Madness in the Making at Le Mans 2017: The Outcome No One Could've Predicted
This edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours is well over, and while you may have heard the winning news, step inside to discover why the 2017 Le Mans 24 Hours will not be forgotten by anyone who witnessed it, anytime soon.
Take all the clichés you can assemble — breath-taking, roller-coaster, edge of the seat and repeat ad nauseam — you will still struggle to adequately describe the sheer pace and excitement of the action that evolved during the race. This is one that will go down in the history books as one of the most unpredictable races in Le Mans’ 94-year history.
To start with, the atmosphere at Le Mans was missing something tangible. It was obvious, really — no Audi. This marked the first time they were not racing since 1998. As one of the top manufacturer contenders in the top LM P1 class, their absence took form in more ways than one. If not for the least, there were even hotel rooms available for race weekend in the city. Sure, they were still at mad prices, but in all my 30+ years at La Sarthe I have never known that.
When the checkered flag dropped, it was Porsche commanding the race, while second and third places were taken by two LM P2 privateer teams.
But to all those in the know, bets were being placed for Toyota to finally crack open the champagne bottles. Last year, with the TS050 hybrid, they came within an inch of the win before their last lap heartbreak. Prior to that they had additional close calls. Additionally, Toyota had three cars to Porsche's two, the TS050 was faster than the 919 and it had comfortably seen off the Porsches at Silverstone and Spa earlier in the season.
Once qualifying was over, all bets were supported when Kamui Kobayashi crushed the lap record and secured pole position.
On race morning and the first half of the afternoon, just as it was forecasted, Toyota led the way with the #1 Porsche maintaining contention behind it.
First Ones Bite the Dust
Bad news arrived for Porsche at 18:30, when the #2 car arrived for an unscheduled stop after losing power and coasting ‘round for nearly a lap. An hour passed while repairs were made to the hybrid system, taking energy from the front axle. All the experts agreed: No way back to victory from there for that Porsche.
During June in La Sarthe the sun sets around 22:00, as darkness spread a nightmare started to unfold for Toyota. First, the #8 car suffered a similar hybrid issue to the #2 Porsche. Taking the Toyota team nearly two hours to fix, there were additional problems with the batteries, which Porsche had managed to avoid. Another contender's race to the top step of the podium was done.
What Is This? Confusion for Toyota
Then came a half hour of truly cruel events for the Japanese team. Taking advantage of a Safety Car intervention, the #7 was brought into the pits from a healthy and increasing lead for a routine stop and driver change.
With the hero of Thursday's pole time, Kamui Kobayashi, piloting the car, it was stopped from rejoining the track at Pit Exit by a red light and a marshal. Suddenly, another marshal waved Kamui on and off he went. The team screamed down the radio for him to stop, not wanting to incur a penalty. When the Toyota was finally green lit to move, it’s clutch totally failed on the climb up to the end of the Main Straight. After a slow lap behind the Safety Car, the Toyota passed the pits on its first racing lap with no drive from the engine. The 8-mile lap distance was too great for the power stored in the TS050’s lithium batteries. After several stops on track, the Japanese hero had to admit defeat and abandon the car.
The problem began because the hybrid LM P1 prototypes leave the pits under electric power, as the clutch is not designed to cope with the power and torque of the race engine. So three full starts in quick succession were outside the performance parameters of the TS050. The mystery marshal turned out to be driver Vincent Capillaire. He was located in the final pit, wearing an orange firesuit. It transpired that he was just trying to encourage the leading car and driver — quite why is not clear. Capillaire was fined for his deeds by the Stewards, and he issued a public apology to the Japanese team, which was graciously accepted, also in public.
Toyota Gazoo Racing was struggling to come to terms with the loss of their two lead cars, but there was still #9 car — until, a few minutes later, there wasn't. An incident with a LM P2 car put #9 into the gravel. Although the Toyota was pulled free, a rear wheel was damaged, and the tire turned into a rubber flail, damaging the transmission hydraulics and an oil line, causing a couple of fires. Like car #7, the wounded racer tried to run the full lap on electric power — but also fell short of getting back to the pits. Toyota's challenge had evaporated; they were inconsolable, yet showed great dignity in defeat.
Back to Porsche
With all three Toyotas out, we now had the bizarre spectacle of the #1 Porsche commanding the race. Second and third places were keenly contested by two LM P2 privateer teams, both running ORECA chassis. It was a contest between Rebellion Racing and Jackie Chan DC Racing (run by the wily veterans Jota Sport, and yes, it is that Jackie Chan) for the podium places. And with how the race was going, who could say if outright victory wasn’t itself totally out of reach.
With just three hours and 50 minutes 'til the end, there was yet another twist as the leading Porsche suddenly slowed — leaving André Lotterer to try and make it back to the Pits under electrical power. Like the unlucky hybrid pair before him, he failed.
