Crashes, retirements and last-minute overtakes – once again the world’s most gruelling race doesn’t disappoint
I’m sitting at the Ford Chicane, cold beer in hand, blinking into the sunset as the cars tear up the start finish straight to the Dunlop curve beyond. It’s an ideal spot for the full Le Mans sensory overload: watching them stand on the brakes before flicking left-right, left-right and then give it the full berries past the grandstand. The way the LMP1s plough through the chicane with so little loss of momentum, seemingly untouched by the normal laws of physics, is phenomenal. Then watch as the straight opens up and they leap forward and leave everything for dead – immense traction, instant torque… but the quietest cars on the track.
The LMP2 boys have them covered in that respect, with full duck-and-cover explosions on the overrun, but it’s the GTE Pro contenders that offer the richest orchestra – from the flatulent Ford GT to the filthy, sub-woofer bassline of the Corvette. I meet someone who describes the Aston Vantage as sounding like “a biplane farting into a bathtub” and rather enjoy the description, but it’s the mid-engined Porsche RSR that wins for me: a piercing, shrill rasp, with crisp-as-you-like upshifts, that reeks of precision engineering. And you can have a close relative of it in your road-going 911 GT3.
As is so often the case at the Le Mans 24hrs, the headlines suggest a result running fairly true to form, whereas the reality was chaos of the highest order. Porsche clinched the LMP1 battle and the overall win for the third year in a row – the ‘hatrick’ according to pre-printed T-shirts donned by the Porsche management as the chequered flag fell – while Aston’s pole-sitting #97 car won the GTE Pro class ahead of the Ford GT, Corvette, Porsche 911 RSR and Ferrari 488.
What these pub-sized facts don’t reveal is that the winning #2 Porsche driven by Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber spent a full hour in the pits early in the race having a front motor replaced, a repair that appeared to have cost them any chance and left them 18 laps behind the leaders at the time and third last overall. Even Hartley’s mate Daniel Ricciardo tweeted that “18 hrs ago I wrote to @BrendonHartley I was sorry for the problems they had. Now they are winners!! Holy shizen what a crazy race that is.” You’re not wrong Danny boy: when Bernhard crossed the line, there were tears of shock in his eyes.
What paved the way for that Porsche to climb its way back to the head of the field, was determined, consistent driving of course, but also a series of catastrophic mechanical meltdowns to its only rival and pre-race favourite in the LMP1 class – Toyota. All season, the Toyota TS050 hybrids had been showing the Porsche 919 Hybrids the way in the WEC championship, and when Kobayashi stuck the #7 Toyota on pole with a record 3:14.791 lap at an average of 251.85kph – the fastest any car had ever navigated the Circuit de la Sarthe in its current configuration – it appeared as though Japan was on course for only its second ever Le Mans wins (the other being the ear-splitting Mazda 787B in 1991, fact fans).
It all started so well, the Toyotas romped away with over a second-per-lap advantage over the Porsches. Was this to be the perfect ointment for last year’s tragedy, when a £9 clip (designed to hold a backing hose to one of the turbos) sheared on the last lap, costing Toyota the victory and much humiliation? Eight hours in and the answer was an emphatic yes, and then things began to unravel quicker than a Primark Christmas jumper. First the #8 car came in to the pits with its brakes on fire, only to learn it needed an entire new front electric motor assembly – they got it back out, but a full hour later and 29 laps behind the leaders. Not to worry, that’s why Toyota brought along three cars, to spread the risk.
And then, with 9:43 completed, Kobayashi in the #7 Toyota rolled to a stop on the track with a clutch issue. He tried to get the car moving again and limp back to the pits, but couldn’t make it and Toyota were down to one realistic contender. Twenty seven minutes later and after being hit by an LMP2 car and having picked up a puncture that lacerated the hydraulics system, that final thread of hope, the #9 Toyota driven by Nicolas Lapierre, was also sitting helpless by the side of the track, just a few agonising metres from the pit entrance. It’s proper, heart-wrenching stuff. You could taste Toyota’s disappointment in the air and the usually buoyant and well-oiled fans were suddenly flat as the overpriced beer. Porsche meanwhile, were pinching themselves.
The upshot was, that with 14 hours still to race, the #1 Porsche had a procession to victory. It needed only to stay out the barriers and look after its engine, which it did, for another 10 hours, before – with Andre Lotterer behind the wheel – it suddenly lost oil pressure and came to a terminal rest on the Mulsanne straight.
This threw up an intriguing possibility: Could an LMP2 car actually win the race outright? Porsche’s retirement catapulted Jackie Chan DC Racing’s (yes, that Jackie Chan) into the lead, but the #2 Porsche (remember, the car that was almost flat last earlier?) was chasing hard and taking 13 seconds a lap out of the JC’s LMP2 car in front. With an hour to go it took the lead and cruised to the flag, leaving everyone (this writer included) totally bewildered and left scratching their sleep-deprived heads, trying to piece together what had actually just happened.
And we haven’t even touched on the GTE Pro category, featuring 24 sparkling hours of Ford, Porsche, Ferrari, Aston and Chevrolet going at it like every lap was their last. After last year’s accusations of Ford sandbagging earlier in the season (not showing their full performance so they wouldn’t have to carry excess ballast at Le Mans) and ensuring their win, close qualifying this year promised it would be a five-way battle for the ages.
Fittingly, it went right to the wire. If you haven’t watched the last two-lap ding-dong between the #97 Aston driven by Scot, Jonny Adam and the #63 Corvette driven by Jordan Taylor, stop what you’re doing and take a look immediately, it doesn’t get any more tense than that. I was delighted when Aston Martin, the only British manufacturer with a factory team at this year’s race (we’re looking at you Jaguar and McLaren) won it, but was equally pleased that after its gladiatorial battle, the punctured Corvette managed to drag itself home just behind the #67 Ford GT for a podium finish.
In all honesty, in the build-up, the 2017 edition felt a little thin after last year’s wonderfully romantic winning return for Ford, and without Audi to add a third dimension to the LMP1 grid, but doubt the magic of Le Mans at your peril. By pushing the cars, drivers and teams to their absolute limit, it always manages to come up with something. Over to Jonny Adam: “When I was chasing the leader down, I was thinking I just can’t finish second – people don’t remember runners up at Le Mans. The spirit is to race hard and fair, and race for 24 hours to see who conquers. If you don’t win, you pick yourself up and come again next year, if you win you just have to celebrate and enjoy the moment.” Enjoy it Porsche and Aston, because who knows what drama we’ll have in 12 month’s time.
- Jack Rix