PRUETT: Le Mans Rewind

PRUETT: Le Mans Rewind

Le Mans/WEC

PRUETT: Le Mans Rewind

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With a week to reflect on the 83rd 24 Hours of Le Mans, RACER’s Marshall Pruett takes a personal look back at his time in France covering the great endurance race and the topics of interest that emerged.

AN INSTANT CLASSIC

It often takes a bit of time and distance from an event like Le Mans to gauge the quality of the race, but that wasn’t necessary this year. The action during the opening laps made it known that something special was taking place, and as the race weaved its way from light to dark and back to sunrise, all four classes continued to build compelling stories to follow.

The marquee battle among the 1000hp LMP1-Hybrids was just as good – if not better – than expected, and the result was a big surprise. The manufacturer with the most complex, powerful, and aspirational car in the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans not only won, but did so with relative ease. Porsche’s 17th overall win at the world’s greatest motor race came at the expense of sister brand Audi – the modern day masters of Le Mans – and did so by setting a punishing pace and winning the reliability war.

Gallery: Best of Le Mans

We witnessed a marathon run as a 100-yard dash. Le Mans transitioned into a sprint race more than a decade ago, but this year’s race was something altogether different. The aggression and lap times produced in pursuit of the overall win felt dangerous and unsustainable. Of all the memories that stand out from Le Mans 2015, the ragged and at-times frightful speed unleashed by Porsche and Audi will go down as something that had never been seen or imagined as a possibility.

What should have been short bursts of a precarious pace settled into a 24-hour qualifying battle, and with plans in motions to slow the LMP1-Hybrids next year, 2015 might be remembered as the pinnacle for pure velocity.

Along with most of my colleagues, I expected Audi’s bulletproof R18s to soldier home to victory after the seemingly fragile 919s pulled out a significant lead prior to engine or ERS system failures. If there was a general timeframe for the Porsches to falter, I reckoned somewhere around the 18-hour mark was the limit. But it never arrived. In fact, the opposite was true.

Audi’s R18s made a flurry of unscheduled stops (LEFT, LAT photo) over a brief span between 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., and the sight of R18s being wheeled into their garages for mechanical repairs signaled the fight for victory was over.

Porsche, during its second modern attempt to win Le Mans, demonstrated the two most valuable attributes as extreme speed and reliability allowed the proud marque to capture a 1-2 finish. Audi, possessing the least attractive pair of traits, claimed third as reduced speed and diminished reliability left the brand two laps down to the winning No. 19 Porsche. After the race, I learned the R18s struggled to get past the halfway point in 24-hour testing, which makes their struggles past halfway in the race less of a surprise.

In LMP2, another unexpected result was produced as the unheralded KCMG team took pole and crushed the field with its brand-new ORECA 05-Nissan (BELOW). The No. 47 car led laps 1-10, gave laps 11-19 to its rivals, then led laps 20-358 to take the checkered flag without interruption. Leading 23 of the 24 hours defied any and all pre-race predictions for the P2 class, and it appears the popular Ligier JS P2 chassis has a worthy rival in the ORECA 05.


From an American viewpoint, the GTE-Pro race offered more drama than any other class, and it started in practice when the No. 63 Corvette C7.R was written off in the Porsche curves. With the lone No. 64 left to fight with the fleet of factory Aston Martins, a pair of Porsches, and works-affiliated Ferraris, the odds were stacked against GM and the one bullet in its chamber. Possibly the most shocking retirement of the came from Porsche as one of its 911 RSRs ground to a smoky halt after 14 laps.

Aston Martin’s two lead cars faltered, and even the leading AF Corse Ferrari lost its bid for a repeat victory when gearbox problems removed them from contention late in the race. As broken parts and dashed dreams started to pile up, the No. 64 Corvette kept on motoring, and crossed the finish line five laps ahead of second place.

The saddest outcome was saved for GTE-Am as Canadian Paul Dalla Lana, with the race firmly in his grasp, pitched his Aston Martin (LEFT) hard into the barriers at the Ford Chicane with 45 minutes left to run. With two laps over the next GTE-Am entry, PDL just needed to cruise to capture his first win at La Sarthe, but an unforced error left the genial Pro-Am driver visibly distraught as he climbed from the damaged car.

Despite leading 249 laps – and the final 125 laps until PDL’s crash, Aston Martin was powerless to respond as SMP Racing led the final 11 tours and put its No. 72 Ferrari F458 in Victory Lane.

KCMG routed P2, Corvette Racing was a perfect blend of fast and faultless, and SMP inherited a memorable win when it appeared they would need to settle for second. If anyone placed bets on those three cars winning their classes, I assume they aren’t reading this because they’re currently shopping for a private island with the winnings.

Of all the accomplishments at the 83rd running of Le Mans, Audi’s demotion by Porsche is what could stand the test of time. Audi was seeking its sixth consecutive win, yet was trumped by a wilder LMP1-H concept that made their car look less imaginative on the sport’s grandest stage.

