As always, Petit Le Mans provided a blend of endurance and flat-out racing, with fortunes rising and falling over the course of the 10 hours as traffic, track conditions, tire wear and driver form affected cars tightly balanced in performance — while the fickle hands of fate, circumstance and red mist dealt random wild cards. While that might lead you to assume that meant the final laps were all that mattered, it was all connected. It was always close, for 10 hours, in all three classes.
With two corners to go, Filipe Albuquerque ran out of fuel in the Action Express No. 5 Cadillac, enabling Renger Van Der Zande to squirt through and take the Prototype win in the Wayne Taylor Racing No. 10 Cadillac he shared with Jordan Taylor and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Action Express had some comfort though, as its No. 31 pairing of Eric Curran and Felipe Nasr — joined by Gabby Chaves for Saturday’s 10-hour race — held on to win the championship. Just.
The drama was different but no less in GTLM, where Patrick Pilet, Nick Tandy and Frederic Makowiecki took the victory while Corvette Racing’s Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia overcame extreme odds to hold on to the driver’s championship. Just.
And in GTD, Cooper MacNeil, Daniel Serra and Gunnar Jeannette took a no less nail-biting win while Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow took the title. Just.
Prototype: Nothing is certain
The race began — and neared its end — looking like a perfect sendoff for the Patron ESM Nissan team, but polesitter Pipo Derani’s early lead with the No. 22 Nissan DPi came to an abrupt end 26 minutes in when a left-rear tire puncture forced the Brazilian to limp slowly to the pits. More frustration for the ESM Patron Nissan team hit just before the three-hour mark, as the No. 2 dropped from second place overall with a hub problem at the left front, forcing it behind the wall for a replacement to be fitted. But the racing gods were just getting started.
The title-contending No. 54 CORE autosport ORECA was up against it from the early stages, dropping two laps to the leaders before cracking back into the lead lap and the top 5 with an ironman stint by Colin Braun. There they stayed, bouncing ahead or just behind title rivals Action Express. The LMP2 cars demonstrated their usual advantage on fuel mileage, if not quite the outright speed of the DPI cars, enabling them to cycle to the front at regular intervals.
“We’re pretty good on the front side of a run, but we struggle a bit on old tires like everybody does,” shrugged Braun at mid-race.
A key moment came with just under two hours to go when Jordan Taylor was balked momentarily by a GT car coming out of the pits, and Albuquerque never hesitated, scything past the Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac to grab the lead and sprinting out to a 3sec advantage before another full-course yellow for the stricken No. 52 ORECA of Will Owen, packing everyone up once again and prompting pit stops for all the leaders.
Which left…Pipo Derani back in front. The polesitter, who had been the first of many to encounter tire punctures back in the opening hour, had been fighting his way back since then and a demon stop vaulted the No. 22 from third to first ahead of Oliver Jarvis’ Mazda, itself up from fifth. Unable to believe his good fortune, the Brazilian eked out a small but key advantage lap by lap…until edged off course while lapping a GT car just before his final pit stop with 45 minutes to go. That left him just a half-second clear of Albuquerque after the final stops were out of the way.
Meanwhile, Braun’s consistency had him in fourth place which, with the No. 31 Caddy in eighth, had him poised for a fairytale title…
But…all three were saddled with considerable uncertainty whether they could make the finish on fuel. As was Felipe Nasr in the No. 31. It couldn’t get any more uncertain…
Derani gave way to Albuquerque with 25 minutes to go and did his best to chase the No. 5 Cadillac down while also holding off van der Zande — the only one of the leaders without fuel concerns, having made his final planned stop later. To press, or to fuel save?
Braun was the first to concede, making a splash and dash with 9m to go. That dropped him to sixth, but Nasr’s eighth remained shaky, the No. 31 lapping slower than the GTLM cars.
Van Der Zande pounced on Derani coming down the hill with six minutes to go, squeaking past to take over second, but Albuquerque remained tantalizingly out of reach 1.3sec up the road. But then a couple of corners from the end, van der Zande flashed last as the Action Express Cadillac ran dry.
“It’s just frustrating. This time I thought we had it…but the trophy’s not mine still,” said Albuquerque.
Instead it was Van Der Zande’s, Taylor’s and Hunter-Reay’s, while Curran and Nasr scoped the title honors.
“Literally down to the wire, it was unbelievable,’’ said Curran, who took his second championship trophy in the last three years. “Why did it have to be so close? But it came out in our favor. Just an unbelievable day. Hats off to Felipe Nasr, my teammate. We had a fast car all day long, but we had to go slow at the end to not pit again.”
GTLM: Never give up
Verifying his pre-race pledge that he wouldn’t be conservative despite his No. 3 team’s advantageous position in the title race, Corvette Racing’s Antonio Garcia swept past class polesitter John Edwards in the opening laps to lead the class. Edwards ceded third to Earl Bamber’s Porsche later in the first hour as well. The 66 Ford made contact with the second BMW 25 on the opening lap, partially dislodging the right-front headlight on the Team RLL M8 GTE (which would lead to a prolonged pit stop later to change the front clip).
