COMMENT: 16/17 June 2018 Le Mans

In some 17 years of following the race from afar, the 2018 edition wouldn’t rank in my top ten or fifteen. On the positive side there were some prominent highlights: a worthy winning team, a true test of endurance among the new LMP1 cars, some fascinating F1 visitors with very different approaches, a much better GT race than expected. And I once again enjoyed being a tiny part of the online endurance racing family.


 

24 Heures du Mans / 24 Hours of Le Mans

Circuit des 24 Heures, Le Mans, La Sarthe, France

LMP1

Before this year’s race Toyota as a factory since 1998 had entered 19 cars and recorded 10 DNFs, a sprinkling of podiums – and no win. With the pain of 2016 where they fell 8 miles short, I don’t begrudge them this success just because Porsche and Audi were not there.

Toyota spent pre-season working on reliability to ensure both cars made it home 1st and 2nd this year. Nobody really knew what the new privateer teams would bring. The rules were weighted in Toyota’s favour as well, yet Rebellion Racing were not far behind at Test Day. Toyota could not afford to have yet another race with 30-minute delays in the garage.

They not only succeeded but were on record pace for most of the race, on target to set a distance record! (The record didn’t happen due to Safety Car and Slow Zone periods.) They may not have been going absolutely flat out as they would be if Porsche were here, by the same token, they were not just cruising around to pick up an easy win.

Overnight the no. 7 car had a lead of a couple of minutes, the no. 8 car having had a penalty. I’m not sure Lopez in no. 7 has ever been the fastest in the Toyota line-up and he was chased down by Alonso and then Nakajima in the no. 8 car for a on-track pass in the small hours.

Where they gifted the win? Not entirely. A rules advantage helped. But they still had to work hard to make the cars reliable – if they’d left it unchanged since 2017 the car may well have yet again failed to finish. They still had to complete the 24 Hours quickly.

Fernando Alonso taking the next leg of the unofficial Triple Crown was a massive story, of course. It overshadowed the Toyota win, yet also provided a big PR boost which ensured it was everywhere. And he was fast. At one moment he nearly crashed into the wall while trying to work through heavy traffic.

Seb Buemi as ever was fast and solid all race.

Kazuki Nakajima had the honour of crossing the line. The man who was driving when the car conked out one lap from victory in 2016, of course he had to be the man to take the chequered flag this time. Vindication. He put those demons to rest.

Although the no. 7 car got hit with a load of fuel use penalties near the end, the 2 lap gap was in reality nothing near as much. Conway, Kobayashi and Lopez maintained the pace.

As for the privateers, a mixed bag.

Rebellion were the quickest. The margin was nothing like the results sheet show. The timesheets show the two cars 12 and 13 laps behind respectively, the real pace gap was probably 6 laps, with the difference being time lost in the pits due to various repairs. Lotterer even lost the nose of the car at the first corner of the race and had to drag the car back straight away.

6 laps is a lot more than the rules seemingly intended, which was about 2 laps. The unknown here is whether the ‘equivalence of technology’ was right and the 4 lap difference was in the performance of the team and car – remember they’re private teams with brand new cars, racing a factory team with a fully-ironed-out 3 year old car.
Or, whether the EoT was just wrong. If we see the Rebellions and SMPs and so on close the gap without any regulation changes we’ll know it was new car development – if not, it’s the rules.

Aside from that debate, all of Rebellion’s drivers were excellent, especially Thomas Laurent in no. 3. A 3rd-placed result a great reward.

SMP showed similar pace once the race got going. The no. 11 got amongst the Rebellions for a long time until it crashed out, the driver spending ages ripping the bodywork off to be able to drive back to the pits – only for the engine to blow after 50 yards! The no. 17 of Jenson Button had a rough time, a 3 hour garage spell ending their hopes very early. When they got going JB was flying and was grinning from ear to ear, enjoying his night stints. Then their engine blew with an hour to go.

Once SMP get the car sorted they’ll be fighting Rebellion for the rest of the WEC season and next Le Mans.

Dragonspeed ran very well, better than I expected. Their engine is probably more reliable than SMP’s at this stage. Unfortunately the car was crashed into retirement.
The ByKolles car was having a promising run until it was crashed out, the first retiree.

The Ginettas were slow and kept visiting the garage. Manor kept working away at it but poor reliability beat them – this was largely expected due to their lack of testing. This car has a lot of promise, a compliant race-able car that just needs development.

