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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Le Mans' Bizarre Adventures

Image by Jayson Fong, part of the #24ofLM24 project. You can replay his live stream on these arts here, while you can support him by buying all the prints of this project on his site!

Just when I thought that this year's Le Mans would be as crazy as last year, the craziness level went to the roof this year, cranked up to eleven, maybe twelve? Yes, we have the same LMP1 winning: Porsche, which is effectively its third hattrick since its return in 2014, and yes, Toyota failed Le Mans again, but outside that, there's plenty of crazy for this year's race that's worth talking about here.

The 83rd running of 24 Hours of Le Mans featured Porsche and Toyota fighting head-to-head for the outright victory in the LMP1 category (poor ByKolles though), with the abundant entry of LMP2 featuring Orecas and friends with Gibson engines for everyone in contention for the win, five works teams with attitude in the GTE Pro class were ready to give their all, and then we have the GTE Am class. Throughout the span of 24 hours, going from the broad daylight to the darkness of night time and day again, teams combined not only speed, but consistency, clean racing, teamwork, and of course reliability to succeed.


(Image: FIA WEC screencap)

At the start, the Toyotas had a clear advantage and even had their two of three cars leading, with the #1 Porsche having a problem that it had to be taken to the garage. The third Toyota (the #9 car) had broken front clip after contact with the ByKolles car (but some said, by looking at the on-board footage, no contact took place), resulting in the #9 car spending time in the pit garage, while ByKolles, after seven laps of running, retired due to a loss in compression in their Nissan V6 engine. After two hours, three cars already retired: the ByKolles car, the #88 Proton Competition Porsche, and later the #26 G-Drive Oreca, an aftermath from the contact involving both cars on Arnage. In other classes, a pair of Vaillante Rebellions led the LMP2 classifications, same with the Aston Martins in the GTE Pro, and the #98 Aston Martin leading the Am counterpart.

With almost 15 hours and a half remaining, the #1 Porsche caught waves with the Toyotas, making it a Toyota-Porsche-Toyota sandwich with #7 fronting the classifications while the rest of the LMP1s fell back: the #8 car had lengthy stop as it was replacing its front MGU, while the #2 car spent more than an hour in the garage for a full rebuild of the front axle. Almost an hour later, Safety Car was deployed due to the amount of gravel and sharp stones on the track, but not long after, the #1 car spun when entering the pits, costing the team the precious time to catch the leader.

Unfortunately, almost halfway to the race, the leading Toyota suffered issues which led to their respective retirements, ending the dream and unable to avenge their last year's heartbreak finish. The leading #7 car had a clutch failure after exiting the pit lane while the #9 car had mechanical issues and ended it up with a fateful collision with the #25 Manor CEFC car. More precisely, the contact for the #9 car caused a puncture and the debris left on the wheel rim caused further damage to its gearbox and a subsequent fire. This not only raised the attrition count for the LMP1s to three out of six, but also promoted the #1 Porsche in the lead, now well on their hat-trick victory. This also meant the top two LMP2 cars also dwelled the outright podium as well. Meanwhile both the #2 Porsche and #8 Toyota were making their way back to the top at this fateful time, although these cars were quite spaced between each other by laps. Unless there were another set of problems for any of the LMP1s, the classification stayed as it is.

In other classes, the #13 Vaillante Rebellion led the class after 15 hours of racing, but with the #38 Jackie Chan Oreca challenging the leading Oreca, while in GTE Pro was still a close call between the Top 3 with the leading #91 Porsche being tailed by two Aston Martins, although only the #95 car close enough to challenge the German GT car as the other Aston Martin was two minutes and a half behind the leader. The GTE Am saw the Ferrari of JMW Motorsport leading with another Ferrari of Spirit of Race taking second and the Beechdean Aston Martin in third, all being one lap between each other. Even internet kept pointing out that, with only Porsche running competitively in LMP1, there was a possibility of LMP2 winning the race outright.

