aim to have smooth pit stops. You needed to ensure that you made it through the night hours, then you needed to make it through the morning hours of Sunday without any hiccups, and only at 12h00 on Sunday did you go racing, seriously, for the remaining three hours, or four hours as it was back then. That was the perfect recipe for a successful 24-hour race at Le Mans. But the latest generation of drivers say that that is a lot of baloney, you can’t do that any more, because if you drive well, do everything right and stay out of trouble you will be lucky to make it into the top five or six in your class. Today, the racing in a 24-hour race begins when the lights go green, and lasts for the duration of the race.
You do, of course, have to stay out of trouble and do everything right and have perfect pit stops etcetera, but you have got to be pushing for the win right from the off. That doesn’t mean taking crazy chances because then you are likely to be watching Sunday’s sun rise from the team’s hospitality tent. But this is where the experience gained over years of racing in this genre, begins to count.
The race on Saturday got off to the usual exciting start, and this time for the first time, I positioned myself on the inside of the first turn into the Dunlop chicane, rather than elbow my way into a spot on the outside of turn one. Firstly the cars are already spreading themselves out within the first few hundred yards, and even at this stage you might only get one car in the frame as they speed by. On the inside of the start of the Dunlop chicane, you get all the LMP1s together, all the LMP2s together and so on, so it is a much more productive, head-on shot.
There was little or even no doubt that the Toyotas would rule the roost right from the off, and that is exactly what has happened. The only battle in LMP1 therefore would be between the SMP and Rebellion cars. The leading trio after the first hour in LMP2 was still the same as it was after 16 hours, which is what you can expect from a formula-driven class with a single engine supplier. In the GTE Pro class, the #63 Corvette led often and for a long time over the course of the race, with the two Porsches (#92 and #93) always in very close attention. In fact, the lead group in the Pro class ran for many hours in tandem with each other, which tells you a few things. Firstly, they were all keeping station with each other so as to not let the gap grow at all, and secondly, the BoP was effectively calculated to eliminate any advantage between the cars.
With car reliability at such a high level across he field, the only real chance of a change in position within a class would be the result of a disadvantageous safety car phase, an accident or a slow pit stop. The result is a processional race which doesn’t make for exciting battles. But just to illustrate the pace of the race, even though we are talking about an endurance race, the drivers were giving their all right around the track, as evidenced by the various spin-offs by both Pro Aston Martins within minutes of each other.
Swinging to matters Porsche-related, the #88 Dempsey-Proton Porsche and the #64 Corvette made contact in the Porsche Curves, with the result that the Corvette, driven by Marcel Fässler, hit the tyre wall very heavily and the car was comprehensively trashed. This contact happened when the #88 and #86 Gulf Racing Porsches were running alongside of each other and as the #86 car moved ahead on the inside racing line, the #88 moved across into #86’s slipstream. Unsighted, the Corvette shot up the inside line too into the spot that the #88 Porsche intended to take. Was it a good move by the Corvette? Possibly not, because he was entering a position where he would be boxed in with the #86 Porsche ahead and the #88 Porsche immediately to his right, assuming the Dempsey-Proton car remained where it was. This was also confirmed by the Porsche personnel and it has been called a ‘racing incident’ without any blame being directed at either driver. The #64 Corvette was comprehensively damaged and immediately retired while the #88 Porsche did not suffer any real damage, and after a quick check up, was sent back out to continue the battle.
The #88 Porsche’s troubles weren’t over yet though, and a few laps later, a spin ended in the car’s retirement. Jan Bodenbach, PR Manager at Team Project 1, explained it this way, “The #88 spun in front of us and Jörg had to react (quickly), but he could slow the car and get around him, so nothing happened. To be honest, this has been the only scary moment so far.” So the #88 was retired fairly soon after that having completed just 79 laps. Around midday on Sunday, the #56 had moved up into P2, “The car has had no issues, and we just changed the brakes for safety reasons,” Bodenbach revealed.
During the night hours (03h50), the #92 had an exhaust issue, and the car was in the pits for 20 minutes undergoing repairs which cost it five laps. The #94 Porsche had a steering problem but the car was otherwise running well.
