The weather had been warm all week, but on race day, the heavens opened just in time for the start, which meant the formation lap and the first two laps of the race took place behind the Porsche pace car. With Derek Bell at the wheel of the pace car and serving as the Grand Marshal, the 89th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans got underway at the later-than-normal time of 1600h. It was also the second time this great race was held at a time of year other than its traditional mid-June slot.
This year, 62 cars took to the circuit in a bid for a class victory, or—in the case of the top Hypercar class—overall victory. This coveted class was contested by five cars: two Toyotas, a single Alpine A480, and a pair of Glickenhaus 007s. It perhaps came as no surprise to racing enthusiasts after the Hyperpole shoot-out to find that the two Toyotas were on the front row of the grid for the start of the race.
Le Mans 2021: Practice & Qualifying Sessions
Porsche ended the qualifying sessions in a strong position, finishing on class pole in both the GTE Pro class (#72 Hub Auto Racing) and the GTE Am class (#88 Dempsey-Proton Racing). In fact, Porsche dominated the first three places in the Am class, surely showing that the Porsche 911s were running well.
But it didn’t go so well for Kévin Estre during Qualifying sessions in the #92 car, as he slid off the track at Indianapolis and into the barriers, ending his run and bringing the session to a stop. When the session restarted, Gianmaria Bruni managed to put the #91 sister car in P5, persistent understeer preventing a higher finish.
However, any thoughts of complacency would have been furthest from the minds of any of the teams as the GTE Pro class was contested by just three manufacturers this year—comprising four Porsche 911 RSR-19s, two Ferrari 488 GTE Evos, and a pair of the mid-engined Corvette C8.Rs.
The GTE Am class was the second-largest this year with a total of 23 entries, including eight Porsche 911 RSR-19s, no less than 11 Ferrari 488 GTE Evos, and four Aston Martin Vantage AMRs. There is no question that much of the excitement in the race would come from these two GTE classes.
Le Mans 2021: Endurance Racing Legends
To whet the appetite of the smaller-than-usual (but no less enthusiastic) crowd, the Endurance Racing Legends gave a reminder of what it was like at Le Mans in years past. This event included GTs and prototypes from the Nineties and the Noughties.
The series is primarily aimed at amateur drivers eager to enjoy a spin in models such as the Porsche 911 GT1, Chrysler Viper GTS-R, Ferrari 550 Maranello, Maserati MC12 GT1, Lola MG EX257, Dallara SP1, and a Bentley Speed 8, amongst others. Despite being billed as an event for amateur drivers, several top professional drivers were also charged with piloting some of the valuable machinery around the circuit.
Race Day at Le Mans 2021
When race day arrived, it appeared gloomy and overcast, and the forecast called for thundershowers. The show ahead of the actual race ran its course—and on cue, Derek Bell led the cars away in the Porsche 911 pace car on the formation lap.
It had been raining for a good half hour by this stage, so the track was very wet, and the pace car led the field around for a further two laps—three in total before the 62 cars were let loose for the ensuing 24-hour long battle.
At the start of the third lap, the pace car peeled off into the pit lane and the proper racing got underway. The problem at this point is always that every driver tries to do just that little bit better than the car next to him, and on this slippery track, the inevitable happened.
Sebastien Buemi in the #8 Toyota was not as quick as his teammate in the #7 Toyota when the #708 Glickenhaus of Olivier Pla locked up just behind him. The two cars clashed, resulting in delays for both and a ten-second penalty for Pla as well.
Nicolas Lapierre succumbed to a spin in the #36 Alpine A480-Gibson, while Laurens Vanthoor took advantage of the situation and found himself up to third place in the #79 WeatherTech Porsche—ahead of the #91 factory Porsche of Gianmaria Bruni.
Around a half-hour into the race, a clearing sky and a dry line on the track saw most teams diving into the pits for slicks. At the end of the first hour, it was the #7 and #8 Toyotas in first and second place in the Hypercar class, followed by the #36 Alpine car.
