How the Porsche-BMW battle went down to the wire

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Many fans came away from the 24 Hours of Le Mans disappointed by a GTE Pro battle ultimately decided by the luck of safety car deployment. The 1000 Miles of Sebring gave us the fight we should have had in Le Mans, with multiple cars in with chance of victory right up to the final stint. Some detailed analysis of the data reveals an interesting picture of how Porsche / BMW finale played out.

BMW M8 GTE at the 1000 Miles of Sebring

Victory in class ultimately went to the #91 Porsche 911 RSR of Gianmaria Bruni and Richard Lietz, giving the pair their first win of the 2018/19 season. However, the #81 BMW Team MTEK M8 GTE of Nicky Catsburg, Martin Tomczyk and Alexander Sims – blessed by a stroke of good luck and then hampered by a heavy dose of bad fortune – was agonisingly close to a maiden class victory, as the analysis shows.

The drama began as the race entered the final hour. With just over 50 minutes of the race remaining, the GTE Pro cars pitted for what they assumed would be their seventh and final stops for fuel and tyres. At this point, the #91 Porsche looked on course for the win. It led by roughly 30 seconds from the #51 AF Corse Ferrari and the sister #92 Porsche, with the #71 Ferrari and the #81 BMW trailing by around 50 seconds and 1 minute respectively.

Classification at hour 7
Pos.No.CarDriverGap
191Porsche 911 RSRR. Lietz
251Ferrari 488 GTEJ. Calado+30.771
392Porsche 911 RSRM. Christensen+32.846
471Ferrari 488 GTE
S. Bird+49.042
581BMW M8 GTEN. Catsburg+58.762
667Ford GTA. Priaulx+1:16.539

The top six all pitted on lap 199, 200 or 201 for fuel, tyres and in most cases a driver change. The sole exception was Nicky Catsburg in the #81 BMW. This car had been forced to pit around 10 minutes ahead of schedule just past the halfway mark due to a small issue on the car.

This shifted Catsburg’s seventh stop forward, crucially meaning that the #81 car would not be able to make it to the finish on seven stops. As all the cars ahead of him pitted, Catsburg shuffled through to lead by around 13 seconds ahead of Gianmaria Bruni, with Andy Priaulx charging hard in third a further 7 seconds behind and four other cars within a minute of them.

Classification after the final scheduled pit stops
Pos.No.CarDriverGap
181BMW M8 GTEN. Catsburg
291Porsche 911 RSRG. Bruni+12.646
367Ford GTA. Priaulx+19.397
451Ferrari 488 GTE
A. Pier Guidi+39.633
592Porsche 911 RSRM. Christensen+45.351
671Ferrari 488 GTES. Bird+59.269

With all other GTE Pro cars having completed their final pit stops, Nicky Catsburg knew that he would have to pit one final time for a splash of fuel before the end of the race. The only chance at victory for the BMW M8 was to hope for a full-course yellow or safety car. This could allow Catsburg to save fuel and eek out his final stint from 55 minutes to some 1 hour and 12 minutes – a long shot if ever there was one.

Another option – and just as improbable – was for Catsburg to add 45 seconds to his advantage over Bruni in the #91 car, so that he could pit and retain the lead. The Dutchman made a valiant attempt to extend his lead, posting the car’s fastest lap of the race on lap 212 and steadily building the advantage to 17 seconds. But it seemed as if the Porsche was able to match the BMW step for step, with Bruni lurking and ready to pounce as soon as the BMW opted to pit.

Then the heavens opened…

Rain a double-edged sword for Porsche and BMW

The deluge that swamped Sebring International Raceway was precisely the stroke of luck that BMW Team MTEK had been waiting for. The volume of rain made continuing on slicks inconceivable. Every car in the field was forced to pit for wet-weather tyres, effectively giving Catsburg the chance to make his final stop without costing him any time over his competitors.

Alert as ever, Porsche GT Team told Bruni in the #91 car to push. And push he did: the three-time Le Mans class winner put in a pair of masterful laps to cut Catsburg’s advantage from 17 seconds to just 13. The Italian was 3 to 5 seconds quicker than all other GTE Pro runners on lap 219 alone. One lap later – when both the #91 and the #81 pitted for tyres – Bruni carved another five seconds out of Catsburg’s advantage just in the first two sectors. It was an incredible performance from the Porsche driver in such treacherous conditions.

With Catsburg requiring around 20 minutes’ worth of fuel at his final stop, and the Porsche only needing wet-weather tyres, Bruni’s efforts proved to be enough – but only by the smallest of margins. The #91 car emerged from the pits just over 2 seconds ahead of the #81 and the fight for the class victory was one. However, there was one final sting in the tail in this epic class battle.

Lap-time comparison: #81 BMW vs #91 Porsche
Lap#81#91
2161:59.6252:00.334
2172:01.7622:01.580
2182:06.3812:05.410
2192:13.8762:10.626
2203:16.745*3:01.265*
2212:15.5722:17.294
2222:18.7352:19.015
223#2:27.9492:27.655
224#2:50.3352:50.200
225#3:53.9973:54.090

* = Includes time in pits
# = Safety car deployed

Premature end

Fully aware that the gap to the head of the field was so slim, Catsburg now took it upon himself to enter attack mode. On lap 221, the 31-year-old was 2 seconds quicker than Bruni and another 1 second faster on lap 222 – cutting the gap for the lead of the race to just half a second with just 15 minutes of the race remaining.

Two minutes later, Loïc Duval brought his race to an unceremonious and premature conclusion by careering into the barriers in the #28 TDS Racing Oreca. Faced by a stricken car on the outside of the circuit and with conditions only worsening, Race Director Eduardo Freitas had no option other than to deploy the safety car – which is how the race finished.

The shunt brought a somewhat ignominious end to what had been a GTE Pro battle of epic proportions. Despite the case of “what might have been”, BMW were satisfied with their second podium of the season: “The rain helped us but not enough,” said Martin Tomczyk. “It was close to us getting the first WEC victory but being on the podium is great for the team and for myself.”

Bruni was delighted about his first win in Porsche colours: “It’s a fantastic result for us drivers and for Porsche. The way the team managed to catapult us to the front at the last pit stop was simply sensational. This shows just how special our crew is. “

Final classification
Pos.No.CarDriverGap
191Porsche 911 RSRG. Bruni
281BMW M8 GTEN. Catsburg+0.816
367Ford GTA. Priaulx+1 lap*
451Ferrari 488 GTE
A. Pier Guidi+1 lap*
592Porsche 911 RSRM. Christensen+1 lap*
671Ferrari 488 GTES. Bird+1 lap*

* = Gap caused by safety car deployment

Images © WEC-Magazin (Walter Schruff / Ton Kerdijk)