JUNE 15, 2015

The 2015 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans was a “great race” according to one man who should know: Tom Kristensen, the nine-time record winner and Rolex Testimonee. Mr Le Mans himself. The overall winners at the 83rd running of the race were without question the best in the field, the other class winners also deserving of praise. Luck may play a part in the race; this year’s victors could claim fairly to have earned any that came their way following exceptional performances in overcoming the stresses, strains and competition at the world’s oldest and most renowned endurance motorsport race.

This year’s contest was touted as an exceptional prospect with four major automotive manufacturers represented by eleven of the impressive fourteen strong LM P1 class. Organizers of the race, since founding it in 1923, the Automobile Club de l‘Ouest (ACO) have always placed great store by the fact that the race is a breeding ground for innovation in the automobile industry. The current regulations, introduced in 2014, place great emphasis on fuel efficiency and in the top category encourage the development of advanced hybrid technology to recover and reuse energy generated by the car during racing.

 

The LM P1 Hybrids receive a set allocation of energy per lap based on their chosen engine/ERS (energy recovery system) combination. Teams can make the choice between big engine/small hybrid system or small engine/ large hybrid assistance. For those teams that raced the 24 Hours of Le Mans last year, 2015 would be about evolution rather than revolution in terms of development.

Porsche returned to the LM P1 echelon in 2014. Although quick neither of its cars finished the race, both sidelined with reliability problems. The team made some bold decisions according to its principal Andreas Seidl: “Our objective for this year is to finish on the podium. We have added a third car, which was a big step since it is a lot more than just adding more people to the team but it gives us increased chances to do well at Le Mans.”  Every element of the car design was looked at over the winter, and a big change was made to the ERS: “The way the regulations are designed there is an incentive to go in the highest hybrid class. It was pretty clear for our concept that an 8 megajoule system was the way to go.” Early season results suggested it was a good decision: a blisteringly fast car and podium finishes were achieved if not the highest step.

For Audi, winners here last year, improvements were needed to keep ahead of their rivals and results – two wins from two races - in the World Endurance Championship (WEC) indicated the cars might not be as quick as Porsche but could depend upon the highest level of reliability in mechanical and human terms. Unlike Porsche, without a win at this level of endurance motorsport for 16 years, Audi has won 13 of the last 15 races at Le Mans.

Toyota arrived at the temple of sportscar racing on the back of winning the 2014 WEC with spirits low. Their rivals appeared to have progressed further in their close-season developments. The team was putting a brave spin on their situation, as explained by Pascal Vasselon, team Technical Director: “We have made a big step in performance, something like 3 seconds per lap. It should have been enough to keep the lead. The problem is we are facing opposition that have achieved 4 seconds. We definitely believe we have a chance because at Le Mans reliability dominates performance. If we manage the race well we can do well, but no room for mistakes.”

By contrast to the three others, Nissan were the new boys on the block. Similar to Porsche in 2014, it is a manufacturer with considerable racing experience, simply not at this rarefied level. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. In this case Ben Bowlby, Team Principal, engineering virtuoso and maverick genius: “The wish to come to Le Mans has been alive for a long time. Ours is a ground up project – an engine from scratch, build a chassis, build a team of people taking all sorts of specialists and making them work together to achieve team spirit. We are going up against 15 years of detailed knowledge. If we did exactly the same as the others it would take us a long time. By using innovation we are attempting to leapfrog the design cycle. “

And innovative it has been: a front-engine, front-wheel drive design that immediately sets Nissan apart from the rest of its competitors and every other prototype seen at Le Mans in a decade. Innovation comes at a price at a 24 hour race, especially untested, unproven innovation: “This is a very, very tightly defended crown and very hard to win. If you could just come here and win, it would be worthless. It will take us time but we have set ourselves up with the intention to be competing for victory.”

 

The 24 Hours of Le Mans is not just about the LM P1 Hybrids. 56 cars formed the grid and included a highly competitive group of LM P2 cars, whose regulations promote efficiency and economy one rung down the technology ladder from the top, and is no less closely fought.

The GTE categories – Professional and Amateur – are, according to the ACO rules, open to cars with  "an aptitude for sport with 2 doors, 2 or 2+2 seats, open or closed, which can be used perfectly legally on the open road and available for sale.” The result is a collection of highly desirable gran turismo (grand touring) sports cars from the like of Ferrari, Aston Martin, Porsche, Dodge and Chevrolet.

