The 90th anniversary running of the Le Mans 24 Hours will be remembered not so much for Audi’s 12th victory since 2000, as for Allan Simonsen’s fatal crash and for the inordinate number of incidents which brought out seven red flags in practice and qualifying, and triggered 12 safety car periods in the race for a record 5 hours and 27 minutes – reducing it to the Le Mans 18.5 Hours.
From British Eurosport’s point of view, it was not so much a disjointed race as a fractured one, as a large number of those incidents resulted in damage to Le Mans’ ageing barriers, which required lengthy rebuilds, doing little for the high-profile image of the race as diggers and rail and post-laden trucks circulated with the safety car trains.
Allan’s death was the first during a race on le Circuit Permanent de la Sarthe in 27 years. I was at Le Mans for the fifth time in 1986, when Jo Gartner’s Kremer Porsche flew off the Mulsanne Straight into a telegraph pole and trees at 2am Sunday morning; the popular Austrian died instantly as the car broke up over 200 metres. The Group C field circulated for 2 ½ hours behind the safety car as track workers replaced the two-tier barriers which the black 962C had torn up.
In those days, press communications were by landline telephone and fax machines, and those of us still working in the media centre at that hour had no information other than a car had gone off and the unnamed driver was being treated by circuit medical staff. It was an hour before we were told that he had died instantly.
National newspaper correspondents, returning to the circuit after a good night’s rest, showered and breakfasted, asked “anything happen during the night old boy?” We sportscar journos in the media centre, still in shock, ignored them.
I was there at the 1997 test day when 21-year old Sebastian Enjolras crashed his WR-Peugeot at the Porsche Curves after the one-piece body detached, and he was killed instantly; his team had the unenviable task of telling his father Michel, who was on the Tour de Corse managing the Peugeot WRC squad.
Both accidents resulted in changes: Enjolras’s in the banning of one-piece bodywork, Gartner’s in a third-tier of guardrail being added around the whole circuit, but some of those rails, affixed to posts mounted in the sandy soil of La Sarthe, are much as they were at the end of the 1980s.
Inevitably, there was much discussion about the suitability of three-tier guardrails to contain 220mph prototypes and 180mph GT cars in 2013, plenty of it in the Eurosport commentary box, in which the sports channel was installed for a 10th year as the host broadcaster. It was my 31st Le Mans since my first as Rothmans Porsche press officer in 1982, and the rest of our team – Martin Haven, Carlton Kirby, Jeremy Shaw, Neville Hay and Chris Parsons, and drivers Liz Halliday and Damien Faulkner – were all 24 Hours veterans too.
Again our English-language service reach was to 33 million households, not only in the UK and Europe, but in the Asia-Pacific region, and in Australia and New Zealand. Add to that our internet Eurosport Player service, and we were truly global as we covered 40 hours live from Wednesday through to Sunday afternoon.
This year’s race week had started so well – the prospect of Audi versus Toyota, despite the latter’s lacklustre test day showing; the 22-strong LMP2 field of which at least half could be said to start favourite; the return of Porsche after a factory absence of 14 years to take on Aston Martin, Ferrari and Corvette; and the return of Viper after a 13-year absence.
We almost went two cars down before track proceedings started; the Kodewa Lotus team became embroiled in a civil court action in Le Mans, reminiscent of past car seizures at Spa-Francorchamps in litigious Belgium. This year’s weather too was reminiscent of Spa and its neighbour the Nürburgring, unseasonably cold for late June, with rain thrown in for good measure.
It was the rain which accounted for most of the red flags on Wednesday and Thursday nights, dropping on one side of the circuit but not the other, catching out the unwary. Every time we settled into a theme in the commentary box, someone else would be in the barriers, out would come the red and off would go the work crews.
American Tracy Krohn’s was the most spectacular, just downhill from Scotch Corner (scene of Allan McNish’s monster 2011 crash), his green Ferrari back-ending the Esses barriers and ending both practice and his lime-green 458. A call to Italian GT regulars Edil Cris Racing in Bergamo saw the Italian team’s transporter arrive the following day after an 1100-km dash, and their black Italian GT racer was transformed from a GT3 car into a GTE-Am after a nine-hour shift by the Krohn crew, during which they used 500 tie-wraps and consumed 500 cups of coffee, as Barbara Burns related to us!
