The final hour kicked off with drama in the other classes, with the GTE Am leader involved in a terminal accident at the Ford Chicane and causing a slow zone through the Ford Chicane.
In LMP1, by contrast, the leaders continued to circulate with unerring regularity and little drama. As the race entered its final forty minutes, several pitstops were made, including one for Brendon Hartley in the #17 from second and Albuquerque in the #9 Audi.
By half-past it was evident that some of the squads were starting to work their cars together in anticipation of the photo-finish. Neel Jani made a final pitstop in the #18 Porsche.
Amazingly, after the forecasts had all proved so inaccurate, the promised rain finally arrived with twenty minutes to go. Out at Tertre Rouge, and along the Mulsanne, a steady drizzle was developing. The teams were warned of the ‘slippery surface’, and lap times diminished accordingly.
The leader pitted with fourteen minutes to go, but what tyres were fitted wasn’t certain. Having been isolated, patchy rain was soon being reported around most of the southern sections of the track, from the first chicane through to Arnage.
Brendon Hartley was easing back as he came down the Mulsanne and headed out towards Indianapolis, allowing the #2 Toyota to take back a lap, and the reason soon became apparent. The leading Porsche, the #19, was bearing down from behind, and the Kiwi was hanging back so that Hulkenberg could catch him up. The red Porwsche pressed on to begin another lap.
The leader started lap 394 with just over six laps remaining. We’d get two more ….
14:56 and the leader began the final lap, Nico Hulkenberg, the sportscar rookie, heading towards a maiden victory, and Porsche’s first since 1998, the marque’s 17th overall at Le Mans.
Easing back as he came through the Mulsanne Corner, Hartley moved steadily through to Arnage and slowed to a crawl. Behind him, Hulkenberg was also taking it at a slower pace, keen not to have to complete another lap. The two met up and carried a train of followers with them through the Porsche Curves. It seemed appropriate that one of those cars was the #48 Murphy Prototypes Oreca, the car that introduced Brendon Hartley to sportscar racing in 2013, and saw him make his Le Mans debut that June.
Coming onto the pit straight, Hulkenberg eased the #19 forwards a touch, and surged under the gantry to take the chequered flag. The cars behind spread out across the width of the track, drivers eager to be seen in the inevitable finish-line photographs. To the cheers of those on both sides of the track, in the grandstands, and hanging over the pit wall, waving banners and flags, the 37 surviving cars came by, in groups or singly, some with doors raised, others with throttles wide open, but all acknowledged by the crowds for having achieved something special, not simply those who won their class, but those who beat Le Mans … those who simply finished.
The hour began with the laboured return of the #40 Krohn Ligier, the crew standing in anticipation with a new rear body section and freshly scrubbed tyres. The team was lucky that the carcass of the tyre survived without causing too much damage to the surrounding bodywork, but to add insult to injury, speeding in the pitlane earned another penalty – a stop-go.
At the same moment, the #34 was confirmed as the 14th official retirement.
14:12 and there was a major incident in the Ford Chicane. The GTE Am leader, the #98 Aston Martin, with Paul Dalla Lana at the wheel, speared head-on into the tyre wall on the outside of the right-hander. A slow-zone was instantly applied from 33 through 35, and several of the other cars dived straight into the pitlane.
One of those was the #26 G-Drive Ligier, with Sam Bird quickly in and out, followed a couple of laps later by Oliver Turvey. These were scheduled pitstops, and would see the second and third-placed P2 contenders through to the flag.
Nicolas Lapierre wasn’t anticipating any laurels to rest on, and continued to push hard in the #47, building on his lead, which stood at almost two minutes. He pitted the KCMG Oreca at the end of the next lap, the 350th for the LMP2 leader, and handed over to Richard Bradley for the final stint.
With half an hour to go the margin between first and second in P2 had been cut to 47 seconds, but it wasn’t enough. Without incident, that was more than enough of a buffer for Bradley, and his times were a close match to Turvey’s anyway. Only disaster could deprive the blue and silver car of victory.
Similarly, Turvey was comfortable in second, 50 seconds clear of Bird, whose times suggested that he was now content with the final podium step. Chandhok, given the honour of the final stint by Greg Murphy, was also maintaining a steady pace, two laps clear of Minassian in the SMP #27, but six laps adrift of Derani in fourth. No … everything looked very settled.
