When writing the story of the 24 Hours of Le Mans 2016, one word summarised everybody’s thoughts about the LMP1 class and what the fight would boil down to. That word was – reliability.
As one commentator, when discussing the weather forecasts for race weekend, said:
“I want it to be dry so we can see these things break.”
As race weekend approached these facts were known: Toyota Gazoo Racing had rapidly advanced its development programme to race the 2017 car in 2016. Inevitably this had caused some head-scratching at the early rounds of the FIA World Endurance Championship as the TS050 was being sorted. Porsche Team, Audi Sport Team Joest and Toyota Gazoo Racing were all only bringing two cars to Le Mans for financial and political expediency purposes. Audi and Porsche each had one less ‘bullet in the gun’ to fire at the challenge of the world’s greatest motor race. Porsche had changed to the 2015 battery pack for Le Mans. Audi had encountered some damper issues at the Test Weekend that took longer to resolve than we had come to expect from a team that could change a whole back end of a car in less than ten minutes.
As a day has passed since the EnduranceAndGt team sneaked on a ferry before chaos ensued in Calais, I thought I would record some thoughts on the race, and race week, when I could put them in perspective whilst they were still fresh in my mind. Detailed reports on four classes, and race results, will follow shortly. Anyway…
Anybody who has attended a 24 Hours of Le Mans has lived through an experience that few global sporting occasions can match. The Indy 500 possibly matches it. The Monaco Grand Prix as well but in a different way. But the immense challenge of racing a car round the Circuit de la Sarthe for 24 hours in weather that is guaranteed to present extremes is, well, in my opinion, in a class of its own.
This year, however, the experience was off the scale. A number of factors, which included the weather, the build-up in the FIA World Endurance Championship, the expectations of history being made, all conspired to produce something which will live in the minds of all those who were there for a long time. Let’s look at some of those factors in more detail.
The weather this year was biblical in the extremes it threw at all concerned. I have never known a Le Mans where it was either raining, had just rained or was about to rain for the entire week leading up to the race, which curtailed the final qualifying session and which caused the race to start under a safety car.
Friday June 17 dawned as have all the other days so far for Le Mans 2016 – damp, overcast with the threat of rain and soggy underfoot.
The previous night’s second qualifying session was red-flagged for an hour due to the poor weather conditions and teams, drivers and spectators alike are all massively frustrated at the lack of dry running that we have seen this week.
As there was no track action on the Friday before the race weekend, the EnduranceAndGT team took some time first thing re-arranging the Mont-Bizot Data Centre before venturing off to the ‘Virage de Mulsanne’ event which takes place at the world-famous Mulsanne Corner. The theme of this year’s event was ‘Fifty Years of Ford’ and, parked on the apex of the Mulsanne Corner were a number of beautiful examples of Ford machinery. These varied from some immaculate Ford GT40 replicas to more contemporary Ford GTs along with some interesting Capri and Taunus examples.
What made the event even more interesting was that the track was closed to vehicles from Mulsanne Corner towards Indianapolis, allowing the visitor to walk unimpeded along the circuit towards the Rolex signage over the track.
If you did not visit the Mulsanne event this year, I would strongly recommend it for future years as it made for a fascinating trip.
We then drove back down the Mulsanne Straight (yes, I know it has two chicanes) and back past Le Mans to get back to our camp-site just before another thunderstorm struck and the heavens opened. We sat it out and finally jumped in the car to get back to Le Mans for the ‘Grands Parades des Pilotes’.
Thankfully the rain stayed away and we found ourselves an excellent viewing spot next to the start of the Parade where EnduranceAndGT photographer, Roger Jenkins, could capture some great images of the festivities.
First through while we were there were the Porsche LMP1 drivers who seemed to be having fun even though they must be ‘champing at the bit’ to get racing by this stage of the week. Pictured below are the Porsche LM GTE drivers.
But that is it. Practise, qualifying, media events and parades are over. The real reason why we are all here begins in earnest on Saturday June 18. The weather forecast suggests that clearer, dryer weather should start to move in as the weekend progresses but Saturday could see some very mixed conditions as the build-up to 15:00 approaches.
We shall be at the circuit from 08:00 to observe the final warm-ups, the support races and finally the flag dropping on the 24 Hours of Le Mans at 15:00. This is where it gets really interesting….
The #2 Porsche 919 Hybrid with Neel Jani at the wheel took provisional pole with a 3:19.733 in a two-hour qualifying practice that took on extra significance because of the weather.
In a week that has seen torrential downpours at some stage every day and with more bad weather forecast, many teams were looking to put in a ‘banker lap’ in the first qualifying session on the basis that better opportunities may not be available.
The #1 Porsche was second quickest with a 3:20.203 lap time set by Timo Bernhard. The #6 Toyota Gazoo racing Toyota TS050 – Hybrid was third quickest with a 3:30.737 set by Stephane Sarazin. Although some of the Toyota drivers made it plain that they were using the session to establish a race balance and were not looking to make headlines, clearly the issue of the weather was on everyone’s mind.
In LMP2 the #26 G-Drive Racing Nissan-powered ORECA 05 set an early provisional class pole time of 3:36.605 with René Rast driving and that was never bettered throughout the rest of the session. Nelson Panciatici was second quickest in the #35 Baxi DC Racing Alpine A460 with a 3:37.225. Rounding out the top three in LMP2 was the second Alpine A460, this time the #36 Signatech Alpine where Nicolas Lapierre set a 3:37.225.