Now there was a brace of LM P2 cars leading the Le Mans 24 Hours. Sure, they were being caught hand-over-fist by the recovering #2 Porsche, but their presence at the front of the pack took a long conspiring chain of events to get there. While the Porsche was going flat-out and closing in, it would take zero issues and no extended caution or Safety Car periods to enable him to catch up in time.
The Final Cards
Finally, the natural order of things was restored. Lazarus-like, the #2 Porsche had risen from the dead and took the lead from the #38 ORECA with about an hour remaining on the clock. Coming through in first, he was joined on the podium by the Jackie Chan DC Racing pair — who had secured overall slots as well as a class win for LM P2. The Rebellion Racing car that had been in contention received a post-race disqualification. No one could write a script like that and get it accepted for a movie.
This performance was epic, as #2 was in 55th place at the fifth hour and had spent more than an hour in the pits. In order to find a similar come-from-behind victory, you’d need to go back to 1977. Again, in a Porsche, 40 years ago, Jürgen Barth, Hurley Haywood and the incomparable Jacky Ickx came back to win from 42nd spot in a Porsche 936 after a few hours into the race — the Belgian star putting in the performance of his life, breaking the lap record time-after-time in an epic set of stints in the dark. Magic. You know it when you see it.
A 10-Lap Sprint for the LM GTE Pro Class
Action in the LM GTE Pro class was just as frenetic as the Porsche/Toyota contest. Any of the five manufacturers involved — Aston Martin, Corvette, Ferrari, Ford and Porsche — could have conceivably won their race if circumstances had altered slightly.
In this class, the pace of each of the cars is evened out by Balance of Performance adjustments. Usually, the scene makes for much arguing. Last year, Ford dominated this class with their GT — no matter that they made great strides between the Official Test and the Race. But this year, matters were much more even, suggesting that the officials had got their sums more-or-less on the money. The class' 13 cars were covered by just two seconds in Qualifying, reinforcing the notion that the pace had indeed been balanced.
Contest for the class was as fierce as any witnessed in the past 90+ years, as the advantage swung one way, then another. One by one the contenders fell away from the lead battle. The Risi Ferrari was rudely punted out of the race by an errant prototype driver. The #64 Corvette had a wheel come adrift in the Porsche Curves, costing it four laps.
In the closing hour, it came to down a flat-out duel between Jonny Adam, in the #97 Aston Martin, and Jordan Taylor, in the #63 Corvette. It was more like a 10-lap sprint race than the concluding stage of a 24-hour endurance contest. Both drivers were at their limit — fighting the cars, each other and cockpit temperatures at the level of a sauna.
With just seven minutes to go, Taylor missed his braking point at the second Mulsanne Chicane, running through the gravel trap and damaging a tire. By the time the lap was completed, the tire was shot, and he was rendered powerless against the Aston Martin. To add insult to injury, the Corvette was also passed by the #67 Ford on the way to the Checkered Flag — another case of so close yet still so far away.
Looking Toward the FIA's Problematic Future
Those paying attention will have registered that Porsche scored their 19th overall win at 2017 Le Mans and their third consecutive overall win. And with that, comes its own set of problems...
“Pardon?” I hear you say. “Winning the Big Prize brings problems? Has the old boy finally flipped?” Those of you really paying attention would have seen my post a while back regarding the fundamental changes to how the Volkswagen Group will conduct its business in the future.
In the run up to Le Mans, a story emerged from Germany that Porsche were considering their options on whether to continue in the FIA World Endurance Championship. The source for this was, once again, Marcus Schurig, who broke the news of Audi's departure from the sport last year. The story was regarded by those in authority as "not helpful" and "speculation." However, such a high budget campaign should rightfully come under scrutiny of any responsible management — figures of €150 million or more per annum are regularly bandied about.
Another set of questions to address arose from the rules package for 2020 that was unveiled at Le Mans during race week. Who is going to make the investment to create race cars capable of a zero emissions and the first kilometer in full electric mode at racing speed?
Will this bring Peugeot back into the field? A key element in the continued participation of Porsche and Toyota may possibly be a third manufacturer. The signs are not encouraging; all the manufacturer's budgets are under pressure with external and internal factors leading to great uncertainty. Who wants to make brave calls at this time?
Porsche also faces another issue. The current 919 is at the end of its development, a new car will be needed to stay competitive with the Toyota in 2018. If that has not yet been commissioned, then it is probably too late for next year — lead times for these incredibly complex hybrids cannot be reduced, even throwing money at the problem will not work.
What lies in the future is anyone's call, but looking back on the 2017 Le Mans 24 Hours it is a story that will be retold for generations to come. Regardless, it leaves more questions open than closed about the future path of the World's Greatest Race.