It's been 17 years since Porsche's last Le Mans victory with the 911 GT1 in 1998. Since then, Audi has managed to take five consecutive victories, bringing their total overall victories to 13. Was Porsche getting nervous that their title of 'Winningest Constructor in Le Mans History' might be in jeopardy? Maybe, but no need to worry just yet because Porsche is back in the Le Mans winning business. Not only that, but they did it with basically a brand new car, and a pair of drivers who have never even raced in the 24 hour event before. It was a cracking race, and Porsche bested all comers. Their only real competition on the weekend was Audi, as Toyota and Nissan were just too slow to mount anything looking even similar to a charge. Fortunately for Porsche, Audi was patently Un-Audi in their preparation for this race and suffered some pretty woeful reliability issues over the course of the 24 hours. By sunup, Porsche had a comfortable lead and could control the race to their liking. It was textbook. The best team won!
The #18 Porsche 919 Hybrid LMP1 had a mega qualifying effort and led Porsche to a P1-2-3 at the start. Despite the #18's fast pace, the the #17 919 sprinted into the lead and started to open a gap just after the green flag. The #19 Porsche was obviously running to a pace, and were quickly caught and passed by a pair of Audis. After another hour or so, the #19 is passed by the third Audi. After getting spread out a bit, a safety car, caused by the #92 Porsche GTE-Pro car burning after a spin, bunched up the LMP1 leaders again to make things interesting. After going back green, there is a pair of 3-car battles leading the motor race (Audis #8 and #9 go three wide trying to defend from Porsche #19, and Porsches #17 and #18 have to contend with Audi #7 mounting an attack for the first time all day). In that battle, the Audi #7 managed to squirt past the pair of Porsches to take the overall lead. The leading Audi driver seemed to be driving as a man possessed, taking several risks, weaving through traffic, trying to keep ahead of the Porsche brigade. After stretching their stints as long as possible, both Porsches managed to retake the lead over the Audi at the second round of pit stops.
That's pretty much how the rest of the race went, ebbing and flowing between the Audis and the Porsches. It was a 6-car race from the beginning, and all 6 of them were in contention for the majority of the race. The cracks in the Audi facade started to show up at just before noon on Saturday. All three of the Porsche runners mounted a triple stint on their tires and drivers to start the race, and the #7 Audi of Andre Lotterer was sent out on a fourth stint on his Michelins. That would prove to be a tactical error, and Lotterer only managed 3 laps before diving back in to swap out for new tires and a driver change. Audi doesn't normally make tactical errors like that.
If Audi's tire woes weren't enough to overcome, both the #7 and the #8 had "offs" at about the same place on the track one lap apart from each other. Both managed to make it back to the pits for repairs, but shortly after, a safety car is called in order to make lengthy repairs to the trackside barriers. The various issues for the Audis pushed the #17 Porsche back into the lead of the race overall.
By mid-afternoon, the battles at the front cooled to a rolling boil. Lots of pit cycling and on track dicing occurred. Unfortunately, a second Porsche GTE car, the Proton Racing car #88, caught fire and was declared the second retirement of the race. In LMP1, it seemed that all of the front runners are doing 13 lap fuel stints and triple stinting tires. Audi gave up on trying to quadruple stint their tires and drivers.
At about 4 PM, the #18 Porsche had an off at the Mulsanne corner, and suffered some minor damage. Getting back around the track and changing out the nose cone, the car was sent back out. The #19 Porsche just continued to pound out laps and make slow progress. Another safety car at just before 5PM makes things even more interesting, bunching up the field again. Nico Hulkenberg made a pass on Mark Webber for second place, and then inherited the lead when Audi's Rene Rast had to pit for service.
The #17 Porsche LMP with Mark Webber at the wheel was forced to serve a penalty just after 5PM. Apparently when the car was under the control of Brendon Hartley, he completed an illegal pass in a cautionary slow zone. Webber was leading at the time following Hulkenberg's scheduled stop, and was assessed a stop and hold for 1 minute penalty.
In an almost identical fashion as the 4 PM crash, Neel Jani stuffed the #18 Porsche at Mulsanne corner, again, just after 7PM. Again, the car is extricated and makes it back to the pits for another new nose. Shortly after, it seemed that the Audis pace has begun to drop off and Porsche had the speed advantage. However, a few hours later, the Porsche drivers start to lose a bit of that speed and the Audis seem to gain a bit. Thrust and parry, as per usual.
As the sun started to come up, the #19 Porsche trails the #7 Audi by about 20 seconds, and things started to stabilize there. That is, until the #7 had a weird problem. Some kind of aero problem created a pressure differential under the Audi's engine cover bodywork, causing the carbon sheet to lift off of the car. The Audi headed back to the garage for repairs, which take about 6 minutes, and the #19 retakes the lead of the race.
