While we've already viewed the 2015 Le Mans 24 Hours, from the perspective of one the teams competing, Greaves Motorsport - the struggle for overall honors at the world's greatest motor race was eagerly anticipated. Landing after the Nürburgring 24 Hours, Le Mans holds the second spot in the "Triple Crown" of endurance races (we looked at Nür24H in THIS previous post).
Would the existing Heavyweight Champions of the World, Audi, maintain their grip on the top step of the podium against such talented opposition as Porsche and Toyota? How would Nissan's return to the top table pan out?
Of course we now know the answers to these questions, that much can be gleaned by a quick look at the internet - but the questions as to why and how must also be examined to get a fuller understanding of the events that unfolded.
The "experts", a cabal that somehow included myself, were firmly of the opinion that Audi (in particular #7) would stroll away and win the race comfortably. Given the track record of my predictions for past years, alarm bells should have been ringing in Audi Sport Neuberg... and yet the evidence supported my forecasts. The opening rounds of the FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone and Spa had demonstrated that despite the superior outright speed of the Porsches, Audi had the better race pace particularly when it came to tires.
Put simply, Porsche used their tires up faster than Audi and in 2015 there were limits set on the number of tires that could be used during the 24 hour race itself, twelve sets for LM P1.
There were also lingering doubts concerning the reliability of the Porsche, later they expressed the same concerns themselves. With the exception of the 2014 race, the Le Mans 24 Hours has turned into a flat-out sprint at the front, the leaders are expected to display bullet-proof reliability, any time lost in the pits would condemn the car to fighting for the minor places, or so ran the conventional wisdom.
So Audi had the tire management issue under control, thus giving superior race pace. If you throw in their legendary ability to make their cars run without problems, as demonstrated so often during the past, you can see why the fashionable forecast of their impending victory had so many dedicated followers, me for instance.
Except this predicted chain of events did not come to pass, Porsche triumphed over Audi. But how did this happen? The answer is a complex and inter-connected series of events, some evident, others the result of intelligent guesswork. First issue for Audi was that too many things went wrong with their cars. Early in the race #8 got caught up in an accident during a confused "slow zone sector" at which conflicting signals were given. The result was that Loïc Duval speared his R18 into the armco barrier after colliding with a GT car that had suddenly slowed. The repairs were carried out with the customary Audi efficiency, but a lap or two were lost.
#7 and #9 maintained the Audi challenge but during the hours of darkness they were unable to push home their anticipated advantage, in fact Porsche seemed to have the edge on tire management, the unexpectedly cool temperatures were thought to have worked in their favor and against Audi.
However this was not the only problem encountered by Audi, they did not have the speed that they should have had during the darkness. The finger of suspicion was pointed at the fuel flow meters that are used to manage the energy available to the LM P1 cars, Audi, using diesel fuel rather than petrol, have a different arrangement to the petrol racers of Porsche, Toyota and Nissan. Subsequently I have spoken to an expert in this field, he confirmed that the Audi's meters could be affected by temperature changes and that this had already happened at the Spa race.
In the final analysis these problems were not the only factors that caused Audi's defeat, #7 lost over seven minutes having bodywork replaced after it blew off while around the circuit. #9 had issues with the hybrid power system and then a failure in the front suspension.
Porsche's trio therefore had the advantage on track, and also it appeared in the pits. They settled for stints of 13 laps, matching the Audi - but had the capacity to run 14. So at each pit stop they short filled the tank gaining around 5 seconds a stop over their rivals, 30 stops amount to 2½ minutes... the best part of a lap. I had a pre-season look at the Porsche 919 and its amazing technology HERE.
The race between the Porsches was decided by finding the last man standing, #17 getting a one minute stop-and-go penalty for a yellow flag infringement.
#18 went off the track a couple of times as a result of problems with the brakes.
So the winner was #19 with its crew of Earl Bamber, Nico Hulkenberg and Nick Tandy who enjoyed a trouble-free run, recording 395 laps, the second highest in the history of the race or 3,345 miles in old money. Hulkenberg is the first current Grand Prix driver to win Le Mans since Johnny Herbert and Bertrand Gachot drove the victorious Mazda in 1991 - though one of last year's winning crew, André Lotterer, did race for Caterham in the 2014 Belgian Grand Prix.
So much for the German giants, what of last season's pace-setters, Toyota? Despite making improvements to the car from 2014, they fell behind in the arms race that developed between the two arms of the Volkswagen group.
Before the race Toyota predicted that they would be 2-3 seconds a lap off the pace of the leaders, in reality it was double that. The deficiency in power against Porsche and Audi meant that they had to run less downforce to keep up their top speed, but paid for this in the twisty bits.
Their hopes rested on a reliable run and perhaps some unpredictable weather, certainly rain was forecast for the whole weekend but did not arrive till after the podium celebrations.
In the end they came home sixth and eighth, there will be major revisions for 2016. A new engine, smaller and turbocharged, will be part of the solution. Changes to the hybrid system should also improve matters. There were persistent tales that the program will be relocated to Japan and that TTE in Cologne will return to the World Rally Championship... time will tell.
Whatever issues Audi and Toyota had to contend with, they were a bed of roses compared with the nightmare that unfolded at Nissan. Almost every aspect of the car failed to perform as designed. I looked at the unusual specification of the GT-R LM earlier HERE. From the outset there has been a chorus of disapproval from some observers, "too complicated", "never work", "won't see them at Le Mans" etc., etc.
Well, Nissan were at Le Mans taking the critics head on. The 8 MJ energy recovery system had to be turned off, disputes with suppliers and the lead times in getting alternative solutions turned that part of the operation into ballast. The problems then affected every aspect of the program, so elements of the car that would have been sorted in private testing prior to launch were failing - it was like watching a horror movie that could not be switched off. I know many of those associated with the project, these are good people with real credibility in the business, it was extremely unpleasant to witness their plight.
On the credit side, one car was still running at the end of the race, but was unclassified. There was, I expect, a real danger that the management in Japan would cancel the whole program. However, the latest news is that the car will continue to be developed in private testing with a view to competitive return in 2016.
Porsche recorded a convincing 1-2 result at the 2015 Le Mans 24 Hours, outperforming Audi on the track. I know with certainty that on the Monday morning after the race, Audi will have started plotting their revenge... roll on 2016.