Le Mans 2014: Endurance Racing is BACK!
by James Edmonds with Thomas Murray. Photos by Thomas Murray
Le Mans once again proved to be the race of the year. With three teams now in the top prototype (LMP1) class utilizing hugely different powertains reputedly with up to 1000hp on tap, the field showed again how sports cars are now leading the way with innovation, technology and speed. They have not resorted to gimmickry to obtain nail-biting events and the cars even sound like racing cars, so another strike against F1 whose fans are seemingly looking elsewhere for real racing and not just entertainment these days.
This year’s race threw in more drama and thrills than a Bruckheimer movie. Although a hackneyed line, this was a plot and finsh that was just too unbelieveable to be a Hollywood script! Endurance racing lived up to its name again with the winning teams being those who were able to keep on going despite adversity and for the first time in a few years, it wasn’t just a 24 hour sprint, although there was some of that in the GT ranks.
The abilty of some teams to maintain such space-age machines at full chat for 24 hours while sipping fuel and using fewer tires in a race that is the equivalent of an entire F1 season than F1 cars use in a single race weekend is to me – still – hard to believe.
The 170 mph Audi crash at the hands of last year’s winner Loic Duval early in first practice at the Porsche Curves made everyone realize that Audi’s three pronged attack had been cut down before the week was barely underway. “Mr. Le Mans” Tom Kristensen looked like being sidelined in his quest for win number 10 as everyone to a man following their misfortune knew that the car carrying number 1 was out. Everyone except crewmen with the four rings on their uniform that is.
Scrutineering was again at Place de Republique which is a little more cramped and less fan friendly than the traditional Jacobins, but the press pass obtained early meant great access to the drivers and cars. The atmosphere is at once relaxed and electric with the fans able to leisurely watch the teams who are trying frenetically and in vain to get their cars through in a hurry which is of course an impossibility due to space restrictions and the laissez-faire way of the French – wonderful people as they are.
With three factory teams in LMP1 this year, the anticipation was palpable and fans from all camps were there in force. The big story leading into race week was the return of Porsche to the top class as the winningest team in Le Mans history. They were back for another go since their last overall win in 1998, ironically enough with that most famous wee Scot, the newly retired Allan McNish who rose to fame with the dominant force in modern era endurance racing: Audi. This year they were going for an unbelieveable 13th win since they enterted the fray in 2000, yet surprisingly were rated below Porsche and Toyota, the other major team who was touted by the bookies as odds-on favourite. With their bad luck so far, 13 was not a number that looked good for Audi heading into the race. With Duval hospitalized after his huge shunt it was a miracle that he emerged with only bruising and small skins abrasions, although he was not given clearance to race. This led to wide speculation among the fans that McNish might be drafted into the team as a replacement…if the car could be revived. Perhaps in the movies, but not this time.
Flying the flag for England, perennial GT favorites Aston Martin were out in force again with two cars entered in GTE Pro. #97 piloted by veteran team Darren Turner and Stefan Mucke with Bruno Senna and #99 by Macdowell, O’Young and Rees which was damaged beyond repair during practice also at the Porsche Curves and did not start the race. In GTE Am, #98 was driven by Lamy, Dalla Lana and Nygaard, but the team car causing the biggest stir was #95 driven by the all Danish lineup of Kristian Poulson, David Heinemeier Hansson and Nicki Thiim. Remember that a car carrying this number was driven last year by Danish driver Allan Simonsen whose life came to a tragic end in the first hour of the race.
Thursday morning Audi caused a sensation of epic proportion when they announced that they had built a brand new car – tub included – overnight and that it would be on the grid for qualifying that evening. “Not one part was carried over from the wrecked car” crew chief Brad Kettler told me. And so it was. It was a feat of dogged determination that caused the throngs of fans – Toyota’s and Porsche’s alike – to cheer at each corner as the car took its first laps in qualifying. Quite remarkable and the mark of a team whose #WelcomeChallenges mantra took on more than one meaning over the week. It also made the opposition stand and take notice that Audi meant business and no one was going to just take this crown away from them. The fact that Lucas di Grassi crashed the car again that night meaning yet another rebuild will only add to the legend.
A new event for Tom this year was the Friday driver parade which proved to be a highlight the match of the race itself. Walking along the route with the drivers, lined with adoring and screaming fans was akin to being a rock star: picking up kids’ dropped souveniers for drivers to sign along the way and seeing the smiling faces at their return along with thecarnival atmosphere made this event memorable.
The morning of the race Aston #97 was being worked on heavily with the now idle #99 team pitching in to help. The drivers – still unhappy with the knife-edge handling of their steed – agreed that this was no way to go into a marathon race and decided to revert to a friendlier setup from earlier in the week. Darren Turner had told me at Silverstone of their misgivings over the handling after the off -season rule changes to ride height. The car may lack pace but at least it would be driveable.
With Allan McNish leading the field away as Grand Marshal and Ferrari F1 superhero Fernando Alonso dropping the Tricoleur amid speculation of a Ferrari LPM1 return in 2015, the race was on and the week’s festivities came to a climax as the record crowd was drowned by the 30,000 horsepower thundering towards the Dunlop Bridge and the Mulsanne straight.
Early on, a flash deluge caught everyone out on slicks and Aston #97 with Turner in his 12th Le Mans start at the helm (appropriate given the conditions) narrowly missed the huge accident which saw the innocent bystaning Audi of Albuquerque/Bonanomi/Jarvis and the experienced Toyota team of Wurz/Sarrazin/Nakajima taken out. The Toyota made it back to base and rejoined many laps down, while the LMP2 leader was also out.
