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Mark Cole on Le Mans 2015, The Return of a Golden Age

It’s the A28 autoroute sign as you near Le Mans which does it for me every year, the one still showing the Group C Porsches of 30 years ago, reminding me of a golden age of sportscar racing of which I was lucky enough to be a part.

This year, 34 years on from my first visit to La Sarthe, the awareness that we are in another golden age pervaded the whole event. Eight manufacturer teams amidst the most diverse entry for three decades lifted the 83rd running of the Le Mans 24 Hours onto a higher plane.

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Once again, I was privileged to be watching it all unfold from the British Eurosport commentary box, my 15th year at the mike after previous iterations as Rothmans Porsche press officer (my first Le Mans in 1982) or Nissan Motorsports press officer, or as a journalist trying to earn an honest crust.

This year felt different from the moment the team arrived – the team being anchors Martin Haven, Jeremy Shaw and myself; the driver experts Damien Faulkner and San Hancock; the Legends and nightwatch pundits Neville Hay and Chris Parsons; and our indefatigable pit reporters Liz Halliday, Neil Cole and Adelaide de Gouvion St Cyr.

Our audience was again more than the 28m English-speaking viewers on British Eurosport in the UK and International Eurosport in Asia and Australasia this year; another 500,000 British viewers on Freeview joined us for the start and finish, Quest Channel marking the first time that Le Mans has been seen live free-to-air in the UK for more than 20 years.

There was a massive buzz in the air, with Porsche – and Mark Webber in particular – being tipped by the bookies to dethrone Audi’s long reign in the city of the Plantagenets, particularly after dominating the WEC Prologue, the first two race grids and the test weekend.

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Toyota, on the back foot this June, shocked by the gains Audi and Porsche had made over the winter, was there to pick up the pieces should either of the German teams fall, while Nissan was very much the toe-in-the-water squad, dominant in LMP2 but learning all about LMP1 on the hoof. Throw in the GTE factories, defending 24 Hours winner Ferrari, Aston Martin, Porsche and Corvette, into the mix, and we had all the ingredients for a classic Le Mans.

22 Nissan Motorsports

Safety had been very much on everyone’s mind, remembering Allan Simonsen’s fatal accident in 2013 and then Jules Bianchi’s life-changing wet-weather crash at last October’s Japanese GP. The WEC contributed with additional flashing rain lights for LMP cars following Nakajima’s accident at Spa, while the ACO reacted with further changes to the track, resurfacing Dunlop and the Bugatti section. They also widened the hard-standing from Arnage to Porsche Curves, where gravel beds had been extended by 30 metres following Loic Duval’s massive practice crash last year, whilst working jointly with the WEC to introduce 80kmh yellow zones to try to avoid race-ruining safety car periods.

Eduardo Freitas and his WEC team also mandated additional rear rain lights for LMP, as well as introducing tyre restrictions for the first time at Le Mans: 12 race sets for LMP1, 16 race sets for LMP2 and GTE, something that would not, as it turned out, be an issue for anyone.

Eurosport would be live for more than 40 hours over the next five days, from the moment the first wheel turned on Wednesday afternoon for the four-hour practice session, one which would soon be punctuated by rain showers and offs. We posited that with heavier rain forecast for Thursday, Q1 at 10pm the first night would see teams going for banker laps to ensure good grid places. And so it proved, with the first flying laps by Neil Jani, Timo Bernhard and Nick Tandy at 3m 16s, 3m17s and 3m 18s respectively setting the bar for the rest of qualifying, positions which would never be beaten.

Defending world champion Toyota – with only two cars against the three each of Porsche, Audi and Nissan, had by now made it clear it was rethinking its technology for 2016, moving to a smaller twin-turbo power unit and a battery energy-storage system in place of its super-capacitor, not only because it was aware how much it had fallen behind its rivals, but also reacting to the threat from Nissan.

2 Toyota Racing

Nissan had come to La Sarthe knowing that it could do no more than hope for a finish. Ben Bowlby’s radical front-engined design proved to be quick in a straight line, carrying its hybrid systems but unable to use it to power the back wheels. Darren Cox told us that when everything is eventually working, up to 1600bhp will be delivered through its four-wheel drive, but the priority had been to get to Le Mans, “there is no better testing than in race conditions,” he added.

