Nothing is ever certain in this game, and there’s an ancient aphorism that states … to finish first, first you have to finish. As Lotterer headed down through Tertre Rouge, ten minutes into the 21st hour, the #1 Porsche suddenly slowed. Once again, the hybrid system seemed to be proving a weakness in this latest generation of LMP1 cars. The car stuttered to a crawl, and the in-car camera showed Lotterer shaking his head in disbelief, helmet in gloved hands. Setting aside his evident disappointment, he focused on keeping the Porsche in motion, trundling down the hard shoulder of the Mulsanne at the pace of an old-fashioned Unigate milk float, although an extraordinarily complex and expensive one.
The new for 2020 regulations state that the next generation of hybrid racecars must be capable of completing a certain number of kilometres wholly under electric power, and for the third time in this 24 Hours we were witnessing a contender for the win struggling to do even a single lap in 2017. (For more detail on the proposed regulations, and for clarification of our comments here, made in the heat of action, please see our piece on the 2020 LMP1 Regulations.)
The feeble progress of the #1 Porsche saw Lotterer through to the second Mulsanne chicane, where the car slowed again to a halt. There was consternation on the faces of all those back in the Porsche garage, hands clasping chins in worried concentration. Lotterer sat in the cockpit, gazing intently through the plexiscreen and listening to the instructions from his engineers, no doubt poring over the telemetry to see if there was a way, any way, they could get the car back to the pitlane.
Meanwhile, in the Toyota garage there was equal interest in what was happening. When Lotterer clambered from the cockpit at 11:23, there were groans of disbelief. Could this race throw any more surprises?
Jackie Chan DC Racing were now the focus for overall victory, but with Hartley’s Porsche now pressing on there was more than enough time for the LMP1 to get the job done. Hartley passed Ollie Jarvis on the Mulsanne straight and his crawling team mate to record a 3:20.871. He was pressing on regardless, and pushing harder now, the gap between his then-current fifth place the the lead LMP2 car being just three laps. That gave more than enough time for him to regain the lead for Porsche, but at what potential cost? Could we yet see a win here for Toyota? The outright victory for the Japanese team was too slim a possibility, but a class win could be on the cards.
Ollie Jarvis was taking nothing for granted, and the #38 had bigger opportunities ahead of it than anyone in the team could have possibly imagined. If Lotterer abandoned his stricken Porsche, or failed to find a way to get it moving again (as looked likely) then, all things going to form (whatever that is now…?) the #2 Porsche could easily overhaul the Oreca’s modest advantage. Plenty of time remained.
Back kerbside on the Mulsanne, Lotterer had been seen delving into the car on the right-hand side, then returned to the cockpit and the marshals started pushing the car to a place of safety, fully within the regulations. A slow zone had been enforced around him, and another was applied on the run between Arnage and the start of the Porsche Curves, where the #23 Panis Barthez Ligier had also stopped. Fabien Barthez was out of the car, the #23 clearly not about to move any further.
These unfolding events now meant the overall podium was open warfare for LMP2 in the three and a half hours remaining. Behind Thomas Laurent, who had replaced Jarvis in the leading #38 JCDC car, Mathias Beche was a lap back for Vaillante Rebellion, with Pierre Ragues two and a half minutes in arrears for Signatech Alpine, third. Alex Brundle was now installed in the #37 Jackie Chan Oreca which, although a lap off the top three, could not be discounted in as turbulent a situation as we’d seen.
Brendon Hartley continued to drive his own race, oblivious to the problems facing his team-mate in the #1 Porsche 919 Hybrid. Thirty-five minutes past eleven and the #2 was through to fourth overall, less than two laps down on the P2 leader.
Thomas Laurent now had two laps on Mathias Beche in the #13 Vaillante Rebellion who, as expected, felt the wrath of the stewards over that pitlane debacle with the mechanics, presumably committed while the they were making adjustments to the brake duct and rear end. At 11:45 the notification came through of a stop-go penalty for the car second in LMP2. This could put Pierre Ragues #35 Alpine in striking distance for third position, his current deficit 1 minute 26 seconds. First into the pits, though, was Brendon Hartley, visiting the Porsche garage for fuel, a windscreen clean and back out.
11:54 will, perhaps, be one of those times that will become historically significant. Confirmation came that the #1 Porsche was the tenth official retirement. For the first time, ever, an LMP2 car was leading the Le Mans 24 Hours … outright. Thomas Laurent in the #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca 07 Gibson took the accolade. His two-lap overall advantage could soon be eroded by the charging LMP1 Porsche 919 Hybrid, but the car’s unexpected moment of glory had arrived.
So, yet another remarkable hour in this extraordinary race came to an end. The top 14 in LMP had a fundamentally new look, and one with historical significance:
1. #38 Jackie Chan Racing – 316 laps
2. #2 Porsche 919-Hybrid LM P1
3. #13 Vaillante Rebellion Oreca
4. #35 Signatech Alpine
5. #37 Jackie Chan Racing
6. #32 United Autosports Ligier
7. #24 CEFC Manor TDS Racing Oreca
8. #40 Graff Oreca 07 Gibson
9. #47 Cetilar Villorba Corse Dallara
10. #8 Toyota TS050 LMP1
11. #34 Tockwith Motorsports Ligier
12. #36 Signatech Alpine Gibson
13. #17 IDEC Sport Racing Ligier
While the prototype classes were serving up unprecedented drama, the GTE Pro contest remained a much more conventional, but no less thrilling, old-fashioned close motor race.
The key point this hour came when Daniel Serra at the wheel of the #97 Aston passed Magnussen in the #63 Corvette for the lead of the race into the second chicane. At this point it looked like the Aston would have to make one more stop than the Corvette, a splash-and-dash in the final hour, making building a gap vital for the #97 crew. The #91 Porsche remained a threat in third about 13 seconds behind Serra.
In GTE Am, it was ‘as you were’, with the JMW Ferrari continuing to lead, the #55 and #62 Ferraris second and third and the #99 Beechdean Aston fourth as we headed into the final three hours.