Porsche at Le Mans

Le Mans

From a personal perspective, Le Mans has hosted far more heartbreaking 24-hour races than this and you need look back no further than last year to know it. And while this year a couple of drivers were unable to race because accidents in practice ruled them medically unfit, one of them – Loïc Duval – owes his life to the strength of his Audi which allowed him to emerge all but unhurt from an accident that one engineer from another team told me might have been unsurvivable when Audi first started racing here 15 years ago.

But at team rather than human level and for Toyota and, I guess, Porsche in particular, this was an appallingly unkind race. At various stages – Toyota from the start and then Porsche from dawn – both looked to have the race if not in the bag then certainly under control. But in the end it was Audi whose R18 e-tron quattro could not compete on pace alone, that nevertheless came through to claim the most coveted prize in sports car racing. And it was a well-deserved victory.

For Porsche historians there was a terrible sense of irony: 16 years ago when it last raced here, this is precisely how its GT1-98 had prevailed over clearly quicker machinery from both Toyota and Mercedes.

Before the race I asked Mark Webber what would constitute an acceptable result from the weekend, and he was clear on the point: one car still running at the finish would be cause for celebration. But they didn’t even manage that: while his sister 14 car was pushed out to symbolically complete the final lap it was unclassified, as was Mark’s which, after more than 22 hours racing, had retired from leading the race.

What seemed so cruel for Porsche was not simply that its hopes had been dashed but that they’d first been raised so high in the first place. I know that in all forms of racing and the fickle world of endurance racing in particular, only an idiot would talk up his team’s chances before the race. I know also that for Porsche as still the most successful Le Mans entrant of all time, managing expectation before the race was seen as a key challenge of the strategy.

Porsche’s wins

1970 Attwood/Hermann (917K)
1971 Marko/van Lennep (917K)
1976 Ickx/van Lennep (936)
1977 Barth/Haywood/Ickx (936/77)
1979 Ludwig/B Whittington/D Whittington (935 K3)
1981 Bell/Ickx (936)
1982 Bell/Ickx (956)
1983 Haywood/Holbert/Schuppan (956)
1984 Ludwig/Pescarolo (956)
1985 Barilla/Ludwig/Winter (956)
1986 Bell/Holbert/Stuck (962C)
1987 Bell/Holbert/Stuck (962C)
1994 Baldi/Dalmas/Haywood (Dauer 962)
1996 Jones/Reuter/Wurz (WSC-95)
1997 Alboreto/Johansson/Kristensen (WSC-95)
1998 Aïello/McNish/Ortelli (GT1-98)

But I know too (because Brendon Hartley told me) that before it went to Le Mans in both racing and testing its 919 Hybrid had never run for more than six hours. They’d tried a 24 hour test, but the car had broken. By 9.00pm on Saturday evening the team was in uncharted territory. Yet by Sunday morning the team was not just still it the race, it was leading, and continued to do so for hours after the retirement of the lead Toyota TS040.

However great a kick in the teeth must have been the loss of both cars within 10 minutes of each other and with so little racing remaining, when the dust has settled Porsche will, or at least should be proud of what it achieved in France over the weekend. Not a single journalist nor member of any team I spoke to in all the time I was in Le Mans before the race started gave Porsche a prayer, not even when they qualified on the first and second rows of the grid.

Everyone was impressed by the car’s pace, particularly as it was a new team built from scratch versus one that’s been at Le Mans since the last century and another built from a Formula 1 team, but the consensus was clear: this race was Audi vs Toyota and if one Toyota had a clear run, it would win. If not it would be Audi. No one expected Porsche even to be around at the 22 hour mark, let alone be leading the race.

On the global stage, winning is everything and I fear that in time the public will struggle to remember the heroic fightback to the podium staged by Anthony Davidson’s Toyota after it appeared to have been written off by Nicolas Lapierre at the start of the race. But teams remember this stuff. I played a microscopic role within the Bentley team during its brief return to racing between 2001 and 2003 and I know many who still rank its third place at the first time of asking as a greater achievement than its eventual victory; I am one of them.

Next year a very different Porsche car and team will return to Le Mans, tried, tested, fully developed and unable to claim to be newbies any more. It may well be victorious but it will need to be a total whitewash for me to admire the efforts and achievements of that team more than the one I saw working so hard for so long and for so little over the weekend.

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