Hong Kong-entered team KCMG wrapped up a dominant victory in the LMP2 class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans at the weekend. The #47 Oreca 05 Nissan of Richard Bradley, Nicolas Lapierre and Matt Howson led the race almost from start to finish and recorded their first victory at La Sarthe in their short but impressive history. After a stunning recovery drive, last year’s winners Jota Sport finished second in their #38 Oreca 03, while KCMG’s FIA WEC rivals G-Drive Racing finished third with the #26 car of Roman Rusinov, Sam Bird and Julien Canal.
As in the LMP1 field, the LMP2 battle began at a frenetic pace, with the pole-sitting #47 KCMG with Richard Bradley leading off the line from Sam Bird in the G-Drive car. Bird was swamped somewhat at the start and lost second position to the #41 Greaves Motorsport machine of Jon Lancaster, with the #38 Jota Sport of Oliver Turvey also making a good start to slot into third. Bird, however, was quickly back on the front foot and soon passed Turvey in the older Oreca chassis for third and Lancaster for second. As the former GP2 driver neared Bradley in the #47, Tristan Gommendy in the #46 Thiriet by TDS Racing machine caught up with both and made a push for the lead.
The first hour of the race saw a dogfight between the Thiriet by TDS Racing and G-Drive Ligiers and the KCMG Oreca, with Bradley, Gommendy and Bird passing and repassing each other almost at will. Then, just on the hour mark, an accident involving the #42 Strakka-Dome at the first chicane brought out the safety car and the LMP2 race was forced to cool off. The #42 car continued with minor damage, but the SC phase resulted in the LMp2 field being split up – with the leading three cars of Bradley, Gommendy and Bird behind one safety car and most of the remaining LMP2 cars behind the next safety car.
Once the safety cars were withdrawn, the #47 KCMG machine instantly jumped on leader Gommendy in the #46 Thiriet by TDS Racing car and took the lead. Bradley, and then Nicolas Lapierre, then proceeding to establish a commanding lead over the rest of the field, stretching it out to 15 seconds by the end of hour two and over 30 seconds by the end of hour 4. Further down the grid, the #40 Krohn Racing Ligier JS P2 had the first of many excursions through the gravel, touching the #31 Extreme Speed Motorsports car of Scott Sharp on the run down to the first chicane.
The #34 OAK Racing Ligier of Vanthoor/Éstre/Cumming fought back to join the leading #47 and #46 cars in the early evening, as did the #41 Greaves Motosport car of Lancaster/Hirsch/Paletou, but it was the blue Oreca of KCMG that held a dominating lead as Saturday drew to a close. A promising start for the #38 car was marred by gearbox problems, dropping the Dolan/Turvey/Evans-driven car a couple of laps off the lead.
With six hours in the book, the KCMG car led by roughly two minutes from the Thiriet by TDS Racing and the #48 Murphy Prototypes Oreca 03R of Chandhuk/Patterson/Berthon. The #41 Greaves Motorsport machine suffered a electrical problem on the run down the Forest Esses and slowly ground to a halt. Despite driver Gary Hirsch’s best efforts, that was the end of the British team’s 2015 Le Mans 2015.
Midnight saw another safety car phase after the #36 Signatech-Alpine of Paul Loup Chatin, third in class at the time, suffered a major incident at Mulsanne Corner. With no footage of the accident, it was hard to decipher what had happened but damage to the barriers on the inside of the run down to Mulsanne Corner suggest Chatin lost it under braking. The battered Alpine car ended in the gravel trap, and Chatin was unable to recover back to the pits.
The cooler weather during the night proved to be the perfect conditions for quick lap times, with Jota Sport, KCMG and G-Drive Racing all posting their fastest race laps in the darkness or early morning. Thanks to its huge lead, the #47 KCMG car could even afford to take a three-minute pit stop to check the car over and still emerged with a 50-second advantage. The main challenge came from Sam Bird in the #26 car and Oliver Turvey in the Jota Sport machine. Early leaders Thiriet by TDS Racing suffered an ignominious end after contact with the #99 Aston Martin at the first chicane beached the Oreca 05 Nissan in the gravel just after 4am.
The Strakka-Dome was the next to bow out, running out of steam on the start/finish straight just past pit entry with Nick Leventis in the car after eighteen hours of the race. After dicharging some unknown fluid, the car was towed to a safe location under slow zone conditions, and Leventis attempted to get it moving again. Despite getting the car to the entry of Tertre Rouge, the Strakka finally did give up the ghost and the British-entered car became the sixth and final retirement in LMP2.
At the head of the field, the remainder of the race was relatively unspectactular with the KCMG car holding an almost unassailable lead. Attentions turned instead to the battle for second and third, with long-time second-placed car G-Drive Racing holding the position by a couple of minutes with six hours of the race remaining. Mitch Evans took up the chase initially and brought the gap down to around 50 seconds. Then, with just two and a half hours left on the clock, British driver Oliver Turvey jumped back into the car and set about hunting down the Russian-entered machine. Turvey was consistently quicker than Roman Rusinov and then Sam Bird in the G-Drive car.
In the penultimate hour, the Jota Sport car finally got within striking distance of Bird’s Ligier and used the slipstream advantage on the Mulsanne Straight to ease past the Ligier coupé and in to second place. Once again, the Jota Sport team put together a fantastic comeback drive to take second position after their recovery practically through the entire field to take victory last year. But this year it wasn’t to be, and Jota had to accept the second step on the podium
Taking the chequered flag was the #47 KCMG Oreca 05 Nissan of Richard Bradley, Nicolas Lapierre and Matt Howson – the first class victory at Le Mans for an Asian-entered car. A teary eyed Lapierre looked particularly moved by the result, especially after being rather unceremoniously dumped by the Toyota works team last season. For him, class victory will certainly have some kind of cathartic significance. It was a thoroughly deserved victory for a team that dominated practically the entire race. The new-for-2015 Oreca coupé also performed impressively, with neither KCMG nor Thiriet by TDS Racing (the two teams to run the chassis) suffered any mechanical hitches of note in the race.
Image source: WEC-Magazin / James Clarke