This weekend of the 17/18 June 2017 sees the running of the 85th Le Mans 24 Hour. First held in 1923, this famous event has had its ups and downs over the years as far as drama and excitement is concerned, because the race never fails to deliver the unexpected. Just when you thought the race was in the bag, the lead car would be thrown a curved ball as the engine expires three laps from the end, or it rolls to a stop on the last lap like we saw with the Toyota in 2016. We had a look at what happened during practice and qualifying.
This year we have an increased grid of sixty cars, the extra competitors coming from the LMP2 (25) and GTE Pro (13) and Am (16) classes. In 2016 there were four teams in the LMP1 class, but this year there are only three teams, Porsche, Toyota and ByKOLLES, with Toyota running a 3-car team to Porsche’s two cars. Ford are here this year with purpose, fielding a 4-car team of GTs, which tells you something of their goals for the race. Speaking with some of the Ford drivers at the ‘Meet the Team’ event on Wednesday, they were saying what a well-balanced car the Ford GT is, as it didn’t demand any special changes to driving style in order to master the car and drive it well.
The 4-hour session, Free Practice 1 (FP1), on Wednesday afternoon/evening was the first session in which everybody was able to try their different set ups. The first of the qualifying sessions, Qualifying 1 (Q1), was run between 22h00 – 24h00 on Wednesday night. The weather was extremely hot, some said 30°C, and with high humidity thrown in, it made for challenging conditions for the track side photographers, so you can imagine what it felt like for the mechanics, fuel fillers and other team personnel who had to carry out their work all day in double layer fireproof suits and helmets. Those photographers doing pit lane duty are also required by regulation to wear double layer fireproof suits and helmets, making for a challenging working environment in such heat.
Standing trackside around Indianapolis and Arnage corners the on-track action during FP1 was no less intense than in previous years. Toyota had really got their TS050 singing, and it took the Indianapolis corner as though on rails, and the acceleration out of the corner was electrifying. The LMP1 Porsches also looked strong, but the Toyotas were impressive, as reflected in the Q1 lap times during the later Q1 session. In the GTE Pro class, it was the #95 Aston Martin that headed the class against all expectations, as they are now where Porsche were a couple of years back, expecting their new car the following season. So for their outgoing model to head the tables took many by surprise.
The evening session was due to start at 22h00 but this was delayed by around 30 minutes due to an accident and subsequent barrier repairs from the preceding race. I said to Darren Turner of the #97 Aston Martin in the pit lane before his stint on Wednesday evening, that he should ask for some extra air-conditioning for his car. He laughed and said it was already cranked up to the max, but he might just cut a few extra holes in the bodywork to help matters.
By the end of the evening in the GTE Pro class, exactly two seconds covered the first five cars in class, giving an indication of the tight competition in class. The top Porsche RSR finished Q1 in sixth place with the sister car in eighth place. The first of the Fords was in fifth place with the three other Fords occupying 11-12-13 places. In the GTE Am class the situation was repeated at the top, as the #98 Aston Martin led the class from the #77 Dempsey Proton Porsche. This is the second biggest class in the field with 16 cars, and where five-and-a-half seconds covered the whole class.
At this early stage of proceedings, you cannot read too much into the lap times, because the teams are trying to hide more than they are giving away. More teams are today saying that they prefer to spend the early sessions preparing the car for the race, and to preserve tyres or gather valuable data. So far this season, Porsche has sacrificed two wins in order to gather valuable data from Silverstone and Spa with their low downforce package. This season so far, Porsche have a second and two third places to Toyotas two wins and a second, with each team having a pole position apiece. Although race points are doubled up at Le Mans, the single point awarded for pole position in the WEC remains the same at Le Mans.
Qualifying 2 (Q2) was scheduled for Thursday 19h00–21h00, but it wasn’t long into the session that the first shunt into the Armco barriers brought proceedings to a halt. As a result of the red flag being shown from 19h30 to around 20h10, the session was extended by 30 minutes but then this too was cut short with a second red flag ten minutes from the end. It was though, during this session that Kamui Kobayashi became the second Japanese driver to earn pole position, posting a lap time of 3:14.791 seconds in the #7 TS050 Hybrid for an average speed of 251.9km/h. This time was 2.096 seconds quicker than the previous lap record on the current lay-out (set by Neel Jani in 2015 in the Porsche 919 Hybrid) while the average speed was faster than for any previous lap in the 94-year history of the event, beating the 251.815km/h set by Hans-Joachim Stuck in a Porsche 962C in 1985. This record achievement, when flashed across the big screens circuit-wide, was greeted with a roar from the crowds that would have equalled a goal in the World Cup finals.
As a result of the two red flags in Q2, the interval between that and the final Q3 night session was just 30 minutes, and not the planned one hour. The stands were buzzing with anticipation, as even faster times could not be ruled out in the slightly cooler evening temperatures. While the two-hour session between 22h00 and 24h00 did not see pole position being challenged, the second place was taken by the #8 Toyota with the #1 Porsche in third and the #2 Porsche in fourth. There was much excitement in the LMP2 class when the #26 G-Drive car snatched pole in class.
Watching the GTE Pro car times was rather like seeing the tumblers on a slot machine turning and finally coming to a stop to reveal the jackpot winner, as the order changed frequently towards the end of the session. At one point both the Aston Martins occupied positions one and two, then after an intense game of musical chairs, the #51 Ferrari split the two with the #71 Ferrari in fourth place. One of the Porsche 911 RSRs ran as high as third place at one stage, but as the competition intensified, more and more cars came up the order, and the two RSRs were pushed down to seventh and twelfth. As an indication of the level of intense competition in this class, all thirteen cars in GTE Pro can be covered by a blanket of just 1.75 seconds.
The same exciting outcome occurred in the GTE Am class, and here just 1.78 seconds covered the top ten places in the 16-car field. Here the fastest qualifier in class was the #50 Larbre Corvette followed by the #98 Aston Martin, the #62 Ferrari and in fourth place, the #77 Proton Racing Porsche RSR.
One interesting fact that could influence this year’s race, is that the LMP2 cars are quicker down the Mulsanne Straight than the LMP1 cars. This is due to the fact that the LMP1 cars are blistering quick out of the corners after braking, where their regenerative power combines with the combustion engine to launch the cars to their terminal velocity extremely quickly. The LMP2 cars on the other hand are slower out of the corners, but they build to their maximum velocity which they can then hold for the duration of the distance of the straight. Where the LMP1 cars are quick out of the blocks, they can only hold their speed for as long as their electric motors provide assistance, and so their terminal velocity is reached far quicker, but then they lose steam towards the end of the long straights. The time sheets will show you that the LMP1 cars are around 10 seconds a lap quicker than the LMP2 cars, but the challenge for the P1 cars will come when they encounter traffic because the P2 cars pack a formidable punch this year.
So in summary, we are going to witness a cracking race over the weekend. The times are fast, the competition will be intense, and the heat is set to reach a scorching 34°C on Sunday. The question will be how long the cars can sustain their blistering pace, because the Le Mans 24 Hours is more of a 24-hour sprint today, than the sustained endurance race of old. Despite there only being six cars in the top LMP1 class, one thing is for sure, this event is set to be one of the most thrilling in recent times.
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale & John Mountney