The 2017 Le Mans 24 Hour race will go down in history as one of the most dramatic in years. If you thought that last year’s race ended in dramatic fashion, then this year’s event was equal to or even more gripping than in 2016. Unavoidably, it involved the same two manufacturers, Porsche and Toyota.
Wednesday, 14 June, saw the first Free Practice session which ran for four hours from 16h00 to 20h00. This session is used primarily to set the car up and to check that everything is working properly. The two 919 Hybrids faired satisfactorily and at the end of the session, the #1 Porsche posted the fastest time with the #2 car in third place. Qualifying did not bring the 919 Hybrids any better results, because Toyota locked out first and second on the starting grid, with the Porsches in third and fourth.
The Le Mans 24 Hour race was the third race for the new 911 RSR in Europe, and the speed and sound of the cars was memorable. These new 911s have great potential, but the challenge is to convert this potential into results, which is not easy when you have been allocated an unfavourable Balance of Performance (BoP) index. It was calculated that the 911 RSR had an 8km/h slower top speed than the fastest car in class, which would suggest that the BoP is subjective in nature. But this all comes to an end with round 4 of the WEC which will be held at the Nürburgring in July, where the process becomes automated and every manufacturer will be treated the same.
In Q1 in the GTE Am class, the customer RSRs ended up in second, seventh, twelfth and fourteenth places. Throughout all three qualifying sessions, the four RSRs (2015 model) looked and sounded good from the track side. The one blot on the record being a spin by Ben Barker that resulted in slight damage to the front of the #86 Gulf Racing RSR. The GTE Am cars occupied positions: #77 fourth, #93 tenth, #88 thirteenth, and the #86 in 59th place on the grid.
Neel Jani immediately overtook the #8 Toyota at the start of the race, moving up into second place, and but he lost this place again to the #8 Toyota not long after. When it came time for refuelling after 13 laps, Jani stayed in the car, as he did with the following two fuel stops, handing the car to Nick Tandy on lap 39. Timo Bernhard started in the #2 Porsche in fifth place and, refuelling after 12, 25, and 38 laps, he handed the car over to Earl Bamber in fourth place.
Despite starting in seventh place (#92) and thirteenth place (#91), many were secretly hoping the two RSRs would manage to improve their positions and perform strongly. Watching from the track side, the two RSRs certainly looked like they were on the money, as lap after lap a train of four or five GTE Pro cars circulated nose-to-tail, with at least one RSR in its midst.
The first Porsche to be out of the running was the #88 GTE Am Proton Competition RSR which was hit in the rear after 18 laps (around 17h20) by the #26 LMP2 G-Drive (Rusinov) in the Porsche Curves. Both cars were forced to retire.
At 18h30 the #2 Porsche 919 came in as Earl Bamber complained that there was no drive to the front axle, so he pitted. The car was in the garage for 65 minutes during which time ‘several components’ were replaced. Brendon Hartley took the car out again at 19h35, although the car appeared somewhat unwilling to take off at first, and he rejoined almost at the back of the field. After almost four hours of being back in action, the #2 car was up to 34th position.
At 19h02 the #92 RSR was hit by a Corvette in an overtaking move, as the two cars entered the high-speed Turn 1. The Corvette hit the Porsche on the front right, causing it to spin and flat-spotting all four tyres, and so the car was brought into the pits for a fresh set of tyres, and the driver, Dirk Werner stayed in the car. Other than that incident, the RSRs were still running well with the #92 in seventh and the #91 in ninth place having covered 91 laps.
The #1 Porsche 919 after five-and-a-half hours was lying in second place and circulating strongly behind the #7 Toyota, and after 78 laps, Andre Lotterer took the wheel and maintained his second place.
At 21h00 the outside air temperature was still 28ºC, with a humidity factor of around 97%. A short while later, the #8 Toyota passed the #1 Porsche pushing it back into third place once again. The second and third positions yo-yoed for some time, and with Lotterer ahead, he was able to close the gap on the lead #7 Toyota to just 21 seconds. But with 105 laps done, Lotterer was again overhauled by the #8 Toyota and knocked back into third place.
Neel Jani took over the reins on the #1 Porsche at 22h16, but about a half hour later, the battle for second place with the #8 Toyota ceased when it pulled into the pits, remaining there for two hours. After the #2 Porsche rejoined the race in the hands of Brendon Hartley, the car performed well and was driven next by Timo Bernhard, and then by Earl Bamber. All of the drivers highlighted the numerous slow zones as interrupting their driving rhythm, which Hartley put down to many drivers making mistakes and going off-piste.