Just when things can't get even worse for LMP1... (Image: FIA WEC screencap)

In what could be seemingly called as a "downer" race due to the absence of the Toyotas contending for the win, things did not go for the "downer" route for some: an amazing dream battle between two American cars of two Corvettes and a Ford GT took place with all of them being on the same lap. Hell, the top 3 is always on the same lap, leaving an unpredictable nature of the category. The #2 Porsche also had spent time on track to overtake cars to catch everyone, even as far as going four wide at one point and eventually made its way within the Top 5 position hours later, while the #65 Scuderia Corsa, currently driven by Christina Nielsen, had a spun when trying to enter the pit lane. United Autosports also "had fun" by spinning off at the exit of Arnage, yet managed to survive unscathed even though the driver had a little confusion as he tried to re-enter the track. Unfortunately, not so with the #31 Rebellion car, having to forfeit their contention due to the terminal Gearbox failure, which spelt for some garage repairs for the team.

But as the #1 Porsche slowed down, I knew what VJ Emmie said about this race was right: "expect the unexpectable!", and yes, the mind-effery has started when the #1 Porsche slowed down due to the low oil pressure on track, eventually retired from the race, and the whole internet went crazy, even both Izzie Stevens and Meredith Grey can't handle this. With only two LMP1 cars left, the #38 Jackie Chan Oreca now took the lead (suck it Chuck Norris!), with the remaining LMP1s finally within Top 5 (#2 Porsche) and ninth place (#8 Toyota).

Three wins since its return (Image: Porsche Newsroom)

But eventually this madness would come to an end soon (boo!) as the #2 Porsche finally able to caught up with the Mighty 38 car, overtaking the car in process as the race reached its final 90 minutes. Battles were aplenty in the LMP2 and GTE Pro as the #35 Signatech Alpine got the upper hand of the #31 Rebellion, yet it didn't last long as the Alpine had to suffer an off-track excursion, forcing the car to be repaired in the pit garage and gave the second place back to the Rebellion. In the GTE Pro meanwhile was down to the #63 Corvette and the #97 Aston Martin, with the latter finally managed to take the lead after numerous attempts. In the end, as the chequered flag waved, the #2 Porsche delivered the marque's third hat-trick win since 2015, rendering them undefeated in the French classic, with #38 Jackie Chan Oreca, #97 Aston Martin, and #84 JMW Motorsport won their respective classes.

Some detailed thoughts on LMP2 and GTE Pro classes are below, if you fancy some more fun reading my thoughts on the other two classes.

THE LMP2 MADNESS

How the ORAORAORA started (Image: A Discord server)

The LMP2 class had a bucketful of madness, probably more than what LMP1 offered obviously. Everything from naughty driving to outright lead were the reasons why, but let's not forget that these cars also had their moments before the race weekend: the majority of the LMP2s have better trap speeds than LMP1, which became one of the talking points on everyone's side. Apart from that though, LMP1s still post better times, and it's a normal order of fastest LMP2 > fastest GTE Pro > fastest GTE Am. But at FP1 earlier guess what happened to the LMP2 classification: Orecas dominated, but that's not the story: someone from a Discord server I join said that he was disappointed that LMP2 wasn't topped by a dozen of ORAs (ORE), only to found out that he was trying to make a JoJo reference, which eventually had me carrying this reference whenever the Orecas were dominating the race. Surprised I didn't rename the class the "Sono Chi no Sadame" class.

Back to the serious business, this time in the race itself, most of the LMP2s made more get-togethers somehow, one of the most prominent examples were the incident between #26 G-Drive of Romain Rusinov and #88 Proton Competition paragraphs back. Another instance of LMP2 car "killing" another car in cruel fashion was the #25 CEFC Manor car which had a contact with the #9 Toyota which led to the P1 contender's tire puncture and subsequent fire which eventually ended its race. Also worth noting were the off-track excursions of different LMP2 contenders at some point: the #43 Keating Motorsports Riley, the #32 United Autosports Ligier which had an off upon exiting Arnage, and one of the Signatech Alpines, not to mention the CEFC Manor's stalled car on the pit road as it tried to enter its pitlane.


