Sunday, June 18, 2017

I Can't Come Up With a Word For the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans

You thought it couldn't get any crazier than 2016 at Le Mans. The overall leading Toyota dying on the penultimate lap and coming to a halt just after starting the final lap and being passed Porsche moments later.

This year somehow found a way to top that. All six LMP1 cars broke down at some point. Two Toyotas died within the span of 90 minutes in the middle of the night while most of Europe slept. The #1 Porsche was on top and it appeared it was another year of Porsche reliability proving to be enough. During breakfast, André Lotterer had a 13-lap lead over an LMP2 car, the #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca-Gibson. There was room to breathe but it wouldn't be that simple.

The #1 Porsche died after 20 hours and just like that the top four cars overall were LMP2 entries with the two Rebellion Racing Orecas and a Signatech Alpine following the leading Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca and the #2 Porsche was two laps down, fifth overall.

It proved to be enough time but you could never be certain it would be enough. The #2 Porsche took the overall lead heading into the final hour and Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber would win overall by a lap, the 19th victory for Porsche and third consecutive overall victory for Porsche. Hartley was the only Porsche LMP1 driver without an overall Le Mans victory. Bernhard had won with Audi seven years ago. Bamber won two years ago. Bamber and Hartley become the first pair of New Zealanders to win overall since Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren won in the Ford GT in 1966.

The #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca-Gibson of Oliver Jarvis, Ho-Pin Tung and Thomas Laurent were able to hang on and finish second overall and take the LMP2 class victory. It is a career-best overall Le Mans finish for Jarvis, who finished third overall three times as an Audi factory driver. The #13 Rebellion Racing Oreca-Gibson of Nelson Piquet, Jr., Mathias Beche and David Heinemeier Hansson finished third overall, second in class with the #37 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca-Gibson of David Cheng, Tristan Gommendy and Alex Brundle finishing fourth overall and third in class.

Toyota would get a car to the finish with the #8 TS050 Hybrid of Sébastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima, the trio who had an overall victory slip away from them last year, coming home ninth overall.

If the LMP1 vs. LMP2 overall battle wasn't enough for you over than the GTE-Pro battle must have put you over the top. The #63 Corvette of Jordan Taylor and #97 Aston Martin of Jonathan Adam were covered by less than a second for most of the final 25 minutes. Adam made a lunge up the inside of Taylor at Arnage with just over five minutes to go but Adam went wide on exit and made contact with Taylor. Taylor started the penultimate lap with a 1.5 second lead and then he blew the second chicane on the Mulsanne straight and the left front tire was punctured.

Adam took the lead in the Ford chicane before the start of the final lap and the Scotsman would get the #97 Aston Martin home first in class giving Adam his first career Le Mans class victory, Daniel Serra a victory on his Le Mans debut and Darren Turner his first class victory since 2009. Taylor wasn't able to hold on to second. Harry Tincknell overtook Taylor on the final lap and while Ford doesn't go back-to-back, Tincknell, Andy Priaulx and Pipo Derani get second in class and the #67 Ford GT is looking good in the GT World Endurance Drivers' Championship. Taylor limped home in third in GTE-Pro. Jan Magnussen still hasn't won a class at Le Mans since 2009 and Antonio García since 2011.

The one class that seemed to never be in doubt was GTE-Am. The #84 JMW Motorsport Ferrari never put a wheel wrong. Robert Smith and Dries Vanthoor get Le Mans victories on both their Le Mans debuts. Will Stevens gets a class victory in his second Le Mans appearance, his first in a GT class. Stevens finished second in LMP2 last year. Two laps behind Smith, Stevens and Vanthoor was the #55 Spirit of Race Ferrari of Duncan Cameron, Aaron Scott and Marco Cioci. Scuderia Corsa made it a clean sweep of the GTE-Am podium for Ferrari with the #62 Ferrari of Townsend Bell, Bill Sweedler and Cooper MacNiel, the only all-American line-up in this year's race, finishing third. Bell and Sweedler have finished on the GTE-Am podium the last three consecutive years.

I wrote that I couldn't come up with a word for this year's race. I think this year's race could be revolutionary. Porsche won but the LMP1 class appearances to be dying. Porsche seems to be satisfied. Toyota seems to be worn out. Both seem to unwilling to spend any more money. While the two factory efforts appear willing to say goodbye, the LMP2 class was faster than ever. This year's class winner completed nine laps, 76.221 miles more than last year's class winner. Twenty-one of 25 LMP2 starters took the checkered flag.

I am not sure the LMP2 class is about to step up and take the baton as the leading class as LMP1 falls to pieces. Now that Porsche is at 19 overall Le Mans victories, they are likely going to want to get to 20. Should Porsche come back for 2018 and get its 20th victory, what will 2019 look like? The recent months have seen a slight boom in privateer interest in LMP1. ByKolles Racing appears will still be around and Ginetta, SMP Racing and KCMG have expressed interest in privateer LMP1 programs, the former two have programs in the works. If there is one thing 2017 has showed us is that winning Le Mans doesn't require spending an unfathomable amount of money and maybe it starts a trend for years to come.

The 86th 24 Hours of Le Mans is a year away but we exit the 85th edition with loads of uncertainty surrounding this race and the entire FIA World Endurance Championship. How different will this race look in a year's time?