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Analysis: Le Mans 2016: the greatest theatre in the world

By Rusty Rae

LE MANS, France — Unbelievable!

Not even the Bard himself could have written an ending so exciting and so gut-wrenching as what fans witnessed at Circuit de la Sarthe Sunday afternoon. The under dog No. 5 Toyota TSo5o Hybrid that had taken the fight to the vaunted Porsche Team all race long and was within a lap of earning its first overall victory at the storied event stopped with less than four minutes left in the race at the start-finish line. Driver Kabuki Nakajima could only watch helplessly as the No. 2 Porsche driven by Neel Jani zoomed by him and went on to win the 2016 version of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the brand’s 18th overall win.

The events of the day left the Toyota team shell-shocked and the Porsche team euphoric with television coverage of the event showing members of the German brand rolling on the pit floor in their joy. Team Toyota could only remain stoic about the events of the day and look forward to better times. The No. 5 Toyota had a 1:14 lead on the  No. 2 Porsche with seven minutes left in the race.

The Toyota Team, that had come into the race as an underdog, sporting a new chassis and a new engine package got stronger throughout the week of preparation and on race day was the matching of the winningest brand in Le Mans history for 23 hours and 56 minutes. Cruel as the fate of racing can be at times, the old adage “To finish first, first you must finish” comes to mind.

Even so, the Porsche team was in disbelief even on the podium as the win had not really sunk in and  Olivier Jarvis, the Audi driver of the third place No. 8 car perhaps summed up best the feelings on the podium in this report.

The third place Audi team from the podium with an estimaged 35,000 fans in the background. But the team did not really want to be on the podium -- knowing that the Toyota had really earned the spot and that they were only there thanks to a funky French rule. (photo from Loic Duvall's twitter feed). The third place Audi team from the podium with an estimaged 35,000 fans in the background. But the team did not really want to be on the podium — knowing that the Toyota had really earned the spot and that they were only there thanks to a funky French rule. (photo from Loic Duvall’s twitter feed).

And what of the Audi Team that was gifted a third place podium finish thanks to the downfall of the Toyota but seemingly could not get out of its own way during Le Mans week. The season started on a sour note when its car was excluded from a winning performance at Silverstone due to a minor technical non speed advantage issue found in inspection after the race. Winning at Spa gave the team some confidence coming into Le Mans, and the team turned the fastest time in the pre-race practice session two weeks prior to the event.

But race week Audi did not seem its self. The weather was wet and somewhat unpredictable, usually an advantage for the team from Ingolstadt. But it seemed, at least from afar, that Audi could not find a rhythm and never approached its performance from the test day, finishing in the fifth and sixth place positions on the grid with Porsche holding the top two spots and the Toyota in the three and four slots.

Historically, qualifying has not meant much to the Audi team as they have regularly come from lesser grid positions to earn victories at Le Mans. But this year the Audis spent too much time in the pits uncharacteristically fixing parts that in the past have been bullet proof and which gave the team a decided advantage. Additionally, the ACO, the governing body of Le Mans, has put a number of restrictions on the diesel engine, so that the R-18 Quattro Hybrid is at a disadvantage when it comes to fuel efficiency. While the Toyota was pulling 14 laps per tank of gas the Audi could only run 12 before it needed to pit for fuel.

But Audi is not even the second or third story of this Le Mans. It belongs first to the Toyota Team that battled fiercely against its European completion, asking no quarter and giving none, as it showed both speed and agility on the 8.65 mile Le Mans course. Both the Toyotas led the race at one time or another and on Sunday morning the two Toyota challenged the leading Porsches (at the time) to a high speed pavement duel staring down the defending champions with a combination of speed,, handling, a deft driving. Until that last four minutes.

Perhaps overshadowing all three of the LMP1 Hybrid teams at Le Mans was the performance of the Box 56 spot, which is reserved for special projects by the ACO. This year the spot went to the No. 84 LM P2 Nissan entered by SRT41 by OAK Racing and driven by Frédéric Sausset, the quadruple-amputee. Sausset, along with co-drivers, Jean Bernard Bouvet and Christophe Tinseau who drove the car conventionally.

fred_ Frédéric Sausset, a quadraplegic amputee, awaits his next stint on Circuit de la Sarthe. He and his teammates finished 39th overall. Simply amazing!