In the LMP2 class, it was the #38 Jota car ahead of the #26 G-Drive Racing and the #29 ‘Jumbo’ Racing Team Netherland. The Netherland’s team had hauled itself up the field from 22nd place on the starting grid to third, which was an excellent effort (but then, this team is well-known for always giving eleven-tenths).
With two hours gone, the order in the top two classes remained unchanged, but in the GTE Pro class, two Ferraris led with the #79 WeatherTech Porsche in third place. In the GTE Am class, it was all change, as a Ferrari led from two Aston Martins, with the highest placed Porsche down in tenth place.
The Porsche GTE Pro cars were experiencing mixed fortunes in the early hours of the race. Although the #79 Porsche ran in third place for some time, it did fall back to fifth place just before the four-hour mark due to a different race strategy. By contrast, the factory cars could not speak of the same success, and at the same time, were running in fourth and seventh places.
Gianmaria Bruni in the #91 and Kévin Estre in the #92 sister car were hampered by incorrect tyre choices and also became caught up in incidents. Due to the heavy rain at the start and the faster-than-expected drying of the track, Porsche’s rain tyres degraded alarmingly quickly, and Bruni had contact with an LMP2 car, resulting in some minor damage to the Porsche. His teammate Kévin Estre lost ground after a spin and lost even more time with a brief excursion into the gravel trap after switching to slicks.
Unlike other racing events, when an incident occurs at Le Mans, three safety cars are sent out onto the track at the same time. This is due to the sheer length of the circuit at 13.626 kms, and as a result, the field is divided into three groups.
If drivers are behind the same safety car as the leader, they can regain lost ground. Those who follow the second safety vehicle are immediately disadvantaged through no fault of their own, losing at least 90 seconds.
This happened twice to the works team’s two Porsche 911 RSRs during the night. Thus, they lost around three minutes to the leaders in the fiercely contested GTE-Pro class.
Alexander Stehlig, Head of Operations FIA WEC, commented, “The big issue for us was our bad luck with the safety cars. We ended up in the second group and thus lost a lot of ground on the two leading cars. We’re chasing down the frontrunners and fighting hard, our cars are running very well, and our pace is strong, so we’re still feeling confident.”
At sunrise on Sunday morning, the #92 Porsche 911 RSR driven by Kévin Estre, Neel Jani, and Michael Christensen was running in third in the GTE-Pro class after 16 hours of racing. The identical #91 car ranked fourth at that time.
However, both factory-run cars had lost contact with the class leaders for the reasons given above. The customer team Hub Auto Racing (#72), which started from pole position, was lying fifth in the GTE-Pro class at this time.
Unfortunately, the WeatherTech Racing squad had to throw in the towel. Early on Sunday morning, the chassis of the #79 car was damaged in an accident after contact with the barriers in the last chicane, just before the start-finish line. Cooper MacNeil made it to the pits, but the WeatherTech 911 RSR was too heavily damaged and could not be repaired.
While the early part of the night was plagued by intermittent showers, which proved the undoing of several cars, the early morning phase was calm, if a bit overcast. Sunrise at the Dunlop Bridge is always a favourite spot for the photographers who are after that one shot on which to hang their name.
Sunday morning started with some uncertainty as the sun was scheduled to appear at 07h03, but some lingering clouds decided otherwise. However, about half-an-hour later, the sun broke through. It sounded like a firing range in the area of the Dunlop Bridge as the camera shutters fired continuously.
Just as we were getting into this glorious morning, the mist rolled in at 08h00 and put paid to the bright start. This provided an eerie feeling to the greatest endurance race on earth, and so the camera shutters continued to snap away.
All the while, the racing continued unabated, although the rescue of the stranded #72 HubAuto Racing Porsche with Dries Vanthoor at the wheel near the Dunlop Bridge marshal post did not make happy viewing. The only info that was available was a mention on the Porsche Twitter feed that said, “The car has come to a halt in the Dunlop area presumably with a drivetrain issue.”
