A Story of Heartbreak and Heroes
by James Edmonds and Thomas Murray
Steve McQueen left such an indelible mark on the film industry that no one has since made a movie about Le Mans. It’s a good thing too: the tales that unfold year after year would leave audiences groaning, such are the incogitable story lines. Le Mans 2016 was no different. In a finish that saw 263,500 fans holding their collective breaths one second, hoping to cheer Toyota’s first victory at la Sarthe, only to let out that breath in a huge “Noooooo!”, this was the very definition of truth being stranger than fiction!
Toyota has tried to win the grueling, addictive and legendary event 18 times over 30 years and has been five times the bridesmaid. On a day where they were unexpectedly head and shoulders above the competition, it was a literal heartbreak to see the #5 Toyota TS050 roll to a stop on the front straight within five minutes of victory in what would have been only the second win for a Japanese manufacturer since 1991 when Mazda won with the immortal 787B.
Almost equally unsettled was the Audi team on two fronts: they were in unfamiliar territory as an “also-ran” for the first time since they started racing here in 1999 and would have finished off the podium if not for the misfortune of messrs Davidson, Buemi and Nakajima. They allowed the dominant German team of the modern era to “back-in to” third place and squeeze onto the last podium step breathing a heavy a sigh of relief (more on that later). Good thing too, as the scuttlebutt around the campfire since Porsche won in 2015 has revolved around the costs of running two top flight LMP1 teams out of the shared parent company’s coffers. How long can it go on? Will diesel-gate nail the coffin closed? Will Dr. Ullrich’s inevitable retirement be what seals it? Lots of questions for us to ponder.
As the #5 Toyota TS050 rolled past the Start/Finish line and stopped in front of the Toyota pit wall, the gobsmacked team worked to restore power to the car. Their unimaginable fate – loss of engine power with just over one lap to go and literally minutes left in the 24 hour race was surreal! As the #5 race leader sat motionless on the front straight, it felt as if time itself had stopped as well – that is except for the #2 Porsche driven by Jani who overtook the stationary Toyota in very short order. An impromptu fix by the team eventually restored partial power after what seemed like an eternity but only took minutes. Nakajima pulled away but the Toyota was clearly wounded. Ultimately the #5 TS050 suffered a another setback as it did not complete its last lap within the minimum six minute requirement and therefore was not classified in the final standings. This meant that as the #2 Porsche 919 of Dumas, Jani and Lieb swept to a totally unexpected and – some say – undeserved victory.
The #6 TS050 sister car of Sarrazin, Conway and Kobayashi earned yet another second place for the Toyota team as Hughes de Chaunac – whose Oreca equipe partners the Toyota Gazoo team – wept openly in absolute and utter despair. He is as much part of Le Mans lore as is his storied countryman Henri Pescarolo who has had his own share of ups and downs at this race. It has often been said that the cruel misery dished out by Lady Le Mans is able to be choked down only with the possibility of that dangling carrot of elation that awaits the following year. And once the drug has been even sniffed at, the hook is there forever.
Porsche who’d had their own mechanical issues, saw their #1 car come home a lap down in 13th place. I can’t help but think that the experience of 18 Le Mans races should have prepared Toyota for their last minute failure. Would Audi or Porsche been caught out like that? Hard to say but I imagine that the constant drills and preparations carried out by those teams have left them less likely to be in the same predicament. Ask H, Brad Kettler, Dr. Ullrich, Leena or Kyle Wilson-Clarke and they will tell you that you have to think of every possible eventuality, then have a plan A, B and C at the ready.
After the race it was revealed that – as is often the case – a tiny nickel and dime clamp had resulted in a small hose coming loose causing a loss of boost between the turbo and inter-cooler which left the computers scratching their silicon foreheads. Had a contingency plan been in place, replacement of the failed component could have been routine, but it was a first time failure that clearly they hadn’t thought of. The agonizing minutes spent finding a fix meant that the team which by all rights should have been on the top step, were finally non-classified 45th as they exceeded the maximum time allowed for the last lap. At least they were spared the ignominy of standing up there in second or third after dominating the event.
It used to be that distance covered over the 24 hours determined the outcome. Entire stories have been written on the Ford GT40 photo-staged 1-2-3 finish of 1966 which saw winner John Miles relegated to second place after leading the close race. As he started the race from the front row of the grid, it was deemed that Chris Amon who had started from the second row, had traveled approximately eight meters further than him as they crossed the line in formation, so the gutted and furious Miles lost the race due to the factory PR office staging a front page photo for the next day’s paper. I cannot even imagine.
There was similar discord in the GTE Pro class. In qualifying, the Ford GT’s and Ferraris were almost five seconds clear of the field – light years in Le Mans terms. In an unprecedented move, the ACO made BoP adjustments after qualifying, but the turbo cars were still almost three seconds ahead of Aston and Corvette, with Porsche – who have dominated in recent years – suffering the biggest disparity.
The GT class has most recently been the most hotly contested with seconds separating the leaders after two goes around the clock. Usually the team with the least time in the pits comes away the winner. This year, despite running a flawless race, the lead Aston #95 “Dane Train”, now with Turner (moved from his traditional #97 car) Thiim and Sorensen, could only muster fifth in
GTE Pro, a full two laps down. The #97 Aston of Stanaway, Rees and Adam came home right behind in sixth.
