2016 24 Hours of Le Mans

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When Anthony Davidson caught and passed Marc Lieb’s Porsche on the Mulsanne just before 11am, it appeared that Toyota was finally ready to lift the hex. The Japanese giant has been trying to win Le Mans on and off for 30 years, only to fall short even on the occasions it’s had the required speed. On Sunday morning this year, Davidson found himself with that edge once more and began to build his lead. This time, surely… He couldn’t have imagined how it would all end.

At 2.57pm, with a single lap to be run before the flag fell, the Briton’s team-mate Kazuki Nakajima trickled to a halt on the front stretch as the TS050’s hybrid engine succumbed to a loss of power. As Neel Jani swept past to start the last lap, his team-mates Lieb and Romain Dumas collapsed in delirious embrace in the Porsche pit. They hadn’t won this race – but they’d gladly accept the gift. Toyota
was in the midst of perhaps the most extreme reverse in motor sport history. The closest finish in 1969, Steve McQueen’s Hollywood climax to his movie… they had nothing on this for overbearing drama.

In the Toyota garage, management faces were set grim, while Hugues de Chaunac – enigmatic boss of team partner ORECA – wept openly. Around them, 263,000 people gasped in a shared moment of shock and sympathy.

“That was an unbelievable end to such a difficult race,” said a devastated Davidson. “You couldn’t have written the way it ended; no one would ever have believed a movie if it ended like this. To actually live through the experience is pretty hard to take.”

The Porsche trio had every right to savour the biggest victory of their lives. “We were on the podium but we haven’t yet realised what has happened,” said a stunned Dumas. “I’m sorry for Toyota, but when you have a victory like that you take it. You’re not going to say no to it.”

Before its climax, the 84th running of this great race had already been one for the ages. The downpour that caused its first 50 minutes to run under the safety car was soon forgotten as Porsche and Toyota joined battle. Brendon Hartley scorched away in the number one 919 Hybrid, but the two Toyotas were managing 14 laps to Porsche’s 13 on each stint. There was little in it.

Then a blow for Porsche in the ninth hour. The Hartley/Mark Webber/Timo Bernhard car was out of the reckoning when high engine temperatures led to two lengthy pit visits. The World Endurance Champions would be classified 13th on Sunday afternoon. That left Jani, Dumas and Lieb to fight the Toyota pair alone, through the night and into the dawn. At breakfast, the trio remained locked in combat.

Early in the race, the Davidson car had been bugged by a lack of power, but the problem seemed a distant memory by Sunday morning. Nevertheless, Porsche remained in striking range, sandwiched by the TS050s. In number six, running third, Kamui Kobayashi showed the strain with a high-speed spin out of the Porsche Curves. The subsequent stop for bodywork repairs dropped it out of contention for victory, but out front Davidson and co appeared serene – until those final minutes. Unbelievable.

To compress the agony, the car wasn’t even classified as a finisher. It spared a painful podium for the heartbroken trio, but also lost them vital double-scoring championship points.

As another consequence it allowed Audi to salvage a podium from a performance Lucas di Grassi described as “horrible”. The modern era’s dominant force found itself relegated to an unfamiliar bit part in this year’s drama, with neither the reliability nor the pace to maintain a challenge to Porsche and Toyota. The number eight car of di Grassi, Loïc Duval and Oliver Jarvis finished an astonishing 12 laps off the lead, with the sister R18 of André Lotterer, Benoît Tréluyer and Marcel Fässler a further five laps in arrears.

The failure of one Porsche and reliability woes for Rebellion Racing’s privateer non-hybrids allowed pre-race predictions to come to pass that the LMP2 class winner would finish in the overall top six. Toyota’s loss bumped the victorious Signatech Alpine up to fifth, as Nicolas Lapierre – once a fixture in the Japanese factory team – claimed a second consecutive LMP2 win at Le Mans, more than three minutes ahead of G-Drive’s class pole-winning ORECA. Damien Smith

 

Ford victory throws GT class off balance

Blue Oval makes a winning return, but not without controversy

Ford delivered the ‘fairy tale’ story of a return class win, 50 years after its MkII conquered Le Mans – not to mention a fair amount of controversy along the way. Just as it did back in the 1960s, the American giant sent a formidable squad to the 24 Hours, its quartet of GTs setting the pace all week. But in another echo to the past, it also found itself at loggerheads with its age-old rival: Ferrari.

From its birth, the Ford GT has been contentious thanks to the common perception that it has reset the boundaries of what a car in this class can be. Rivals claim it is a pure-blood racer that has at least stretched the spirit of GTE regulations into uncomfortable territory – and their fears appeared to be confirmed after qualifying, when the Ford quartet annexed four of the top five places in the class. Only Ferrari’s 488 offered a potential challenge.

The category relies on complicated ‘Balance of Performance’ rules, supposedly to equalise GT cars of varying concepts. With the ‘best of the rest’ Porsche 911 RSR a whopping 3.8sec off Ford’s benchmark lap, the organisers felt compelled to revise the BoP the day before the race, in an attempt to peg back both the Fords and Ferraris and boost the chances of Aston Martin and Corvette. Aside from a small increase in fuel tank size, Porsche’s BoP remained unchanged. At the manufacturer’s press conference on Friday, motor sport chief Frank Walliser found himself choking back tears of frustration. Emotions were running high at GT racing’s most important race of the year.

At least a fabulous Ford vs Ferrari duel offered a welcome distraction to the ill feeling. The AF Corse Ferrari challenge crumbled, but the Risi car of Giancarlo Fisichella, Toni Vilander and Matteo Malucelli pushed Ford all the way into Sunday afternoon, in the team’s first Le Mans since 2010.

Dirk Müller, Joey Hand and former Indycar champion Sébastien Bourdais won for Ford despite a scare on Sunday morning, when electronics failure forced the team to keep its engine running during a fuel stop. It was fortunate the subsequent drive-through penalty didn’t prove decisive as the Risi Ferrari finished on the same lap. 

Given the two brands’ histories, it was fitting that acrimony overshadowed the battle’s climax. As the clock ticked towards the 3pm finish, a black and orange flag was displayed to the Ferrari because of a glitch with its race position lights – hardly a performance advantage, but Ford noticed and lodged a protest.

The team ignored the flag, so the penalty was upgraded to a drive-through. Again, the car kept going. In return, Risi made its own post-race protest against the Ford for speeding through a ‘slow zone’. Both received time penalties, Ford gaining another for a minor technical infringement.

The outcome, as if by some fluke, was that neither car lost its finishing position. The Ford was classified 10sec ahead of the Ferrari, which maintained its runner-up slot and thus thwarted a Ford class one-two-three. But it had been a suitably sour note on which to finish a difficult weekend for the GT division.

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