Toyota took a couple of solid shots at unseating Audi at Le Mans, but failed, and Porsche gave them a good run on their debut last year, but late-race reliability woes intervened. For the sake of time and context, President Obama had been in office less than five months the last time Audi lost the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Their dominance had to end at some point, and with Porsche having maximized the 919 Hybrid’s potential, there’s every reason to believe they’ll return to Le Mans as the favorites.

Leaving Le Mans 2015, Audi still looks like a threat for the season-long World Endurance Championship titles, but if they want to topple Porsche, it’s clear they’ll need more than an update (of an update of an update) with the basic shape and concept that forms the R18 e-tron quattro.

Toyota has an even bigger task at hand with a TS040 Hybrid that conquered the WEC and could have won Le Mans last year, yet was relegated to second-tier status in LMP1-H once Audi and Porsche unveiled their cars a few months ago. Nissan, obviously, went into the race reeling from a variety of performance problems and limitations that meant its GT-R LM NISMOs were doing little more than meeting their obligation to participate in the event.

The front-engine design was marginally faster than P2s in qualifying, but offered little of interest during the race. If Nissan scored a non-competition victory at Le Mans, it went to their heavy marketing and promotions effort. Nissan, based on fan interest and the general blanketing effect they had with the P1 program, won a lot of hearts and minds during their debut, but squeezing the same goodwill from the project next year will be difficult.

For the part that matters most – from 3 p.m. Saturday through 3 p.m. Sunday, Nissan has a giant mountain to climb if they want to reach Porsche, and while the ascent is a shorter distance for Audi and Toyota, the effort to overcome the 919 Hybrids will require hundreds of millions to be spent and some mildly crazy concepts to get the job done.

Even if speeds are pared back for 2016, I can’t wait to see the insane responses the 919 Hybrids will inspire.

MIDNIGHT RUN

Neel Jani’s pole position lap of 3:16.8 in the No. 18 Porsche (ABOVE, LAT photo) was pure magic, and also put a staggering gap of 2.9 seconds between his 919 Hybrid and the best Audi R18. By the time the race got underway, Audi found more speed by using an aggressive chassis and electronics setup, and for the first few hours – one where the defending race winners led with authority for brief periods – the chance of seeing both brands race on equal terms looked possible.

The three Audis uncorked hellacious speed while fighting with the Porsches, and the No. 7 R18 piloted by Andre Lotterer managed to record the fastest race lap – a 3:17.4 – ever produced at Le Mans. All of the R18s dipped below the 3:18 barrier, while the best a 919 could achieve was 3:18.1. In daylight on Saturday, Audi hinted at being able to race for the win, but as the sun began to fade and track temperatures lowered, it proved to be a red herring.

They didn’t handle the crossover into night particularly well as all three R18s missed finding the sweet spot on soft tires. This simple dynamic caused the race to break in Porsche’s favor just past midnight, and speaking with both sides of the 919 vs. R18 fight, the exact reason for the miscalculation wasn’t clear a few days after the race. Audi couldn’t make “happy hour” work to their favor on Michelin’s softest rubber while Porsche was able to set a torrid pace in the pre-dawn hours that couldn’t be matched. Critically, it left Audi reeling as the Porsche disappeared into the distance.

NICK AT NIGHT

Singling out individual performances in a team-based form of motorsport like endurance racing can be a challenge, but in the case of Porsche’s Nick Tandy, his virtuoso drive in the winning No. 19 was breathtaking to behold. The Briton generated the fastest single stint in Le Mans’ great history by averaging a 3:19, and used his morning stint – just past midnight – to bury Audi. It was a career-defining drive that, combined with the efforts of his teammates Earl Bamber and Nico Hulkenberg (middle and right, with Tandy at left), put the win out of reach for the rest of the field.

“Before I got in the car we’d lost a minute and 20-odd seconds or so when we had the pit under the safety car,” Tandy said. “We’d lost that and we were already behind. I think the stint before I got in coming up to midnight sort of hours, Nico started pulling into the rest of the field. I knew the car was coming to us because we were coming back to the rest of the field. I knew by the time I was going to get in I had to prepare for cooler tires, so you had to go a little bit easy to start.”

With heat worked into his Michelins, Tandy was off like a rocket.

“It was the first time, honestly, that I felt at one with this car,” he said. “It was like the car was part of me and I was part of the car, what happens when you get really in tune with your racecar. It takes a little bit of time but driving around that time of night the thing was just on fire. I could manipulate into any single thing that I wanted to do. It just felt so easy.”

Porsche let Tandy focus on the road ahead instead of providing updates on the growing gap to Audi. Once he climbed from the No. 19 around 3 a.m., the team revealed the magnitude of his performance.

“I knew the pace was good, but I didn’t know how much time we’d put on the best Audi,” he continued. “I found out we took a minute, a minute and a half out of them and everybody else at that point. It was amazing because it was easy. When that happens, it is easy, that’s when you know things are going right.”


MISCELLANEOUS

• The late battle between American GTE-Am competitors was an incredible spectacle as Patrick Long and fellow Californian Townsend Bell raced for third position like the win was at stake (ABOVE, LAT photo). Bell held his Scuderia Corsa Ferrari at impossible angles while chasing Long, and held every slide, except for one. Even with a spin, Bell was able to charge back and resume the fight. There’s nothing like an impromptu duel in the closing stages of the race where two drivers are clearly having more fun than anyone else on track.

