The Real Fight at 2018 Le Mans 24 Hours
The 2018 Le Mans 24 Hours was going to remembered by everyone for the amazing contest shaping up in the GTE Pro class. Aston Martin, BMW, Corvette, Ferrari, Ford and Porsche, the crème de la crème of current day GT racing. In total 17 cars, four each from Ford and Porsche, three from Ferrari and a pair each from the other three. 51 drivers of the highest caliber, all going for it in an automotive World Series. Well did it pan out like that? In a word (or three)... No, not quite.
We live in a time of paradox, for some of us there are previously unimaginable personal freedoms, and yet we also are bound tightly by regulations and diktats that would have seemed strange to our ancestors. So with life, sport and motorsport follows. Throw in the laws of unintended consequence and you can end up far from the originally desired destination.
The Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) and the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) try to reconcile the various performance capabilities of the GTE Pro class through a complicated mechanism known as Balance of Performance (BoP). The teams have tried all manner of games to obtain an advantage over their rivals using means to circumvent the BoP as allocated. Pit strategy, deciding on how much fuel, whether to change the drivers or the tires has been traditionally an important weapon in the hands of the teams, less time in the pits means less time to make up on faster rivals on track.
The ACO and WEC decided, for good or ill, that the racing would be better understood by the spectators if track action alone was the deciding factor. One by one they have cut out the levers that a good race engineer or pit crew could apply to assist the drivers. Re-fuelling and other pit work is now carried out simultaneously rather than the fuel being put in separately for safety reasons. Of course the re-fuelling takes far longer than driver and tire changes, so any fumbles or advantages gained by choosing to change or not are neutralised. The final straw for many of us was dictating maximum stint lengths for each class, save for LM P2—another avenue closed.
Having worked closely alongside one team for many seasons, I can attest to just how much it lifts the team's spirit to gain time in the pits by virtue of either clever strategy or superior pitwork. Endurance racing has always been about the team ethic rather than focusing on just an individual, as in single-seater competition.
Before the race, it was predicted by sage observers that if any one of the leading pack got away from the others by virtue of a Safety Car Intervention, it would be almost impossible to claw back the deficit. So, this prophesy came to pass.
The #92 Porsche made its first stop a lap earlier than the rest of the GTE Pro gang. A few hours later, the Safety Car was deployed due to debris on the track. The pink 911 had just made its stop, its rivals had to pit one lap later and were then held at Pit Exit till one of the Safety Car trains came past. In excess of two minutes gained or lost, game over. #92 was over the hills and far away and if no mistakes were made then the advantage would carry through to victory. #91 was just as quick but the Safety Car Intervention tilted the balance.
To be fair, the Porsches had an edge on everyone, even the Fords—and while small gaps could be caught up through the vagaries of traffic, this interval was too great. So some 19 hours later, Laurens Vanthoor, Kevin Estre and Michael Christensen stood on the top step of the podium, and no one really complained, it was probably the right result even if the circumstances of how they got there were questionable. The winning trio were acutely aware that matters might easily have gone against them.
The battle for the remaining places on the podium actually ran to the plan devised by the ACO/WEC. The #91 Porsche had about half a minute's advantage over the two leading Fords—but on Sunday morning a drain cover became damaged at Terte Rouge, bringing out the Safety Car while repairs were made. Suddenly there was a fight on.
We were all entertained by a mighty scrap between Sébastien Bourdais in the #68 Ford and Fred Makowiecki's 911. It all got quite muscular on track with both Frenchmen pushing things to the limit and both over-stepping the mark in the view of this observer. However the folks who count, the Race Stewards, investigated and took no further action.
Unaccountably for such a professional outfit as Ford, Tony Kanaan in #67 car failed to make the minimum drive time of six hours, missing out by 44 minutes. As a result, that Ford was given an 11 lap penalty, pitching them down to 12th.
The #63 Corvette was thereby promoted to fourth place—some reward for the efforts of Antonio Garcia, Jan Magnussen and Mike Rockenfeller. They had a trouble-free race but lacked the ultimate pace of the Porsches and Fords. A rare engine failure accounted for the other Corvette—it was that kind of race for the Americans, but they will be back.
Ferrari's trio of 488 GTEs never really featured and the best of them, #52, slotted in fifth place at the finish. The other two AF Corse cars finished but were held by a rash of punctures, penalties and pit stops—it was not Ferrari's finest hour at La Sarthe. Like Corvette they will be back at the sharp end soon.
BMW's return to Le Mans was something of a mixed bag. Both cars were competitive during the first part of the race, in the mix for potential podium finishes. #81 ran well with the Porsches and Ford untill first a damper, then a radiator had be replaced—and no one can spend that amount of time in the pit box in GTE Pro and expect a good finish. At least they did finish. Alexander Sims in #82 car had an uncharacteristic accident at the Porsche Curves on Sunday morning, retirement was the result.
Aston Martin did not look like repeating their triumph of a year ago. The new Vantage was slow in a straight line, fatal at the Circuit de la Sarthe where full throttle is the order of the day for most of the lap. At least both cars got the finish.
So Porsche took a handsome victory in their anniversary year and deserved their win. The GTE Pro class is in rude health and provides the best battle in the Le Mans 24 Hours, artificial rules or not. Roll on 2019!