The build-up to one of the most anticipated editions of the Le Mans 24 Hours started early on Saturday morning, with Warm Up (covered here) followed by the wonderful and evocative sight of a grid almost full of sonorous and now irreplaceable Group C racecars.
For some of us it was a sight full of memories – not quite childhood, but of a time when we were all a lot younger, and most of us here in the press room were watching from the same side of the fence (or the TV screen) as most of you out there.
Our UK Editor, Mark Howson, will be posting a full report of the Group C race here on DSC later this week, so enough to report that the ten-lapper was won by Shaun Lynn driving the 1990 Sauber Mercedes C11 by 32 seconds over Tom Kimber-Smith in the Aston martin AMR1 from 1989. Third to cross the line was the Nissan R90CK (1990) shared by Katsu Kubota and Joaquin Folch. One of the pre-race favourites, Bob Berridge’s 1989 Sauber Mercedes C11, retired after 3 laps with mechanical woes. Bob did manage the fastest lap of the race though, clocking 3:45.863 – good enough for 27th on this year’s grid. We’re pleased to report that there were no accidents, and no serious damage, although the Mazda 767B did blow its second engine of the meeting, after just one lap.
Shortly afterwards we had a highly entertaining race from the Porsche Carrera Cup teams, with no less than 62 similarly-equipped Porsches all racing for glory. There were moments when there was a risk that the whole event might descend into a demolition derby. However, in among the drama, gravel-trap excursions, tyre blow-outs and a heart-thumping moment when the eventual winner, Ben Barker in the Parr Motorsport car #130 very nearly got airborne on the Mulsanne, this was great nose-to-tail racing. Congratulations to Paul Robe’s team at Parr Motorsport for taking the win, although it has to be conceded that this was largely thanks to an unfortunate tyre failure for the erstwhile leader, Kevin Estre in the #13 on the last lap. The win comes for Parr at their first return to Le Mans after a gap of 18 years.
With the Porsches cleared off the track, the real build-up could begin. With the enthusiastic tones of Bruno Vanderstick echoing round the circuit, a series of parades heralded the arrival of this year’s racecars, staged in qualifying order and pushed out onto the track to take up position, herringbone style, along the pitwall. National anthems, VIP grid-walks and the presentation of all the support crews, ranked in military precision (well, some of them!) alongside their charges, made for great spectacle and atmosphere.
At twenty-past two the cars set off to complete a lap of the track before moving through to their rightful positions on the grid, although most elected to go for a trip through the pitlane first and thereby benefit from the experience of a second lap and full tanks. That gave the #35 G-Drive Ligier the honour of being the first to take up its grid slot, followed by the two SMP LMP2 Orecas and the #29 Pegasus Racing Morgan.
Eight minutes before the scheduled start, and the peacock-blue Audi R8 pace car, driven by last year’s winner Allan McNish, started off up the hill towards the Dunlop Chicane, followed moments later by Alexander Wurz in the #7 Toyota on pole, followed by Neel Jani for Porsche (#14), Nicolas Lapierre for Toyota and Timo Bernhard in the second Porsche. This was very much a ‘parade’ lap, but one that built up steadily towards an ear-splitting crescendo.
Rounding the final elements of the Porsche Curves, the traditional playing of the theme from 2001, A Space Odyssey, thumped out across the pubic address – there’s no mistaking that classic roll of the timpani!
The final snick through the Ford Chicane and McNish pulled aside to release the front row, and a tension-inducing hold from Wurz. Up above, on the gantry, Fernando Alonso gave the French tricolour a flourish to signal the official start of the race, just as the Austrian floored the throttle. The lead Toyota leaped away across the start line to begin the 82nd running of the Le Mans 24 Hours, immediately opening up a significant lead.
It’s a remarkably clean start, and throughout the field there are no incidents, and precious few position changes either, as all 54 cars set off on the opening lap of the race. One of the few moves comes from Marco Bonanomi in the #3 Audi, up one position. Another of the movers was Harry Tincknell (#38 Jota Zytek) in LMP2, almost immediately through into the lead of the class, and establishing an early lead on Tristan Gommendy in the #46 Thiriet by TDS Ligier.
