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Le Mans 24 Hours: Wrapping Up LMP, Porsche Ends Audi’s Dominant Run

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Audi’s string of five consecutive wins at Le Mans is over.

Porsche took the marque’s first overall win at La Sarthe since 1998 after a magnificent and almost faultless 395 lap run to the flag by the #19 Porsche 919 of Earl Bamber, Nick Tandy and Nico Hulkenburg. The #17 of Mark Webber, Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley came home second to make it a Porsche 1-2, and the first of the Audis – the #7 of André Lotterer, Marcel Fässler and Benoît Tréluyer rounded out the top three.

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Bamber took the lead at 6:30am on Sunday and didn’t let up from there; out of the darkness the third non-points-scoring entry for the Stuttgart-based marque controlled proceedings to secure Porsche’s 17th overall win.

Porsche led from the beginning of the race, when the #17 immediately stole the lead off the polesitting #18 on the opening lap. It wasn’t long though before Audi upped its performance, caught up, and placed themselves firmly in the fight for the lead.

Throughout the race Audi showed flashes of un-worldly pace, breaking the all-time race lap record on two occasions – the second being a 3:17.476 tour by André Lotterer in the closing stages. But the R18s couldn’t sustain such speeds, and once the temperature around the circuit dropped as night fell over La Sarthe, the 919s were able to push their tyres and match the pace of Audi.

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The race turned into a battle between the #19, #17 and #7 in the second half, as the other factory LMP1s hit trouble.

All three Porsches ran reliably, (the #18 was hindered not by mechanical woes, but by having to undergo bodywork repairs), which is remarkable after small niggles during the start of the team’s WEC campaign this year. Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber in particular held a consistent pace throughout their stints as the car ran without any hiccups; it was ultimately the difference between winning and coming home second.

Brendon Hartley overtook under yellows which meant the #17 had to serve a minute stop/go penalty that the car would never recover from. It came home to bookend the 1-2 a lap behind the Tandy, Hulkenberg, Bamber car. The #18 meanwhile had an off at Mulsanne Corner with Romain Dumas driving which required repairs to its front-end to continue on its way to fifth overall.

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Audi had the pace to win the race, but uncharacteristic errors and minor issues plagued its chances. In what was a classic endurance race of staying out of trouble rather than tussling on track, multiple garage visits for the #7 left Tréluyer, Lotterer and Fässler wondering what could have been after showing their usual abilities to drive rapidly in all conditions. Part of its engine cover blew off which required work and further temporary tank-tape repairs towards the end. The oil needed topping up during their final push too.

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Loïc Duval, Oliver Jarvis and Lucas di Grassi’s chances of winning in the #8 ended early when Duval went spearing nose-first into the barriers at approach to Indianapolis. The Frenchman was avoiding a cluster of traffic that had reduced its speed to pass through a slow-zone. Repairs were relatively quick, but the #8 was on the back foot for the rest of the race, merely managing a climb to fourth. The team’s non-scoring #9 car led much of the middle segment amid impressive drives from Felipe Albuquerque and debutant René Rast, but issues with the hybrid system ended with the car crossing the line a lowly seventh.

Toyota will also leave Le Mans extremely disappointed. The pace of the TS040s was better in the race, but was still no match for the Audis or Porsches and they sat seventh and eighth for almost the entire 24. The pair was reliable, but finishing sixth and eighth is by no means an impressive result for the defending World Endurance Champions. A victory at La Sarthe continues to elude them…

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Nissan can leave France feeling elated about its efforts, but a little disappointed with the outcome. The #21 and #23 Nissans spent hours in the garage for work mainly focusing on overheating brakes caused by the hybrid systems not functioning and retired. The #22 also had a challenging run, but crossed the line unclassified as one of the few walking wounded. Nissan’s GT-R LM NISMOs were a welcome addition to the race, but the real test will come next year after the car has had an extra twelve months’ development. Will they challenge the other works entries? Let’s hope so.

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All three privateer LMP1 entries came home, but after countless hiccups. Rebellion’s #13 R-One took the ‘best of the rest’ honours in the top class and the ByKolles team will be happy to have completed more laps than all three Nissans despite finishing unclassified. In truth though, the privateer race was a battle of survival, nothing more.

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KCMG became the first Chinese team to win a class at Le Mans after a near lights-to-flag win in LMP2. Nicolas Lapierre, Richard Bradley and Matt Howson all drove spectacularly to steer the team to victory in an LMP2 race which was hotly contested, but mostly behind them.

As the race hit its stride, it seemed it would be a fight between the KCMG and TDS Racing Oreca, but in the early hours on Sunday morning the French outfit was taken out of the race by the #99 Aston Martin of Fernando Rees after a collision at the Forza Chicane. The race was never truly in doubt after that aside from two dramatic moments which saw the winning Oreca 05 briefly ground to a halt on track. Those scares coupled with a penalty didn’t make a difference to the result however, as they were just too far ahead for anyone else to capitalise.

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Second in the class was Jota Sport, who would have been nearer the front or thereabouts  had the Gibson not suffered from gear-selection issues in the opening hours. New boy Mitch Evans proved to be a star during his stint in the second half and Oliver Turvey solidified himself as one of the best prototype drivers around as the team fought its way to second from the very back of the 19-strong field over the course of the race.

Third was the #26 G-Drive Ligier of Sam Bird, Julian Canal and Romain Rusinov. The team never looked poised to fight for the win barring any major issues hitting the leader, but they’ll nevertheless go home happy after another reliable run to a podium spot.

Murphy Prototypes claimed fourth in its Oreca 03R which was driven well by Nathanaël Berthon, Mark Patterson and Karun Chandhok but lost out on a podium spot after a couple of small incidents and a lack of outright pace.

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The remaining entries in the class all seemed to hit trouble at various points. The Greaves Motorsport Gibson’s battery going flat to take it out of the running, and the Strakka Racing DOME’s gearbox issue in the closing stages highlighted the other entries which faltered while on course for good results.

The 83rd edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours will be looked back on as a race which saw Porsche finally hit its stride since returning to prototype racing. It was quite a sight to see.

Stephen Kilbey