The most astonishing end to a race you will ever see. The leading #5 Toyota which was over a minute ahead, appeared to lose power along the pit straight going onto the final lap.
Porsche inherited the win that Toyota lost, with the #2 car of Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb crossing the line to the jubilant, incredulous delightof their team and supporters.
Triumph in the Porsche pits matched by utter heartbreak in the Toyota garage.
Alpine took the flag in LMP2, Ford won GTE Pro and the Scuderia Corsa Ferrari won GTE Am.
Full details of the final hour to follow …
LMP2, The final hour
Coming into the final sixty minutes of the race, everything appeared to be settled. After hours in the lead of P2, and indeed, it had been many hours, Nicolas Lapierre circulated the #36 Signatech Alpine in 6th overall, that tantalising best-ever finish of 5th by a P2 car, currently attributed in the record books first to Strakka Racing in 2010 and then Jota two years ago, tantalisingly out of reach.
The second-placed G-Drive Oreca coupé was a generous 2 minutes in arrears, but the fight hadn’t been entirely squeezed out of the team, unlikely anyway, with Sam Hignett pulling the strings. Rusinov’s lap times were still very competitive, and clocking 3:38s on a regular basis was nibbling a couple of seconds out of the Signatech lead on every tour. At twenty-past he posted a new fastest lap for the #26, a 3:36.558, demonstrating his determination to narrow the gap on the leader. Perhaps the hope was to force an error. It wasn’t an impossible dream …
Petrov held third for SMP Racing, with the #37 BR01 three laps behind the Signatech Alpine, but equally, three laps to the good on Danny Watts in the Strakka Racing Gibson. On pace alone, there wasn’t much to choose between them, but with less than an hour to run, only a disaster for one of these top three would deny them the podium.
The fastest lap for Rusinov heralded a final visit to the pits, not only for the G-Drive Oreca from second, but also the #37 SMP in third. Both completed their pitlane visits smoothly, enough fuel taken on for the run to the flag.
Thirty five minutes to go, and LMP2 perhaps seemed to be the only one of the four classes where, at a glance, the podium looked settled. After twenty three and a half hours, positions in LMP1 and GTE Am had mere seconds between them, while gaps in LMP2 were measured mainly in minutes.
With half an hour to go a succession of teams completed their final pitstops, the #27 SMP Racing BR01 from 12th overall, the #25 Algarve Pro Racing Ligier from 18th and, in amongst the P2 runners, the #1 Porsche 919 LMP1. Then, at 14:33, Nicolas Lapierre came through for a final filling and a screen-clean from the class lead.
Just over fifteen minutes to run and another, unexpected, pitstop for Petrov in the #37 SMP Racing, only minutes after his last – perhaps the previous splash’n’dash hadn’t been enough. The car was quickly fuelled, again, and was swiftly sent back out with no apparent dramas. Bruno Senna also pitted the #43 RGR Sport for fuel.
Meanwhile, the SRT41 squad brought in the #84 to give Frédérick Sausset the honour of taking the specially adapted Onroak Morgan to the chequered flag, using a special hoist to get the quadriplegic driver into the cockpit. His amazing achievement by racing in the 24 Hours at all, let alone getting to the flag, somewhat lost between the categories, the #84 not quite an LMP2, and often overlooked by the coverage of this race. Hopefully, when the accounts of this race, which will be extraordinary, are assessed with the benefits of hindsight, then hopefully there will still be room to recall what Frédérick achieved and the inspiration he will inevitably be for others.
Back to the final minutes of this race. With everything so settled, and ordinary, and predictable in LMP2, and no worries for Petrov after his second enforced pitstop, with Strakka’s Danny Watts also coming down the pitlane for a final splash of fuel, we prepared to face the final ten minutes of the race.
The the P2 leader’s advantage still stood at over two minutes, and after leading for the entire second half of the race, from the 12th hour onwards, only a major disaster could deny Lapierre his second consecutive class win at Le Mans. What none of us could possibly have imagined was the almost bizarre and incredible way that the race would end, and in amongst the incredulity, and the shock, the fact that the Signatech Alpine crossed the line in the shadow of the #2 Porsche, the unexpected and surprise winner of the 84th edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours, was in danger of being overlooked. There is no denying the Signatech’s win is a singular achievement. The team effectively dictated the race from the early hours of the morning onwards, setting the pace that everyone else had to match or better, and nobody could.
The final margin was 2 minutes 40 seconds, and while not massive in Le Mans terms, it was more than enough in a year when the performance of so many participants was so closely matched. Before the start, almost any of a dozen teams appeared to be in the running for the P2 class win, and for the first half of the race, almost all of them took turns in leading the race, but once Signatech had eased into the front slot, they never relinquished it. .
Ironically, the utterly unpredictable, almost unbelievable nature of the overall finished did, after all, hand Signatech Alpine equal billing in the record books. Strakka will always be first to have achieved a top-five finish for an LMP2 car at Le Mans (and the team may, perhaps, always be the only LMP2 squad to win a multi-category LMP race outright) but now both Jota (2014) and now Signatech have matched that Le Mans record.
GTE, The Final Hour
Le Mans always seems to be able to reserve something special to the end, and it’s not unusual for that drama to come from the GT classes.
Le Mans 2016 had been a classic on many levels, but we hadn’t seen this drama coming up so fast (though it would all virtually pale into insignificance soon with what was happening elsewhere…).
Manu Collard had been stalking the second placed #88 Abu Dhabi Proton Porsche for the last three hours. And with the pace and experience of the veteran driver aboard reeling in David Heinemeier-Hansson became a ruthless operation. The Silver rated Porsche driver – who had anchored the 911 so solidly through the night, had no answer for the twice Le Mans class winner as the AF Corse Ferrari 458 got the run on the #88 car. The move was executed cleanly and without resistance into the Ford chicane, it was as though the Frenchman’s considerable experience with Porsches gave him an extra edge in getting past. Collard wasn’t done though, and with 35 minutes left to run knew he could have a go at Jeff Segal’s lead if he could maintain his pace (or at least pressure the #62 car into some kind of difficulty).
Collard pressed on, the gap down to just over two minutes as the race entered its final quarter of an hour.
As if this wasn’t enough excitement, a nasty piece of stewardship for the second placed #82 Risi Ferrari then came from race control. The Black and Orange flag was being shown to Giancarlo Fisichella, who was still charging and not giving up hope in any way. The Leader Lights were adjudged not to be working on one side of his car. This a cruel and highly controversial decision at such a late stage of the race would mean the car would have to make a pit call to make the repair, this would lose it the place of course, handing a 1-2-3 to Ford. The decision to change this to a Stop / Go Penalty seemed no re-consideration to anyone who had followed this race, many other cars being notified of these lights not working, and indeed illuminated numbers, during the night with no such penalty.
Amidst incredible final scenes in this unbelievable race, The Ford Motor Company celebrated the 50th anniversary of their overall 1966 win at Le Mans with a solid GTE Pro class victory. In a 24 hour race that always looked to be under the control of the Ford Chip Ganassi Team, the gutsy challenge of Risi Competizione was not quite enough; their second place in dispute pending a post-race stewards’ investigation. Dirk Müller, Joey Hand and Sébastien Bourdais had been the class of the GTE Pro field, their #68 Ford GT metronomic in its progress to victory. The #69 car in the hands of Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook and Scott Dixon delivered the same controlled performance in their progress to third, which it seemed could well be elevated to second place.
At the time of posting the situation with the Risi car was still unclear though the crew would take the podium.