• Nicolas Lapierre’s P2 win with KCMG was a heartwarming result after the gifted Frenchman weathered a tumultuous 2014 season that led to losing his factory P1 drive with Toyota. He was the standout driver in P2, and hopefully repaired his reputation as factory teams look for talented veterans to help professional programs in P1 and GTE.

• It was a pleasant surprise to hear how many drivers, team members, and media types caught the final laps of the Indy 500. Plenty of comments were made regarding the thrilling finish and old man Montoya’s exceptional performance.

• Filipe Albuquerque’s fastest race lap of 3:17.6 was 4.8 seconds faster than the No. 9 Audi’s best in qualifying.

• In a growing tradition, the Mazda-to-P1 rumor has become an annual item that circulated the paddock. A P1 announcement was said to be in the works at Le Mans…it never happened.

• ACO president Pierre Fillon and WEC CEO Gerard Neveu invited a small group of international reporters to dinner the night before practice began, and amid a steady flow of appetizers and wine, a thoroughly enjoyable exchange of ideas and opinions – all off the record – took place. It was among the most enjoyable aspects of a 10-day trip to cover my ninth 24 Hours of Le Mans.

• The top speed captured during the event went to the No. 8 Audi R18 e-tron quattro at 214.7 mph. As impressive as that number might be, the 2011 Lola-Aston Martin driven by Stuart Hall during the Aston Martin festival hit 209.4mph!

• Our colleagues at DailySportsCar.com were invaluable, as usual, during Le Mans, and also authored one of the nicest touches when they presented a cake to the incomparable Catherine Vatteoni, who works in the WEC’s communications department and celebrated her 30th year supporting the assembled media corps at Le Mans. She was speechless when DSC editor Graham Goodwin and his team made her the center of attention for once. It was a loving gesture for someone who goes to great lengths to care for a small army of reporters and photographers during a chaotic week.

• Porsche’s Earl Bamber owned one of the best lines after the race when he made reference to his FIA driver rating: “Nobody knew who I was before…so much for being a Silver much longer!”

• The Unintentional Comedy Scale was pegged for a brief moment during the race when, after a wonderful stretch of the Porsche vs. Audi duel was shown, the TV producer cut to a tight shot of an Audi stopped on course. Almost everyone in the media center gasped and pointed at the screen. After a few seconds…and I swear the director was showing his sense of humor, the cameraman zoomed out and revealed he was in the Audi hospitality compound and had zoomed in on one of the big photos hanging on the wall… For those few seconds, he had almost everyone fooled, including the Audi team, which reacted with the same disbelief at the stalled car…

• Coming off of a long month at Indianapolis, the infamous “Yellow Shirts” that can make the Indy 500 a frustrating experience are always revealed as genuinely helpful by comparison to their French counterparts. Le Mans’ version of Yellow Shirts are 50 years younger, don’t speak English (not a surprise), and treat every day like Race Day where access to anywhere and everywhere starts off with “Non” and only spirals downward.

I watched Corvette Racing crew chief Dan Binks – the Dan Binks – get chased off the grid because he didn’t have the super-triple-extra-special pass someone felt he needed. The same guy let me walk onto the grid as Binks was being escorted out, and by comparison, I had no reason to be there…nor did I have the pass that Binks lacked…

It’s an annual adventure where everything is controlled to the highest level; individual credentials and parking passes are scanned when you enter or exit the property. I even found one section – after a two-mile walk to a corner – where I couldn’t continue walking the final 500 feet to where we normally shoot. Faced with that dilemma, I also couldn’t leave the track from the nearby exit to try a different route because the local guard didn’t have the requisite handheld device to scan me out. His only suggestion was to walk the two miles back to pit lane, scan in, take another two-mile route back to a different entry/exit point close to where we stood, and have that person scan me out. It left me longing for the relative simplicity in dealing with Yellow Shirts, and I’m not sure how often that sentiment has been expressed.

• Riley Technologies won the award for the tallest rear wing at Le Mans. The Dodge Viper team went as far as adding “Super Bird” stickers inside the rear wing endplates, and as Riley said, the reason for the extra height – which would seem like a liability on the low-drag track – was to cure turbulence they found between the rear window and the wing at a more normal height. Running the wing up in clean air, it turns out, was actually the best move for aerodynamic efficiency.

• Possibly the most fun story of the event belonged to Nissan. Yes, they assembled a media compound with a swirling slide and other amusing items, but I loved the story that team engineer Brandon Fry shared as we walked through the back of their three-car garage that was covered by a makeshift tin roof (BELOW): “I was walking through here and I hear this banging overhead and then I hear some laughing. I’m trying to figure out what it is; you don’t expect to hear that kind of noise on top of the roof, and it doesn’t look very sturdy, so I walked out and looked and it was Jann [Mardenborough] and some of the other drivers playing roof soccer! I have no idea how they didn’t fall through, but they were having the best time… Give drivers some free time and they’ll come up with stuff like roof soccer…”

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