As so many had predicted, the battle for the leading places was always going to be close at this early stage in the race, and it was tightest in the contest for second, third and fourth, with Andre Lottere up to fourth in the #2 Audi, squeezing ahead of Bernhard in the #20 to take the place on the run down to the Ford Chicane as the leading group came round to complete the opening lap. The rebellions crossed the line together in 8th and 9th, ten seconds off the lead.
In GT, an impressive start for Sam Bird in the GTE-Am #81 Ferrari, running second in GT behind Gianmaria Bruni (AF Corse #51), class-leading GTE-Pro from Jan Magnussen, second in Pro but third in GT for Corvette.
Meanwhile we’d seen more place changes at the pointy end, with Kristensen (#1 Audi) through to fifth ahead of Bernhard (#20 Porsche) while the lead Porsche, Jani in the #14, was managing to hold second against a determined challenge from Nicolas Lapierre in the #8 Toyota, who was setting the quickest laps of this opening period.
Ten minutes into the race and our thoughts were taken back twelve months, to the same moment so early in the 2013 race when we lost one of the shining stars in this ever-dangerous sport. Allan Simonsen; taken from us then, far, far too soon, but not forgotten since.
In the class he dominated, Nikki Thiim was bringing the #95 GTE-Am Aston Martin Vantage through into second in the class, but seven positions overall behind the class leading Sam Bird.
Four laps into the race and Lapierre was setting yet another fastest lap for the event, closing a little on Wurz, and these two easing clear of the rest of the pack, at least by a little.
Mid-field, the Nissan ZEOD RC was still running strongly, and had moved ahead of all the GT cars to be running 26th overall, ahead of the #27 SMP Oreca, which was slowing in anticipation of a first and quite lengthy pitstop.
One of the tightest groups remained the head of LMP2, and particularly second place, since Tincknell had managed to extend a modest lead of almost a second, but a breather none the less. Behind him, though, the next five had taken on the aspect of an express train, so closely packed that they might as well have been coupled together like carriages on a rail track. At the back of these, Olivier Pla was looking good, but most impressive was Alexandre Imperatori in the KCMG machine, making up places despite the intensity of the fight.
All eyes were on the leading pack though, and it was chop and change, time and again. Lotterer passes Jani, so the #14 Porsche dropped to fourth behind a Toyota one-two and Audi third. Wurz was upping his game, now posting new race-fast laps for the leading Toyota, and the whole group was clocking regular mid 3:23s. having lost third, Jani was coming under increasing pressure from Bonanomi and Kristensen in the next two Audis and, if anything, the Porsche gave all the appearance of holding up the Audis, especially through the twistier sections.
The situation in GT had started to look more colourful on the screens, with a mix of Pro and Am throughout class. Thiim had moved up a few more positions in the Aston, but Sam Bird had lost position to Jan Magnussen, with the #73 Corvette through to 28th overall, but still second in Pro behind Bruni, the class leader, who was still setting new fastest laps for the #51 AF Corse Ferrari. However, this was falling well short of the pace being set by the next car up the track; the ZEOD RC, still setting consistent sub 3:50 laps.
With 20 minutes gone the leaders had caught up with the tail-enders, and for the first time this introduced the additional challenge of negotiating slower traffic. Kristensen took advantage, and moved through to fifth, after Bonanomi tripped over a GT Porsche on the run down the Mulsanne – but Bonanomi promptly regained the place as the two come through the Mulsanne Corner. Meanwhile, Lotterer had gained second after Lapierre spun at the second chicane, although he recovered quickly enough with just six seconds lost.
The first significant disappointment of the 2014 24 Hours came with 24 minutes completed, when the #0 ZEOD RC was seen coasting slowly along the margins out of Arnage towards the Porsche Curves, Wolfgang Reip in the cockpit. We subsequently heard that the innovative technology had worked faultlessly, but the conventional gearbox had, once again, failed. Just as we’d seen on Wednesday evening, the enormous torque of the combined electric and conventional powertrain had proven too much. All credit to this year’s Garage 56 project, they have achieved so much, with records on Thursday, with an all-electric top speed of over 300 kph on Thursday, and then a full lap of the track on electrical power in Warm-Up this morning. Officially, then the ZED became the race’s first retirement.