LMP2

A dominant display by G-Drive (run by TDS Racing) – until a post-race disqualification for modifying fuel equipment. Jean-Eric Vergne & crew losing the win by the team taking a chance on a technical part that was later ruled illegal.

Signatech Alpine take the win instead. The race for second was really good, different teams in the running all the way, including Panis Barthez Competition and United Autosport both making the Ligier work. PBC hit trouble late on. Graff-SO24 Oreca took 2nd, United Autosport took 3rd with Juan Pablo Montoya on the driving roster.

The Oreca again was the better car to have, but the best Ligier teams were involved too – mostly run by ELMS teams, interestingly. The Dallara was again relatively nowhere.

I found the LMP2 race quite hard to follow. I suppose I’m just less interested in the class now – the new cars are really quite impressive as race cars go, they are at LMP1 pace of 2010 so they are NOT slow!

The all have the same engine and there are only three makes of car. It allowed for a 20 car grid and some new teams and faces. Perhaps it didn’t hold my attention because I didn’t know half of them. It could also have been that my attention was elsewhere.

GTE PRO

Read my GTE review for Brit Pack Drivers.

Some said the Porsches would walk it, others that it would be closer in the race. It turned out to be a bit of both. The Fords were really pushing the Porsches at times, lined up taking turns to have a go at attacking them. The first chunk of the race was brilliant.

Unfortunately the safety cars split the leader from the pack and that was pretty much that for the win. Perhaps that’s hindsight talking, because anything could’ve happened in the race.

Behind the leader, the Fords raced well and were strong as the race wore on. Ferrari, BMW and Corvette race pace was a little closer to that of Ford and Porsche than in qualifying but still were dropped after a while – though in part due to them hitting one problem or another.

We saw long trains of GTE cars passing and repassing! This was good fun. It proved the Balance of Performance brought various cars together, giving a slight advantage to the best cars and keeping others close enough that they could capitalise. That is how it is supposed to be. It isn’t meant to completely overcome a deficit and gift someone else the win.

The lack of clarity leaves questions though. I don’t know whether Porsche had the fastest car and BoP brought the field closer to them, or if someone else had the faster car and BoP favoured Porsche on their 70th anniversary (as it seemed favoured Ford in their 50th). I’d like to think the former, but conspiracy theories were everywhere. FIA: just be clear with what you are doing and it’ll be fine.

The new BMW proved itself well. It has already run Daytona and Sebring and looks well-suited to Le Mans. Qualifying lower down, they both raced their way up the field until trouble later.

The new Aston Martin wasn’t quick at all though. It has potential, good through corners, but slow on straights. Was this engine power or drag? If it is drag the team can work on it. If it is engine power that’s probably a major BoP error. The car is so new it might be early development problems.

Unfortunately this class now has to run mandated 13 lap fuel stints, throwing any idea of race strategy out of the window. I am not sure what the point is – if you want it to be about the drivers then make it a single-chassis class. One of the hallmarks of the Pratt & Miller Corvettes was that even in years they were slower they’d throw a strategy play and come out on top. Can’t do it now.

And some weird post-race drive time penalties were applied:  the 67 Ford lost 11 laps in penalties after Tony Kanaan was 44 minutes short on time. Very strange that a Ganassi team would get this so wrong.

GTE AM

Dempsey-Proton’s Porsches were quick all race. The Gulf Porsche was also in the lead too. It again threatened to be a Porsche Party. But nobody told the Ferraris. The Spirit of Race and the JMW Ferraris were competitive, so even though Dempsey-Proton led much of the race, it was never a foregone conclusion.

No. 77 Dempsey Porsche beat the no. 54 Spirit Ferrari of Fisichella by just 2 minutes. I was pleased to see the no. 85 Keating Motorsports Ferrari take 3rd, the Jeroen Bleekemolen / Ben Keating car was basically Risi Competizione by another name.

4th was the US-crew of Pat Long & co in the German Proton Porsche, the bright green one.

Paul Dalla Lana had an ‘off’ and spent a good hour or two trying to get the car fixed, to no avail. He’s so determined to win this one day.

While 77 led for much of the way it looked like a bunfight behind them, every time I looked at live timing it was in a different order. Good stuff happens in this much-maligned class where funded drivers keep the show on the road. Without them the race would have 10 fewer cars.

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