Among those vociferous about the guardrail problem was that doyen of team owners, Hugh Chamberlain, visiting us as he does every year for his take on the 24H in particular and sportscar racing in general. “They’ve got to look at a better solution,” he said, as we watched track workers banging in oak posts with a sledgehammer. “The posts have to be anchored better, you can’t just bang them in, and you can’t concrete them in during the race.” Concrete walls, such as they have in Porsche Curves, might be a solution, but they would have to be transportable ones on the public road sections of the circuit.
Audi’s Loic Duval, however, somehow found his way round the puddles and greasy corners and repeated his blinding test day pace, setting the 2013 pole a full 1.4 seconds below that of teammate Andre Lotterer in 2012. The man from Chartres, just up the autoroute from Le Mans, took fastest lap in both 2010 for Oreca Peugeot and in 2012 for Audi, so was running to form with a 3m 22.349s lap, far below the 3m 30s minimum which the ACO tried to mandate three years ago.
The drivers of 15 other cars were not so fortunate – 25% of the field was sent to the back of the grid for either failing to make the 110% class cut or not qualifying all three drivers; claims of force majeure did not cut ice with the race stewards, so we had the bizarre sight of the LMP1 Strakka HPD of Danny Watts back on Row 18 behind the two SRT Vipers, joined further back by five LMP2 cars and a host of GTs.
There was further debate in both the Eurosport commentary box and on the grid about the wisdom of starting prototypes among the GTs on safety grounds – and why they weren’t simply sent to the back of the LMP field – but the ACO would not be budged.
Few would have bet on Toyota taking this 81st edition of the race, but right from the starter’s flag – waved this year by NASCAR’s Bill France to signal the entente cordiale between United Sportscar Racing and Le Mans – Toyota was on the pace, Anthony Davidson again blindingly fast along with Sébastien Buemi and Stéphane Sarrazin. The petrol hybrids quickly moved up the LMP1 order thanks – as Michelin’s Nicholas Grubber was to tell us on-air – to different slick intermediates chosen for the damp track conditions.
The Denso Hybrids also had an extra three litres of petrol to play with at each stop – 76 litres, against Audi’s 58 diesel litres, and planned to turn this into 12 lap stints against Audi’s 10 laps.
But as soon as Simmo’s Gulf Aston Martin GTE-Am car plunged off the road and into the Tertre Rouge barriers on Lap 3, the ensuing safety car period during recovery and barrier repairs threw all strategy out of the window, and the field was also split up by the three safety cars which the ACO employs over the 13.6-km circuit. Unlike US racing and Formula 1, there is no wave-by in Le Mans racing, which effectively ruined the GT-Pro class fight by putting Ferrari and Corvette 90 seconds down on Aston Martin and Porsche in the first hour.
We did not learn of Allan’s demise until much later – initial reports, which we were careful to stress had not been officially confirmed, were that he was conscious and talking. That proved to be far from the case, when early in the evening Liz – doubling as pit reporter and commentator for Eurosport – heard Chinese whispers in the garages, which soon became fact. I was not on-air when the announcement was made, but Martin and Jeremy handled it in a tactful way. Aston Martin made the brave decision to continue to race, respecting the wishes of Allan’s family – his father and brother were at the circuit.
The 24 Hours has never been stopped in its 81 years, even after the 1955 tragedy, but it might have come very close to it this year with the continual damage to the barriers. Simmo’s teammate Fred Makowiecki was the cause of a later neutralisation when he hit the second chicane barriers head-on whilst leading GTE-Pro, happily without harm to the driver, but it did nothing to improve Aston Martin’s weekend.
The Gulf team had started as both GTE-Pro and –Am favourites, taking both poles, and carried the fight with the factory Porsche squad throughout the race. Winners of the past two years, Corvette (mysteriously slower than last year) and Ferrari were never able to close the early gap, finishing three laps down on the winning Porsche.
Porsche made a superb return as a factory – under Olaf Manthey’s aegis – for the first time in 14 years, taking the 1-2 with the new 911 RSR as a precursor to its 2014 LMP1 programme. The two cars finished on the same lap, one ahead of the third-placed Dumbreck/Mucke/Turner Vantage, and it was the Dumas/Lieb/Lietz car which won, despite an early brake-disc change.
For Dumas and Timo Bernhard (who was sharing the second car with Pilet and Bergmeister ), it was their last GT appearance; from now they will be developing the LMP1 prototype with new factory drivers Mark Webber and Neel Jani.
The signing of Jani took me by surprise, but not Webber, whom I had tipped to be signed before the British Grand Prix – I should have put money on that one!
Porsche took not only the Pro double, but clinched Am as well following another stellar drive by Raymond Narac and his IMSA Performance team. The year-old GT3 RSR performed faultlessly with 1997 GT2 winner Raymond, bronze driver Christophe Bourret and (hard to believe) Le Mans rookie Jean-Karl Vernay. It was JKV who moved the car into the lead with a three-hour shift during the night, and it was never headed again.
Toyota meantime was starting to drop back from Audi, despite its extra three litres of fuel at each stop, which allowed the Japanese petrol hybrids to run an extra lap between stops with careful fuel management. We monitored that as best we could, but the constant full-course yellows threw carefully planned strategies out of the window.
Even Lena Gade, Audi’s winning #1 car engineer of the past two years – from whom we heard plenty via the pitwall-car transmissions – was struggling, and her hopes of a hat-trick of victories with Treluyer, Fässler and Lotterer vanished with a 12-lap stop to replace the alternator.
The two sister cars had no mechanical problems, just one puncture each, which was key to giving Kristensen his ninth win, McNish his third and Duval his first.
Toyota had no major mechanical problems either, just a momentary fuel pressure problem for the #7 Lapierre car which was cured with a reboot when it rolled to a halt on the Mulsanne, costing it less than a minute. But Lapierre was at the wheel again when a storm of biblical proportions hit the circuit with two hours to go, and Nico slid off into the tyres at the Porsche Curves, comprehensively rearranging the front end. He dragged it back to the pits in best Le Mans tradition, and Pascal Vasseron’s team had it back out within six laps to finish 4th ahead of the longer-delayed #1 Audi. Vasseron told us on air “we had the perfect race until then, but Audi was faster and we could only wait for something to happen to them; but it never happened.”
Strakka HPD put its qualifying from hell behind to come through the carnage and take the petrol LMP1 privateer category as Rebellion faltered; there were crashes for both Nick Heidfeld and Andrea Belicchi in the changing conditions. But the Strakka boys – Watts, Jonny Kane and Nick Leventis – had a near-faultless run (just one spin for Jonny) despite zero water pressure.
Dan Walmsley paid particular tribute to team owner Nick: “He took on long runs when the temperatures were at their coldest and the track had the least amount of grip. His faultless performance immediately after darkness and during sunrise was the backbone of the team’s success.” It was the Silverstone team’s second success at Le Mans after taking the 2010 LMP2 win and 5th overall – this year it was 6th overall behind the factory cars.
Among other visitors to the Eurosport cabin was Zytek’s John Manchester, delighted with the all-Zytek LMP2 podium which beckoned throughout the night – two Zytek-Nissan powered Oak Morgans, and the Nissan Academy Zytek-Nissan of Greaves Motorsport. They finished with a 1-2 (Baguette/Gonzalez and Le Mans rookie Briton Martin Plowman, from Pla/Brundle/Heinemeier-Hansson). After a stunning performance throughout the week by another British rookie, Playstation gamer Jann Mardenborough, the Greaves car was passed only in the closing stages by the Alan Docking-run G-Drive Oreca-Nissan, when Michael Krumm was struggling with wet tyres on a drying track. But Jann, Michael and Lucas Ordonez found themselves back on the post-race podium when the G-Drive Oreca was excluded for an illegal fuel tank capacity – Alan Docking is appealing against the decision.
Asked about an LMP1 future for Zytek, Manchester said “no plans for our own chassis, but we are already working on engines and components for the top category for 2014.” Of the 15 Nissan V8s running this year, seven were Zytek built; Oreca now prepares its own 3.5 Nissans for its customer Oreca chassis, “but there are still Zytek parts in them,” John hastened to add.
We also had Caterham’s technical chief Mike Gascoyne drop in, the Formula 1 team embedded at Le Mans with the second Greaves Zytek, F1 engineers working with Jacob Greaves’ regular crews in an appraisal exercise. “Yes, Caterham Group is certainly looking at sportscar racing,” Mike told us. “F1 and sportscar racing complement each other; both have the highest technology in motorsport.”
