So a couple of days after Le Mans, I find myself asking what makes a great race, and more so, was this a great race? It’s a question I can’t help but ask following this years 24 Hours of Le Mans, which has gained mixed responses from viewers on the quality of the race, compared to previous editions and the first two rounds of the FIA WEC, in addition to the endless comparisons FIA WEC finds itself in to F1.
What I did enjoy about this years Le Mans 24 was it was different, in the sense it felt more traditional in the way in which a sportscar race works, whereby the cars aren’t always together on track. We had cars together early in the running, and really until nightfall over the circuit, at the very front. Before a clear advantage was formed by Porsche leaving Audi to attempt to find a way back.
The unfortunate thing is whilst this was interesting, given the equal measures which Audi and Porsche went to to win this race, the expectation people had of the race, wasn’t of a dominant force coming forwards quite as early as it appeared to occur.
Audi and Porsche of course had relatives strengths in the designs of the cars, as has become apparent throughout the season. Audi on paper had the reliability factors and tire wear, whilst Porsche had a clear advantage on straight line speed and overall lap pace.
The reality is this years 24 Hours of Le Mans 2015 did not play out as predicted, qualifying did, however the race saw Audi having a advantage on tire wear. However Porsche didn’t suffer the reliability woes as was anticipated. holding the lead for most of the race and controlling the pace, disallowing Audi’s tire advantage to come to the fore. The layout of the circuit, also played into Porsche’s advantage, and allowed for Earl Bamber, Nick Tandy and Nico Hulkenberg to take victory on Sunday afternoon.
Once Porsche made it into the night, Audi had little chance to compete up front, throughout the night. Porsche came alive, particularly the race winning #19 with some amazing stints behind the wheel.
Dawn, and into the sunday was Audi’s chance to once again return to a competitive nature, and give us that close racing which we have become so familiar with in the FIA WEC in recent races again, that had become predominant at the start of the 24 Hours, unfortunately for Audi, it wasn’t to be. The Deck lids lifting off the rear of the car, effectively destroyed Audi #7’s chance, followed by a penalty for a bizarre move in a slow zone by Audi #7. If the chance wasn’t gone with the deck lid replacement, it was certainly over at the penalty, from then it was a clear victory for Porsche to come home for victory, despite some fastest laps from Audi, continuing to signify intent.
The other key factor in this race, was the sheer level of reliability of the manufacturer prototypes from Audi, Porsche and Toyota. None of these cars mechanically, as in the core functionality of the cars had any issues which led to retirement at any point during the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The only issues we saw from these cars, where brake issues for the pole-sitting #18 later in the race, the decklid issues as previously mentioned for Audi and the bizarre incident which occurred on the route towards Indianapolis corner under the “Slow Zone” conditions, requiring Audi #8 to take avoiding action of GTE entrants, hitting the wall rather hard, and require a return to the pits for Audi to replace the front portion of the car. The repairs being completed in a matter of minutes by Audi Sport Team Joest, In addition to Anthony Davidson’s small contact in the Toyota TS040.
I do wonder if perhaps the fact we didn’t see race ending attrition in the leading LMP1 manufacturers, through mechanical issues is a reason for the race perhaps not quite not living up to the “greatness” it was potentially capable of.
The other major disappointment of Le Mans 2015 was the relative anonymity of Toyota. The Toyota’s haven’t had the pace all season, but to see them almost playing a non-existent part was cruel and felt very disappointing.
Toyota did say before the race, that the team is exploring a new hybrid system for next season, and if Le Mans was anything to go by, that can’t come soon enough. In an ideal world, this race would of become the ultimate three-way battle at Le Mans of Porsche, Audi and Toyota. Perhaps by not having Toyota in contention, it damaged the perceived quality of this 24 Hours of Le Mans, compared to previous years, which prevented it from being seen as an all time classic.
Nissan was in the first year of competition, and whilst the project had substantial positive press and a great deal of excitement following the Superbowl unveil in January, including from myself. The reality is the project has suffered several setbacks since January, and the concept we saw at the weekend wasn’t the exact concept which was proposed, and sadly it was clear going into Le Mans that Nissan’s first attempt at the 24 Hours of Le Mans since 1990 as a factory, was not going to be one without its challenges.