Sausset’s story is really amazing and is a chapter of Le Mans that should inspire everyone. In 2012,  Sausset scratched his finger while on vacation in the southwest of France. Tragically, the scratch rapidly led to a life-threatening infection (necrotizing fasciitis) which left Sausset a quadruple amputee. At the point where many of us might just give up and wallow in depression, Sausset instead decided he wasn’t going to let the lack of hands or feet get in the way of a life-long ambition—racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The car, a technological masterpiece, was modified to allow Sausset to drive using all of his limbs to control it and a special prosthesis to steer. The car was also fitted with the standard components that would allow his co drivers to driver the car normally, if that is the proper use of the word.

It is one thing to drive the car at speed with no hands and no feet — it is quite another things to finish the grueling the 24 hour race — and Sausset, Bouvet, and Tinseau did finish. Although by rule not officially scored in the results the No. 84 Nissan would have finished 38th overall.

In the other story of the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans the return of Ford to the race 50 years after its first win  in 1966 saw the Ford Chip Ganassi Teams USA take the GTE Pro win and third place with a race-long duel with the Ferrari 488.The LM P2 winner was the No. 36 Alpine A460 Nissan-powered car while the GTE Am winner was No. 86 Porsche 911 RSR.

Ultimately, Le Mans, the pinnacle event of endurance racing (and perhaps of all motorsports), will define all three teams (Porsche, Toyota, and Audi) not by the finish of the 2016 race, but by how each of the teams responds in the coming events of the World Endurance Championship (WEC) in the final six races of the series that will end in Bahrain in late November.





Porsche is perfect at Le Mans: takes 17th overall win!

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



It’s a battle royale at Le Mans: at the halfway point, Porsche out front

All Photos by Laurent Charniaux, Copyright 2015

LE MANS, France — At the midway point of the 83rd running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans the two German marques are battling “tooth and nail” for the penultimate endurance race title with four of the six factory cars swapping leads during the first half of the race on Circuit du la Sarthe.

As the clicked over into the second half of the race, it was the No. 19 Porsche 919 hybrid with Nick Tandy at the wheel leading the field. Close behind were the No. 9 and No. 7 Audi Quattro Hybrids. The two Audis, with Marco Bonanomi and Andre Lotterer, respectively, at the wheel respectively, are a tad over a minute behind the leading Porsche. In fourth place is the No. 17 Porsche that is on the edge of being a lap down to the field. The No. 8 Audi is two laps down to the leader while the No. 18 Porsche is three laps down.

The Porsche 919 Hybrid set the pace in qualifying as it captured the top three positions, led by Neel Jani in the No. 18 car with a 3min 16.887sec lap which topped the previous top qualifying time of Stephane Sarrazin in a Pugeot 908 which was set in 2012. While Porsche was busy smashing records, Audi was spending its time testing in readying for the race. It had the  the most laps during the two days of testing and qualifying and though its times were three seconds off the torrid pace set by Porsche the defending Le Mans champs nevertheless filled the four through six slots on the grid. Toyota, the defending WEC-FIA World Endurance Champion, was off the pace set by the two German brands and took positions seven and eight. Newcomer Nissan, although it showed exceptional top end speed on the long Mulsanne straights, was far enough off the pace that stewards required them to start from the back of the grid.

When the green flag dropped the Porsches and Audis simply split from the field and went after each other, trading the race lead as often as they pitted. During the first eight hours of the race Loic Duvall in the No. 9 Audi Quattro Hybrid laid down the fastest lap of the race and the fastest lap in the history of the modern configuration of the historic track. Duvall turned a lap just over 3 minutes and 17 second, 154 mph and change average for the 8-plus mile track.  That lap effective topped the previous record of Loic Duvall in the Peugeot 908  by nearly two seconds and the previous all-time fastest lap set in 1971 before the chicanes were added to the Mulsanne straightaway.

The pace of the race has been fast and if there is no major yellow, it would appear as if the distance record for the race will also be broken. At this writing the Toyotas are merely filling space and are not able to keep up with the front runners and there is more than a rumor that next year they will return the endurance racing wars with the turbo-charged gasoline engine. However, they are currently going as hard as they can — but are mired in the back of the pack.

So too is the case of the newcomer Nissan team that is gaining valuable experience with its front-engined front drive car, but which is not able to keep up even with the LMP2 cars.

In the end it appears as if the winner of the race will be the team that is the most efficient and judicious in their application of pit stop strategy. Currently the Porsche appears to have a small advantage in the number of laps that it can run per tank of gas. However, Audi has performed at near genius level when it comes to managing its pit stop strategy. In the end, all things remaining the same, it should be an interesting final 12 hours.




Copyright © TertreRougeTimes 2016