Garcia built the lead to 5sec while Tommy Milner moved the second Corvette up to third from his eighth-place start by the half-hour mark. Corvette then managed its duel with the Chip Ganassi Ford squad, aided impressively by the Pratt & Miller pit crew who gained positions for their cars on at least six occasions.
“Nine points is a good position to be in — it means we don’t have to push like crazy, but we still have to be smart,” Magnussen had said on Friday.
That comment loomed large when Garcia lost control of the No. 3 coming out of the pits at dusk and spun into the wall, causing extensive front-end damage.
The crew effected repairs in under five minutes, but the delay moved the No. 3 car to ninth and last in class. Yet the drama was far from finished as the Fords, Porsches and Edwards’ BMW dueled in the dark. With the No. 67 Ford of Ryan Briscoe fading to fifth in the final half-hour, the No. 3 Corvette driven by Magnussen, Garcia and Marcel Fassler hung in for eighth. Just enough.
Porsche’s No. 911 earned the class win, displacing the No. 4 Corvette in the final hour.
“We stole the race. We knew we had a good car but we didn’t expect that,” admitted Pilet.
“An hour ago this sucked. We didn’t get a win but we got a championship and that’s what matters,” said Magnussen. “I think what made the difference was the attitude of never giving up.”
Rebounding from near disaster, Garcia exulted in the about face.
“Instead of basing our performance on the No. 67 car, we planned an offensive race,” he said. ” In the middle stint I went from fifth to first, but what was looking to be one of the best races of my career turned into one of the most embarrassing races of my career.
“I don’t quite know what happened. I wasn’t concentrating as much as I should have, maybe I was talking on the radio, but a car came across me as I exited pit lane and when I hit the throttle the car got away from me.
“I thought that was the end of it. But the team did a fantastic job repairing the car and then all I could do was pass the Ferrari for eighth place, hope for some yellows and trust the guys in the No. 4 car to put pressure on the No. 67. That’s exactly what they did. It was a classic case of Corvette teamwork.”
GTD: First among equals
When the field packed up under the full-course yellow with around 90 minutes remaining, drama was assured as the top four were separated by less than 2sec heading into the final hour. At the head of the queue was the Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini of Bryan Sellers, who held the lead until his final pit stop with 53m to go — right at the edge of the Lambo’s range.
The Michael Shank Racing Acura team opted to put Alvaro Parente in for the final stint in its effort to get the driver’s crown for Katherine Legge over Sellers and Madison Snow, but the takeover was costly as the car was blocked exiting the pits behind the No. 4 Corvette, burning precious seconds. But the Acura driver fought back, passing Sellers but trailing Serra in the Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 he shared with MacNeil and Jeannette to the end. The final podium spot was enough to secure the crown for Sellers and Snow.
“I’m very, very happy – this is the first time I’ve finished Petit, and my first win,” Serra said. “The team did a great job, a perfect 10 hours. It was perfectly executed, perfect pit stops and no mistakes on the track.”
Added MacNeil: “It was an epic weekend, to finish off the WeatherTech Championship with a victory in the WeatherTech car,” said MacNeil. “A big hat’s off to Daniel and Gunnar for driving their butts off for the whole race, the whole weekend for that matter. The Scuderia Corsa WeatherTech guys never put a wheel wrong all weekend, with no penalties, and that’s how you win in a competitive championship like the WeatherTech.”
“Our whole season was a fight,” said Sellers, whose Paul Miller Racing team also secured the team and manufacturer titles for Lamborghini. “The (No.) 86 is probably one of the toughest competitors that I’ve ever run against in all the seasons I’ve done this. Madison and I talked at the beginning of the year and we felt if we could just knock off podiums and top fives, we’d have a shot at this.
“Paul Miller is the reason we get to do this. This is his 10th year doing this and this is his first driver championship and first team championship. I just think when you look at someone’s commitment over the years that he’s done it, he’s a lifetime racer and without him, the three of us don’t get to do this and stand up here and stand on the podium. But it’s not just us, he employs all the guys behind the scenes that make this work.”
Tire woes were a common issue in both GT classes, with the Land Motorsport and Magnus Racing Audis, and Wright Motorsports Porsche among GTD front-runners to suffer multiple punctures at the left rear for reasons that remained unclear (Magnus, for one, insisted it was running “conservative” camber settings). The Wright No. 58 deserved some sort of medal after persevering to a fourth place in class despite all these issues and other setbacks like a drive-through penalty for thumping the eventual class winner as it came out of the pits.
One for the ages
The unrelenting pace shattered the Petit Le Mans distance record by some 80 miles. It was boosted by the glorious weather throughout, which also encouraged the huge crowd on hand that stayed on as night fell to see the down-to-the-wire dramas play out. It’s difficult to imagine a better way to close out the season — or to complete the evocative tributes to late series founder Don Panoz that were a regular refrain throughout the weekend. This was the kind of race he surely would have cherished.