Until the rain came. We’d been promised rain all week, but this was the first time it had fallen on a live racetrack. Derani and van Overbeek pitted, and so too did Krohn, seen to be fitted with intermediates when the Ligier left the pits. The precipitation was light though, and very patchy, and most drivers weren’t even switching on their wipers. The umbrellas were going up around the spectator enclosures though. Did this race have a final twist?
Sadly, or thankfully, no, it didn’t. The cruel accident for the #98 Aston Martin was the final sting in the tail of the 83rd Le Mans 24 Hours. The rain eased off, and so did everyone on track. Hulkenberg in the leading Porsche #19 visibly slowed, allowing several of the other P1 cars to un-lap themselves in the closing minutes. He could afford to, and so could Bradley, an equally comfortable leader in LMP2.
As the race-winning Porsche began its final lap, Chandhok tucked in behind, and when they picked up Brendon Hartley in the #19 later in the lap, the photo finish was settled. Brendon’s former team-mate was a suitable backdrop to the winning view, and if it’s possible to pick out the tribute on the #48 to the late David Stephens, then so much the better.
The race-winning Porsche took the chequered flag, and the rest of the field streamed across the line, some in massed ranks behind the leading group, others in dribs and drabs. Richard Bradley, door raised on the #47 Oreca, tucked up underneath the pitwall to acknowledge the efforts of the KCMG crew. In truth, they’d not had much to do, but that’s the story of a successful Le Mans. Those who prepare well, and then run without issue, have the best chance of winning, and the #47 ran faultlessly. Apart from a couple of minor off-track excursions and a drive-through penalty, the Oreca’s time in the pitlane was restricted to routine visits for fuel, tyres and driver changes.
Perhaps that’s why class second for the #38 is so remarkable, because Jota’s journey to the chequered flag was anything but routine. Relegated almost to very last place early in the race, a combination of pace and excellent support from the engineers and mechanics saw most of that lost ground recovered.
Please see our wrap-up piece for more thought and comment on a remarkable race.
GTE Pro & GTE Am
Le Mans can be cruel and always seems to hold something back until the last.
Pedro Lamy’s efforts with his team mates to dominate the Le Mans 24 Hours in the GTE Am were spoiled in a second. With just 45 minutes of the race to go the #98 Aston Martin Vantage had gone from heroic class leader to another Le Mans entrant on the back of a recovery vehicle. Paul Dalla Lana had taken over the car in anticipation and hope of a victorious finish. But as the car ran hard into the tyre wall at the Ford Chicane, hardly losing any speed as it speared towards the end of its race, the Aston Martin Team’s mood was destroyed. Dalla Lana emerged from the car physically unscathed, but looking as if the emotional scars would last forever.
Viktor Shaytar, who had campaigned hard and not without incident, was therefore left in the lead of the GTE Am class the Aston Martin team looked like it had owned all week. The #72 SMP Racing Ferrari had featured strongly in the race, but had never truly challenged the #98 car which had been in a class of its own. But good pace from anchor man Shaytar and notably Andrea Bertolini, combined with solid work from Aleksei Basov, particularly during the night, had kept the Russian team’s car in contention.
This elevated the Dempsey-Proton Porsche to second in GTE-Am, Marco Seefried at the wheel, and lined the #62 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari up for third – this an equally well deserved result; the Sweedler, Bell and Segal car looking good all week, these two teams certainly providing some of the most thrilling entertainment in the whole GT field.
Second and third in GTE Pro might be little compensation for the leading AF Corse crew, but the category’s strength is its close competition and previous success is never guaranteed to be repeated. That said, the #51 Ferrari provided most of the excitement and looked powerful before its late issues. The team could be proud of its two car result, taking the remaining podium places. Aston Martin Racing would have to accept fourth and sixth in GTE Pro as this year’s result despite fielding a superb entry that delivered much more than this would suggest.
The Chevrolet Corvette team had to deal with the loss of one of its entries during qualifying in dramatic circumstances, with its ‘spare’ car fielded under the Larbre Competition entry also taking a battering. The #64 crew of Oliver Gavin, Jordan Taylor and Tommy Milner traded hard with the AF Corse team and the GTE Pro Aston Martins, and certainly inherited a little luck towards the end as the charging Ferrari of Bruni, Fisichella and Vilander faltered. But again, that is Le Mans. And few would deny the passionate, approachable American team its victory, last seen here in 2011 and a deserved reward for their loyal attendance at this event.
Though history may have been written elsewhere, whatever the individual outcomes the entire GT entry can be proud of continuing its fantastic pedigree in the 2015 edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours.
MP / ML