In LMP2, Singapore driver Richard Bradley was quick straight away, setting an early pole time in his Hong Kong-run KCMG Oreca-Nissan, although it was to be plagued by fuel and suspension problems for the rest of qualifying. There was remarkable parity in the 19-car field, with less than one second covering the top four, although Murphy Prototypes was faced with major repairs after Mark Patterson, at 63 this year’s oldest runner, went off big-time in free practice. Greg Murphy told Eurosport that the car would be back on-track by 23.30; it was actually 23.35, but who’s arguing?

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Red flags amidst yellow zone tests, including one for Dominik Kraihamer’s battered Rebellion coupe, and a major fire for one of the Taiwanese AAI Porsches, punctuated much of the action on both qualifying nights, Freitas saying that he would not use the safety cars until the race itself, and then only if absolutely necessary. The promised rain didn’t materialise on Thursday night until the small hours, just as thousands of spectators were returning to the campsites, and they can attest to its biblical proportions. But even so it was a messy second night, with no less than seven cars relegated to the back of their classes as not all drivers had qualified within the requisite percentage times.

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One car that would not be starting was the #63 Corvette of Jan Magnussen, which was pitched into the Porsche Curve walls by a jammed throttle on Thursday evening. It was another of those OMG moments for those of us on-air, with massive front and rear damage to the car, but thankfully not to the Dane, whose F1 graduate son Kevin was here to cheer him on. A stone was discovered to have jammed the return spring, and Doug Feehan had no alternative but to withdraw it, leaving the #64 car of Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Jordan Taylor to carry the American flag – along, of course, with ESM Ligier, Scuderia Corse Ferrari and Patrick Dempsey’s Proton Porsche. Our own American Liz had a season-ticket to the Dempsey garage, getting plenty of air-time with the popular American actor.

We meantime had plenty of visitors to the Eurosport commentary box overlooking the Ford Chicane and pit entry, useful for spotting pit-stoppers, among them the indefatigable Hugh Chamberlain, Greg Murphy, Darren Cox, Michelin man Nicholas Goubert and former Toyota engineer Chris Herbert. Johnny Mowlem, Hans Stuck, Eric Helary and Pesca were among driver luminaries who graced our mikes.

Friday was our rest day, but only off-air: press conferences and launches filled our schedule, giving us much to talk about during the coming weekend. Among topics would be Ford’s GT return to Le Mans and the WEC next year with Ganassi; the release of LMP2 regs for 2017, restricting the category to one engine and four chassis engine suppliers (generally unpopular with those we talked to, who as one recited the mantra “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”); news of increasing LM24 grids, 58 next year and 60 in 2017, as the ACO builds further garages; growing rumours of BMW’s return to Le Mans in LMP1, reinforced by the sight of Munich engineers in the paddock incognito; the return of McLaren with a GTE programme for its GT3-winning 650S, having this year celebrated the 20th anniversary of its rookie win with Gordon Murray’s F1; and the welcome news that TVR will be back in business in 2017, that same Murray penning the car and Cosworth providing its V8 power, with a Le Mans programme slated thereafter.

All-in-all, a very healthy state of affairs; throw in the possibility of Audi, Nissan and Lamborghini coming into the GTE categories, and Formula 1 starts to look very much the poor relation of sportscar racing. Force India driver Nico Hulkenberg’s presence on the grid (his F1 team owner VJ Malay released him on the condition he could come too, bringing his motorhome!) with former grand prix colleagues Mark Webber (as voluble as ever), Anthony Davidson, Kazuki Nakajima, Alex Wurz and Nick Heidfeld adding even more colour more to that strand.

Other pleasures to take in on Friday, the city centre Driver’s Parade apart, were the Pie & Piston, an English pub in the centre of the Paddock Village hosted by Piston Heads, and the annual T-shirt from Club Arnage, which this year boasted ‘Agincourt to Waterloo’. No Gulf-liveried Reliant Robins (I wonder if they ever got home from the 2013 race?) but this year’s sticker-to-have was ‘Keep Calm and Go to Le Mans’.

The St Saturnin Classic Welcome did its usual business welcoming some of the 85,000 Brits making the trek to La Sarthe, and Friday’s rain saw it doing a brisk trade in umbrellas, particularly for those with open cars. The Le Mans Legends Café off Republique was also doing roaring business all week, drivers, media and fans alike congregating there, us amongst them.

And so to Saturday morning; driving in at 7am from our 18thC manor house fifteen minutes from the circuit to prepare for the Warm-Up and Legends race, queues were already forming, and by 3pm 270,000 spectators would have filled their stand seats or vantage points around the 13.6 km road circuit for what is now the world’s biggest race, and the one which every car maker wants to win.

Normally the Warm-Up should be a straightforward session for teams to check all is well after the work they have done since qualifying, but no sooner were Chris, Neville and I on-air than the GTE-Am Larbre Corvette was heavily shunted into the same wall which Mags hit on Thursday evening. Gianluca Roda walked away, but the collateral damage was that Pratt & Miller was planning on taking this car to Watkins Glen two weeks hence to replace the wrecked #63 factory car. Fehan threw all available Corvette Racing staff at Jack Leconte’s garage, and amazingly it made the grid with an hour to spare, a grid dominated by the five-strong Aston Martin Racing squad in both GTE categories.

50 Larbre Competition

We also covered the Le Mans Legends, Duncan Wiltshire’s eclectic mix of 1950s and 60s Le Mans cars, no less than 61 of them, 14 of which had raced here in period. It was a glorious panorama of all that was best of that period, particularly the Alpine which introduced slicks to motorsport at Le Mans in 1968 (leaving Michelin with a battle to convince the ACO that they were race legal!).

Their 45-minute race came to an early end when a significant amount of oil was dropped around the circuit (just what the 220mph LMP1s needed a few hours before the big race) leaving two GT40s and a Cobra on the podium. Another notable on the entry was Whizzo Williams’ Mini-Marcos, the last front-wheel drive car to run in the Le Mans 24 Hours until this year’s Japanese foray.

What a 24 Hours grid we had this year! Formed up under the insouciant gaze of French president Francois Hollande, the first to grace the race since Georges Pompidou in 1972, when Matra-Simca fittingly won with F1 drivers Pescarolo and Graham Hill – there were 55 runners and 165 drivers, among them 46 rookies. FIA president Jean Todt stood with Hollande, as yet another president, Bill Ford, started the race 49 years after the US motor giant’s first of four victories here.

Right from the off, this was a race which Porsche looked like winning, provided its 919s did not suffer the engine failure which had ended its race-leading run after 22 hours last year. It wasn’t going so well for Porsche’s 911 squad however, as Patrick Pilet had to bail out of his blazing Manthey car bang on the first hour; the sister car would later be out with a gearbox failure.

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Their big brothers, however, continued to pile on the pressure, and while Audi gave valiant chase, the Five Rings appeared at the top of the timing sheets only three times at the hour-marks during pitstop cycles – from Hour 10 onwards it was Porsche all the way, and by Hour 19 the best Audi, the #9 of Bonanomi, Albuquerque and Rast, had gone down a lap. Punctures and safety-car separations hadn’t helped Audi either.

Audi’s real woes had started in the 3rd hour, when local hero Loic Duval went into the Indianapolis barriers avoiding cars slowing for a ‘phantom’ yellow, and then two rear bodywork issues dropped the #8 further back. Neither was as dramatic as the same issue for the #7 Audi, carrying the number which took Joest Porsches to four outright wins, when Marcel Fassler had half the rear deck peel off exiting Porsche Curves, and lost two laps in repairs. Further delays for an oil top-up and a drive-through dropped Leena Gade’s three-times winner to 5th, but after the further problems for #8 and a hybrid problem for the then 3rd-placed #9 which required a rear corner to be changed, ‘Lucky 7’ found itself back on the podium behind the #19 and #17 Porsches. The #18 Porsche proved to be the unlucky one, both poleman Neil Jani and Romain Dumas skating off into the same Mulsanne barrier in the 7th and 11th hours respectively; both lost time in recovery and pitting for new nose sections.

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Jeremy Shaw had been meticulously recording all this in the commentary booth, determined not to sleep so that he would miss no pit stop (30 for the #19 car, compared with 29 for the winning Audi last year), no leader change or no tyre change, particularly as Porsche was quadruple-stinting its Michelins in the cooler night. A first for us this year was all-night camera coverage all around the track, something which in previous years was restricted to fixed CCTV cameras away from the live pits coverage; we surmised that we might have known more about Mike Rockenfeller’s crash had they been installed in 2011. It kept Neville and Chris on their toes (as it were) during the graveyard shift, with non-stop action.

Our driver experts, Damien and Sam (who was slated to drive a lightweight E-type in the Legends race, but never got on board after electrical failures in both qualifying the race), gave our viewers onboard insights into what a driver would be thinking, how he would be reading the traffic and how he was reacting to changing situations, particularly during the yellow zone periods, which we likened to coming into a village with 30mph signs – you need to have slowed to that speed by the time you enter, then you speed up again once you have left, all shown to you on what Sam described as a mini ‘Tom-Tom.’

