Updated: Porsche steals Le Mans win 19by Jack Phillips on 18th June 2017
Porsche nears 20 wins at Le Mans, but it wasn't done the traditional way
“I could still give them a run in this Mk IV,” said AJ Foyt on the morning of this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans. The way things transpired, he might just have been right.
Fifty years on since Foyt won with Dan Gurney and Ford, it was unfancied Porsche that prevailed in the 2017 edition as Timo Bernhard, Earl Bamber and Brendon Hartley took Porsche's third win in as many years. Toyota entered the race as favourites, backed up by a stunning pole on Thursday, and with three cars on the grid for the first time. But its race unraveled spectacularly.
Problems beset every one of the factory LMP1 prototypes throughout an extraordinary 24 Hours that saw the no.38 Jackie Chan DC Racing LMP2 Oreca leading deep into the closing stages. Both Porsche and Toyota could have been excused for thinking they had the race all but tied up at times, but unprecedented failures kept life in a fascinating encounter.
First to suffer were the eventual winners, three hours into the race the 919 was being wheeled back into the garage to replace a hybrid motor. Reappearing an hour later, it seemed out of contention. All it could do was push on, and hope the heat would get to everyone else.
The Toyota no. 8 was next to fail; having been sharing the lead with its sister car, a similar problem to that of the Porsche saw Sébastien Buemi up on stands in the pits. Two hours were lost while the mechanics worked, compounding Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Anthony Davidson’s misery from 12 months ago. Fastest lap would be little comfort for the ninth-place finishers.
Toyota’s Le Mans hoodoo officially hit in the space of just a few minutes early on Sunday morning. The increasingly impressive Kamui Kobayashi, little more than 48 hours after a remarkable average speed record lap in qualifying, rolled to a stop at Porsche Curves having been seemingly on the way to victory. And it was soon all over for Toyota, Nico Lapierre in the no.9 collided with a Manor into retirement. Despite the persistent heartbreak, the German-based Japanese marque has reaffirmed its commitment to return in 2018.
As the LMP1s toiled in the baking heat, the large LMP2 field of 25 cars sniffed a podium. And when Andre Lotterer in the no.1 Porsche coasted to a stop with an 11-lap lead but no oil pressure on Sunday morning, a potential LMP2 win even seemed in the offing. Lotterer tried in vain to coax the Porsche 919 back to the pits – until then it had been the only factory car to go untroubled – his fourth win would have to wait. Nick Tandy impressed again on his first time back at Le Mans in an LMP1, splitting the Toyotas in his opening stint and not allowing the no.7 to escape.
“I had mixed emotions when I passed our other car," admitted first-time winner Hartley. His hard chasing reeled in the brief leader, and the Oreca was defenceless when caught. "I thought our race was done,” Hartley said. “It’s one of those fairytale Le Mans stories. From our calculations, it would have come down to the last lap.” As it was, the last lap drama was reserved for GTE.
The fight in LMP2 had been fraught, and equally unpredictable. Jarvis had set the pace before a starter motor issue left him stranded in the pits, and a spin for team-mate Thomas Laurent apperared to rule them out of contesting victory. Rebellion, whose two cars assumed the lead, were later similarly afflicted with starter motor issues among many other niggles. But an inspired Nelson Piquet Jnr. helped drag the car into second place, and Rebellion onto the overall Le Mans podium for the first time – ironically the year the team stepped back from LMP1 and into LMP2. David Cheng, team owner of Jackie Chan DC Racing, shared third with Alex Brundle and Tristan Gommendy after a spin for 2016 winners Signatech Alpine's André Ragao.
Update June 20: The #13 Rebellion LMP2 car raced to third position overall by Nelson Piquet Jr, David Heinemeier Hansson and Mathias Beche has been stripped of its podium place. Video footage emerged after the race showing the team fashioning a hole in the #13 car’s engine cover, allowing the mechanics to access the starter motor to restart the car without wasting time removing the car’s bodywork. This meant they were in technical non-compliance having run with non-homologated bodywork, resulting in their disqualification. The decision, which is under appeal, promotes Jackie Chan DC Racing’s #37 car raced by Alex Brundle, Tristan Gommendy and David Cheng to third position overall, just behind the team’s sister #38 car.
With Porsche's win all but sealed the relentless GTE-Pro battle rightfully took centre stage. It had been a breathless battle from the flag; the 10-car train of equally matched GTs would have been a pleasing sight for the ACO and FIA following the persistent talk of balance of performance. So good have the BoP rules now proved that Aston Martin, Ford, Corvette, Porsche and Ferrari each had a car inside the top five.
The victor wasn't decided until the very last lap when Jonny Adam of Aston Martin eventually dragged past Corvette's Ricky Taylor to claim victory with Darren Turner and Daniel Serra. American Taylor, who has already won the Daytona 24 Hours and Sebring 12 Hours this year, had rebuffed Adam's late-on-the-brakes pass into Mulsanne Corner, the pair bumping on exit, but a puncture for Taylor sent him straight across the gravel at the chicane. Adam quickly breezed past at the start of the final lap, evoking memories of the great Aston v Corvette battles of GT1. The closing Harry Tincknell also passed the ailing Corvette to put the Ford GT he shares with Andy Priaulx and Pipo Derani second.
Nicki Thiim, Marco Sorensen and Richie Stanaway had been the pacesetters early on until a puncture cost them the lead. Stanaway later speared into the wall having synced back into the lead through pitstops, rounding out the class.
Only GTE-Am was composed. British squad JMW Motorsport claimed the honours in dominant fashion. The early running had been done by Labre Competition’s Fernando Rees, keeping pace with the Pro cars, and later Aston Martin’s Pedro Lamy until his tyre blew on the Mulsanne. From there Dries Vanthoor, Will Stevens and Robert Smith were barely troubled, two laps ahead of the Spirit of the Race Ferrari 488 shared by Aaron Scott, Duncan Cameron and Marco Cioci.
While the prototypes harked back to the attritional endurance racing of old, GTE racing showed what endurance racing has become. An incredible Le Mans, the like of which we'll probably never see again.