An Aston Martin crash calls out a fourth safety car period. The #19 car was slightly involved, and thanks to the current safety car regulations, they brought the car to the pit to check out the bodywork for damage and get back out without losing any positions or really any time. At this point, the #9 Audi and the #17 Porsche are two full safety cars behind the #19, and all of the other contending cars are a couple of laps down.
At just after 5AM, the Audi #9 had an issue and pitted. No word was ever given on what the issue was, but the team seemed focused on the front left corner, and the going rumor centered around hybrid system issues. Marco Bonanomi, driving that car away from the garage had an issue under braking and was forced to straight line one of the chicanes on the Mulsanne. The Audi's issue puts Porsche in a 1-2 overall position with a decent and manageable gap.
For the final 4 hours or so, it is Porsche in absolute control of the race. The #19 has a one lap lead over the #17, which has a lap lead over the #9 Audi. Life is good in the Porsche garages, but they are well aware that issues can crop up. Being diligent is important, especially this late in the game. And diligent is exactly what they are. The other classes are falling apart, as the leader in LMP2 crashes out of a chance at victory, the GTE-Pro leading Ferrari goes to the garage for electrical issues, and later the GTE-Am class leading Aston Martin crashes out of the race as well. In a race where all three of the Audi runners set lap times in the 3:17s, the best they can manage is third, as Porsche's reliability triumphs again.
To win this endurance race, Porsche simply focused on setting good pace, and staying out of pit lane as much as possible. At the end of 24-hours, Hulkenberg, Bamber, and Tandy all drove a stunningly simple and drama-free race, and did exactly what they needed to do. Keep the car out of the barriers, out of with other racers, and out of the pits, and you'll win.
Fritz Enzinger, Vice President LMP1
“It is an incredible achievement to win Le Mans in only our second attempt since Porsche’s return. I have to thank this brilliant team that has been growing together over the last three and a half years. The Porsche board backed us one hundred per cent from the word go. It will take a few days to realise what we have achieved. I know that a lot of people have virtually lived for this dream to come true and have pursued it with the greatest commitment.”
Nico Hülkenberg - Driver, 919 Hybrid #19
“I enjoyed every moment, these cars are great fun to drive and then to be on a huge track like this one. The pace was really high, and not what you would expect from endurance racing. Especially at night when the temperatures came down a bit, the car was fantastic to drive. Of course, I didn’t think I would come here and rock ’n’ roll this race, this would be silly because there are so many challenges in that race. However, we did it and we did it together.”
In the GTE-Pro class, Porsche didn't fare quite as well. The #92 Porsche Team Manthey car of Pilet, Mako, and Henzler was the first car out of the race, with an engine fire after only 14 laps. The #91 car of Lietz, Christensen, and Bergmeister managed to finish the race, 5th in class a few steps off of the podium. The Pro team was out-raced at the end of the day by a number of Amateur class competitors.
Only one of the of the Porsches managed a podicum, but it was an ignominious fate for the remaining P-cars. The #88 car of Abu Dhabi-Proton Racing (Ried, Bachler, Al Qubaisi) was the second Porsche to go up in smoke with an engine fire, this time after 44 laps. Team AAI of Taiwan brought an old 997 GT3 RSR as well as a new 991 generation 911 RSR to compete. Both cars were well off the pace, and finished down the order (8th and 6th in class, respectively).
The only Porsche GT car of any merit, was the Dempsey-Proton Racing car of Patrick Dempsey, Patrick Long, and Marco Seefried. With the late-race incident forcing the leading Aston Martin to retire, the Dempsey car was elevated to a quite respectful 2nd in class and 22nd overall. Patrick has a lot of reason to celebrate this, as it was his first Le Mans podium. I'm sure there will be more to come in the future.
1. Gavin/Milner/Taylor (GB/USA/USA), Chevrolet Corvette, 337 laps
2. Rigon/Calado/Beretta (I/GB/MC), Ferrari 458 Italia, 332
3. Bruni/Vilander/Fisichella (I/SF/I), Ferrari 458 Italia, 330
4. Sörensen/Thiim/Nygaard (DK/DK/DK), Aston Martin, 330
5. Lietz/Christensen/Bergmeister (A/DK/D), Porsche 911 RSR, 327
6. MacDowall/Stanaway/Rees (GB/NZ/BRA), Aston Martin, 3320
1. Collard/Perrodo/Aguas (F/F/P), Ferrari 458 Italia, 332 laps
2. Dempsey/Long/Seefried (USA/USA/D), Porsche 911 RSR, 331
3. Sweedler/Bell/Segal (USA/USA/USA), Ferrari 458, 330
4. Perrodo/Collard/Aguas (F/F/P), Ferrari 458 Italia, 330
5. Giammaria/Mann/Cressoni (I/GB/I), Ferrari 458 Italia, 326
6. Chen/Vanellet/Parisy (TWN/F/F), Porsche 911 RSR, 320
8. Chen/Kapadia/Maassen (TWN/GB/NL), Porsche 911 GT3 RSR, 316