The GTE-Pro class once again served up a fascinating mixture of door-banging action and strategy. Corvette Racing, down to only one car after Jan Magnussen’s huge crash in qualifying, emerged on top after 24 hours, with the #64 car of Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Jordan Taylor taking the victory ahead of the #71 and #51 AF Corse Ferraris.
On pace it seemed to be Aston Martin who had the edge at La Sarthe, with the #99 entry driven by Richie Stanaway, Fernando Rees and Alex MacDowall taking pole position relatively comfortably. Indeed, it was Aston Martin who lead away at the start of the race, but in the shape of Danish-crewed #95 machine of Sorensen/Thiim/Nygaard. The “Dane Train” Aston Martin got the jump on everyone as the tricolore dropped and held a marginal lead over the #51 AF Corse Ferrari F458 and the sister #97 car of Turner/Bell/Mücke.
The first shock in GTE-Pro came one hour into the race, with the #92 Team Manthey Porsche 911 RSR with Patrick Pilet behind the wheel suffering a rare technical issue and catching fire at the rear. Pilet was out on the spot and the safety car was brough out to clear up the mess. Thiim led the GTE-Pro field, but another incident brought out the second safety car period of the race after three hours just as drivers were finding a rhythm.
The end of the safety car phase signalled one of the most exciting GTE battles seen in recent years, with the #64 Corvette Racing C7.R of Tommy Milner leading from the #97 Aston Martin of Darren Turner and the #71 Ferrari (Davide Rigon) and Fernando Rees in close attention. Rees managed to pass Rigon for third on lap 50, while Darren Turner gave his absolute all to find a way past the American V8 muscle car. However, heading into the first chicane the British driver overcooked it and span, giving Milner a welcome period of respite and promoting the #99 and #71 cars up to second and third respectively.
A driver change in the Corvette handed the advantage to the Aston Martin, which established a lead of some 20 seconds at the end of the sixth hour. The #64 and #99 cars then swapped positions again once Alex MacDowall pitted to hand over to Richie Stanaway as night fell at La Sarthe. It was a topsy-turvy battle between the #99 car and the #64 machine with their off-sync pit strategies, but the #97 Aston Martin and the #71 Ferrari remained in close attention.
Disaster then struck for the #97 crew, which retired with engine problems just as the second safety car period was withdrawn late on Saturday night. The #95 car had also lost time in the pits earlier on in the race and was now running last in the class.
Seemingly inseparable throughout the first half of the race, the #99 Aston Martin and the #64 Corvette were at it again in the early hours of Sunday morning, fighting tooth and nail for the lead of the class. Two hours later, the battle was reprised – this time between Richie Stanaway and Tommy Milner. Stanaway pitted the Aston for fuel, tyres and a driver change after 14 hours of the race, with Fernando Rees taking over. On his second flying lap, Rees then collided with the Thiriet by TDS Racing LMP2 car, but managed to recover to the pits. The car, however, was significantly damaged and the team lost almost an hour repairing it.
While the Aston was being repaired, the leading Corvette was in the pits getting a brake change, which suddenly promoted the #51 AF Corse Ferrari of Bruni/Vilander/Fisichella into first position. Also benefitting from the other cars’ issues was the #91 Porsche Team Manthey car of Bergmeister/Lietz/Christsen, which slotted into third position despite being down on pace on most of the other GTE-Pro entries. The #51 car held a relatively comfortable lead throughout the morning, but there was one more sting in the tail in the GTE-Pro battle.
With just two hours of the race left, Vilander in the #51 car slowed out on track and gingerly made his way back into the pits. It was soon clear that whatever was wrong with the Ferrari wasn’t the work of a moment and in true Italian organised chaos style, the mechanics set about fixing the problem. This handed the class lead to the #64 Corvette and left the #71 as the US team’s only realistic challenger for victory – but at five laps down something was going to have to go seriously wrong for Corvette if this one were to slip away. The #51 machine emerged from the pits after around 30 minutes in third position.
Oliver Gavin tuned down his performance to bring the #64 car home in a heroic victory for the Corvette Racing team. Victory is likely to have tasted all the more sweeter given the loss of the #63 machine before the race even started. It was the factory Corvette team’s eighth class victory at Le Mans, and their first since 2011. Oliver Gavin became a five-time class winner in his own right. Corvette Racing also celebrated a rare treble, after taking the honours at both the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring earlier this season. The #71 Rigon/Calado/Beretta AF Corse Ferrari came in second, while the reigning champions og Toni Vilander, Giancarlo Fisichella and Gianmaria Bruni finished third, but they may wonder about what might have been.
Image source: WEC-Magazin (Walter Schruff)