With a little more than four hours to run, the #91 was running in third and the #93 was in fourth position. The #94 and #92 Porsches were running in eleventh and twelfth places respectively at the same stage. In the GTE Am class, the #56 Project 1 team car was solidly placed in second place, a position it had held for quite some time. The #77 Dempsey-Proton Porsche, an early front-runner, was running in sixth place with the #78 Proton Porsche in eighth position and the #86 Gulf Racing Porsche in tenth place. I approached Michael Ried from last year’s winners, the #77 Dempsey-Proton Porsche, and asked him why they were running down in sixth place, and he explained that they had had some problems during the night with the underfloor, where some “bolts had come loose.”
With exactly an hour to go, the #85 Ford GT leader in Am, had to call into the pits for a stop/go penalty immediately after having carried out a regular pit stop. This allowed the #56 car driven by Bergmeister, to shrink the gap between himself and the class leader to just over five seconds. As the laps unfolded, Bergmeister continued to eat into the gap as the race ran down.
Le Mans has a way of allowing a certain car to rise to the top and win, with reference to Jan Bodenbach’s comment earlier in the feature. You only have to look back to 2016 to find drama of the highest order, when the #5 Toyota stopped on the finish line on the penultimate lap, allowing the close-following Porsche to take the flag. Similarly, in 2017 we had two of the Toyotas retiring overnight and the Porsche, which was 13 laps in the lead, came to a standstill on the Sunday. You cannot put Le Mans in a box, you will always find a sting in the tail somewhere.
This year, the two Toyotas had their own dramas between the two of them. It appeared that the #7 Toyota had two punctures in successive laps, causing the car to pit both times. The conspiracy theorists were hard at work accusing Toyota of engineering a win for #8, which is of course highly unlikely, but the negative comments didn’t help Toyota’s situation. Just when you thought you had heard it all, Toyota later admitted that they changed the incorrect tyre on the #7 car on its first visit to the pits. Toyota removed a good tyre and inadvertently left the deflating tyre on the car and sent it back out, only for the car to have to come back in on the next lap to have the original faulty tyre replaced. This effectively ruled out any chance of the #7 car winning, but in fairness, the fault was traced back to a faulty pressure sensor which gave an incorrect message as to which tyre needed changing. Certainly this issue will rumble on for some time to come.
With twenty minutes left to run, in the GTE Pro class, the #51 Ferrari was ahead of the #91 and #93 Porsches which were in second and third places respectively. In the GTE Am class, the #85 Ford GT pulled ahead of the hard-charging #56 Project 1 car driven by Bergmeister. A lap of Le Mans will typically see cars running flat out for 80% of the lap, which is why the circuit is regarded as a low downforce, high speed circuit. This of course results in some spectacular racing for the many fans.
When the chequered flag fell, the #8 Toyota of Alonso/Buemi/Nakajima was declared the overall winner of the 87th edition of the Le Mans 2 Hours with the LMP2 class victory going to Lapierre/Negrão/Thiriet in the #36 Signatech Alpine Matmut. In the GTE Pro class, it was the #51 AF Corse Ferrari of Guidi/Calado/Serra who were winners in that class, with the #91 Porsche RSR of Lietz/Bruni/Makowiecki in second place and the #93 car driven by Pilet/Bamber/Tandy in third place. GTE Am winners were Keating/Bleekemolen/Fraga in the #85 Ford GT followed by the #56 Project 1 of Bergmeister/Lindsey/Perfetti in second place.
While this race may not be described as a ‘classic’ edition of the greatest endurance race in the world, it was memorable for number of reasons. One such reason being that there were just twelve non finishers out of 62 starters and the winners completed 385 laps in dry weather. On the Friday before the race, the ACO revealed the calendar for the 2019/2020 season, but the jury is still out as to whether it will be a strong next season or not. Still comprising eight rounds, the LMP1 class will see four teams fielding two cars each, while LMP2 will be enlarged. The GTE Pro class will be significantly depleted with just three manufacturers running two cars each. The Am class will be increased to eleven entries, but if truth be told, this is an increase in the number of one-year-old cars, which hardly showcases technological advancement in motorsport engineering. This may be a cynical outlook, but I always thought that motorsport embraced the cutting edge of the motorsport industry, after all, we are talking about a world championship series.
Whichever side of the fence you sit on, we hope that you enjoy the photographic gallery that accompanies this report. See you next season…
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale