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Le Mans diary: What a day!

Focus | 24 Hours of Le Mans

    How about that for an epic 24 hours of pure racing in the north of France? One of high attrition, underdog stories and an amazing comeback victory for the #2 Porsche. Hazel Southwell experienced it all first-hand and brings us her final instalment of her trackside diary.

    You know how, the odd processional race aside, Formula E tends towards unpredictable nonsense, Fanboost aside? People win from the back, engines die in the lead, that sort of thing?

    Humour me for a minute and imagine if instead of a season we just did every single race back to back without pause, twice and that there were three times as many cars. If you imagine the amount of nonsense that could take place over the course of a day solid of that, well… That’s Le Mans. This year, anyway.

    The #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing came within an hour of a exceptional victory
    The #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing came within an hour of a exceptional victory

    As I write this, slightly preempting the end of the race because I am a good journalist who likes to file my copy before I fire too many cold ones into my face to remember basic grammar, the lead has just been taken by the #2 Porsche, when Timo Bernhard overtook Ho-Pin Tung, valiantly attempting a defense in the #38 despite a wild power differential. Tung got clapped when he came back round – everyone loves a plucky underdog.

    If you only follow single seater racing then the closest thing to describing the race in Endurance would be if F1 was actually segmented, rather than tacitly segmented, so there’s a podium and prize for best front runner, midfielder, scrappy underdog and backmarker.

    Instead of nominally being in the same race where a Sauber has to scoot out of a Mercedes’ way, deferentially, you’d assume the Merc could get round of its own accord and the Sauber should merely take evasive action on a straight line, busy racing it’s own rivals. So basically you can be bearing down on a year-old spec GT car, possibly driven by an amateur, you as Buemi in a 334.9km/h LMP1 and well, better share the track nicely because if you collide it’ll help neither of you.

    Nominally, every car in Le Mans is in the same race, which is usually won by LMP1, as the fastest and most powerful class. Because this is a bit unfair, LMP2, LMGTE Pro and LMGTE Am all have their own separate podiums to recognise the best in their categories.

    But what happens if you run out of LMP1 cars? This, that’s what.

    The #4 ByKolles was the first of many LMP1 retirements
    The #4 ByKolles was the first of many LMP1 retirements

    We started the race with five manufacturer entries and one privateer. Not that it’s wise to invest too much hope in the Bykolles car at any time but retiring on the first lap was unexpectedly sudden even for them, leaving the three Toyota and two Porsche cars.

    40 minutes to go and we have two left, both of which were stricken with major problems that left them tens of laps down before the halfway mark.

    After the night, it looked like a straightforward race for the #1 Porsche, leading by 14 laps and able to coast and save damage a little. Until it quietly parked itself about two hours ago, leaving only its laps-down-still sister car and the even-further-behind #8 Toyota.

    Which is how you end up with the #38 – having run a superb race for its LMP2 category, in the lead. Being driven by a teenager. With only a few race hours to go. Whoever had that on down the bookies, congratulations to you.

    It was a quiet 24 hours for the #71 AF Corse
    It was a quiet 24 hours for the #71 AF Corse

    The entire 24 hours had been breathtakingly close – for much of the race, less than 3 seconds separated the top 3 LMGTE Pro cars, despite the faster vehicles weaving in between them. Consistently in that number was the #71 Ferrari of all-round lovely man and excellent racer Sam Bird, who after a long fight looks set for a podium alongside teammates Davide Rigon and Miguel Molina.

    I almost don’t like writing that, though – assuming anyone’s got anything sorted during this race seems to be asking for random failures or contact.

    Le Mans gets called the toughest race in the world. As someone who just had to stay awake and not drool on my phone or anything for it, I probably at least agree it’s one of the toughest and not just because I’m with a vegetarian and the choices are a little narrow.

    This year, with temperatures unpredictably high, the challenge is even tougher. Le Mans is typically a wet race, rather than aridly sweltering, with huge clouds of dust eager to interact with every vent and air intake on a hot vehicle.

    Maybe that’s why the LMP1 cars have struggled, particularly – their aero and systems are much more complex than the other endurance cars. Or maybe this year’s spec, when pushed to the limits that Le Mans pushes a vehicle to, are just too close to the line and cross it after 6 hours or do.

    There was heartbreak for the #7 Toyota Gazoo Racing after leading from pole
    There was heartbreak for the #7 Toyota Gazoo Racing after leading from pole

    As I’m not a WEC engineer I thankfully don’t have to work it out anyway. All that really counts for most people is that it happened – either seeing the injustice of the #7 that Sarrazin had led a lot of the race with wheeled away in the pits, race over. Or the heroic charges of the lower categories to make sure they took the space vacated by each LMP1, hunting up the pack while still racing each other.

    A lot of drivers would consider anything that wasn’t LMP1 to be beneath them. Which is daft hierarchy in future action given its about the least likely category you’re going to have a car beneath you, this race.

    Endurance is tough. When the #2 failed there was in-garage footage of mild-mannered Kiwi Brendon Hartley telling an engineer he (or maybe it) was done, half an hour of repair seeming to have wrecked the race. If nothing happens in the next four minutes, as I write this, then he’s a Le Mans winner – having got back in the game and run qualifying laps to recover. They don’t call it Endurance because it’s for divas.

    As with Formula E, WEC is a proper driver’s tournament; probably part of why there is do much crossover. In a race of chaos, those who can salvage or save a disaster, push though regardless. Or just who doesn’t get dealt the roughest hand in a selection of pretty rough hands, in this case.

    It’s baking hot here and I need to go and drink several cold ones. Oh and watch a podium or four, whoever ends up on them. But this has definitely been a race of whoever can possibly manage to continue wins, which feels very 2017.

    Hazel Southwell | e-racing.net

    Images courtesy of Rajan Jangda

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