Under unseasonably hot conditions for late September, the 88th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours is finally a reality. Postponed from its traditional mid-June date, the world famous endurance race fell victim to the global Corona virus pandemic, but at least we have a date for the race, and so its all systems go at Le Mans.
In many ways, this running of the 24-hour race will be like no other, as it is being held ‘behind closed doors’. The entire Le Mans campus is eerily quiet, and all entrances and exits are manned by officials wearing the obligatory facemasks. Every time you pass through a vehicle gate, you can expect a temperature gun to be thrust into your face, and upon entering the media centre, there is another one mounted atop a temporary transparent screen, just to be sure.
All press conferences are held ‘virtually’ and instead of a mountain of promotional material and press releases greeting the press, there is not a piece of paper in site. All race results, press releases, communiqués and the like are to be distributed digitally by accessing innumerable websites.
Scrutineering, which is normally a two-day event held with much fanfare in the city’s centre, has this year been held behind closed doors at Le Mans’ own scrutineering bays at the circuit – accès refusé. This year, the process was completed in a single day, and the Drivers’ Parade which is normally held on the Friday evening, has this year been dispensed with altogether.
By Thursday of race week, the whole circuit and surrounding area, is usually heaving with race goers with a carnival-type atmosphere. Instead, the roadways around the circuit and within the circuit itself are almost empty, the only vehicles being the usual quad bikes running around with race components or tyres. This year, members of the media are not allowed into the paddock area, and any interviews must be booked and then conducted with a microphone on a long pole and in special rooms reserved for this purpose. It’s all very different!
On the track
While we are all feeling the effects of this unusual heat wave, the on-track action is similarly sizzling. Despite the fact that there are no spectators in the grand stands, the drivers and teams are nevertheless giving it their all. Three practice sessions were packed into Thursday’s programme, comprising two daytime sessions and one evening session, in addition to two Road To Le Mans practice sessions for that series.
Friday has seen a similarly full programme with two Road To Le Mans qualifying sessions, as well as Race 1 for that series, together with two Porsche Carrera Cup practices and one qualifying session. The Le Mans 24 Hour competitors have had their fourth practice session and the Hyperpole, which has determined the final grid positions. The Hyperpole consists of two shoot-outs, the first one took place on Thursday night from 23h15 to midnight. The top six cars in each class then competed in a second 45-minute session at 11h30 today. These two sessions have been exciting, intense and action-packed!
The starting grid will be divided in the four classes, with the top six cars in each class vying for their place at the top of the class. The four hyper-polesitters will be awarded a trophy in recognition of their performance. In today’s Hyperpole, the Italian Gianmaria Bruni turned the fastest lap at the wheel of the #91 Porsche 911 RSR GTE Pro class while his colleague Michael Christensen secured sixth place in the #92 sister car. In the GTE-Am class, Matt Campbell was the fastest Porsche driver, claiming second grid spot in his class with the #77 Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche 911 RSR.
This race will be remembered for a number of important milestones, not least of which is the absence of spectators, the earlier starting time of 14h30 (instead of 15h00), and the end of the LMP1 Hybrid class. 2021 will see the introduction of a new set of rules and this promises to be the start of a whole new and exciting chapter in the story of the Le Mans 24 Hours.
Porsche has a new livery
In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Porsche’s first win at Le Mans, the factory cars are decked out in a new commemorative livery. The two 911 RSRs fielded by the Porsche GT Team feature red-white and black-white liveries, commemorating the first of its 19 overall victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans 50 years ago. The two factory cars carry the lettering “1970” on the front lid and the roof, highlighting the year in which Britain’s Richard Attwood and Germany’s Hans Herrmann clinched the first overall victory at Le Mans for Porsche.
What does the later date mean for the teams?
The three-month postponement of the race means different weather and light conditions. This race is the first outing for this latest generation 911 RSR in the Le Mans race, and the cancellation of the important pre-test event presents a special challenge for the Porsche GT Team, because testing has not been possible at the circuit. The pre-test is the one chance for manufacturers, tyre partners, teams and drivers to prepare for the unexpected surface changes to the track prior to the race.
In the normal slot of mid-June, the vehicles would have driven for only a little more than eight hours during the hours of darkness. This new date in September will mean that the period of darkness will be almost four hours longer. The long night means a longer period with cooler asphalt and air temperatures, and as a result, the engines of the two Porsche 911 RSRs can run longer at an optimal level. Cooler air means more oxygen saturation and thus more efficient burning of fuel in the combustion chamber. “If the weather conditions are good, we’ll witness a significantly faster race compared to June,” said Pascal Zurlinden, Director of Factory Motorsports at Porsche.
The cooler nighttime temperatures also have the advantage that the soft compound of the Michelin tyres can be run over longer periods. However, the data also clearly shows that although there is less rain in September, the showers are heavier than in June. “We just have to take it as it comes,” said Pascal Zurlinden.
The race will start at 14h30 local time tomorrow. One of the reasons for this is that the final stage of the Tour de France road cycling race ends in Paris in the late afternoon on 20th September. To avoid a clash with this event, the Le Mans race will finish on Sunday at the earlier time of 14h30.
The compact schedule too, has thrown a spanner in the works. “The longer practice sessions allow us to do extensive work on the setup and tyre management,” explained Zurlinden. “We can complete a lot of tasks, but compared to the usual pre-test, we are disadvantaged in that the breaks are no longer sufficient to conduct a really detailed analysis.” The Friday before the start of the race on Saturday has always been the last chance for drivers and team members to relax and catch their breath before the biggest race of the year. The so-called “Mad Friday” was normally all about the fans, and this year they will be sadly missed for sure.
At the end of the day, all of the above changes, differences and challenges will affect everyone in the paddock. However, the missing fans will really make the whole spectacle seem otherworldly, but at least we have a race to watch, read about or follow in the way that you choose.
Porsche Road & Race will be here, trackside, to bring you the images and the stories straight from this action-packed race. We hope that you enjoy catching the action wherever you are, but remember, you can catch up on all the post-race action right here on Porsche Road & Race.
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale