Porsche came, saw and conquered ... again
Heartache for Toyota, as German rivals score their 19th Le Mans victory
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.