Even with the Le Mans 24 Hours in our rear-view mirror, and the rest of the sportscar season to look forward to, there’s still reason to reflect on what we’ve seen. In a two-part series, DSC is going to analyse 10 positives, and 10 things that need improving after the 86th running of the Grand Prix D’Endurance.
The race itself may not have been an all-time classic, but there’s nevertheless still plenty to discuss.
Here’s the 10 great things, to kick it off:
1. Toyota win with a near faultless performance
Argue all you like but the reality is that Toyota won because they had the best car(s) and the best team. They raced for the win for most of the event, were on course for a distance record and would have got it had it not been for a number of extended caution periods.
No Audi, No Porsche, no opposition say the critics. The opposition in this instance was provided by the race itself and, after decades of trying, their long history of failure and falling short, Toyota finally got the ending they have worked so hard for. Better still they look set to be around to take on all comers into the next generation of top-class Le Mans cars.
Conspiracy theorists and naysayers will find their outlets on social media and on the BBC Sport website but honestly, even if Toyota did manipulate the eventual finishing order of their cars to some degree, it is hardly something they need to be preached to by those inside the F1 paddock where such behaviours have long been contractually enforced!
Fernando Alonso fitted in well, was on point on Thursday night after qualifying in ensuring his team-mate, who had actually set the time, got the plaudits and was front and centre. The aspects of the show that were over-managed will be dealt with in our next article but let’s not pretend that the Spaniard is anything other than a worthy winner of the greatest race on earth.
2. Faultless performances too from the other class winners
The heady irony of the disqualification of the #26 G-Drive Racing effort is that, if you look carefully at the data, they didn’t need the edge provided by their ‘interpretation’ of the fuel rig regulations. They were quick enough, and fault-free enough, to have won it on pace in any case, despite the fact that the eventual winners in the #36 Signatech Alpine were pretty much faultless too.
In, both GTE classes the eventual winners were both quick and error-free, though in the case of the GTE Pro winning Porsche there was something of an ‘assist’ from the way the early cautions fell.
Either way, apply the logic of the scale of the Toyota achievement and you begin with the epithet “You have to beat the race.” That’s no mean feat in itself, as dozens of hugely impressive entries each decade have found for nigh on a century. The best are the best because they did the best job with the cards they were dealt and 2018’s race ended with worthy winners throughout.
3. Toyota not the only long overdue winners
Stand up and be recognised Christian Ried. Team owner at Proton Competition, Porsche’s answer to AF Corse, Ried finally won at Le Mans on his ninth attempt. He has contested every race since 2011 (plus the 2006 race for Sebah).
The team made a major investment in the off season campaigning no fewer than four new Porsche 911 RSRs in the ELMS and FIA WEC. In fact, all four cars contested the 2018 Le Mans 24 Hours, the #77 and #88 Dempsey Proton cars, the #99 Proton Competition car and, in its last planned race with the team before their own new car arrives, the #80 Ebimotors car.
Proton is one of those teams that provide, year after year, cars of high quality to allow Pro and AM drivers alike to race hard for big race wins and Championships, now the boss has a title of his own.
And well done too to Pierre Thiriet, one of the most talented ‘true’ Silver drivers around, 2018 was his eighth shot at Le Mans, and until the DSQ was dealt to G-Drive, ironically his team last year, he looked set to add a third second place in class to his total! Another worthy winner.
4. New talents emerge
Beyond the headlines focusing on F1 megastars, there were some very bright stars involved at Le Mans this year, with several putting in truly head-turning performances.
In LMP1 Thomas Laurent’s performance all week was excellent whilst in LMP2 the subsequent controversy about the pit stops for the #26 should not disguise the truly excellent performance of their ‘Super Silver’ Andrea Pizzitola, his on-track speed amongst the very best in the class. GTE Am saw a number of young drivers shine, the talent of Matteo Cairoli (his off at the Ford Chicanes aside) is no real news here, a full factory future undoubtedly beckons.
Very (very) young Julien Andlauer though also went very well indeed, and took a win on his Le Mans debut. As did another coming man of the Porsche family, Matt Campbell (below) the next Aussie sportscar superstar? TF Sport’s Charlie Eastwood was very quick too, yet another young talent coming to endurance racing via the Porsche one-make ladder.