The conditions continued to be changeable for the next hour and another downpour prompted veteran driver/commentator Sam Hancock to say, “Driving in these conditions is like rushing out of your house on a summer day to find ice on your doorstep”.
Inevitably the race settled down to a pace going into the early evening while the fight in both GT classes was as close as ever. With “our” Aston team in #97 showing compunction over their setup before the start, the changes were obviously working as the car steadily rose to lead the class with the Aston GTE Am cars running first and second in a very tight battle with Ferrari and Porsche – both very much in the hunt.
The race at the front was a constant rotation of the top teams coming in and out of the pits for non-scheduled stops with Toyota still leading the way. Despite Audi using a turbo diesel V6, Toyota using a normally aspirated petrol V8 and Porsche running an unusual petrol turbo V4 all with vastly different electrical energy hybrid systems, the various team cars were all in constant contact with one another, but obviously pressing as hard as posible and dealing with the consequences as they arose.
For me, endurance racing is to sprint racing as an opera is to a pop song. It does require some patience, knowledge and understading to fully embrace its subtle nuances, but once thoroughly grasped and understood, it can be emotional and as exciting to watch unfold with its contant ebbing and flowing as the closest F1 race. Often more so.
At the halfway point the Astons started to pull clear of the field – if you could call it that – with #97 staying ahead, and the #95 car running faultlessly to pull out to over a lap. It has to be said that Marc Gene who filled in for the sidelined Loic Duval in the #1 Audi drove beautifully. As a former F1 driver and Le Mans winner, he is known as a safe pair of hands and was sincere in his humble comments when interviewed between driver changes. Without him it is not known whether the #1 car would have fared so well, but it became obvious to all that his stock within the Audi team went skywards.With the GTE Am Aston #98 sidelined for a lenghty stop to repair a powersteering pipe, the fight was over for them, as the GT classes continued to duke it out like prize fighters. At three quarter distance the #97 Aston was still only two seconds ahead of the chasing Ferrari of Gimmi Bruni with Darren Turner driving as if his life depended on it. That his car had to pit for a similar steering issue to that of his team mate was gutting when the car was clearly fastest and the crowd was deprived of an epic battle to the end that thankfully had raged for 18 hours! The Corvettes and Porsches had troubles of their own throughout, and though they kept coming out swinging, they could never match the pace of the Astons or Ferraris, although it has to be said that the famous Corvette never-give-up spirit saw the #73 car of veteran Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Jordan Taylor (whose brother Ricky was in one of the P2 Morgans) manage to claw their way to second in GTE Pro only a lap down!
The leading Toyota stopped unexpectedly in the wee hours and put an end to a valiant effort. The cause turned out to be an FIA mandated electrical harness that melted causing total shutdown of the car. Audi’s remaining cars both had to stop for turbo replacements causing millions of fans to hold their breath while one of the Porsches went out in the closing stages with Webber turning progressively slower lap times nursing a sick engine. Meanwhile the Toyota that suffered early crash damage hunted down the leaders while the other Porsche stopped for repairs which appeared terminal, but the car came out on the last lap to get points while maintaing Stuttgart’s honor.
At the end then, with all the big boys having mixed issues, it was the number two Audi of Treluyer, Fassler and Lotterer who inherited the win from the most unlikely contender of all – the number one car of Kristensen, di Grassi and Gene. That their turbo should fail while they held a commanding lead was a heart breaker for everyone. The car I dubbed ‘The Phoenix’, the dark horse that absolutely no one expected to finish, came an achingly close second. It was tragic opera at its finest.
In the LMP2 class, Morgan had a strong presence with four cars entered although sadly none seen here in the US as the Oak Racing team were running the new Ligier chassis. The American interest was upheld though with Ricky Taylor sharing the Labre Competition Morgan Judd with Pierre Ragues and Keiko Ihara who only mustered ninth in class though a creditable 14th overall. Morgan did get a top ten finish however with the Swiss Newblood by Morand Racing team placing 10th in a similar Judd engined car with the class seeing a fierce battle all the way through with only four laps separating fifth through tenth.
Ironically, Marc Gene – whose fairy tale race saw him on the second step overall – had to take a bow while Oliver Turvey – the driver who replaced Gene in the now all-British Jota Nissan LMP2 team – took the top step in the duexieme class!
Audi crew chief Brad Kettler told me, “It was a weird one, but a win for the ages!” Lucky 13 as it turned out and once again the bookies shook their heads while the film makers rubbed their hands: they did it again!
The biggest story of all I think was the GTE Am #95 Aston. The car ran like a train and the drivers didn’t put a wheel wrong as they took a commanding two lap win and I’m sure that my weeping eyes joined thousands of others as we remembered the tragic events of last year while celebrating their emotional victory.
The 97 and 98 cars both finished 6th in their respective classes picking up valuable WEC points along the way and showing the fantastic pace which was elusive in the first two races of the season.
David Richards summed up the race afterwards with me, “As you can imagine, 24 hour races like Le Mans have many highs and lows. It was without doubt one of the most competitive races we’ve been to for a long time, especially when you think that after 18 hours we were only two seconds ahead of the Ferrari but a hydraulic leak put paid to that challenge.
“Nonetheless the success for the all Danish car was very well deserved especially when you consider the tragic circumstances of only 12 months ago.We therefore leave Le Mans in a very positive frame of mind knowing that we’ve got an extremely competitive car this year and looking forward to the next round of the World Championship in Austin, Texas.”
Tom and I will be there to see what unfolds next in this new golden era!