Porsche Overcomes Hour-Long Repair to Win Le Mans
The last hybrid standing was 19 laps down with six hours to go.
BY FRED SMITH
JUN 18, 2017
With Toyota setting a lap record and taking pole by nearly three seconds, many expected this year's battle for the overall win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans to be little more than a formality, a coronation for a Toyota program that has patiently waited for its turn to win here since returning in 2012. The race was supposed to be straightforward, and even if one Toyota had issues, they were bringing three TS050s. Unfortunately for that program, what followed was a race that was equal parts unexpected and unpredictable, one that unfolded in three acts.
Before sunset on Saturday, Toyota comfortably lead the field. The #2 Porsche 919 Hybrid had trouble early, and the blazing speed of the #7 TS050 seemed like more than enough to dampen any hopes the Porsche team still may have had for their quick #1 entry. As night fell, disasters picked cars off one by one. First it was the #8, which spent nearly two hours in the garage undergoing hybrid system repairs in the early evening. Hours later, it was the leading #7 that fell, as a clutch issue that started as the car entered turn 1 got progressively worse over the course of the 8-mile trek back to the garage. Just a few short minutes later, the #9 car made contact with an LMP2 car in the same corner, with the damage sustained causing suspension damage (and, eventually, a fire) as it dragged on over the same journey home. The #8 was able to salvage a finish nine laps down, but by hour 12, Toyota's race was all but over.
That left Porsche's #1 in a lonely position throughout the night. With the lone privateer LMP1 car retired by lap 2 and the admittedly-quite-fast LMP2 field more than ten laps behind, the #1 had no real reason to run at a hard pace. However, the car's conservative drive to victory wasn't enough to stop it from an engine issue. With four hours to go, that car's telemetry reported a significant issue with the car's traditional source of power, a problem that would prove to be more catastrophic than the hybrid system issues on the #2 when it forced the #1 to retire. Twenty hours in, the LMP2 leader from Jackie Chan DC Racing was leading overall, and Porsche's race seemed run.
However, the #2 lost just nineteen laps to the overall leader during its early repairs and never got off pace to catch the LMP2 leader, a goal the team initially had solely to grab as many FIA World Endurance Championship points as possible. Once the Toyotas faltered, that team kicked into high gear, and the projected time for that car to pass the LMP2 leader moved from the end of the race to the middle of hour 23. Thanks in no small part to minimal safety car interruptions throughout the race, long-tenured factory Porsche driver Timo Bernhard closed a gargantuan gap and passed the Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca with just over an hour remaining.
Bernhard, along with teammates and New Zealand natives Earl Bamber and Brendon Hartley, has taken what is the third consecutive win at Le Mans for Porsche's 919 Hybrid platform. That car now joins the 936, 956, and 962 in the pantheon of Porsche prototypes that can boast three or more overall wins at the 24 hour classic, and fittingly, it brings Porsche what is their record-extending 19th overall victory in the race. The #8 Toyota TS050, also repaired extensively early in the race, is the only other finisher in LMP1.
While the reliability concerns of all six LMP1 entries made for an interesting and unique race for that class, the greatest beneficiaries of the situation were the top contenders in LMP2. The class, running a new set of regulations in 2017 that requires all manufacturers to use the same powerful Gibson engine, had proven both faster and more reliable than in past years, and while many GT drivers lamented the overall speed of cars designed to be driven by amateurs, it was that speed that allowed the top LMP2 cars in the field to contend for an overall win when the #1 Porsche retired. Separation in the field meant that the #2 had to pick those cars off one-by-one over the race's final four hours, with each contender acting like a new folk hero that bravely stood against a titan despite knowing the inevitability of its demise.
GETTY / DAN ISTITENE
While the #38 Oreca of Jackie Chan DC Racing, a program run by veteran LMP2 outfit Jota Sport, wasn't able to secure the overall win, that team does have the honor of being able to claim that it led Le Mans all the way to the end of the 23rd hour, finished second overall, and won its class. Ho-Pin Tung and former Audi driver Oliver Jarvis were impressive in the car, but the team's most outstanding driver was surely the Silver-rated rookie Thomas Laurent, who consistently put down laps within a second of his car's fastest lap time while leading overall in a race where his team wasn't so much as expected to contend for a win in-class. The #13 Rebellion Oreca joins the #38 on the overall podium, while the #37 Jackie Chan DC Racing car completes the LMP2 podium in fourth overall.
GETTY / KER ROBERTSON
While the high attrition Prototype classes proved unpredictable, GTE-Pro proved to be exactly the close, fantastic race it was expected to be. After the #95 Aston Martin that led the majority of the race hit a wall and lost contact with the leaders early Sunday morning, each of the five manufacturers in the field were left with exactly one car on the lead lap and equal chance to take the class win. It was ultimately Aston Martin and Corvette that played their strategies best, with Corvette Racing's Jordan Taylor leading the #97 Aston Martin with three laps to go.
This was when Aston Martin driver Jonathan Adam made his move into Arnage, the slowest corner on the track. He made light contact with the #63 Corvette and grabbed the lead, but he couldn't hold onto it and lost the position before the next corner. The contact, however, created a slow puncture for the Corvette, and though Taylor was able to keep Adam behind him for a lap and a half, he finally lost control as the two went to take the white flag. Adam is joined on the top step of the illustrious GTE-Pro podium by teammates Daniel Serra and Aston Martin stalwart Darren Turner. The #67 Ford GT would ultimately end up second, with that late puncture pushing the #63 Corvette C7.R down to a final finishing position of third.
With three unpredictable classes producing three wild results, GTE-Am provided some stability throughout the 24 hours. JMW Racing's Ferrari 488 GTE took the lead early and held it throughout the day, and when early trouble hit Aston Martin Racing's #98, it had little to no competition for the position. Their drivers, Robert Smith, Dries Vanthoor, and former Manor Formula 1 driver Will Stevens, drove a clean, smooth race in a class that is sometimes thought to carry a stigma for unforced spins and ill-advised passes. The class podium was all-Ferrari, with Spirit of Race #55 and Scuderia Corsa #62 finishing the order.
The race saw just eleven retirements and three safety car periods, relatively low numbers for what often felt like true race of attrition. Notably, four of the six LMP1 contenders were among those to officially retire.
The FIA World Endurance Championship, the series that the majority of the contenders in this race run, returns in just under a month for the 6 Hours of Nurburgring.