5. GTE Pro Was Awesome
Leaving the machinations of BoP, and the rather trying week for Aston Martin, for the next half of this story the reality was that, by far, the much anticipated GTE Pro battle was the best thing on track in terms of wheel-to-wheel racing.
For an extended period before nightfall the battle from fourth down to 12th was essentially nose to tail, the Ferraris, Fords, BMWs some of the Porsches and the leading Corvette involved in truly excellent racing, a little door banging here and there and a tussle that saw fans trackside, watching TV and online taking sides and keeping score.
For the most part then the upper middle field had precious little wrong in terms of BoP, and the driver line-ups responded accordingly, taking metaphoric scalps and leaving little in the bank with very, very close racing. Great stuff.
6. Ligier LMP2 much improved
Whilst the previously all-conquering ORECA 07s still dominated in LMP2 there were some signs that the revised Ligier JS P217 has made a substantial step forward. The #23 Panis Barthez car, particularly in the hands of Will Stevens, made life tough for a number of the ORECAs until trouble on Sunday morning and the #32 United Autosports car was close enough to claim a podium when the stewards had their say over TDS Racing’s interpretation of what can, and cannot, be fitted to a fuel rig.
The Joker rules were very clear, a revised car cannot exceed the performance of the fastest car (the ORECA). That it did not do, but the gap was certainly narrowed, in Le Mans trim at the very least.
7. Porsche ‘Heritage’ Liveries
After a long period where it must be said that Porsche’s corporate liveries were more ‘corporate’, the 70th anniversary ‘tribute’ liveries for the #91 and #92 Porsche 911 RSRs were magnificently done, as was the treatment for the team garage and all of the branding around the track and on the main grandstand.
Both cars were brilliantly received, the ‘Pink Pig’ went truly viral, the ‘official’ T-Shirt sold out before race day dawned and, with the subsequent win, the car has now been retired to the Porsche Museum.
The #91 ‘Rothmans’ car was less well received by some (but not by this writer) whether on the grounds of the business that the original sponsor was involved in, or the accuracy or otherwise of the colour pantones used. It should be said that history or not, getting the required corporate approval for this one took some cojones. The true mark of their success though was two-fold, the fans and media loved them, and just about every other GTE Pro team offered the opinion at one point or another that they wished they had thought of it first.
8. The stars came out to play
It was undeniably good news for the international profile of the event that not only Fernando Alonso but also Jenson Button, Juan Pablo Montoya and no less than 21 other ex-F1 drivers were on the grid, eight of them finished on the various class podiums.
It all came together to create an event that, for once, the remainder of the world’s motorsport-orientated media could not, and did not ignore. Forget the carping from some, and the frankly juvenile headlines of others. It’s clear that there is a real opportunity to leverage some of that star quality to the commercial advantage of the sport, and with a few honourable exceptions, stand up Mark Webber, it’s been a long time since that has been the case.
9. Nakajima at the finish
Whether it was on pure driver rotation, an edict about the Japanese driver being aboard when the car finished, or just that somebody remembered that of all of the Toyota trials and tribulations in the Hybrid era, by far the worst must surely have been for Kazuki Nakajima in 2016.
Certainly a worthy champion, Kaz missed out in 2014 on the WEC Drivers title won by his team-mates dues to schedule and programme conflicts, then had the crushing emotional blow suffered from leading Toyota at the very end of the 2016 race. After setting pole and then finishing the race for his long-time employer’s first win at Le Mans Nakajima now enters the Hall of Legends for the right reasons.
10. LMP1 Privateer renaissance
Finally, after years of being left to lie fallow, the market for LMP1 Privateer was revived, as something of a necessary response to the downturn in LMP1 factory participation.
And it saw some real excitement in the lead-up to the race with real variety, some big names in the driving seats alongside some younger talents getting richly deserved opportunities. The cars looked great, and some of them were very, very quick, just not quick enough, and for the most part not nearly reliable enough either.
The Rebellions were the most convincing of the lot, and the #3 breaking its gearbox on the final lap of the race but surviving for a fine overall podium. SMP Racing and Rebellion had a fine battle with the DragonSpeed BR1 also involved at times too.
There’s a lot of work to do though before the 2018 pack can provide even a semblance of opposition to the Toyotas, but with a bit of luck on the regulatory front there could be fireworks to come, if only amongst the non-hybrid pack.