Hopes of giving Tom Kimber-Smith his fourth Le Mans win in five starts (GT2 in 2006 with LNT TVR, LMP2 in 2010 with Greaves and in 2012 with Starworks) disappeared with front suspension problems which forced three lengthy pit stops, but it did finish, albeit 22 laps down.
Mike also took time to talk of the involvement of Caterham with Silverstone University Technical College, which opens this September at the F1 circuit. Principal is former McLaren designer Neil Patterson, who has also called in Aston Martin and McLaren among others as partners. The UTC will run race engineering and organisation courses alongside the national curriculum for 14-18 year olds in a four-term year – intensive, but that’s how you’re going to find the next Leena Gade or Adrian Newey. “We are really behind this initiative,” said Mike. “There is going to be a real need for young motorsport engineers soon, and in engineering generally. And what better place to go to school?”
No distance records were going to be broken this year, and indeed the winning #2 Audi made only 348 laps (4742.892 kms), far short of the 2010 record-breaking 397 laps (5410.713 kms), and the lowest and slowest for more than a decade. After its 12th Le Mans victory, Ingolstadt revealed performance figures for its #2 winning car;
* It made 34 pitstops, taking on 1972 litres of diesel; the second-placed Toyota took on 2280 litres in 30 pitstops. It was the eighth diesel-powered win, seven of them to Audi.
* It was the second win for chassis number 302 after Silverstone
* It used 16 sets of Michelins (64 tyres), giving the French company its 22nd outright Le Mans victory. Audi was able to four-stint
* As in 2011 and 2012, Audi took pole, fastest lap and the win. It was the 30th outright win for a German manufacturer, and the 30th for a French driver (Loic Duval)
As always, our ratings from the Eurosport commentary box:
Driver of the Race:
Jann Mardenborough: not a name you’ll instantly recognise [unless you’re a regular reader of DSC – Ed], but you’ll know it well before long.
Just 21-years old, the personable Welshman is in only his second season of racing; the Playstation generation driver excelled in the ever-changing track conditions. When told to back off, his Greaves team had a Lewis Hamilton moment when he replied “I can’t drive any slower!”
Team of the Race:
Having taken the decision to continue to race at the request of Simmo’s family, Aston Martin earns this for struggling not only with emotions, but having to suffer another major accident at two-thirds distance, yet still making the GTE-Pro podium.
Car of the Race:
Has to be the new Porsche 991 GTE racer; Porsche came to Le Mans hoping for a reliable finish, but walked away with the Pro class 1-2.
Olaf Manthey, mastermind of so many Nürburgring 24 Hours and VLM victories, pulled off the big one against the strongest GT opposition for years.
Newcomer of the Race:
SRT – Street Racing Technology – which brought back the Vipers to Le Mans after too long an absence.
SRT’s Ralph Gilles and Bill Riley won over the crowds with their two-car team, here to test the water; last time, in 2000, the ORECA Vipers beat Corvette. The fifth-generation V10 GTS-Rs both ran solidly to the finish; who knows what next year will bring?
Looker of the Race:
HVM Status GP gets the vote for the second year running.
Again a stunning livery on the Irish Lola Coupe, although it didn’t make the finish, Canadian Tony Burgess crashing heavily in the Porsche Curves just before half-distance, fortunately with nothing worse than severe bruising.
Moment of the Race:
Tracy Krohn’s final (and terminal) off after renting and morphing an Italian GT3 runner into a Le Mans GTE-Am contestant in just nine hours.
The hire and upgrading must have cost a fortune, but Tracy and his teammates got the lime-green 458 into the race, and made one-third distance before yet another moment for the boss ended its race. Then the team had to put it all back into GT3 mode before its journey back to Bergamo. Modellers note the black roof – there wasn’t time to change that too!
Emotion of the Race:
Every team at Le Mans paid tribute to the popular Allan Simonsen in its own way: on the podium, in the garages and in their media releases. Audi extended its tribute beyond the muted (and champagne free) podium ceremony; Monday’s success ads in national newspapers also paid tribute to the Danish racer, underlining that we are all members of one big family – sportscar racing.