PRUETT: Le Mans 24 Hours Rewind

PRUETT: Le Mans 24 Hours Rewind

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Le Mans 24 Hours Rewind

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What an amazing 21 days for motor racing. Having witnessed Alexander Rossi secure a shocking victory in the final minutes of the 100th Indy 500 on May 29, who could have predicted another punch to the solar plexus was awaiting the world in France on June 19.

The headline had already been written. The first few paragraphs of the race report were filed with 10 minutes remaining in the 84th running of the spirit-breaking endurance event.

“Toyota Finally Triumphs in Le Mans.”

It was the first win for a Japanese manufacturer since Mazda’s legendary result in 1991. It exorcised the near-win by Toyota in 1994 when Jeff Krosnoff, Mauro Martini, and Eddie Irvine had the race in hand until a gearbox issue turned that surefire success into a frustrating second-place finish. And it made good on the brand’s most recent near-win in 2014 when the TS040 Hybrids showed so much potential.

Like 1994, 2014, and now, 2016, those talking points were quietly erased and replaced with sadder, more humbling entries.

A breathless silence hung in the air as Kazuki Nakajima slowed to a stop in front of the start/finish grandstands. Commentators in a number of different languages screamed into their microphones as the inconceivable events played out after 23 hours and 56 minutes of racing. Cameras showed the paralyzed reaction in the Toyota garage before cutting to all manner of mayhem in the Porsche pits as executives lost their collective minds.

Many of us awoke May 30 with the sensation of disbelief, finding it hard to fathom that we’d seen a one-in-a-lifetime occurrence with Rossi at Indianapolis. That same sensation was back on Monday morning as the sheer gravity of Toyota’s monumental collapse, and the gifted win for Porsche, remained stuck in suspended reality. Twice in 21 days? I’m at a loss for superlatives to adequately describe the madness that has enveloped the Indy-to-Le Mans swing.

Despite the similar surprise outcomes, the world’s two greatest races produced vastly different reactions. Where there was joy at an American rookie winning the 100th 500, the palpable sorrow for Toyota was visible in the reactions by many fans and teams at Le Mans.

How crazy was the finish? Porsche’s winning drivers actually felt conflicted about the results. I’m struggling to recall a major victory where the winners felt so genuinely bad for the losers.

Rossi’s win came during Indy’s grand celebration of its centennial race, which only served to amplify the outcome. It was the 100th race, after all, and interest in seeing who would be crowned at the end of 500 miles was incredibly high. Romain Dumas, Neel Jani, and Marc Lieb weren’t as fortunate; capturing the 84th Le Mans doesn’t carry the built-in prestige of winning the 100th, but I’m willing to bet the 84th will serve as the new gold standard for all future runnings of the event.

Whether it was 500 miles in May or 24 hours in June, 2016 has delivered two all-time classics and spoiled racing fans with last-minute plot twists that are simply unforgettable.

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM

Take five LMP1-Hybrids, shake and bake for 24 Hours at Le Mans, and serve the broken remnants on a cold dish of disappointment. In the case of the sixth LMP1-Hybrid, Porsche’s race-winning No. 2 919, we know its dish went from frosty to nuclear in an instant, and that remarkable change in fortune came as a result of the race’s predominant theme: Dreadful reliability in the top class.

As expected, it felt like most of the six-deep fleet of new P1 cars logged more miles going up and down on scissor lifts than motoring down the Mulsanne at 200mph. The rolling herd of technical calamities started at Audi’s garage and made routine stops up and down pit lane to visit Porsche and Toyota throughout Saturday and Sunday.

Those failures, as the No. 7 Audi proved, took odd forms and struck quickly. Surely a hybrid issue would waylay the R18 e-tron quattros, but no…it was a turbocharger as the race moved into its second hour. Of all the systems on the radical German car, the most routine and highly developed one – its 4.0-liter turbodiesel engine – was the first to falter.

Brake disc issues would also lead Audi to pit both of its entries at separate times to conduct replacements. Altogether, the No. 7 finished 17 laps down and the No. 8, which was promoted to the podium after Toyota’s dramas, was 12 laps behind at the end. A door even fell off of one of the R18s during a pit stop. It’s safe to say Audi’s performance at Le Mans found depths the race’s dominant manufacturer didn’t expect to find.