#1 Porsche's retirement due to low oil pressure as less than four hours of the race remained gave the LMP2s their first taste of outright race victory. It was the #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca, driven by Frenchman Thomas Laurent at that time, that led the race outright as the remaining Porsche and Toyota were left behind. However, overtime, the #2 Porsche slowly caught up at a race pace, and eventually gave up the lead after almost two hours of leading, but it didn't change the fact that there were LMP2 teams standing in the outright podium along Porsche, and the standings stayed where they were. #38 Oreca won the race, while the rest of the class podium went to #13 Rebellion Oreca (third outright), and the #37 Jackie Chan Oreca. The Mighty 38 stood tall at Le Mans once more, yet I wanted the Thunderbolt theme song to play.

However, just when we think we get away with a JoJo reference podium, with all the podium sitters being Orecas (see above for context), the #13 Rebellion of the podium following a post-race exclusion for illegal bodywork modifications, which was actually a hole made in the bodywork in order to give mechanics easier access to the starter motor to restart the engine after pit stops, all due to the fact that the car suffered issues with its starter motor at the early hours. ACO also determined the second infraction of "unauthorized intervention in the closed parc [ferme] after the race," and Rebellion itself has confirmed plans to appeal the ruling. For now, everyone moved up a place, including the #35 Signatech Alpine which had an off earlier. It's understandable that this year wasn't Rebellion's finest year in LMP2 especially with its #31 car retired from the race midway through the race.

But then again Alpines, according to one of my Discord server friends, are re-branded Orecas, so maybe the JoJo reference still counts? Your mileage may vary.

Marshals hate him! LMP2 driver exposes shocking re-enactment of marshaling in Le Mans. (Don't) Learn this awkward trick much to Kamui Kobayashi's miscommunication. (Image: FIA WEC screencap)

This particular driver meanwhile received so much backlash post-race after what he did as pictured above. Vincent Capillaire, French driver driving for the #45 Algarve Pro Ligier, made some gesture towards the #7 Toyota in the pit area during the safety car period in the race's 10th hour, with the driver Kamui Kobayashi mistaking him for a marshal (because his color matches that of the marshals'). Due to this, Kobayashi caused a clutch failure by starting, stopping and starting the TS050 again in quick succession, stopping because of the red light and team on the radio telling him to stop and then starting again to finally leave, eventually ending the #7's race. He would later explain the whole thing on his Facebook page saying that "he wanted to show [his] encouragement to the leader car" and the gesture was nothing but a "spontaneous encouragement mark". In the end, Capillaire was fined by the stewards and he did regret his actions, yet on the other hand, Toyota's technical boss Pascal Vasselon hoped the French driver apologized to the team for potentially costing them a victory.

Aside all the issues though, this raised questions especially when knowing that the second-fastest class in Le Mans actually has more reliability than the LMP1 class. Yes, I do hate the fact that ACO killed the diversity in terms of chassis and engine suppliers this year, but at the same time I kept asking myself "maybe they did wonders?" I don't know, but in general, it started to grow. The lack of LMP1 entries were appalling now with Audi left, leaving ACO trying their hard to attract more manufacturers, which resulted in the newly-announced 2020 regulations together with the FIA, with major points being technology adaptation to road-going vehicles, cost-capping, technological diversity, level playing field performance-wise, and and public appeal. New technologies introduced will also include active aerodynamics and plug-in hybrid technology, which will make it compulsory to pull away from the pits and run for a kilometer under full electric power at each pit stop. More explanations can be found on the DailySportsCar article here. Speaking of new entries, we might say hello to Ginetta, Perrinn, and SMP next year, all of them are privateers, so of course ByKolles will no longer be alone again.

