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Le Mans diary: And then there was one…

Focus | 24 Hours of Le Mans

    A lot has happened so far in the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans, with LMP1 cars dropping like flies and LMP2s battling it out to reach the overall podium. Hazel Southwell is trackside to bring you the overnight update at what is turning out to be quite an unbelievable race.

    It’s in the name that 24h du Mans is a long race. Predicting a winner at the start would be foolhardy – however, most of us would probably have felt safe saying that by morning, LMP1 would be a competition between Porsche and Toyota, the only two manufacturers in the class.

    The #8 Toyota of Buemi is back up to 14th overall at this stage
    The #8 Toyota of Buemi is back up to 14th overall at this stage

    By 3am – halfway through the race – that would have been obviously proved false. Mechanical failures and outright disaster took both the #7 of Stephane Sarrazin and the #9 of Jose Maria Lopez Toyotas out of the race, and leaving Sebastien Buemi’s #8 laps down. The advantage the Toyotas had held over the Porsches, struggling with changing temperatures as it cooled overnight, was totally obliterated.

    As were most journalist here’s minds, although for different reasons than the large selection of sunburnt, shirtless men available to wade through at every corner. Dawn was still hours away and working out what was still running was getting tricky, let alone in what order.

    Some increasingly frantic radio messages from Buemi – of a type fans of both Formula E and francophone obscenities will be familiar with – flagged that all was not well on the second-running #8. The reigning Formula E champion is a very talented driver so it seemed worth paying attention, especially as parts of the car were on fire.

    Which all seemed quite disastrous until both their other LMP1 entries retired almost immediately after.

    Toyota tried to rescue the situation in both cases but a clutch failure on the race-leading 7 left the car unraceable and the whole team’s Le Mans could have ended there. The retirement of the #9 felt particularly heartbreaking, unable to get back to the pit lane following a puncture – leaving them only one functional (ish) car.

    Which would be good news if the #8 hadn’t spent a long time in the garage in earnest talks between a spanner and it’s front motor, putting it right to the back of the field, fighting through the GTs and nearly 30 laps down. But then they did still have 12 hours to play with and Buemi is so very good at winning…

    Night time at Le Mans sees you doing things you might not normally do. Not quite in the glamorous decadence of motorsport’s image but more like lying down in some dirt, putting your head on your rucksack, realising the reason it’s quite well cushioned is because it’s full of oranges and flat out refusing to do anything about this because the big screen has the live timing up. In a race I was starting to suspect might be a little dull – the Porsches seemed unable to match the Toyotas despite prioritising Le Mans aero all season – the hours between midnight and the halfway point seemed determined to shake it up.

    The #1 Porsche is now in a race-of-one for the win
    The #1 Porsche is now in a race-of-one for the win

    The earlier incident with the #2 Porsche meant it was now a one-LMP1 game, at least for a few long hours while a 28 lap-down car tried to catch a 17 lap-down one, frantic though both teams’ efforts have been to get them from the back to the top 20.

    Which meant it was time to look to LMP2 and GT for actual racing, between safety cars after crashes and gravel trap spins aplenty. The darkness saw another dominant manufacturer drop down their field as Ford halved their cars and dropped right back from the Ferrari and Astons.

    Almost nothing looks better than snarling GT cars banging round a floodlit circuit, the mean-looking citrus yellow headlights marking them out as much as the engine roar. Sam Bird is experienced and seriously well respected as an Endurance GT driver so his several stints in darkness were any motorsport lover’s dream of the rough, determined racing that’s maintained throughout the 24 hours.

    LMP2 cars had, during the daylight, developed a bit of a pattern for smashing into GT cars, leading to several retirements. If you twang the ultra-light body of a prototype off the roadworthy weight of a GT, the LMP will take damage and the GT is likely to eat the barrier.

    The #38 of Tung and the #13 of Piquet Jr are fighting for an overall podium
    The #38 of Tung and the #13 of Piquet Jr are fighting for an overall podium

    Three cars that had resisted (and continue to, currently) that temptation are the two Rebellions – Nico Prost and Bruno Senna in the #31 and Nelson Piquet Jr in the #13 – and the #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing of Ho-Pin Tung.

    With the Toyotas and one Porsche gone, the overall title for Le Mans – normally a prize exclusive to the fast-paced LMP1 – was suddenly up for the privateer category. The #38 and #13 are currently running second and third in line.

    The #25 Manor crashed spectacularly but JEV fans will be pleased to know the #24 is still going, if not as competitively paced as the category frontrunners. And the #21 is still clocking up laps and creating 5:30am issues for commentators trying to pronounce “Rosenqvist”.

    Sadly Karun Chandhok’s car has had to retire, joining Sarrazin, Pechito and the #26 G-Drive Racing of Alex Lynn in early retirement just after 6am.

    The sun’s up here now, track and air temperatures rising rapidly. Although it seems like the end, there’s more than a normal Endurance race left to go and its through the hottest part of the day, so shenanigans will doubtless continue.

    The good news for anyone here is that the bad, slow coffee place is open again and bad and slow is better than none and also that you can now reduce your fuel saving strategy and move to one beer every two hours rather than 6. And if you’re not here? Prepare for confused tweets and bad Instagram from anyone you know who is and also Rajan’s stunning photos, incoming.

    If nobody hits a GT car with a prototype, catches fire or crashes between now and the end then…that will be a very unusual seven hours, endurance-wise.

    Update

    As though to prove the point about shenanigans, shortly after we filed this copy the #31 Rebellion went into the garage and has not come back out. With P2 recording the same top speed as P1 (334.9km/h) and the #2 Porsche on a recovery charge, there’s absolutely nothing done about this race, with five hours to go.

    Hazel Southwell | e-racing.net

    Images courtesy of Rajan Jangda

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