LE MANS, France -- Ah perfection! At the 24 hours of Le Mans you don't have to be perfect -- just more perfect than the other 55 cars on the grid. Sometimes that perfection comes from the hard work that is done the previous six months, teams working out together in the gym, putting in extra laps in practice, coming together as well oiled team. But sometimes the god of circuit de la Sarthe simply blesses a team, and for 24 hours it can do no wrong. When that mixture of team and execution some how comes together it is a potent combination that can not be beat. The No. 19 Porsche 919 Hybrid found the perfection groove and took the overall victory at the 83rd running of the 24 hours of Le Mans, the brand's 17th and the first since 1998.
While the winning Porsche was not an after thought by Porsche -- it was the third car in the Porsche livery with drivers Nick Tandy, Earl Bamber, and Nico Hulkenberg, not exactly well known names in the world of endurance car racing, doing the driving honors. Only Bamber had had experience at Le Mans driving for Porsche in the GT division while neither Hulkenberg nor Tandy had experienced the Circuit de la Sarthe, though both are savvy drivers with Hulkenberg coming from Formula 1 and not even listed on the Porsche driver page on the web site.
Indeed the No. 19 Porsche qualified third among the three Porsches that covered the first three slots of starting grid with the every day WEC-FIA drivers captured the top two qualifying spots. However, while the rest of the field was recovering from a variety of foibles and outright racetrack blunders, the combo of Hulkenberg, Tandy, and Bamber just kept on trucking with a particularly solid drive during the night, emerging into the morning the sun with a lead that could not be overcome by any other team.
Former F1 driver Mark Webber, a member of the No. 17 Porsche 919 Hybrid that finished second overall, said “The guys in the number 19 car did a great job. All three of them were exceptional for 24 hours. Especially at night, the number 19 was quick. It is a big day for Porsche. We have had a smooth race, but in the end weren’t quick enough. Brendon and Timo did a great job. We are very proud for Porsche. If we can’t win we obviously want it to be within the team.”
The winners completed 395 laps before a crowd, according to race organizers, of 263,500. The second place No. 18 Porsche 919 Hybrid was one lap down when the checkered flag flew and the third place Audi was two laps down to the winners. The third Porsche, that of the pole-sitting No. 18 Porsche 919 Hybrid took fifth place and were four laps down.
And while the Porsche Team stole the thunder from the defending Le Mans winning Audi team, it was not as if Team Audi was asleep at the wheel. Audi finished third, fourth, and seventh overall, and each of the cars led at one time in the race. Not only that but all three of the Audis turned laps in competition that shattered the old competition record, including the 1971 lap when there were no kinks in the Mulsanne straightaway. That is cooking with gas -- er diesel!
But perfection eluded the Audi team this year -- and as it turned out it would take a perfect drive to win at Le Mans in 2015. The defending champions in the No. 7 Audi e-tron quattro were bitten by the troll of Sarthe early on when a puncture sent Marcel Fassler back to the pits for an unplanned stop early in a stint and the loss of time early in the race. But Fassler and his teammates, André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer, battled back into contention and in the process turned the fastest lap ever on the storied track, 3 minutes 17.465 seconds (by Lotterer). In fact each of the Audi R18 e-tron quitters would surpass the 1971 record lap during the course of the race.
However, the demons of Le Mans again struck the No. 7 car. Sunday morning shortly before 7:00 am, while battling for victory a large section of the engine hood let go, causing further damage to the car. The repair was accomplished in 6.56 minutes, and Fassler, Lotterer, and Tréluyer simply ran out of time.
The No. 8 Audi e-tron quattro driven by Lucas di Grassi (BR), Loïc Duval (F) and Oliver Jarvis (GB) was lucky to be in the race at all on Sunday having sustained a major shunt early in the race on Saturday afternoon. With Duval at the wheel in the ‘Indianapolis’ track section shortly before the end of the third hour, the car heavily hit the guard rails when he was getting out of the way of several slower vehicles and was touched on the rear by a GTE car. That the R18 was able to continue the race after a mere four-minute repair was something of a miracle of Audi engineering. In the end, while the car led at times, it was a fourth place finish for it.
Perfection eluded the Porsche team as well, including the No. 17 Porsche 919 hybrid which was handed a one minute stop-and-go penalty for passing under a yellow flag (which cost the team about 90 seconds in the pits, and which ultimately may have cost the team a chance at the win as it finished one lap down to the winners).
