LM24: Rookie Porsche wins Le Mans

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Porsche took its sev­en­teenth over­all vic­to­ry at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with an out­stand­ing per­for­mance at the twice-round-the-clock race. Dri­vers Nick Tandy, Nico Hülken­berg and Earl Bam­berg brought the #19 919 Hybrid home ahead of the #17 Porsche dri­ven by Mark Web­ber, Bren­don Hart­ley and Timo Bern­hard and last year’s win­ners in the #7 Audi e-tron quat­tro of André Lot­ter­er, Mar­cel Fässler and Benoit Tréyuler. The race was run at an aston­ish­ing pace, and it was Porsche’s mix of pace and reli­a­bil­i­ty that proved to be the decid­ing fac­tor.

As the tri­col­ore fell on a warm and slight­ly mug­gy Sat­ur­day after­noon, it was the three fac­to­ry Porsche LMP1 who – pre­dictably – set the pace. The #18 led off the line, but the red-and-white-liv­er­ied #17 car dri­ven by Timo Bern­hard picked up the lead down the Mul­sanne Straight and suc­cess­ful­ly defend­ed it for the first half of the race. A safe­ty car peri­od one hour into the race bunched up the field again, with all the fac­to­ry LMP1 cars (except the Nis­sans) mer­ci­ful­ly behind the same train.

As the SC phase came to an end, it was like a re-run of the start, and the #7 Audi R18 e-tron quat­tro of André Lot­ter­er was soon bit­ing at the Porsches’ heels. He soon picked off Hülken­berg and Jani, and made a bee-line for Timo Bern­hard at the head of the field. As we have become accus­tomed to over the past few years, Lot­ter­er was con­sis­tent­ly faster than all of his LMP1 com­peti­tors, and he soon snatched the lead away from the #17 car, now being dri­ven by Bren­don Hart­ley. How­ev­er, the Audi suf­fered a punc­ture two and a half hours into the race, and the unsched­uled pit stop put the car back down to fifth place ahead of the strug­gling Toy­otas. Benoit Tréluy­er took over the #7 machine, and was evi­dent­ly at – and some­times over – the lim­it in an attempt to gain back the time that had been lost.

The three-hour mark saw a major shake-up of the LMP1 order, with the #8 Audi dri­ven by Loic Duval hav­ing a major inci­dent on the run down to Indi­anapo­lis. A slow zone had been called by Race Con­trol to recov­er debris at Indi­anapo­lis, but there was con­fu­sion in the field as a num­ber of dif­fer­ent GTE cars slowed to the required 80kph. Clos­ing in on the slow sec­tion at rac­ing speed, Duval under­es­ti­mate the pace of the cars ahead and drift­ed right to avoid run­ning into the back of them, before spear­ing left and mak­ing con­tact with the bar­ri­ers. Thank­ful­ly, Duval was unhurt and made his way back to the pits for repairs.

After anoth­er hour under the safe­ty car, the LMP1 field was unleashed once again, with Bren­don Hart­ley lead­ing the charge in the #17 Porsche. After the addi­tion­al stop for the #7 car and the acci­dent repairs for the #8 car, the #9 machine with Mar­co Bonano­mi and then Fil­ipe Albu­querque behind the wheel took up the chal­lenge of hunt­ing down the lead­ing Porsches. In doing so, the Por­tuguese dri­ver broke a race lap record that had stood since 1971 (a time when there had been no chi­canes on the Mul­sanne Straight) by post­ing a 3:17.647 (248.2 kph).

But the Porsche’s lead was such that it was able to retain its advan­tage dur­ing pit stops. It took until lap 84 – five and a half hours in – for the #9 Audi to whit­tle the lead Porsche’s lead down to a mar­gin of under 40 sec­onds, and so Albu­querque became the third dri­ver to lead the race when the #17 car pit­ted for fuel. At the six-hour mark, the #17 Porsche dri­ven by Mark Web­ber led the race from Tréluy­er (who would soon hand over to Mar­cel Fässler) in the #7 Audi and Albu­querque and then René Rast in the #9 Audi.

The Toy­otas were unable to match the pace of the lead­ing cars – some four sec­onds off through­out most of the race – and were already off the lead lap by this point, while Nis­san by their own admis­sion were treat­ing the race as an extend­ed test ses­sion. Rebel­lion were per­form­ing impres­sive­ly in what was the debut for the new AER-pow­ered car, sit­ting in 8th and 10th posi­tions at the six-hour mark. The #13 car had lost time ear­li­er on in the race after spin­ning on a Porsche GT car’s oil enter­ing the first chi­cane and mak­ing con­tract with the Strak­ka-Dome LMP2 car. ByKolles had fall­en behind the fac­to­ry Nis­sans with engine trou­bles that would con­tin­ue through­out the race.

