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



Weber to Porsche, will Audi stand pat?

SILVERSTONE, Uk — No sooner was the wax on the 2013 24 Hours of Le Mans trophy dry inAudi headquarters in Ingolstadt, than Porsche fired the first shot across the bow of both Audi and Toyota, that Porsche’s return to the storied Circuit de la Sarthe in 2014  will be with with the full intention of dethroning its cousin Audi and not allowing its Japanese rival a sniff at the the podium, by announcing the signing of Formula One  Red Bull driver Mark Webber for the next three years.

According to reports Weber will team with current Porsche drivers Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas for the new LMP1 Porsche with form F1 test driver Neel Jani also joining the team. Webber has raced at Le Mans twice previously and with Bernhard and Dumas will form the core of the Porsche team that is focused on wrestling the trophy away from Audi. Both Dumas and Bernhard are former 24 Hour winners, taking the title in a storied battle with Peugeot in 2011 when along with Mike Rockenfeller, they overcame two serious crashes to other team members and out-dueled the entire Peugeot team to win the race by 12 seconds. Both of the Porsche drivers raced in the GTE Pro division at Le Mans this year with Dumas a member of the winning Porsche 911 RASR team and Bernhard a member of the second place team.

Since Porsche has announced that it will race two cars at Le Mans in 2014 (and perhaps a third in its attempt to compete with Audi) it would appear that additional team members will be announced in the future.

What this means to Audi is not clear at this point. Certainly Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, the head of the Audi racing program has to be satisfied with the current mix of drivers  on the team. Indeed,  the No. 1 car, the team of Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer, and Marcel Fassler have proven that they are smooth and fast and might have won a third consecutive 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2013 if it had not been for costly mechanical issues. In the No. 2 car is Mr. Le Mans, Tom Kristensen, who won his ninth over-all 24 Hour title this year along with three time winner Allan McNish, and new comer to the team Loic Duval, who put the car on pole. A third team this year was comprised of Marc Gene, Lucas DiGrassi, and Oliver Jarvis.

Audi’s R18 e-tron quattro is a hybrid car that uses a Williams Hybrid Power designed flywheel accumulator system (flybrid) for energy storage which delivers 500 kJ (approximately 200 horsepower) to the front wheels via an electric motor, giving the car four (quattro) wheel drive. The system, as per the regulations, is only available at speeds above 120 km/h (75 mph). Some of the early development work actually came from a Porsche project with its 911 RSR, and while one would expect that Porsche would be coming to the 2014 party with a hybrid car, nothing definitive has been released regarding its configuration.

Certainly the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) which along with the FIA sets the rules for the World Endurance Championship of which Le Mans is a part, has put the focus on innovation and the rules for 2014 will basically put the focus on both speed and efficiency. Teams will be able to run virtually any engine configurations but have only a limited amount of fuel on which to complete the race.

For the big three: Audi, Toyota, and Porsche it should make for a battle royal.

Audi sweeps Le Mans qualifying; Porsche dominates GT classes

LE MANS, France — Audi continued its March through the World Endurance Championship Series with an impressive effort in qualifying at the historic Circuit du la Sarthe, garnering the top three times with its R18 e-tron quattro. So far the Ingolstadt-based team has dominated the series as their main competition, the Toyota TS030 Hybride, has been off the pace.

However, the wildcard in this year’s event seems to be the weather with mother nature dealing a wildcard to the teams for the 90th anniversary running of the event, splashing the track with rain showers on a schedule that has kept team managers guessing on tire set-up.

Leading the Audi charge was the No. 2 car of Allan McNish, Tom Kristiansen, and Loic Duvall. It was Duvall, the new comer to the team, who found a clear track later in the first session to drop low time on the field that was not to be beaten. His time 3:22.349 was faster than last year’s time. The No. 1 Audi, the two-time defending champion, sat in third on the qualifying ladder until late on Thursday evening’s final qualifying session. That’s when Benoit Treluyer got a shot a clean track after a yellow flag bunch the cars together.

Treluyer and McNish in the No. 2 Audi jumped on the gas when the track went green and when Treluyer got by his teammate he had an open track to work his magic. He turned in a 3:23.696 lap that moved the team from third on the grid to second and within sniffing distance of the pole position team. The No. 1 car’s best time to that point had been about four seconds off the pace set by Duvall.

Meanwhile the Toyota Team was only able to earn a fourth place with the No. 8 Toyota finding a 3.36.654 lap. At the Driver Parade on Friday evening, a highlight of the pre-race activities, one of the Toyota drivers was asked about the race and said that his team would “battle the Audi’s as hard as they could”. It was not a concession speech — but it also did not have the ring of optimism.

The Toyota Team can take solace and hope from the fact that the Audi Team found itself in a similar position several years ago when Peugeot dominated qualifying and seemed to have a fast car. When the rains during the race, the Audi’s drove through the rain and into the winner’s circle, much to the chagrin of the Peugeot team.

While the Audi’s have been the leaders all season, they still have to race the race — and therein is the challenge of endurance car racing — it is not always to the swift.


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