Porsche came, saw and con­quered ... again

Heartache for Toy­ota, as Ger­man ri­vals score their 19th Le Mans vic­tory

The Star Early Edition - - MOTORSPORT - DAVE ABRA­HAMS

PORSCHE’S star driver Neel Jani said it best. “You don’t win Le Mans, it lets you win.” And in 2017, once again, it didn’t let Toy­ota win. Hav­ing been cru­elly robbed of vic­tory in 2016 by an en­gine fail­ure on the very last lap, Akio Toy­oda – him­self a for­mer am­a­teur racer – was back with not two but three up­dated TS050B hy­brid LMP1 cars, an in­ter­na­tional line-up of nine driv­ers with 48 Le Mans starts be­tween them and one of the big­gest sup­port crews in Le Mans history.

Porsche, by con­trast, brought two heav­ily re­vised 919 hy­brids, and an in­tensely fo­cused team whose stated in­ten­tion was to prove that Porsche’s hy­brid sys­tem could sur­vive 5000km of flat-out pun­ish­ment – the equiv­a­lent of an en­tire For­mula One sea­son – in just one week­end. Yeah, right. They were there to take a third straight win, and it showed.

Be­fore that, how­ever, comes qual­i­fy­ing on Thurs­day night. And that’s when you re­alise just how loud these cars are. Sitting on the stands, ear pro­tec­tion is manda­tory; to give you some idea, the GTE-class Fer­rari 488s, run­ning com­pletely open pipes, are the qui­etest cars on the cir­cuit. The Gib­son V8-en­gined LMP2 cars spit and crackle and howl down the straights, the Corvettes, speak­ing with a strong Amer­i­can ac­cent, are even louder, while the shriek­ing four-litre Porsche 911 RSRs cut through ev­ery­thing.

The start, with 94 years of tra­di­tion be­hind the rit­ual, is elec­tric – but the ten­sion never lets up. No sooner have the cars set­tled in to some sort of peck­ing or­der than it’s time for the first fuel stops – each car makes about 30 – and al­ready there have been crashes and en­gine blow-ups.

The Toy­otas had been de­ci­sively quicker in qual­i­fy­ing and set the dearly pace, but af­ter three hours the No.1 Porsche had moved up to sec­ond be­hind the No.7 Porsche, fol­lowed by the No.8 Toy­ota, the No.2 Porsche and the No.9 Toy­ota.

Then dis­as­ter struck for Porsche, as the 294kW elec­tric mo­tor on the front axle of the No.2 car failed. It’s a huge job to re­place - the mo­tor has to come out through the cock­pit – and the car was in the pits for more than an hour, los­ing 22 laps and re­join­ing the race last.

By mid­night on Satur­day, it was back up to 36th, while Toy­ota No.7 was lead­ing the No.1 Porsche by just 44 sec­onds, a lap ahead of the No.9 Toy­ota, while the No.8 Toy­ota was in in­ten­sive care in the pit box.

At sun­rise, how­ever only one Toy­ota was still run­ning – the No.8 car, way down in 14th af­ter los­ing about 30 laps in the pits. One of its sis­ter cars had crashed out at about 1.30am and the other had suf­fered a ter­mi­nal me­chan­i­cal in­farc­tion. The No.1 Porsche was lead­ing, the No.2 car had fought its way back up to eighth and in sec­ond, to the team’s to­tal sur­prise, was the LMP2 Oreca of Jackie Chan DC Rac­ing.

The race, it seemed, was Porsche’s to lose but, with less than four hours to go, the No.1 Porsche broke down and re­tired. It put the No.38 Jackie Chan Oreca LMP2 in the lead, with 19-year-old rookie Thomas Lau­rent at the wheel.

All eyes turned to the No.2 Porsche, three laps down in fourth, and cir­cu­lat­ing 10-15 sec­onds a lap quicker than the Oreca. Sud­denly a podium fin­ish, and first in the LMP1 class, was on the cards for the 919.

Bren­don Hart­ley be­gan the charge of a life­time, tak­ing im­mense risks to avoid be­ing held up by slower cars, and with a lit­tle more than two hours to go he was up to sec­ond, just one lap down on the leader, and handed the car over to Timo Bern­hard for the fi­nal stint.

With al­most ex­actly an hour to go, Bern­hard moved into the lead, eigh­teen and a half hours af­ter re­join­ing the race in last place.

Af­ter the long­est hour of their lives for the en­tire Porsche crew, the pit lane erupted into an in­stant party as the No.2 Porsche of Timo Bern­hard, Bren­don Hart­ley and Earl Bam­ber came home for a stun­ning last-to-first vic­tory that will be­come the stuff of leg­end in years to come, as will the as­ton­ish­ing sec­ond-place fin­ish by the sec­ondtier squad of Jackie Chan Rac­ing.

Sun­day’s re­sult came down to the fi­nal hour, when the no.2 Porsche took the lead and never looked back.

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