The next phase of the race, you could not have made up. Just after midnight, and with the #8 Toyota just out on track again following its two-hour repair, the lead #7 Toyota stopped out on track with some kind of power failure. Then, as if it couldn’t get any worse, as the #9 was exiting the pit lane and moving up towards the Dunlop Bridge, contact was made with the #25 Manor Oreca 07-Gibson which spun out and hit the tyre barrier and retired. The #9 Toyota, with its left rear severely damaged, limped onwards but a punctured tyre destroyed the remaining bodywork and the car eventually stopped in the Ford Chicane. The Porsche LMP1 team, who took the lead with the #1 car at 00h45, could not believe the situation that had just been handed to them, while the atmosphere of utter dejection in the Toyota garage was tangible.
Two hours later, the #92 RSR (Christensen) had moved up to third in class, having completed one pit stop more than the two cars ahead of it. The #91 RSR (Lietz) was lying in sixth at the eight-hour mark. However, at 04h00, Michael Christensen in the #92 RSR put his right back wheel on the paint of the curb in the Ford Chicane and began to weave, and then to spin. The car spun backwards and hit the tyres/barrier back end first, severely damaging the rear. As a result of being so down on straight line speed the RSR drivers had to make up for this lack of performance by being aggressive in the corners and around other parts of the circuit. The #92 RSR had completed 179 laps.
As the sun rose lazily over the Circuit de la Sarthe on Sunday, the temperature began to rise once again, even as we made our way up towards the Dunlop Bridge at around 05h55. This is a favourite shot of many photographers, to catch the sun glinting off the bodywork as the cars made their way up the hill, under the bridge, and down the hill on the other side. The cars are dirty and grimy after 15 hours of hard racing, bashing door handles and kicking up dust and stones as they cut corners and bounced over curbs.
At 09h45, it was still the #1 Porsche 919 Hybrid that led the field with Nick Tandy on board, having completed 277 laps. At this same moment the #91 RSR with Fred Mako at the wheel, was leading the GTE Pro class having completed 247 laps, but this class is so tightly contested that the positions were changing constantly. Several safety car sessions greeted the early morning racers, which plays to the advantage of some competitors while affecting others negatively. Being such a long circuit, there are a couple of safety cars that divide up the circuit, and if you happen to end up in one group, your closest competitor may end up in another and thereby benefit while you could be disadvantaged. This, though, is racing as they say!
As the morning wore on, the #1 Porsche 919 extended its lead over its closest rival, the #38 LMP2 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca 07-Gibson! Can you imagine that, with just four hours to run, the lead Porsche is followed by three LMP2 cars while the #2 Porsche is lying in fifth place, having fought its way up through almost the entire field after its hour-long repair. But just when things looked comfortable for the #1 Porsche, at 11h11, the lead car slowed to a virtual crawl around the MM Arena area, reaching as far as just beyond the second chicane where the car came to a standstill. An oil warning light had apparently come on, and the engine could not function normally with this activated.
The situation then existed, which at first was unthinkable, that an LMP2 car could win the Le Mans 24 Hours!! With three-and-a-half hours to go, it was estimated that the #2 Porsche could still catch and pass the three LMP2 cars ahead of it, but this would place increased pressure on the #2 drivers, to drive harder and faster. In the time taken to write this paragraph, Brendon Hartley had overtaken another LMP2 car on his march towards a win.
Lost in the drama of the LMP1 happenings is the fact that the #91 RSR had retaken the lead in the GTE Pro class. One radio commentator called the GTE Pro rivalry a ‘bar brawl’ such was the intensity of the competition. But for the RSR to stay at the top of its class was perhaps a wish too far, as it crossed the line in fourth place. The GTE Am class was a bit of a whitewash as Ferraris took the first three positions, with the #77 Dempsey Proton RSR (2015) coming home in fourth place.
In the end, the #2 Porsche overtook the #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca with an hour to spare, and the final 60 minutes was wound down with these cars holding station. While the challenge for the title was decided an hour before the clock struck 24 hours, the GTE Pro battle between Aston Martin and Corvette went down to the last lap, with its own drama but that is another story.
Despite there only being five cars in the top LMP1 manufacturer class, and the way in which this conflict unfolded, the whole 24-hour story was filled with suspense from beginning to end. One cannot help feeling sorry for Toyota…again, but racing is a hard game and there is only one winner. It must be said for Porsche, that although they experienced their own failings (with the #2 car having a problem in Q3 and the #2 car in the final stages of the race), Porsche cars have raced at every single Le Mans 24 Hour race since 1951. With such an unbroken record, there comes a wealth of experience in endurance racing, and that has to be worth a lot.
This was Brendon Hartley’s first win in four attempts, it was Earl Bamber’s second win at Le Mans, and for Timo Bernhard, it was his second win in numerous attempts. We would like to congratulate all the competitors who took part in this weekend’s race, and in particular the class winners…but especially Timo, Brendon and Earl. Well done guys, you fought the fight well, and now you can enjoy the adulation!!
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale & John Mountney