In terms of speeds, these LMP2s have faster trap speeds than last year. The testing session showed the #47 Villorba Corse Dallara topping the chart at 212.1 mph (341.3 kmh), compared to the fastest LMP1 ByKolles which posted 208.8 mph (336 kmh), and the hybrid Toyota with just 205.5 mph (330.7 kmh). In an Autosport article, Corvette driver Oliver Gavin said that "it's a bit like us having 30 or so LMP1 cars, because the speed that a P2 car comes [up behind us] is not too different from the LMP1". On the other hand, Signatech Alpine driver Nelson Panciatici stated that the speed increase made it "a lot easier to overtake" GT cars in the straight line, making it a much more straightforward task and "easier to handle," but even with this contrast speed difference, the LMP1s are still faster outright in terms of Le Mans lap time.

In the end, Jean Todt approves, despite all the crazy driving standards.

THE GTE TRAIN THAT NEVER STOPS


The two Prototype classes may have their own share of crazies, but GTE Pro is on another level, and in a better way. 13 teams representing five manufacturers were way close against each other, from the start to finish, and even better the top positions are quite diverse in that all five manufacturers were represented in the fight, regardless of which team made it. The best of all was the fact that the top 3 cars in the class were within a fraction of seconds in the same lap, even after 24 hours of racing, which showed why GTE Pro was the highly sought-after category to watch for.

Upon pit stops, the lead always change, leaving an open race with wide possibilities. At one point, an all-American battle between Corvette and Ford GT ensued, so did the rematch between Ford and Ferrari. Porsche tried its best to reign supreme in the class especially after being given a weight break before the race after their dismal qualifying, while Aston Martin had to seek victory to celebrate its GT1 victory ten years ago. Ford GT meanwhile had to defend its last year's title domination, but for this year both Chip Ganassi teams struggled more than ever to fight their way to the class podium.

(Video by Paulus Uru)

In the end it was all down to the wire between the leading #63 Corvette and the #97 Aston Martin behind it at the final minutes. The British Green car took all opportunities available to overtake the Corvette with less than 10 minutes to go, but had one of its opportunities denied as it plunged at Arnage after locking its brakes. However, a slight contact also gave the Corvette an off-guard, and it showed as the leading car lost its way throughout the second chicane within the long straight. Suffering the puncture upon the mentioned series of events meant that the Corvette had to lose its lead from the Aston Martin at the final lap, eventually handing the race victory in the class. The #67 Ford GT took the second place, while the Corvette eventually finished in third. To add a flavor in an already-diverse GTE Pro podium, the #91 Porsche and #71 Ferrari were fourth and fifth respectively albeit one lap behind, making this year's race as diverse as ever in terms of the Top 5 classifications, with only two of them retired from the race, one of them being last year's podium contender Risi Competizione after being bumped by #28 TDS Oreca, which the driver Giancarlo Fisichella wasn't happy with.

Finally in the GTE Am class, three Ferraris conquered the podium, with the winning car being the #84 JMW Motorsport, followed by the #55 Spirit of Race and finally the #62 Scuderia Corsa. The Beechdean AMR car only missed the podium, being fourth in class. Only Proton Competition's Porsche retired in the class. The show-stealer #50 Larbre Competition, running with an incredible art car that also glows in the dark, unfortunately finished 48th (last place) general and also last in the GTE Am. They were the favorites for the class but they struck into numerous problems which forced them to finish so.

Man, if only I had so much time to download the replay of the race via fast Wi-Fi, I'd would love to, because this race has been a bucketful of things, I'd rate it above the 2016 and 2015 races. But then again, it's a long wait all over again for next year's running. I just hope that the LMP1 entrants expand so ByKolles isn't the only privateer LMP1 racing alone with Porsche and Toyota, but I'd be more happy with more manufacturers entering, especially looking at how the Privateer camp will get more entrants next year, hopefully.

This has been the third round of the FIA World Endurance Championship. The series will continue for its fourth round in Nürburgring on July 14-16. Make sure to give it a follow if you readers are following the series so you can hear more engine sounds and John Hindhaugh's voice!

Further Reading:

Full Race highlights (FIA WEC official YouTube channel)
Le Mans Post-Race Notebook (Sportscar365.com)

~[R]

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