The #63 Corvette was in a similar situation and finished five laps down – again after having run almost faultlessly with only a brake pad change costing maybe two and half minutes and one short off track spin and quick recovery by Ricky Taylor. Doug Feehan even commented that we may not even see Corvette Racing in France next year. With a loss and no guarantee of an invite…I can’t imagine that either!
The assembled Aston team cars looked resplendent in their new-for-2016 classic Aston-Green liveries. After the race DT was resigned but happy, “That’s probably been one of the most straightforward races for the team. The cars ran like complete clockwork all the way through. The only drama we had was a late puncture. The guys have done a great job with the strategy and the mechanics have been amazing in the pit-stops. I’m just very proud that both GTE Pro cars have made it to the finish”.
In GTE Am, poor old Paul Dalla Lana looked like he was about to avenge last year’s mistake with a great result in the #98 Aston. Unfortunately mechanical failure close to the end caused another heartache for him and Mathias Lauda along with team stalwart Pedro Lamy. At least this time it was not a driver error that caused their fate.
The crowd were treated to a revival of the classic Ford vs Ferrari war but were denied what could have been a legitimate five team battle. Ford came home first, third and fourth, while the tiny Houston based Risi Ferrari team almost pulled off a David v Goliath result coming home a close second after leading for many hours. In a very poor case of sour grapes, the Ford team protested to the ACO that one of the Risi car’s leader lights was out near the end of the race in what appeared to be a clear attempt to sweep the podium. Ferrari made their own dispute that Ford had fielded a car outside the spirit of the rules and although both teams suffered similar time penalties after the fact, it was all for naught as the results remained unaffected! Certainly the Ford is a marvel of modern race car design, but it does look more like a purpose built racer than those from all the other GTE teams. Fair or not? You decide.
Interestingly and as with the original GT40s, the four car team was made up of two US based IMSA Weathertech Series cars and two ELMS cars from the UK with ex-Prodrive technical guru George Howard-Chappell heading up the UK squad. They even had a photo op at John Wyer’s famed Hotel de France at La Chartre. Lots of juicy Aston Martin/JW Automotive parallels for the train spotters there! If only they had been in Gulf colours…
We haven’t seen turbo’s in GT cars for many a year now and it was a real shame that the organizers got it so wrong with BoP. Hopefully this will be remedied as the season moves forward, but I fear that all the teams will be forced (no pun intended) to go the turbo route sooner or later making the current crop of big banger engines the last bastion of real race car music. Could it be that the mid-engined Corvette will finally appear? Or that the ungodly Vulcan hints at the next generation Aston racer? I’d like to dream that it would be so exciting!
There were at least some tears of joy this year in the form of the Garage 56 entry – another story defying belief. The Oak Racing LMP2 Morgan-Nissan featured an all French lineup notably with quad-amputee Fred Sausset. Suffering a bacterial infection in 2012 resulting in the loss of all four limbs, he was awarded the Garage 56 entry – reserved for technical or innovative initiatives – last year after racing in the French national series as well as this year’s Silverstone round on the ELMS.
He drove an impeccable race lapping consistently in the low four minute range – impressive considering the added weight of the specialized driver controls and not to mention the physical limitations that he surely must have felt. During Fred’s driver changes the car was wheeled into the garage and he was raised in and out of the driver’s seat with straps under his arms and a long pole system lifted by team members.
By finishing 38th overall, the team became the first ever Garage 56 entry to finish the endurance classic. In the writer’s opinion, this was the most heart warming story of bravery and courage throughout the entire 2016 event.
I’m sure that Paul, Lord Drayson – famed privateer Aston Martin Le Mans racer – would have raised a glass to Monsieur Sausset. As a racer blind in one eye, he paved the way for drivers with disabilities when he lobbied and succeeded in having the FIA change the rules about 10 years ago, thus allowing him to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He may not have won at La Sarthe, but he and teammate Jonny Cocker did take his Lola Judd to a spectacular ALMS victory at Road America in 2010.
In 2013 we sat down with with Paul Drayson at Sebring International Raceway to learn more about the man, his pioneering efforts in Racing and his driving experience in the ALMS and at Le Mans. To read more, see the footnote at the base of this story for the link to “The Lord of the Wings”.
In the post-Le Mans press conference, Porsche brass were frustrated and angered by the embarrassment in the GT class at the biggest race of the year, while being made to feel somewhat uncomfortable by British Audi pilot Oliver Jarvis. He seemed to lament the team’s inherited third place and while congratulating Porsche, expressed his wish for Toyota to have been up there spraying the champers instead. A classy move from a classy driver which resulted in applause from the attendees.
For those lucky enough to have covered and experienced the magic of Le Mans first hand, you know those 24 hours of racing encompass a practically three day nonstop effort with one or two catnaps. It truly is the 72 Hours of Le Mans for those covering the event! The combination of heat, cold, sun, rain, sleep deprivation, sore feet and shared outpouring of emotions – all of them – mean that as you congregate on the front straight after the race with thousands of kindred spirits, you are as much a part of a team as all of those on the track and in the paddock.
I can see the scene from McQueen’s Le Mans playing in my head as I hear Porsche team boss David Townsend demand to Michael DeLaney, “I want Porsche to win Le Mans!”. It actually happened this year in a way that no one would have believed at the movies.
Like I said…stranger than fiction.
Follow up & Footnotes:
Click here to read our 2013 story on Paul Drayson – “The Lord of the Wings”