Slower than the prototypes the racing is no less fierce and the category forms a true link back to the origins of the race, when road going cars would be entered. The Amateur tag is another link to tradition, encouraging gentlemen drivers to participate alongside the professionals.

Approaching this year’s race with anticipation was the Chevrolet Corvette team. Fielding two cars, with one driver line up (#63) on the verge of an extraordinary triple having already won at the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring. The 13.629 km long Circuit de la Sarthe is a different prospect altogether. The Corvette’s lap times in qualification were not the best, but the team management were encouraged, according to Doug Fehan, Program Manager: “Our goal is to set up a race car that each of the drivers can drive effectively thoughout a wide range of conditions and to have the lap times at the beginning of the session to be as close as possible to the lap times at the end of the session. That is our formula for success and having won in 7 out of 15 years we must be doing something right.”

The qualifying lap times would prove the least of the team’s problems over the weekend. Techncal Director, Doug Lowth was sanguine in the team’s reasoning behind its two-car programme: “Two bullets are better than one. The cars, the team, the drivers may be 50 – 70% of how well you do at Le Mans. The rest is pure luck.” He was also prophetic. During the third qualifying session debris got caught in the throttle linkage sticking it open just as Jan Magnusson in #63 entered the demanding Porsche Curves. The resulting crash removed the car from the race, its possible rendezvous with history and its driver fortunate not to be seriously injured.

The race itself was a true spectacle. The President of France, François Hollande was in attendance. Kristensen acted as Grand Marshal to lead the field on its pace lap before the start. The starting Tricolore was waved by William Clay Ford Jr of the Ford Motor Company, who had announced the previous day the return of Ford to endurance racing in 2016, the fiftieth anniversary of its first win in 1966.

The overall race win came down to a battle between Porsche and Audi, A teutonic struggle for supremacy that would last the full race, but was effectively determined early on Sunday morning when the Audi#7, contesting the lead with the Porsche #19 ran out of luck or failed in its reliability, depending how you look at the problem with its engine cover that kept it in the garage for costly minutes. Toyota’s reliability was good enough to finish the race with both cars intact, but not to disrupt a seventeenth victory for Porsche. Nissan’s arrival was dramatic but ineffectual with all three cars failing to make the final classification.

Corvette achieved some consolation for their earlier woes, with its #64 car overcoming the concerted opposition of Ferrari to win the GTE PRO category. The Amateur victory went to #72 SMP Racing, and actor Patrick Dempsey’s second-placed finish proved highly popular. In LM P2 the victory of #47 KCMG looked thoroughly assured, leading its class from lap 19 to the finish 340 laps later. This would overlook a tense finish as rivals closed in sensing opportunity as the team and its drivers appeared to tire.

At the final reckoning the victory for Porsche was well deserved. The #19 car rode its luck, pressed home its advantage and secured its place in history. The winnig drivers Nico Hülkenburg German F1® driver, New Zealander Earl Bamber and Briton Nick Tandy were worthy winners, and duly received the specially engraved Rolex Oyster Cosmograph Daytona, the iconic chronograph created for racing drivers in 1963, along with the magnificent 24 Hour of Le Mans trophy.

The 84th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans takes place over the weekend of 18-19 June 2016. Rolex has been the official timepiece since 2001.

THE  24 HOURS OF LE MANS 2015 IN NUMBERS

Number of finishers: 55 started - 37 classified after 24 hours
Fastest lap: 3:17.465/242 km/h in lap 317 by #7 Audi, André Lotterer (the third year in a row for the German driver, and new in race record)
Distance driven by winning LM P1 #19: 395 laps/ 5,383.455 km
 (2 laps short of 2010 record of 397/5,410.713 km)
Average speed of winning LM P1 #19: 222.31 km/h
Laps led by winning LM P1 #19: 214
Winning margin in LM P1: 1 lap
Number of leader changes in LM P1: 26
Number of pit stops by #19: 30
Safety Car Periods: 2 hours, 4 minutes
Overall wins by Porsche: 17
Youngest competitor: Léo Roussl (FRA) #29: 19 years
Oldest competitor: Mark Patterson (RSA) #48: 63 years

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