LM24: SMP Racing victorious in GTE-Am

GTE-Am is often the go-to class when looking for an on-track battle in the FIA WEC, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans was no different. In fact, the pro-am GT class was arguably the most exciting of the four categories, with the lead of the race changing in the final hour. In the end, the #72 SMP Racing Ferrari F458 Italia took the victory, with the #77 Demspey-Proton Porsche finishing second and the #62 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari coming in third.

The #98 Aston Martin V8 Vantage of Pedro Lamy, Paul Dalla Lana and Mathias Lauda had been the absolute class of the field in qualifying, with Lamy starting the race in third position on the GTE grid – ahead of two of the Pro Aston Martin cars. Hopes were high for the British squad, especially with Lamy in the form of his life and #98 car having won the first two rounds of the season.

Lamy, who was quite incredibly suffering from chicken pox, began well and lead the GTE-Am field away, mixing it up with the Porsches and the Corvette in GTE-Pro. However, he was the first to pit, which gave the chasing pack some clean air and meant that the #72 Ferrari of Shaytar/Bertolini/Basov led the race at the hour mark. The out-of-sync pit strategies meant that the lead was constantly changing over the first couple of hours, with the #77 Dempsey-Proton Porsche of Patrick Long and the #88 Abu Dhabi-Proton Racing Porsche of Klaus Bachler joining the fight and others lying in wait.
Jeroen Bleekemolen in the #53 Riley Motorsports – TI Auto Dodge Viper put in a fantastic first stint over the first three hours of the race and held a 30-second lead by the end of the third hour. Indeed, Bleekemolen was so quick in the Viper that he would go on to set the fastest lap of the race, a 3:55.896, in GTE-Am. The safety car period for Loic Duval’s accident also saw the demise of the #88 Porsche, which caught fire on the Mulsanne Straight (the third Porsche to do so over the weekend) with Christiane Ried behind the wheel.

Russian driver Viktor Shaytar had taken over from Bertolini in the SMP Racing machine, and made back some ground on Ben Keating, who had taken over from Bleekemolen in the Viper. The #98 Aston Martin also remained in contention, with Paul Dalla Lana putting in an impressive performance in his two-and-a-half-hour stint to keep the gap to the leaders. With Mathias Lauda then behind the wheel after just over four hours, the #98 car was soon on the tail of the leading #72 machine, especially after Shaytar had pitted and handed the car over to gentleman driver Aleksey Basov.

The #98 car extended its lead as day turned to night, establishing an advantage of just under two minutes by the time Basov pitted to hand the car back over to Bertolini. At the end of his stint in the #53 car, Ben Keating had an excursion through the gravel which required some repairs on the car at the next pit stop, putting the car out of contention for the lead.

The #98 Aston Martin extending its already commanding lead in the late evening and into the early hours, firstly in the hands of Paul Dalla Lana and then with Mathias Lauda back behind the wheel. At the halfway stage, the #98 led by over two minutes from the #72 SMP Racing car, with the #77 Dempsey-Proton Porsche one lap down in third after impressive night-time stints from Pat Long and Marco Seefried. The early hours also saw the #62 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari come into contention, with a monumental stint from Townsend Bell putting the US-entered team into third position.

Mathias Lauda maintained the #98 car’s lead over the course of the night, but disaster was to strike the sister #96 car of Goethe/Hall/Castellaci as dawn came. Entering the fast left-hander before the Ford Chicane, Roald Goethe was clipped on the inside by the leader – and eventually winner – Nico Hülkenberg in the #19 Porsche LMP1. The German was sent spinning across the tarmac and made sickening contact with the concrete wall on the outside of the corner. The medical crews were quick to reach the stricken Aston Martin, but the time it took to extract Goethe didn’t bode well and conjured images of Allan Simonsen’s crash two years previously. Fortunately, news soon came that Goethe was bruised and battered but otherwise OK.

Townsend Bell was once again on fire in the #62 Ferrari, quickly catching and passing Patrick Dempsey in the third-placed #77 machine in the eighteenth hour of the race. The battle for the last place on the podium looked to be the most closely fought of the entire field, with the Dempsey/Long/Seefried Porsche and the Sweedler/Bell/Segal Ferrari continuing over several hours.

With five hours remaining, the #98 looked to be relatively comfortable at the head of the field and the #72 SMP Racing machine was attempting to cement its second position with a two-lap advantage on Jeff Segal in the #62 Ferrari. Then Viktor Shaytar proceeded to overcook his entry into Indianapolis, possibly a result of brake problems, and careered into the gravel. Shaytar lost some five minutes on track awaiting recovery and then a further three in the pits while the car was patched up. The Russian was still able to emege in second position, however.

Just before lunchtime, Pat Long climbed back into the fourth-placed #77 car and set about hunting down Jeff Segal and then Townsend Bell in the #62 Ferrari. Long and Bell played out a titanic battle in some of closest and most respectful GT racing seen at Le Mans in recent years. Long initially took the position off Bell coming into the Porsche Curves, but the Ferrari driver wasn’t willing to give up the position that easily.

Lap after lap, the #62 car would get into the #77 machine’s slipstream and attempt to pass into the first chicane, the second chicane or Mulsanne Corner. They gave each other racing room, but not much besides. After an absolute masterclass in GT driving from both Long and Bell, the Ferrari attempting to slip around the outside of the Porsche at Mulsanne Corner both lost traction on the exit and span briefly, causing yells of excitement from the Dempsey pit. The #62 was then given a drive-through penalty for an earlier infraction, which unfortunately put the battle to a premature end.

The race seemed to be in the bag for Aston Martin when Canadian driver Paul Dalla Lana took over for the finale stint with just an hour of the race remaining. The #98 car held a two-lap lead over the #72 SMP Racing machine. However, there was one more sting in the tail: either a mechanical problem or a mistake at the Ford Chicane sent the Aston straight on and into the barriers at some speed. The car was out on the spot and a devastated Dalla Lana emerged with his head in his hands.

It was a tragic end to an enthralling race in GTE-Am, which perhaps should have ended in the convincing win for Aston Martin that had looked so likely. Instead, SMP Racing became the first Russian team to record a class victory at Le Mans, with Dempsey Racing finally getting on the class podium after three years of trying. The #62 Ferrari of Scuderia Corsa finished third on the team’s debut at Le Mans.

Images: WEC-Magazin (Walter Schruff)