As night fell, sur­pris­ing­ly it was Le Mans rook­ie Rast who showed the quick­est pace, while his team­mate Fässler in the sis­ter car appeared to strug­gle. Rast grad­u­al­ly built up an advan­tage over the chas­ing Porsches over the next cou­ple of hours but saw his advan­tage wiped away after eight hours with the start of anoth­er safe­ty car peri­od. The Porsches had been able to quadru­ple-stint their tyres in the cool­er con­di­tions, and the #19 car of Nico Hülken­berg came to the fore as the safe­ty car was with­drawn after half an hour. He was bat­tling Mark Web­ber in the #17 car, before pit­ting and leav­ing the #17 to take up the bat­tle for the lead with the hard-charg­ing #7 Audi.

Fässler and Web­ber deliv­ered an aston­ish­ing bat­tle for the lead, with the two LMP1s pass­ing and repass­ing each oth­er almost every lap. The fre­net­ic bat­tle in the pitch black con­di­tions was brought to a pre­ma­ture end, after the #17 was giv­en a stop and go penal­ty for over­tak­ing under yel­low flags. Fur­ther down the pit lane, at Nis­san, all three GT-R LM NIS­MOs had been run­ning for the first ten hours of the race, but the #21 car dri­ven by Tsu­gio Mat­su­da then suf­fered a prob­lem with the front-right wheel and was forced to park it at Arnage.

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At 2am, hour eleven sig­nalled what proved to be one of the key stints in the race, with British dri­ver Nick Tandy clam­ber­ing into the #19 machine in place of Niko Hülken­berg. The rook­ie opened up a lead of one minute over the #7 Audi in just two hours of aston­ish­ing­ly quick and con­sis­tent dri­ving. The tem­per­a­tures also seemed to suit the Porsche over the Audi, with the nor­mal­ly light­ning-quick André Lot­ter­er not able to match the stan­dard set by the #19 car.

At day­break, New Zealand dri­ver and Le Mans 24 Hours rook­ie Earl Bam­ber took over dri­ving duties from Nick Tandy and matched the Brit pound-for-pound, rein­forc­ing Porsche’s grip at the head of the field. The #19 car com­fort­ably retained its one-minute lead, and the only real ques­tions sur­round­ed reli­a­bil­i­ty on what had been a fault­less run up to that point. But it was Audi who would suf­fer from car issues, with the rear body­work on the #7 tear­ing off on the run down to the Ford Chi­cane, cost­ing the crew a total of sev­en min­utes in the pits and effec­tive­ly end­ing their race chal­lenge. There was some crumb of com­fort for Audi: André Lot­ter­er went on to take the all-time race lap record, beat­ing the time Fil­ipe Albu­querque set ear­li­er on in the race, of 3:17.475 (248.5 kph).

As the race came to a close, the Porsches main­tained a com­fort­able lead and, despite fore­casts to the con­trary, the chance of any sig­nif­i­cant rain seemed to be falling by the minute. Light spin­klings on the Mul­sanne Straight and at Arnage saw Race Direc­tor Eduar­do Fre­itas warn the teams of the slip­pery sur­face, but none of the LMP1s were forced to pit for inter­me­di­ates. Ago­nis­ing­ly close to the end of the race, the #23 Nis­san GT-R LM NISMO dri­ven by Jann Mar­den­bor­ough appeared to suf­fer a brake fail­ure at the Porsche Curves and the car was retired. Still, Har­ry Tinck­nell brought the #23 car home, but it was too far behind the lead­ers to be clas­si­fied.

Toy­ota had per­haps the tough­est week­end of all the fac­to­ry teams. Despite a gen­uine­ly flaw­less run, the #2 TS040 of Alex Wurz, Mike Con­way and Stephane Sar­razin could only fin­ish sixth, eight laps down on the win­ning Porsche. The gap trans­lat­ed to rough­ly 25 min­utes on the track, and Toy­ota will be scratch­ing their heads as to how the com­pe­ti­tion have such an advan­tage over them. The focus at Toy­ota in Cologne will sure­ly now be on attempt­ing to retain their world cham­pi­onships.

But it was who Porsche took its sev­en­teenth vic­to­ry at the Cir­cuit de la Sarthe and, in Nico Hülken­berg, Nick Tandy and Earl Bam­ber, three new names were added to the role of hon­our. It had been a quite incred­i­ble per­for­mance from the Porsche 919 Hybrid, espe­cial­ly after reli­a­bil­i­ty issues had plagued the team at the first two rounds of the FIA WEC sea­son. The #17 car fin­ished a deserved sec­ond, with the stop/go penal­ty prov­ing to be a deci­sive moment in the course of the race. How­ev­er, even with­out the penal­ty, the #17 car did not appear to be able to cope with its sis­ter car’s pace. After anoth­er event­ful race, the #7 car took third posi­tion and Audi’s six­teenth con­sec­u­tive podi­um.

Image source: FIA WEC live stream / WEC-Mag­a­zin (James Clark)