Toyota’s race was relatively normal until the cartoon anvil fell on the No. 5 TS050 Hybrid. It spent some extra time in the pits, as did the sister No. 6, as bodywork repairs were conducted after contact was made. A tire vibration slowed the No. 5 early in the race, also and a driving error by Kamui Kobayashi late in the event robbed the team of a potential 1-2, but significant mechanical or electric issues stayed at bay until Nakajima’s No. 5 surrendered the lead when piping in the turbocharging system became disconnected.

The No. 1 Porsche, which appeared to be the faster of the brand’s entries, hiccupped around midnight as a reported water pump failure torpedoed its chances. It’s believed the water pump failure also caused other problems which added more time to the repairs. With all of its problems combined, the No. 1 Porsche spent 46 seconds shy of three hours in the pits. It crossed the finish line with a deficit of 38 laps.

By comparison, the winning No. 2 Porsche was stationary for a rather routine 38 minutes and five seconds for its 30 pit stops. Along with the No. 2 Porsche, Toyota’s No. 6 TS050 can claim to have made it to the finish line without needing a lot of extra work to keep it in one piece.

I’m sure Audi, Porsche, and Toyota disagree, but the lack of reliability for most of the LMP1-Hybrid spaceships was a welcome addition to this year’s race. Audi’s technology was pushed to far-reaching places, and it was routinely punished. Porsche took the most conventional approach, and even reverted to its former hybrid battery, and was clipped by a freak engine problem with one entry. Toyota turned up with the only car that was 100 percent new, and seemed to have escaped the inevitable breakdowns until the racing gods changed their minds with one lap to go.

What a fickle event.


NO SUCH THING AS CONVENTIONAL WISDOM

New racecars, especially of the turbocharged variety, tend to stumble and fail during the first year of endurance competition. It happened at the Rolex 24 At Daytona with Ford’s twin-turbo V6 GT and Ferrari’s twin-turbo V8 488, and that came at a track where punishment is minimal on the chassis and powertrain.

That conventional wisdom, as I expected, would rear its ugly head at Le Mans for both models and, as I also predicted, the battle-tested naturally-aspirated cars from Aston Martin, Corvette, and Porsche would rise to the top as their turbo rivals met leaky, smoky ends. Wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

Three of the four Fords rocked the class with impeccable reliability (barring some electronic demons that struck during one stint with the race-winning No. 68, top), and the second-place Risi Ferrari was also rock solid. The AF Corse Ferraris weren’t as fortunate, however, and retired before the halfway point.

The unbreakable factory Porsches blew up and broke, the Corvettes lacked pace and lost one car in a high-speed crash, and Aston Martin had no answer for the brand-new turbos.

Everything that history suggested would take place in GTE-Pro didn’t happen, and everything expected in LMP1-Hybrid happened like clockwork. This isn’t the first – or last time – I’ll leave Le Mans thoroughly confused.

BALANCE OF PLATITUDES?

As some experts asserted after the first round of qualifying, Corvette Racing’s C7.Rs were sandbagging to the extreme, and the other non-turbo GTE-Pro models were also underplaying their hands to receive Balance of Performance breaks.

The ACO, which admitted it was caught off-guard by the fluctuating barometric pressures that advantaged the turbo cars (due to storm fronts coming and going), caught hell for the imbalance. A series of BoP changes were then announced the day before the big race.

For those who followed the contretemps, Ferrari and Ford were slowed by a weight increase, Ford was also slowed by a turbo boost reduction, and both Aston Martin and Corvette were aided by a weight reduction and power increase. The Porsches were left untouched in the performance department.

Adding to the comedy was Ford team owner Chip Ganassi who felt compelled to tell reporters to “Calm down about BoP adjustments” via Twitter:

As an entrant whose cars qualified P1-2-4-5 in class, it was funny then, and even more so after the Blue Oval retained a clear advantage after the ACO’s ineffective BoP adjustments did little to tighten the field.