Sunday went off without too many incidents. The position at the top of the Hypercar table had not changed much since the day before, if at all. There was plenty of toing and froing in the LMP2 class, but the #31 Team WRT always seemed to be in control—although the #28 Jota was a constant threat.
Once Saturday’s rain issues had moved off, the #51 and #52 AF Corse Ferraris gave the crowds something to cheer about as the two cars swapped the lead multiple times each lap. In the end, it was the #51 Ferrari that prevailed to do battle with the #63 Corvette.
As the race moved into its final stages, the GTE Pro class appeared to settle into a rhythm which saw the #51 Ferrari followed by the #63 Corvette, with the two works Porsches keeping station in third and fourth positions. Ferrari held sway in the GTE Am class too, occupying first and third position, split by the #33 TF Sport Aston Martin. In the 21st hour, the top Porsche in the Am class was the #77 Dempsey-Proton car in fifth place.
To say the race seemed rather processional is perhaps to be unjustly critical, but the bulk of the competitors who were still running at the end appeared to be running as smoothly as they had been 24 hours earlier. In reality, that probably wasn’t the case for all, but it does show how much more reliable the cars are today compared with some years back.
The Finish of Le Mans 2021
As the cars rolled towards the chequered flag on Sunday afternoon, it certainly appeared that most of the positions were finalised—and many cars slowed to enjoy the last lap. But the ACO official responsible for waving all the finishers across the start/finish line with that famous chequered flag must’ve thought his time had come when Robin Frijns in the #31 WRT came charging towards him in the dying seconds.
Frijns was still dicing with Tom Blomqvist in the #28 Jota for overall LMP2 honours, and as the two cars approached the finish line at full racing speed, they met with the GTE Pro winning #51 Ferrari, #18 Porsche, and another LMP2 car. With some very swift footwork, the official evaded what seemed like a potentially dangerous situation, but fortunately, it all ended well.
With the two Toyotas dominating the top Hypercar class, the winning manufacturer seemed a foregone conclusion—it was just a matter of which Toyota won. Still, nothing at Le Mans is ever certain, as we came to see with the race-leading #5 Toyota that stopped just short of the finish line on its penultimate lap back during Le Mans 2016.
But this time, Toyota made no mistake, as it was the #7 car that took the honours with the #8 car in second place. Third in the top class was the #36 Alpine A-480, followed by the #708 and #709 Glickenhaus cars.
The fact that the two Glickenhaus cars survived their first Le Mans 24 Hour race in the top class was a momentous achievement. The two cars finished three laps apart, but as they came to a stop, the two drivers got out of their respective cars and embraced in recognition of this feat.
No amount of shouting and gesticulating by the track marshals could divert their attention as they needed to move the two cars up in line with the rest of the finishers. It was left to a small platoon of marshals, huffing and puffing, to push the two cars fifty yards up the track to take their positions in the finishing line-up.
Analysing the final positions and completed laps, one can see how close the cars were in the different classes. For instance, the second-placed Toyota was two laps behind the winning car, while the third-placed Alpine was just two laps further back. But the first of the Glickenhaus cars finished on the same lap as the Alpine—an awesome effort.
In the LMP2 class, the first- and second-placed cars (as described above) crossed the finish line a mere two car lengths apart, with the third-placed car just a single lap further back.
In the GTE Pro class, the winning Ferrari was chased across the line by the second-placed Corvette, which was also the American car’s first time out at Le Mans. The third-placed #92 Porsche was a lap back, followed home a lap further back by the sister #91 Porsche in fourth place. In the GTE Am class, the top three were again separated by just a lap each.
There were 44 official finishers out of a starting field of 62 cars. That sounds like just under a third of the field didn’t make it to the finish line, which is mathematically correct, but in years gone by with a starting field of 55 cars, it seemed like there were still a lot of cars on track at the finish.
The next two years at Le Mans will see many changes in the field as additional manufacturers enter the Hypercar class. This will also bring about further changes in the GT classes, so hopefully, this development will introduce some spice into what has always been the most exciting endurance race in the world. Watch this space!