Now imagine yourself in a rollercoaster at your local fair with its multiple ups and downs, and even upside down loops. In a similar way, the 24-Hour race this last weekend was a bit like a Le Mans rollercoaster ride, one minute Porsche was up, then it was Toyota, and even the cars within the same team swapped positions regularly. In the end though, it was Porsche who triumphed, adding an 18th Le Mans title to their already impressive list of victories.
The events of the past weekend began on Sunday 12th June when the cars had to pass scrutineering which was held in the Place de la Republique in the Le Mans city centre. Although this is a very important and serious step in the process of being eligible to race at Le Mans, it has been a long-held and much-enjoyed part of the spectacle that is the Le Mans 24-Hour race. The public turn out in large numbers, and not even the intermittent and heavy downpours could keep them from enjoying the occasion. On Monday the second half of the entrants had their turn to be checked over.
Tuesday was a quiet day at the circuit as the teams were checking their cars, fixing various bits and pieces, and generally preparing for the first Free Practice (FP1) session on Wednesday afternoon, followed by Qualifying 1, 2 and 3 over the next 2 days. But it also saw the drivers line up for a group shot of the ‘Class of 2016’. Everyone was still pretty relaxed.
Right from the start of proceedings on the previous Sunday, every day was characterised by frequent heavy showers, just enough to get thoroughly wet through, before the sun would come out to dry you off again, making for very humid conditions. I personally have never experienced weather like this at Le Mans.
Saturday dawned bright and clear, but you knew that the rain was just waiting for an opportune moment to spring forth, which of course it did. While the cars lined up against the pit wall ahead of their formation lap, it was brilliantly clear and hot, but as the grid was cleared in preparation for this first lap, the rain came down. The cars completed one lap and then formed up again on the starting grid in order of their qualifying times. The grid girls came out to stand next to each car, showing that car’s position on the grid. At this point it was announced over the Tannoy that the rain was to continue in the short term but would clear away by 5:00pm. This prompted a scurry of activity as the teams sought to get the correct tyres fitted as they would have to endure another two hours of rain. As the grid girls huddled under umbrellas, another announcement was made concerning the start, which would now take place behind a safety car.
The minutes ticked away until we saw the three-minute board, the one-minute board, and then the 30 second board after which the cars all pulled away behind the safety car, an Audi R8, resplendent in its red and white livery. No-one knew for sure how long the safety car would lead the race-hungry pack of cars, but after five laps, then six…the crowd grew increasingly frustrated and shouts of “boo…” followed the safety car as it passed the pits. The safety car period was way too long, as the track was drying out by this time, but only after seven laps and 52 minutes did the Audi pull off into the pits, and the race could get under way.
The lead had already changed after the first two laps of proper racing, as the #6 Toyota and then the #5 Toyota overtook the lead Porsche, pushing the 919 Hybrid back into third place. This time the weather forecasters had got it right, because the rain lifted before 5:00pm and stayed away for the rest of the race. For the third and fourth hours the #1 Porsche led the race, but by the end of the fifth hour, the #6 Toyota was back in the lead, and so the lead swapped back and forth between the two manufacturers for the rest of the race – our Le Mans rollercoaster.
The Audis were not really featuring performance wise in this race as #8 Audi ended up 12 laps and the #7 17 laps behind the leader, with #8 still securing 3rd place. However, Toyota and Porsche were in the lead and they switched places almost constantly. Over the 24-hour period, the gap between the lead Toyota and the Porsche ranged from just a few seconds to two and a half minutes, this gap shifting according to pit stops and traffic.
In the LMP2 class, the eventual winner, the #36 Signatech Alpine, spent the whole race in the top three positions, with much of the 24 hours being spent as class leader. Competition was particularly fierce in this class of 23 cars, with no less than 19 being powered by the Nissan V8 engine.
Ford had been making a big noise about its reappearance at Le Mans for many months, billing their entry as a revival of the Ferrari v Ford wars of the 1960s. While both manufacturers in the GTE PRO class obviously went all out to win, the contest amounted to no more than a class battle, and one which Ford seemed destined to win. The Ferrari 488 GTE is a formidable machine and has shown the rest of the WEC pack a clean pair of heels this season, but Ford had numbers on their side with four cars on the grid.
The Balance of Performance (BoP) index certainly favoured the Ferrari and Ford cars, while favourable late adjustments to the Aston Martins and Corvettes BoP ensured that the Porsches stood no chance. As a result, the Porsches threw everything into the scrum and at the end of the first hour were lying in first and third positions, having started from eighth and tenth on the grid. After two hours the #92 Porsche was still leading but was soon overtaken by the Ferraris and ultimately the Fords. By just after 1:00am the #91 car retired with engine problems, and by 2:36am the #92 was also retired with suspension problems, both were casualties of being pushed too hard.
In the end it was a win for the #68 Ford with the #69 Ford in third place. Ferrari #82 finished in second place, spoiling the hoped for 1-2-3 finish for Ford, replicating their overall victory in 1966 when the GT40s executed a clean sweep at Le Mans. The top three cars in the GTE PRO class all finished on the same lap, such was the pace and level of competition. The GTE AM class saw Ferrari on the top two steps of the podium with the #88 911 RSR finishing in third place.
The #84 SRT41 by Oak Racing, driven by Bouvet/Sausset/Tinseau, was the Garage 56 entrant. This Morgan LMP2 Nissan was specially adapted for quadruple amputee Frederic Sausset, who contracted an infection in 2012 resulting in the amputation of both hands and both legs above the knees. An extremely admirable and ambitious goal, the bold Frenchman with his two French team mates completed 315 laps. When compared with the 331 laps by the winning GTE AM Ferrari and the 340 laps by the winning GTE PRO Ford GT, this achievement is all the more impressive. Just sixteen cars out of the 60 starters dropped out for a variety of reasons, a remarkably low rate of attrition.
As the race drew to a close, it became clear that the #5 Toyota, barring any mishaps on the penultimate lap, was going to win the Le Mans 24-Hours for the first time. But an air-pipe failure occurred as it crossed the finish line with still one lap to complete, and the Toyota came to a standstill with Nakajima behind the wheel. Standing directly opposite the Toyota pits, we could see the celebrations which were building in the pit garage, come to a sudden stop as it was realised that the #5 car had lost power. The assembled photographers up and down the wall opposite the Toyota pits stood aghast, as we collectively willed the Toyota to keep going as the chequered flag had not yet fallen. Patrick Morisseau, the keeper of the chequered flag had his back to the stationary Toyota, and as the (then) second-placed Porsche came into sight, the Toyota pulled away, but it was the #2 Porsche that took the chequered flag.
This agonising situation is part of the Le Mans rollercoaster, as this great race is peppered with many stories of ‘almost’ and countless ‘what ifs’ from over the years. No doubt this result will just serve to encourage the Toyota team to come back even stronger. Congratulations to Porsche on their 18th Le Mans victory, but one cannot help but feel for the Toyota guys…
Written by: Glen Smale
Photos by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale & John Mountney
For more images please look on the Virtual Motorpix website