In a grand celebration of its 70th year, Porsche took convincing wins in both the GTE-Pro and GTE-Am classes in a week where no other entries looked truly able to trouble the Stuttgart marque, which set the pace and controlled both races from the front.
Porsche arrived at Le Mans with a confident presence and maintained that position from the moment its cars hit the track on Wednesday afternoon’s Free Practice sessions. Dominant throughout, the two Manthey run Porsche 911 RSR’s in fan friendly ‘classic’ liveries that maintained what was considered by many to be an unrealistic race pace, holding off any challenge that was thrown at them.
The ‘USA’ cars run by CORE autosport hit problems during the night having been strong contenders, but it was the #92 ‘Pink Pig’ car of Michael Christensen, Kevin Estre and Laurens Vanthoor that took a flawless victory, having traded the lead with its #91 ‘cigarette’ liveried sister car of Gianmaria Bruni, Richard Lietz and Frederic Makowiecki that set pole position and delivered second place in a Porsche 1-2.
The strongest challenge came from the 4-car Ford GT entry run by Chip Ganassi’s UK and USA operations. A strong and consistent performance that looked threatening from the off, there was pace and consistency from its crews but ultimately not enough to be able to arrest Porsche’s progress. Despite a sterling effort that resulted in a wheel-to-wheel scrap for second place between the #68 car of Joey Hand, Dirk Muller and Sebastien Bourdais with the #91 Porsche on Sunday morning, third place would be the best the Blue Oval could deliver. Though all its cars went the distance, third, fourth and seventh would be its ‘best of the rest’ result.
GM Corvette’s strategic prowess demonstrated so many times in Le Mans victories didn’t quite gel against such strong competition. The #63 Corvette C7.R of Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia, and Mike Rockenfeller ran hard and finished fifth, the #64 having suspension issues early on that put it out of contention.
Ferrari’s representation fared better in the ‘Am’ class, its ‘Pro’ campaign from AF Corse hitting problems for the #51 and #71 488 GTE Evo’s, leaving the #52 car to pick up the slack. Finishing sixth in the hands of Toni Vilander, Antonio Giovinazzi and Luis-Felipe Derani, a late stop and go penalty spoiled any chance of a better result. AF Corse knows how to deliver here, but in reality showed less than its usual competitiveness.
BMW‘s return to Le Mans was commendable and arguably one of the pleasant surprises of this year’s 24 Hours and something its team should be happy with. After a stealthy qualifying session both cars showed well at the front, good pace and strong driver crews making BMW the dark horse of the weekend until their two car entry had accident damage and mechanical issues.
Despite receiving some performance breaks before the race, Aston Martin Racing had what could only be described as a challenging outing with its pair of new Vantage AMR’s. The team and drivers were off the pace and on a very public learning curve at an event that nevertheless respects the manufacturer’s investment and rich history here. Both cars took the finish, ninth in class the better result for the #95 car of Marco Sorensen, Nicki Thiim and Darren Turner.
“We had to manage our expectations this weekend but getting both crews to the flag proves we have a good future with the car, which is in the early stages of its development,” Turner said. “One of these cars is just a week old and we have gathered a huge amount of information this week. I enjoyed driving the car and would actually say some of my stints at night were among the best I’ve driven here.”
The GTE Am result was also significant.
In what was the first victory at La Sarthe for a Porsche in this class since 2013, the #77 Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche 911 RSR of Matt Campbell, Christian Ried and Julien Andlauer delivered a well deserved win for a team that has been a consistent competitor and loyal supporter of this event, in so doing completing the double category win for the marque.
Though the #88 car of Matteo Cairoli, Khaled Al Qubaisi and Giorgio Roda took pole convincingly and ran among the front runners early, their car hit trouble during the night and eventually retired when Cairoli had an off at the Ford Chicane. Luckily for the team, the sister car was having a far stronger run, Andlauer in the winning #77 had taken the lead away from the Ferraris in the third hour and, although a safety car played into their hands giving them a comfortable lead, they never looked back and soaked up the pressure.
“Anyone who goes racing dreams of being here on the podium. It’s been a long journey, and I have so many friends here in the paddock. It’s a privilege to be competing at this level, and I’ve been blown away by the pace of these guys at night. They showed great skill. They were very quick at Spa, and I knew I had a great team.
“Qualifying was chaotic. I was sure something would happen in the race, but I have never had a race go so smoothly before,” Patrick Dempsey said after the race.
“These young drivers had such a level of class. These are young stars emerging. Imagine you’re in your first race here at Le Mans, at eighteen, and he took the lead!
“There was a lot of pressure on everybody, but Chris (Reid) has done a fantastic job preparing the team. They were flawless. It’s been a magical experience, and one that I wanted to enjoy. To see these guys, up there on the podium, among all those familiar faces, has been amazing. They’re so impressive.
“We’re so lucky to be part of this sport. We’re privileged and very fortunate.”
In an overall sense, the GTE-Am race this year was a Porsche vs. Ferrari contest, the Prancing Horse well represented and taking second and third places to maintain its strong history in this class.
The AF Corse run #54 Spirit Of Race Ferrari 488 GTE of Thomas Flohr, Francesco Castellaci and Giancarlo Fisichella had an impressive run, and rose to contention behind the Keating Motorsport Ferrari of Ben Keating, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Luca Stolz. The Keating Ferrari looked on for second, gaining the runner’s up spot after the JMW Motorsport Ferrari, which had a solid run behind the winning Dempsey-Proton car, hit trouble.
But in the end such a strong finish wasn’t meant to be, Keating, who behind the wheel performed well through his time in the car, cost the team second with a late race excursion into the gravel at Mulsanne Corner. That allowed a charging Giancarlo Fisichella to close up and to then take second place.
The two Aston Martins in the class didn’t feature, in part due to TF Sport’s run getting interrupted by a few small driving errors, but mainly because the reigning WEC GTE Am Champions in the #98 Aston Martin had their hopes dashed in the first half of the race, after climbing the standings. A costly error on the Porsche Curves by Paul Dalla Lana, in which he went head-on into the barriers, added to Aston Martin’s rough week all round.