The #68 and #69 Ford Chip Ganassi Team USA Ford GTs were quickest in LMGTE Pro. Dirk Muller in #68 car set a 3:51.185 whilst Ryan Briscoe was less than half a second behind with a 3:51.497. The #51 AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE in the hands of Gianmaria Bruni was third quickest with a 3:51.568.
In LM GTE Am Clearwater Racing with the #61 Ferrari 458 Italia took provisional class pole with Rob Bell driving with a 3:56.827. Pedro Lamy in the #98 Aston Martin Racing Vantage was second quickest with a 37.198. Closing out the top three in class was the #55 AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia which set a 3:57.596 with Matt Griffin driving.
Although Thursday morning’s forecast was for light rain with the risk of thunderstorms, there were deluges in various areas close to the circuit so many teams must be looking nervously at the two two-hour qualifying sessions this evening, the first of which starts at 19:00.
As track action started in earnest, it was Porsche who took first blood after Neel Jani set the fastest time of the session in the last hour of the four-hour practise session on June 15 with a 3:22.011 in the #2 Porsche 919 Hybrid. .
Second quickest was the #1 Porsche 919 Hybrid with a 3:22.550 set by Mark Webber earlier in the afternoon.
Rounding out the top three in the LMP1 class was the #8 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18 in which Lucas di Grassi set a 3:22.985 before the car was pushed back into the garage for some work on a damper.
In the LMP2 class last year’s class winners KCMG set the fastest time of the session with a 3:39.133 with Richard Bradley at the wheel. The #36 Signatech Alpine A460 was second quickest with a 3:39.721 set by Stephane Richelmi. Third quickest was the #23 Panis Barthez Compétition Ligier JS P2 when Paul-Loup Chatin set a 3:40.308.
Ferrari set the top two quickest times in LM GTE Pro when the #51 AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE driven by Gianmaria Bruni set a 3:53.833. Second quickest with a 3:54.180 was the #82 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE with Toni Vilander at the wheel. Third quickest, with a 3:55.436 was the first of the Ford GTs, the #68 car, with Sébastien Bourdais driving.
In LM GTE Am it was Clearwater Racing in the #61 Ferrari 458 Italia which set the pace when Robb Bell set a 3:57.543. The #62 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 458 Italia was second quickest with a 3:59.103 with Townsend Bell at the wheel. Rounding out the top three in class was the #83 AF Corsa Ferrari 458 Italia when Emmanuel Collard set a 3:59.294 in his 22nd appearance at the French classic.
The first qualifying session starts at 22:00 local time and runs for two hours.
The day dawned clear and bright after another night of torrential rain, at least where the www.EnduranceAndGT.co.uk team were camped.
The first port of call for the day was the circuit as Tuesday morning of race week is a good time to catch drivers walking between garage and hospitality units. With the disruption that scrutineering brings and teams having to transport cars to and from the Place de la République, Tuesday is a good opportunity to refocus with the car securely parked in the garage. With the first track running on Wednesday, teams are now focused on final preparations for the cars and drivers are now relaxing, exercising, eating and hydrating with the sole objective of being prepared for when track running starts on June 15.
By the main entrance to the paddock, photographers and autograph-hunters gathered and drivers and key team personnel seemed very happy to pose for pictures and sign programmes and photos.
Walking through the paddock village, final details were being added to hospitality units in readiness to receive guests on Wednesday.
The main objective for the day was to be at the main entrance to the pit lane at 17:00 when the driver signing session began. As a result, after spending the morning at the circuit, we went into the centre of Le Mans and took in the sights of the old Plantagenet part of the town before enjoying lunch at the Le Mans Légend Café.
By this stage the weather was looking threatening and as we walked back to the car, rain started falling.
Arriving at the circuit at around 16:00 we drove around the public rounds of the circuit: down the Mulsanne straight, past the first and second chicances, turning right at Mulsanne corner and then down to Indianapolis. As we drove down towards Mulsanne, we spotted Simon Dolan, driver of the #38 G-Drive Racing Gibson 015S out for an afternoon run. Bearing in mind the rain was falling heavily, we stopped to see if he wanted a lift back to his hotel but clearly his determination to finish his planned exercise routine overcame the desire to get out of the rain and he continued.
We drove along the new public roads through Indianapolis and Arnage and felt slightly wistful to see one of our favourite viewing spots changed so dramatically. It will be interesting to see how the new layout works for spectators.
There was a slight delay in opening the gates for the pit lane walkabout as heavy rain was falling again. Teams were working fast to get their drivers under cover in the garage entrances. However at 17:05 the gates were opened and the public flocked in their hundreds to see the cars and drivers.
Torrential rain then fell again ten minutes into the walkabout but that didn’t deter fans from forming long queues at the garages of the leading teams for signed driver cards and pictures.
Walking back along the pit lane I bumped into Shea Adam from the Mobil 1 Radio Le Mans team. After having chatted with Eve Hewitt and John Hindhaugh yesterday, it was great to say “hi” and wish Shea well for a great race.
The weather forecast for the rest of the week looks very mixed so the pattern of dry spells punctuated with heavy showers seems set to continue. This will make for challenging conditions as the social part of the week draws to a close and the serious business of qualifying and racing begins.
Practise starts for the 24 Hours of Le Mans at 16:00 on Wednesday June 15 and the first qualifying session, which runs for two hours, starts at 22:00. www.EnduranceAndGT.co.uk will be trackside for the whole day, providing reports and updates.
"When you're racing, it's life. Anything that happens before or after is…. just waiting. " Steve McQueen – "Le Mans" – 1971