No such troubles for Harry Tincknell, who was establishing quite a healthy lead in LMP2, but over the imperious Imperatori in the KCMG Oreca, who had continued his upward climb, working through from fifth to second. His progress aside, the rest of LMP2 continued to jostle in line-astern, with few positional changes.
It was at this time that we saw the first of this year’s “slow zone” periods, introduced along the Mulsanne between the first and second chicanes so that the marshals could clear away the heavy distribution of gravel that had resulted from Lapierre’s spin in the #8 Toyota. Tom Kristensen took this as an opportunity to make an early refuelling pitstop in the #1 Audi, and he managed to return to the track without losing much ground at all.
That left Wurz leading by a sizeable 18 seconds from Lotterer, who held four seconds over Lapierre, and then Jani, Bonanomi, Bernhard and the two Rebellions. That was all about to change when the #14 Porsche stuttered out of Arnage, and began a slow trundle back to the pitlane, white flags heralding its arrival. The car was hauled back into the garage with a possible fuel-related issue. The Porsche Hybrid joined the SMP prototypes, both of which were now in their garages – Minassian’s #37 with what was though to be a faulty alarm, while Mika Salo’s #27 hadn’t moved since returning there at the end of the third lap.
Thirty-five minutes completed and full-course racing resumed within the lifting of the slow zone. Meanwhile, and perhaps at just the wrong time, a whole stack of cars (mostly LMP2) headed for the pitlane. They would not draw the same benefit from the slow-zone that Kristensen had identified, and the wiser heads were advising Harry Tincknell (#38), Christian Klien (#43) and Pierre Ragues (#50), all of whom stayed out to leader the class.
Significantly, however, that raft of pitstops included the #42 Greaves Zytek, allowing Tom Kimber-Smith to hand over driving duties tom Matt McMurry, the young American thereby gaining his place in the history books as the youngest ever competitor in the Le Mans 24 Hours, aged just 16.
The LMP2 leaders pitted 38 minutes into the race, while out on track Jan Magnussen had briefly taken the lead in GTE-Pro from Gianmaria Bruni, with team-mate Olly Gavin adding to the threat in the second Pro Corvette.
With almost 45 minutes gone, Lotterer pitted the second-placed Audi, leaving Wurz (#7) leading comfortably over Lotterer (#2), with Lapierre (#8) third, Bonanomi (#3) fourth, Bernhard (#20) fifth and Kristensen (#1) sixth.
The uneven pitstops in LMP2 certainly helped to split what had been a very tight procession, and adjust the order to boot. Imperatori continued his impressive start by holding the lead over pole-setter Gommendy second and Jan Mardenborough third, but long-time leader Harry Tincknell had slipped to fourth.
As the first hour approached its conclusion, things really started to heat up in LMP1. Bernhard managed to get the #20 Porsche ahead of Kristensen in the #1 Audi for fifth, but the Dane snatched it back again a few seconds later, and they started swapping places almost corner-by-corner, until Kristensen managed to gets a tail ender in between the two and generates some breathing space. Lapierre, meanwhile, was catching Lotterer for second, and took the place into the Mulsanne Corner, only for Lotterer to regain the position into Indianapolis. This was great racing, and exactly what the sport needs. Bonanomi then snatched third from Lapierre after a nifty negotiation of an Aston Martin under the Dunlop Bridge. It was all thrilling stuff.
It was much the same in GT, where Bruni had recovered the lead in GT from Magnussen second, with while Darren Turner had moved up to third when Oliver Gavin made the first of the GT pitstops. A lap later, and they were all at it, and the pitlane started to look like the M25 at rush hour. This allowed Nicolas Armindo in the #76 to take the overall GT lead for Am, ahead of Pumpelly in the #66.
The hour concluded with a flurry of further GT activity, as the #79 sustained a puncture and the #61 Ferrari headed for the gravel at the Mulsanne Corner following contact with the #35 Ligier. As the clock ticked over into the start of the second hour, the pitlane was busy once more with the GTE-Am leaders, while the overall order stood at #7 leading from #2, #3, #8, #1 #20, #12 and #13, with the #47 leading P2 ahead of #35, #46 and #38.