The Toyota LMP1 program seemed to take a step back in 2015 with its best finish being the the No. 2 TS 040 - Hybrid which earned a sixth place finish eight laps off the winning pace. It is rumored that a new car is in the works for 2016 that will feature a turbocharged petrol engine. If that is true, 2016 can not come soon enough for the Toyota team.
Even further back and not really competitive was the trio of Nissan GT-R LM Nismos that were seemingly rushed to Le Mans without a great deal of time for preparation or testing. One was retired at the 9 hours and 35 minute point in time while the second lasted to within 85 minutes of the checkered flag. The third car finished the 24 hours but only completed 242 laps and was not classified in the standings. It was an ignominious start for the Nissan brand, but one can hope that with time the concept can produce a competitive result.
American icon Corvette, which celebrated its 50th year of racing through the French country side, saved perfection for the race. After losing its sister car due to a qualifying session shunt, the No. 64 Vette with Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Jordan Taylor sharing driving duties, took on the world and came out on top, its 8th class victory at Le Mans in the GTE Pro division. The C7R finished five laps ahead of the second place finisher, and the victory gave the Corvette team the trifecta of endurance racing with wins in the 24 hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring.
Perfection is sometimes a fickle partner as the No. 98 Aston Martin Vantage team found out. Seemingly headed for victory in the GTE AM class. The team had qualified No. 1 in the class and while it battled with several other teams for the win, it was "cruising" to the checkered flag. But 46 minutes from the finish Canadian driver Paul Dalla Lana lost control of his car and hit the guardrail in the Ford corners. Although he got out of the Vantage V8 unhurt he was unable to restart. It proved to be a very cruel race for Aston Martin that had already lost a car, no. 96, at 07h39 on Sunday morning.
The victory in the GTE Am division ultimately went to the Ferrari 458 Italia with the Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche 911 RSR taking second and giving Patrick Dempsey (Dr. McDreamy) his dream of a podium finish at the 24 hours of Le Mans, along with Patrick Long and Marco Seefried .
Speaking to challenge of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, third place finisher and the winner of three of the previous four Le Mans races, Lotterer was able to put the event in perspective. Of his third place finish this year he said, "Taking on the Le Mans challenge also means that you have to expect not to win for once. That’s why we congratulate the guys from Porsche on their success. From our own experience we know exactly how hard it is to clinch victory here. Everything has to fit together perfectly, plus you need some racing luck as well – unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with us this weekend. That’s why we have to settle for third place this year and be happy about it.
"Obviously, we’re disappointed, but today is not a day to be sad. We fought hard, but had a few difficulties too many. The repairs on our engine cover kept costing us valuable time. We did everything we could to make up for that and, in any event, delivered a thrilling race for the spectators that way. I believe it was motorsport at the highest level,"he said.
In its short film promoting the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Automobile Club de l'guest (ACO) opened with a quote from the Anglican scholar and priest William Barclay: "Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory."
While Porsche earned the ultimate glory for the 2015 race, their glory touches all who competed at the Circuit de la Sarthe in 2015.
1/#19/Porsche Team/Porsche 919 Hybrid/395/3’18.596/247.1 (Overall Winner)
2/#17/Porsche Team/Porsche 919 Hybrid/394/3’18.186/247.6
3/#7/Audi Sport Team Joest/Audi R18 e-tron quattro/379/3’17.475/248.5
1/#47/KCMG/Oreca 05 - Nissan/358/3’36.836/226.3
2/#38/JOTA sport/Gibson 015S - Nissan/358/3’36.679/226.4
3/#26/G-Drive Racing/Ligier JS P2 - Nissan/358/3’37.078/226.0
LM GTE Professional
1/#64/Corvette Racing GM/Chevrolet Corvette C7R/337/3’54.823/208.9
2/#51/AF Corse/Ferrari 458 Italia/332/3’55.695/208.2
3/#71/ AF Corse/Ferrari 458 Italia/330/3’54.991/208.2
LM GTE Amateur
1/#72/ SMP Racing/Ferrari 458 Italia /332/3’56.165/207.8
2/#77/Dempsey-Proton Racing/Porsche 911 RSR/331/3’58.832/205.4
3/#62/Scuderia Corsa/Ferrari 458 Italia/330/3’57.299/206.8