Throw into that the four safety-car periods which race direction had to employ as there was debris or barriers which had to be repaired, the drive-through penalties for speeding, not respecting track limits or passing under yellows, and you had the ultimate mix of variables to talk your way through. The one thing that we couldn’t do was see their race strategy in real-time, only guess at it, sometimes prompted by team/driver radio traffic.

Toyota came through all this with a near-faultless race, with no reliability issues for either car, although 13m was lost in repairs for #1 when Davidson ran into a GTE car, and the #2 squad of Wurz (running what he told us might be his last Le Mans), Sarrazin and Conway finished one lap ahead in 6th. But that 6th place was 8 laps down on the winning 919. Toyota director Pascal Vasselon told our pit team “we knew we would not be as fast as Porsche and Audi, but we thought they would have reliability problems for sure. We estimated that without problems we would be 20 minutes down – and we were not far off.”

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The other Japanese entrant, Nissan, continued its extended test programme, quietly gathering data and eventually getting the #22 car of last year’s LMP2 winner Harry Tincknell with Michael Krumm and Alex Buncombe to the chequered flag, but an unclassified 150 laps down on the winners after eight hours in the garage. There will be no excuses for 2016; we reminded Darren Cox of Nissan VP Andy Palmer’s promise made in May 2014 that Nissan would win Le Mans within two years, noting at the same time that Palmer left for Aston Martin soon after…

LMP2, as ever, provided enthralling action, with KGMG putting its practice and qualifying problems behind it, running at the head of an eight-car train for much of Saturday. Last year’s winning Jota Gibson squad was the first to blink, an upshift problem losing Oliver Turvey three laps, then Thiriet’s Tristan Gommendy, who had led for eight laps at one stage, was taken out of the race by the GTE-Pro pole Aston Martin of Fernando Rees, who arrived at the first chicane with no brake pedal on his out lap following a pad change.

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With no let up, KCMG then resumed the lead, but two slips, one for Bradley when he lost 2m at Mulsanne having gone off, and then Nic Lapierre ran off at Indianapolis, cost them valuable time. The margin between them and the recovering Jota, which had astounding race pace, was just 48 seconds at the chequered, with the G-Drive Ligier of the also-quick Sam Bird, Roman Rusinov and Julien Canal (despite an early refuelling fire) 3rd still on the lead lap.

Both GTE categories were finally decided by crashing Aston Martins, the aforementioned Pro pole-sitting Rees Hanergy Vantage losing 17 laps after its brake failure. By then we had already lost Rob Bell’s #97 Gulf car with a broken oil feed, and Nicki Thiim’s Dane Train Gulf car went down seven laps with power steering failure, something which also afflicted AM in last year’s race.

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That left the field open to Corvette and Ferrari to slug out the win, which the Americans took when both AF Corse struck problems. The 2014-winning #51 Ferrari lost 30m in the pits with gearbox issues, while the #71 lost four laps with an alternator change. That gave Corvette with a five-lap lead all the way to the chequered, for the first time since 2011, despite losing a car in qualifying. It was Oli Gavin’s fifth Le Mans victory, Tommy Milner’s second and for Jordan Taylor a first.

In GTE-Am, all Aston Martin had to do was get its two cars to the finish, but that wasn’t going to happen; first Roald Goethe, sharing his Gulf Vantage with our Eurosport colleague 2103 world champion Stuart Hall and rookie Franceso Castellacci, plunged head-first into the concrete wall exiting Porsche Curves, as he was being passed by Hulkenberg. Whether there was contact is unclear, but Roald had to be extricated from the car with two crushed vertebra and a fractured sternum; he is now recuperating at home in Monaco.

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The #98 car had dominated the race from the pole position on which Pedro Lamy had placed it, but Canadian Paul Dalla Lana inexplicably shot into the wall in the Ford chicane at barely unabated speed with just 52 minutes remaining. He walked away, leaving Lamy and Mathias Lauda to muse on what might have been…

That left the SMP Ferrari to pick up the baton, despite Vikto Shaytar having put the car off at Indianapolis at 9.00 that morning, but he, fellow Russian Aleksey Basov and the ever-dependable Andrea Bertolini shared the win. They had two laps in hand over Patrick Dempsey’s Proton Porsche shared with Pat Long and Marco Seefried, Dempsey concentrating on a fulltime race career now that Gray’s Anatomy has come to an end.

