The 2020 24 Hours of Le Mans was the most important Le Mans in years
Unusual circumstances, the end of an era and a fantastic victory for women in motorsport!
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is known as one of the greatest races on earth for a reason. It's an incredible feat of teamwork and endurance to even attempt to do this race in the first place, let alone finish it. It's a race steeped in tradition dating back to some of the most formative years of what we now consider as motorsport and one that has managed to stay relevant even in this age of ever-increasing technology and the ever-looming realisation that we could be very close to the end of ICE-powered motorsport. It's also one of the most diverse races in the motorsport calendar. Everyone from current and former F1 drivers to Formula E champions to gentleman drivers to young up-and-comers all get to race against each other from start to finish and it sometimes leads to some incredible passing of the torch moments and the realisation of the full potential of some drivers who had maybe been left behind in the highest tiers of motorsport.
This year's Le Mans, however, is probably the most important that there's been in a very long time. A lot of crazy things have been happening right now and I'm not just talking about the COVID-19 pandemic that's been engulfing the world either. There have been multiple things that have happened both in the build-up to the race and during the race that have made 2020's 24 Hours of Le Mans one of the most important editions of that race in years.
A socially distanced race
Due to COVID-19 still very much being a threat in France, not only was the race postponed until September but no fans were allowed to attend and the grid and strict social distancing was kept in the paddock and on the grid. Just like we've been seeing in F1 this season, race crews have been in 'bubbles' and mask-wearing has been mandatory when venturing outside of that bubble. COVID testing for crews, drivers and media attending the event has been compulsory as well. There was also the distinct lack of the Ferris wheel, usually a staple of the Le Mans landscape during the race weekend but obviously it's a bit pointless having a Ferris wheel there if there are no fans to ride it!
There hasn't been a Le Mans like this race before and there likely won't be one like it again in the near future because of how exceptional the circumstances have been. But it's shown once again that motorsport can be conducted safely even in the middle of the worst public health crisis since 1918, so long as the rules are stuck to as much as humanly possible and every single step is taken to ensure everyone's health and safety. Was the race as good without the fans? Probably not, especially if you're somebody who likes to travel there every year to watch the race in person. But, for better or worse, the socially distanced aspect of this year's Le Mans is part of why it was the most important Le Mans in years. When the crowds are back next year as they're expected to be, 2021's Le Mans will be just that little bit more special than 2019's was.
The end of LMP1
This year's Le Mans is likely going to be remembered as a real end of an era moment because it was the final Le Mans where the LMP1 class competed. LMP1 has sadly run its course and from next year onwards will be replaced by a new hypercar class made up of machines that look more like road cars and indeed some of them will be produced as road cars in limited quantities. This makes this year's tiny LMP1 class of 5 cars the last 5 cars of an incredible era in endurance racing.
LMP1 was a class that was defined by pushing the technological boundaries of racing cars. More technologically advanced than even the Formula 1 cars of the early 90s, at their most extreme LMP1 cars were incredible and sometimes very strange beasts that sometimes worked amazingly and sometimes failed spectacularly. Who can forget Nissan's crazy experiment at making a primarily front-wheel drive LMP1 car to solve an engineering challenge that unfortunately didn't get even close to its potential at Le Mans due to serious issues with its hybrid powertrain? Who can also forget the incredible Porsche 919 that took them to victory in the top class of endurance racing once again in 2015, with none other than Nico Hulkenberg as one of the drivers behind the wheel of the winning team? Who can forget either about those incredible diesel and then hybrid Audi beasts that scored back to back overall wins for several years running?
Whilst I'm sure the new hypercar class cars will be absolutely amazing (I mean, look at those offerings we're getting from Toyota and Glickenhaus next year!), the loss of the LMP1 class is going to be a big loss to racing. Hopefully dedicated people, either from the manufacturers or gentleman drivers with a real passion for keeping these cars alive, will still keep them going to give them a good thrashing in historic races and at special events such as the Goodwood Festival of Speed. LMP1's time in racing may be over, but its legacy will be remembered forever.
A farewell to Rebellion Racing
2020 was Rebellion Racing's final year at Le Mans and indeed their final year ever in motorsports and they were determined to end it on a high. It seemed like that could have almost translated into an overall win at one stage, before yet again Toyota raced to dominance with the team of Sebastian Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Kazuki Nakajima. They did manage to finish second overall however with the team of Gustavo Menezes, Norman Nato and Bruno Senna (remember him, F1 fans?) and that was definitely more than a fantastic farewell to racing one of the world's greatest and most unforgiving races.
Whilst it'll be a real shame that Rebellion will be gone from the grid completely from next year and won't get to reap the benefits of the new hypercar legislation, that second place finish could be more than enough to secure the future of the drivers of that second place car a future in endurance racing. Bruno Senna is too good to be left by the wayside in any kind of motorsport and I hope that he manages to secure a drive at the beginning of the hypercar era next year.
A triumph for women in motorsport
As you may well have been aware going into the race, there were a couple of teams who entered with a driver lineup consisting entirely of female drivers. The one that got the most media spotlight was the Richard Mille Racing Team, comprised of Tatiana Calderon (test driver for Alfa Romeo Racing), Sophia Floersch (F3 driver) and Beitske Visser (2nd place finisher in the inaugural W Series in 2019). It's this Richard Mille team that was the biggest surprise of the entire race for me. The team managed to climb from 25th overall and 20th in LMP2 class at the start right up into 13th overall and 9th in LMP2 class, due in no small part thanks to the incredible consistency of all three of the team's drivers. It was Sophia Floersch who especially shined to me, making up for an abysmal season in F3 where she seemed to be incredibly frustrated about everything by delivering the greatest drive of her entire career.
Further down the grid in the GTE AM class, an all-female team sponsored by Iron Lynx known as the Iron Dames managed to come 34th overall and 9th in class, coming only 1 place behind the Aston Martin car headed up by the massively accomplished Canadian gentleman racer Paul Dalla Lana and several places ahead of an AF Corse team that included F1 legend Giancarlo Fisichella! Whilst they were much further down the grid than the Richard Mille team due to being in a much slower class of car, like the Richard Mille outfit they came 9th in class and that is absolutely not to be sniffed at!
The fact that two all-female teams finished in the top 10 of their respective classes is an absolute triumph for women in motorsport. Perhaps it'll encourage more endurance racing teams to sign female drivers? Maybe it'll translate into one or more of that Richard Mille team getting signed on to drive one of the new hypercar class cars next year? Who knows. All I know is that whatever follows can be nothing but positive in the sense of finally getting female drivers recognised and getting big opportunities like this at the top end of motorsport.