Alonso closer to the Triple Crown; G-Drive dominate LMP2; Porsche celebrate 70 years with historic GTE Pro battle and Am victory
After all the heartbreak and drama they’ve known, Toyota have finally joined Mazda as just the second Japanese manufacturer to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The news broke in January that Fernando Alonso was joining the Japanese squad this year, and it’s been headlines and fan forum arguments ever since. An impressive transition to endurance racing alongside seasoned ex-F1 co-drivers Kazuki Nakajima and Sebastien Buemi gave Toyota their planned PR dream at the 86th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
It wasn’t all plain sailing for the team though. Somehow, Toyota managed to avoid penalisation for track limits and wheels turning during pitstops as well as a late scare for Kamui Kobayashi with 1h30 to go as he cruised the #7 back to the pits from Mulsanne on Full Course Yellow mode. Team radio from Toyota to Nakajima explained it away as the team incorrectly fuelling the car, later revealed as Kobayashi missing the pit call and having to fuel save for a lap before serving the inevitable penalties for exceeding fuel use and laps allowed in a stint. The #8 Toyota kept its pace advantage until the end, Nakajima slaying the demons from two years ago by taking the car across the line ahead of teammate Kobayashi.
Amazing! Emotional! TOYOTA WINS LE MANS!!! pic.twitter.com/hzKgslILNk
— TOYOTA GAZOO Racing WEC (@Toyota_Hybrid) June 17, 2018
Rebellion Racing didn’t have the cleanest of runs, both cars in and out of the garage but facing such little competition as the other non-hybrid LMP1 contenders were buried so far down the order after earlier trouble that third and fourth in class was a given for the Farnborough team. The #3 eventually took the final podium place, Rebellion’s perhaps more unfancied squad of Beche/Menezes/Laurent managing to hold an advantage late in the race over the LMP1 dream team of Senna/Jani/Lotterer. Although it made the podium, even the #3 Rebellion spent 20 minutes in the garage being worked on.
SMP Racing had a weekend to forget – insult added to injury as Jenson Button retired the #11 on the run down to Indianapolis, the engine expiring within the last hour. DragonSpeed’s weekend was grim too, Elton Julian’s squad now looking forward to Silverstone and the arrival of ex-Toyota factory man Ant Davidson at Silverstone in August. CEFC TRSM Racing had their Ginetta parked in the garage for hours, drivers reporting heavy vibrations from the rear that made the car uncomfortable but not dangerous. The mechanics were doing what looked like a full service to the car late in the race before sending it out to take the finish – a solid achievement given the team’s Spa nightmare.
A flawless run to the flag ensured G-Drive Racing’s TDS-run #26 Oreca dominated the field from the first round of pitstops. Vergne, Rusinov and Pizzitola didn’t put a foot wrong all 24 hours, and rapid work at night by Vergne and super Silver Pizzitola gave the car a multi-lap class lead into the later hours of the race, finally giving Roman Rusinov a Le Mans win.
— Jean-Eric Vergne (@JeanEricVergne) June 17, 2018
However boring the lead was, the race for other podium spots was one of the race’s best. Polesitters IDEC Sport Racing had a strong run in only their second Le Mans, the Rojas/Chatin/Lafargue Oreca constantly in contention until mechanical issues forced retirement with three hours to go.
A tough showing for Ligier despite an aero update was softened by Panis-Barthez Competition, who surprised the field by being well in contention for a podium as Stevens/Buret/Canal knocked in solid stints keeping pace with the top of the field. Recurring clutch problems saw the car struggle throughout Sunday though, and they eventually lost too much time in the pits. An eventual finish outside the top 10 failed to reflect the team’s pace and clean driving.
With two laps left, Duval was just seconds from third place man Tristan Gommendy. The battle for the final spot on the LMP2 podium at Le Mans saw the ex-Audi factory man trying to get the TDS Racing Oreca past veteran Gommendy’s SO24! GRAFF car. The last real fight for a podium position saw Gommendy immediately respond by punching in the car’s fastest sectors and fastest lap of the race, holding off Duval to take a fantastic third for GRAFF.
This was definitely a race to suit the big teams after headlines. As well as Toyota’s 1-2 finish, Porsche celebrate their 70th anniversary with a historic – in more ways than one – finish in GTE Pro, as their fan favourite heritage liveried cars took the top two GTE Pro positions; the Pink Pig driven by Michael Christensen/Kévin Estre/Laurens Vanthoor led the Rothmans entry of Fred Makowiecki/Richard Lietz/Gianmaria Bruni across the line.
Best of the rest following trouble for the Team MTEK BMW entries was Ford, with the #67 Tincknell/Priaulx/Kanaan chasing the #68 Hand/Muller/Bourdais team car for the final podium position with 30 minutes remaining. The Fords were separated by around 15 seconds but were over half a lap back from Makowiecki in second. Dirk Muller drove the GT across the line for its maiden win at Le Mans, and he did so again to claim third this year ahead of teammate Harry Tincknell.
Honorable mention to Corvette Racing, who were forced to retire the #64 but through slick pitwork and a quick lap – 3:49.448, the only sub 3:50 race lap of GTE Pro – had the Magnussen/Garcia/Rockenfeller #63 in fifth, not a result that many would have seen coming. Ferrari didn’t have a good weekend in Pro; Toni Vilander brought their best finishing car home in sixth.
Story of the race – dominant runs at the top. And so it was for the #77 Dempsey Proton Racing Porsche, driven by Porsche supported racers Julien Andlauer and Matt Campbell alongside team owner Christian Ried. A dominant run to the flag saw the team look untouchable throughout Sunday, able to pit and re-emerge in the lead regardless of wherever the competition were in their pit cycles.
— WEC (@FIAWEC) June 17, 2018
It wasn’t quite the Porsche benefit we expected though – an overnight crash for Matteo Cairoli and brake issues for Patrick Lindsey that saw the American straightline a Mulsanne chicane hurt the #88 and Project1 #56 efforts. In other Porsche Am news, an unremarkable run for Ebimotors saw the Babini/Nielsen/Maris car in sixth with 15 minutes remaining, and gaining on the WeatherTech JMW Ferrari Jeff Segal shared with Cooper MacNeil and Alessandro Balzan. The all-American Black Swan coloured Proton Porsche had also performed cleanly, giving Spencer Pumpelly, Pat Long and Tim Pappas a well-deserved fourth.
Away from Porsches, another equally solid run gave the gorgeous VistaJet #54 Spirit of Race Ferrari second place at the flag, the car rising up through the order as more fancied entried faced trouble. Giancarlo Fisichella took the flag in the car shared with Francesco Castellacci and gentleman racer Thomas Flohr, beating the similar Risi-run Keating Motorsports car of IMSA regulars Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen who were joined by impressive Le Mans rookie Luca Stolz into third.