‘You don’t choose to win Le Mans, it chooses you.’ It is one of those catchy sayings that has been imprinted in the story of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s most famous endurance sportscar race and probably the most famous single day event in circuit racing.
It’s a saying that has, in recent years, snowballed and gained momentum as brands representing the two largest automotive companies in the world have seen their fortunes diverge in their attempt to win what has been – since its first edition in 1923 – the ultimate seal of approval for road car technology.
On the side of the Volkswagen Group is Porsche, which on Sunday won this year’s race and can now boast of 19 wins at Le Mans since its first triumph in 1970.
That is six more than sister brand Audi, whose prolonged period of success – 13 wins from 2000 to 2014 – Porsche ended in 2015, a year after its return to the top level of prototype sportscar racing.
Meanwhile Toyota has become famous for its failure to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans despite having access to massive factory budgets and having some of the best driving talent at its disposal.
The Japanese giant’s TS050 Hybrid gut wrenchingly ground to a halt with just over three minutes of the race left last year while it was leading. One of Porsche’s 919 Hybrids sailed past it at the start-finish line to win Le Mans and eventually the drivers and constructors’ titles in the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC).
There had been four other high-profile failures going back to 1994 at that point but this year’s was particularly harsh.
It was not just because trouble first struck the same driving team that fell just short of the line at last year’s race when a clutch failure put the #7 team of Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Stephane Sarrazin out of contention ten hours into the race.
This year one could tell, just at a glance, that the much vaunted LMP1-Hybrid class – touted as the most sophisticated prototype racing cars in the world – was in serious trouble.
From having at least three of the world’s leading car manufacturers competing in the WEC’s LMP1-H class from 2014 until last year – with 11 cars fielded between them at the 2015 edition of Le Mans – we had just Porsche and Toyota this year.
Audi’s shock withdrawal last year – using Dieselgate to justify it – meant that only five LMP1-H cars competed in this year’s race, with only Toyota choosing to field three cars while Porsche cut costs and had just two cars piloted by three drivers each.
The #7 Toyota was joined in retirement within just an hour by the #9 car after a tyre blowout caused irreparable damage to its engine and hydraulics system. The car tried to make it back to the pits for repairs but stopped just 200 meters short of the pit-lane entry, where it had to reach under its own power as per the regulations in order to still be classified.
The #8 car had front motor problems – the LMP1-H cars are four-wheel drive with the front axles used to harvest energy and supplement power from downsized internal combustion engines – just ten laps into the race, which put the car out of contention for the race win. It eventually finished eighth overall, eight laps behind the second placed overall runner which was an LMP2 car.
Yes, an LMP2 car! The WEC’s single-engine, nearly single chassis class of prototype sportscar designed to encourage privateer racers who want to compete on a relative shoe-string budget.
A budget of 500,000 euros as compared to those easily in excess of 100 million euros in the LMP1-H class where manufacturers burn through money to develop hybrid systems that deliver a total of 1,000bhp in a car weighing 850kg. Twice as much power of an LMP2 car with almost the same weight and running a standard, normally aspirated internal combustion engine.
HALF N HALF PORSCHE
With just two cars and therefore mathematically worse odds than Toyota – who had earlier obliterated their qualifying lap record by over two seconds – the Porsche LMP Team also suffered a hit as their #2 entry suffered a motor generator unit failure just four hours into the race and dropped 18 laps behind the leading cars.
One of these lead cars was the #1 Porsche car piloted by the ‘super team’ of former Audi driver Andre Lotterer, defending WEC drivers’ champion Neel Jani and 2015 Le Mans winner Nick Tandy. But with just three hours left the car came to a halt with a lack of oil pressure. The car held a huge lead of 13 laps at that point.
This left spectators and fans the world over gobsmacked as the lead was held by the Jota Sport built Jackie Chan DC Racing entrants from China from the LMP2 class. At that point the only LMP1-H car with a shot of victory – the #2 team of Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber – was running fifth and five laps behind.
But then an LMP1-H is not capable of lapping the 38-turn, 13.629km Circuit de la Sarthe at average speeds of around 250km/h for nothing. Putting it all on the line, Timo Bernhard went hell for leather as he continued to scythe past hapless LMP2 machines – barely missing hitting the guardrail at one point on the Mulsanne straight – and get himself on the same lap as the leading #38 car driven by Ho-Pin Tung, Thomas Laurent and Oliver Jarvis.
With only around an hour left in the race, and with pit stops still required for tyres and fuel, the #2 car managed to get on to the same lap as the #38 machine and eventually hunt it down and storm past it on the straight to help save face for the beleaguered LMP1-H class.
WHERE TO FROM HERE?
With new regulations announced for 2020 and designed to massively reduce costs while also further help car manufacturers to pursue electric power, the organizers of Le Mans (ACO) and the governing body of world motorsport (FIA), hope to keep the class relevant and try to return to the point of 2015 when Nissan’s entry had led to four major manufacturers in the class.
But with rumours of Toyota wanting to pull the plug and Porsche also wanting to switch to Formula E – the all-electric racing series is soon to ease technological restriction by its fifth season – the future for the class looks uncertain.
With the desire of governments in major industrialized nations – with the notable exception of the USA under Donald Trump – committed to reduce the usage of fossil fuels in power and transportation, high-profile motorsport is battling to remain relevant. With even MotoGP going so far as to announce an all-electric bike racing series that will run on the same race weekends as its internal combustion engined series.
Can the FIA and ACO do enough to keep prototype sportscar racing relevant at the highest level or will we see a version of LMP1 that is essentially a more powerful version of LMP2 so that grid levels remain high? It is worth a thought but probably can be left for later as the motorsport world tries to take in what transpired on Sunday.