The 82nd running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans will go down as a classic edition of the race. The field of 54 starters were released by Ferrari F1 driver Fernando Alonso waving the French tricolor at precisely 3 p.m. on Saturday under bright, sunny skies. The polesitting #7 Toyota with Alex Wurz at the wheel sprinted away from the field, and behind him the Audis battled around the two Porsche 919 hybrid cars making their Le Mans debut.
The Rain in
At around 4.30 p.m. the heavens opened almost without warning on the Mulsanne straight, from the Tertre Rouge corner moving southwest across the track. This meant for around five minutes the drivers faced a dry and sunny west side of the 8.45 mile track, and a river on the east side of the track. Almost inevitably, this lead to a huge accident as the class leading #81 Ferrari 458 Italia with Sam Byrd at the wheel hit both the #8 Toyota, sister car to the overall leader, and the #3 Audi which was running in second place at the time. The Audi was retired on the spot where it sat sideways to the oncoming traffic on the Mulsanne. The #8 Toyota lost only nine laps to the field while being repaired after it managed to make it back to the pits though heavily damaged.
Some drivers coped better than others as some were on full wet tires, some on intermediates, and some even on slicks, but to the credit of all of them were no more serious incidents. The overall race continued to be led by the #7 Toyota, which actually led until 5 a.m. when the car rolled to a terminal halt on the Mulsanne.
It officially retired with electrical issues as the car was stranded and could not get back to the pits. The #1 Audi took over the lead, and then lost its turbo meaning an 18 minute pit stop to change it, which gave the lead to the #20 Porsche 919.
The fairytale story for Porsche then turned to a nightmare as the car slowed on the Mulsanne with Mark Webber the ex-F1 driver at the wheel. The car made it back to the pits but was soon retired. The #2 Audi then inherited the lead – this too had earlier had a similar 23 minute pit stop for a turbo change. The #1 Audi returned to the track, now in second place, with the recovering #8 Toyota up to third. The nightmare was completed for Porsche as the second 919, the #14, also retired to the pits only about 20 minutes after the #20 was retired, both cars having made it as far as the 22nd hour.
For the quietly confident Corvette Racing Team, the #73 suffered twice when it was caught behind pace cars in the first few hours of the race, and then when the ACO-mandated air jack valve failed during a pit stop, meaning the car dropped a lap behind the LMGTE PRO race for the class lead. The #74 was in the thick of the race from the start with Olly Gavin, Tommy Milner, and Richard Westbrook doing an amazing job. As I headed to bed at about 2 a.m., only 11 hours into the race with 13 to go, the #74 was trailing the #97 Aston by less than a second with the #51 Ferrari just five seconds behind.
Earlier in the evening when Tommy Milner had been in the car he had first grabbed the class lead and then built a 30 second cushion only to see this wiped out by another safety car period. I returned to the track on Sunday morning to find the #97 Aston and the #51 Ferrari both still hard at it for the class lead; the #74 was still running but now eight laps down. The car developed a gearbox pressure sensor seal fail, creating an oil leak. The oil leak meant the alternator threw the belt. It came off once with Olly Gavin at the wheel, and then once for Tommy before the team brought the car into the pitbox and took the sensor out and plugged the hole, dropping the car back to 5th in class.
With less than five hours to go, the #97 Aston retired to the pits with engine issues, or so it seemed – it had actually suffered a power steering pump failure, which left the #51 Ferrari with a one lap lead over the #92 Porsche, and the #73 Corvette with Jordan Taylor at the wheel back in 3rd place but chasing hard to catch the Porsche.
New father Antonio Garcia, who’s wife delivered their first baby on Thursday night (just after qualifying), chased down the #92 Porsche from more than a 30 second gap to less then 10 seconds, and the pressure started to tell on the Porsche. First it ran off track, then had to pit for an extended stop, allowing the #73 up to second with an hour and 20 minutes left to go. The #74 made it back up to fourth place as the #97 Aston faded following an off track excursion for Darren Turner.
Audi, despite not having the fastest cars, proved once again that they know how to win Le Mans with a 1-2 finish, albeit with the #2 car first and the #1 car second. Congratulations to Toyota too for bringing the #8 car home in third despite the accident early on. Porsche did remarkably well too and will be frustrated not to have been classified despite the distance covered.
Just Wait for Next Year…
As for Corvette Racing, a second place for the #73 in LMGTE PRO for the all new C7.R in the hands of Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Jordan Taylor is a little bittersweet. They had the car to win the class, or at least push the class-winning #51 AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia of Bruni, Villander and Fisichella. The failure of the ACO-mandated air jack valve, which is only on the car for Le Mans, was a cruel and costly blow, as was the two thirds of a lap lost behind two different safety cars, one of which actually overtook the #73 as it left the pits, which was more than a little frustrating for the team. The fourth place finish for the #74, driven faultlessly by Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Richard Westbrook, was again let down by a driveline failure. Nevertheless, it was a great result to get both cars to the finish of the toughest of races, and both cars showed they have the ultimate pace to win the class but they just need a little luck. Maybe 2015 will be the year – only 364 days to wait!