But Le Mans this year, we summed up, was all Porsche’s, ending the 10-year hiatus since a petrol-engined car (Audi’s R10) last won, giving Stuttgart its 17th outright victory at La Sarthe. The last was in 1998, also a 1-2, and also with a rookie on board the winning car: Laurent Aeillo, sharing the factory GT1 98 with Allan McNish and Stephane Ortelli. This was Porsche’s 65th participation at Le Mans, starting with a 356 in 1951.

The Hulk thus became the first current F1 driver to win Le Mans since Johnny Herbert and Bertrand Gachot took Mazda to Japan’s only win in 1991, with fellow rookie Earl Bamber earning his drive as the 2014 Porsche Supercup champion. Nick Tandy was running his third Le Mans (7th in GTE-Pro last year for the factory Manthey team), and earned a coveted Autosport green cover.

It had been a classic 24 Hours, and despite France Meteo’s worst predictions, the rain kept away for the race. But not for driving home on Monday morning. As I headed north through torrential rain and spray, I just caught a rear glimpse of that iconic autoroute sign: not that much has changed in thirty-three years…

As always, our ratings from the Eurosport commentary box:

Drivers of the Race:

LMP1: Nick Tandy for his tour-de-force in the dark, quadruple-stinting the tyres over midnight, immediately fast and consistent, at the same time looking after the winning Porsche well enough for Bamber to be able to ease it into the lead before dawn. Modest about his achievement, Nick fully deserves this accolade.

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LMP2: Richard Bradley, the British-born Singapore driver, put the KCMG Ligier-Nissan firmly on pole early in qualifying, despite having an initially unreliable car under him. Once the race was under way, however, the reliability came back, and his speed, allied to that of Matt Howson and pro-driver Nic Lapierre, won them the race

Richard Bradley

Team of the Race:

Porsche, for presentation, performance and its 17th overall win in the 65 years it has been coming to Le Mans. The three 919s encapsulated the whole mood of La Sarthe in their different liveries; some might say that ideally the #17 red-and-white 1970-winning 917 livery of Mark Webber should have won, but the black-and-white #19 car made its own luck, and we still had an F1 driver on the top step.

Car of the Race:

Rebellion missed the first two WEC races as it worked to ready its Oreca-built R-One coupes for Le Mans. The result was a stunning-looking pair of AER-powered V6 turbocars, which against all odds went the distance. They also proved quick: Dominik Kraihamer claimed second top speed overall in qualifying, second only to Filipe Albuquerque’s #9 Audi, running 339.1 km/h without hybrid punch.

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Newcomer of the Race:

Nico Hulkenberg and Earl Bamber join the pantheon of debut winners of the 24 Hours. Discounting Andre Laganche and Rene Leonard who won the first edition in 1923 for Chenard & Walcker, rookie winners have included Laurent Aeillo, Christophe Bouchut and Eric Helary.

Looker of the Race:

Extreme Speed Motorsport couldn’t show their striking green-and-black Tequila Patron livery because of the French alcohol advertising ban, so Ed Brown called on Rolling Stone magazine to step in with a similarly eye-catching design. We ran an on-air quiz as to who appeared on the first cover of the San Francisco music journal in 1967: few identified it as John Lennon in How I Won the War. We did consider Aston Martin’s Tobias Rehberger art car for the prize, but it gave us all migraines.

31 Extreme Speed Motorsports

Moment of the Race:

Must go to Loic Duval at 200mph as he realised the gaggle of cars ahead of him were slowing for a ‘phantom’ yellow zone light, leaving him with nowhere to go but the barriers. In way it so often is with Audi, he lost less than a lap in getting the car back to the garage, repaired and back out, thanks to the safety car period he had created as the barriers were repaired.

Excuse of the Race:

Has to be Krohn PR Barbara Burns, who was asked umpteen times why her airline owner boss Tracy was off the track more than on it in his lime-green Ligier. She patiently explained that the car was suffering from an electrical glitch, which was disengaging traction control at the most inopportune times. Tracy, whose driving partnership with Nic Jonsson set a new record at ten Le Mans starts together, still managed to haul the car home 12th in LMP2 with help from Nic and Joao Barbosa.

Emotions of the Race:

The good doctor, Audi’s Wolfgang Ulrich, was caught with a tear in his eye by our cameras on several occasions. Whether it was because he could feel that 154h victory slipping away, or that he was pleased for VAG partner Porsche, was difficult to tell.

Patrick Dempsey was also in the running, overjoyed to have made the second step of the podium he has dreamed of for so many years.

Mark Cole