Those challenges certainly existed, The three GTR-LM Nismo’s failed to qualify within 110% of the lead LMP1 entrants, therefore being forced to start at the rear of the Prototype classes. The race wasn’t any easier, and credit to Nissan for trying to keep those cars going for as long as possible, despite spending a great deal of time in the pits after night fall, which admittedly wasn’t always for faults with the cars. The #23 certainly hit an object on the track during the night-time hours, seriously damaging the car with the loss of the bonnet, and suspension damage.
Two of the cars failed to reach the finish, the #21, despite Matsuda’s attempts becoming an official retirement first before the #23 had brake issues, finally retiring in the closing hours. #22 did effectively make the race, however was not-classified due to the inability to complete the required distance.
Nissan have a huge amount of development and issues to resolve before this project is anywhere near a competitive concept. I hope the team is given the ability to do so, the concept is an exciting, dynamically different concept to the other LMP1 competitors. We have seen front-engined Prototypes before, but relatively this concept, in 2015 is unique and that is something I would like to see be a success, rather than the failure some have concluded it as right now.
This is a series which right now is priding itself on innovative engineering solutions, so having an innovative solution “fail” isn’t in either Nissan or the FIA WEC’s best interests. It does appear Nissan will continue throughout the season, and into 2016, so I hope in that time, the competitiveness can increase, even if it isn’t ever victorious at Le Mans.
LMP2 saw a dominant showing by the ORECA 05’s, KCMG despite a few issues with the car on occasion, came home for a dominant result, unfortunately the same can’t be said for Thiriet by TDS racing, the team was running in a strong second, with the Oreca 05 looking fantastic, when the car was speared by a GT running car, ending the race for the team, with several hours to go.
Now I understand the excitement around Nico Hulkenberg’s success at Le Mans in the LMP1 class, and I understand for alot of people, LMP1 is really the only class which matters however Jota Sport shouldn’t be forgotten, nor should Mitch Evans.
The multiple GP2 winner completed some amazing stints in the ageing Gibson G155, alongside fellow young driver Oliver Turvey and team owner Simon Dolan to bring Jota from the rear of the LMP2 field to come home second in class. We need to remember that FIA WEC is becoming at least for Le Mans, a home for young drivers to demonstrate the skill, whilst F1 is becoming less of an option for them, due to a lack of availability rather than talent.
GTE PRO was my favourite part of the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans, and to be fair the AM class was as well. The PRO battle between Aston Martin Racing and Corvette Racing whilst also seeing some periods of the race, having input from AF Corse, saw the side by side battles, that portions of the LMP1 battle lost.
Effectively the battle in this class, came down to attrition and drivers making mistakes, allowing for Corvette Racing to take victory over Aston Martin Racing.
Overall it also created that storyline of success for Corvette, in the face of adversity. The #64 being the only car to withdraw before the race started, when Jan Magnussen had a stuck throttle, leading to an incident in the Porsche Curves, ending the event for Magnussen, Garcia and Briscoe. Sadly for Corvette, Larbre competition, who field a privateer customer C7.R in the GTE Am class, also suffered issues, with a gearbox failure, ending the race for them.
Whilst Porsche had a dominant weekend in LMP1, claiming the 17th overall victory (inclusive of the Dauer 962 LeMans and Joest Racing’s TWR WSC-95 victories) and the 101st class victory for a Porsche at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, since participation began. The Porsche 911 RSR’s entered in the GTE ranks, saw mixed success and failures. The Porsche AG Team Manthey factory effort in GTE PRO saw one car retire with a engine fire, as was also the case in two other Porsche entrants throughout the course of the event. On the flipside, Patrick Dempsey, Pat Long and Marco Seefried managed a podium in GTE AM.
The GTE AM victory went to SMP Racing, following the retirements of the two leading Aston Martin Racing entrants, one having a hefty crash at the exit to the Porsche curves, thankfully Roald Gothe was relatively ok, whilst the second accident occurred at the Ford Chicane, ending the race rather disappointedly for AMR.
Overall Le Mans 2015 was a strong race, a very good race however not a classic race. It had the ingredients to be, and in a few respects it came up a little short. It was still a race I enjoyed in total, though I look forward to seeing whether the 2016 edition, brings everything together and gives us that true race for the ages, or at least my representation of what the “race of the ages” should be.
Le Mans should also not be compared to F1, the challenge is very different, and I’m happy an F1 driver was one of the pilots in the winning car, though I’m still not convinced a true comparison between F1 and Le Mans can be made or should be in fact made.