The best of the Ferrari and Ford turbos qualified 3.7 seconds faster than the best Porsche, 4.0 seconds ahead of the best Aston Martin, and 4.6 seconds clear of the fastest Corvette. With the post-qualifying BoP adjustments installed, Ford and Ferrari were fastest again, and while the BoP changes did have some effect, the outcome still bordered on comical.

The best Aston Martin race lap? 1.8 seconds behind the top Ford. And Porsche? 2.0 seconds down on ultimate pace. How about Corvette? 2.8 seconds slower. Even the best Ferrari 488 lap was three quarters of a second (0.755 to be exact) off of the leading Ford GT. In a class boasting five manufacturers, the ACO allowed it to become a contest between two brands. What an absolute shame. Aston Martin, Corvette, and Porsche wasted millions of dollars to go on holiday in France and watch the Blue Oval and Prancing Horse run off with the victory because the staff charged with creating a balanced and fair playing field struck out.

And, for the sake of clarity, Ferrari and Ford would have the same right to vilify the ACO if their non-turbo rivals were handed a week-long, race-winning advantage. The issue here isn’t which manufacturer (or manufacturers) had the fast lane all to themselves; it’s that the ACO failed to demonstrate its self-imposed BoP process was accurate to start the event, and failed again when it was time to fix the imbalance before the race.

It’s worth overstating the obvious: No one forced the ACO to implement a BoP structure in GTE-Pro. But if it’s the chosen method to rule the class, one would expect it to work in an effective and consistent manner. 

Only one GTE-Pro manufacturer posted lap times in the 3m51sec range during the race, and those came from three of the four Ford GTs. Ferrari was cable of reaching low 3m52s. Every single Aston Martin, Corvette, and Porsche was stuck in the 3m53s.

In theory, that kind of inequity is exactly what a BoP construct should prevent. No manufacturer should be greatly advantaged or gravely disadvantaged; small differences are inevitable, but when a 3.7-second gap in qualifying is only cut in half for the race, it gives the impression those in charge of setting the BoP specifications missed by a careless margin.

Leaving Le Mans, the three downtrodden manufacturers were given more than enough ammunition to demand answers – and procedural or staffing changes – to ensure it doesn’t happen again. And looking at the bigger picture, some manufacturers that are known to be considering new GTE-Pro programs have every reason to be concerned about what took place.

Given the skewed outcome of the 2016 race, the integrity of the ACO’s BoP process is in question and the three letters I loathe more than all the others – BoP – have taken center stage in how the 84th race was won. Let’s hope Chip gets his wish next year unless, of course, his cars are on the wrong end of the grid.

MISCELLANEOUS

• Multiple amputee Frederic Sausset (above) earned the respect of everyone who watched his special P2 entry shared with Christophe Tinseau and Jean-Bernard Bouvet push throughout the race. Rather than make a limited number of visits to the cockpit, Sausset wore himself out and took full advantage of the opportunity. Although Sausset’s No. 84 Morgan-Nissan might not comply in future events as the ACO moves the P2 class away from open-cockpit cars, I can only hope the Frenchman is invited back as a regular competitor among the deep field of 60 entries.

• Overall winner Neel Jani and GTE-Pro winner Sebastien Bourdais share an interesting link: They represent the past and present for the KV Racing IndyCar team. Jani drove under the PKV Racing banner during the final Champ Car season in 2007, and Bourdais, who has led the team since 2014, has earned four wins and is back in his regular mount, the No. 11 KVSH Chevy, for this weekend’s IndyCar race at Road America.

• Townsend Bell became the first San Franciscan known to win at Le Mans since the great Jimmy Murphy earned the distinction in 1921 when the son of Irish immigrants also became the first American to win a European Grand Prix – all while driving for the American Duesenberg automobile company. In another home town parallel, Murphy went on to win the 1922 Indy 500, and while Bell was unable to achieve the feat in May, many considered the Andretti Autosport driver a favorite to win the 100th running of the greatest spectacle in racing after running up front until fate chose his teammate. A pair of San Franciscan Indy car stars with Le Mans wins. How cool.

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