After coming close to glory in their return to LMP-1 competition in 2014 and showing major promise in the first two FIA World Endurance Championship events in 2015 without winning, Team Porsche was finally able to complete the puzzle in proper and secure their first overall victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans since 1998 and a 1-2 finish to boot on Sunday. The surprise however, is the driving trio that managed to claim the top step of the podium.
If the Weissach-based squad was going to win, most expected that one of their full-time FIA WEC driving lineups would pull the trick and based on qualifying results with those entrants sweeping the front row, it looked like that was the likely outcome if success were to happen. However, after penalties and on track errors relegated the main cast, the task of earning victory fell upon three drivers with very limited experience in Prototype racing, much less at Le Mans.
The No. 19 Porsche 919 Hybrid, piloted by Formula One regular Nico Hulkenberg, Nick Tandy, and Earl Bamber took command just prior to the midway point and single-handedly controlled the pace, showing no pressure as each of the pilots routinely toured the 8.45 mile Circuit de la Sarthe layout in the 3:18 to 3:22 time range, even holding back the Audi Sport Team Joest squad of Benoit Treluyer, Andre Lotterer, and Marcel Fassler who had claimed the win at Le Mans in each of the last two editions.
Only surrendering the lead during the regular pit stop sequence, the third Porsche managed to maintain at least a fifty second cushion on the field, up until 6 a.m. local time in France, when suddenly the mechanical woes and bad luck started to shift in Audi’s direction. The aforementioned No. 7 Audi E-Tron Quattro was forced to the garage after somehow losing half of its rear cowling on the circuit. Audi’s hopes then fell upon their own third entry, the No. 9 machine of Rene Rast, Marco Bonanomi, and Filipe Albuquerque, however despite Albuquerque posting the fastest race lap in 24 Hours of Le Mans history earlier in the event, the machine could not find the same pace in the second half of the event, eventually losing out to the No. 17 Porsche of Mark Webber, Timo Bernhard, and Brendon Hartley for second overall, and then falling out of contention completely late following a series of mechancial woes.
Although a better driving team on paper, the No. 17 squad could not reel in their part-time teammates in the final hours and would finish a lap behind the No. 19 in second place overall. Despite the cowling issue, the No. 7 Audi would recover late and claim the final place on the podium.
With the victory, Nico Hulkenberg becomes the first active Formula One pilot to win the race since Mark Blundell did so in 1992 and the first rookie to win overall since Christophe Bouchut in 1993. Ironically, both Blundell and Bouchut won the race driving for Peugeot, the last manufacturer to keep Audi out of the winner’s circle when they claimed the overall win in 2009. Sunday’s win by Porsche ends Audi’s current five race Le Mans winning streak.
Nick Tandy claims Le Mans overall glory in just his third Le Mans effort, yet his first running an LMP-1 machine, after competing for Porsche Team Manthey’s factory effort in GTE-Pro last year. Like Hulkenberg, the New Zealand-based Earl Bamber wins Le Mans in his first attempt, whilst gaining a sort of redemption after an on track error he made during the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January eliminated not only himself from contention, but also his own Porsche North America teammate.
While Hulkenberg returns to his Force India F1 duties in Austria next week, Tandy and Bamber will rejoin Porsche North America with the next TUDOR United SportsCar Championship race at Watkins Glen International in New York just two weeks away.
Elsewhere on the Le Mans property, Hong Kong-based KCMG simply out-powered the competition, going wire to wire to win the LMP-2 division, earning their first win at Le Mans and their first success with the new for 2015 ORECA 05 coupe. The only real scare for the team came on Sunday morning, when the car with Richard Bradley aboard suddenly stopped on course at the Arnage corner. Despite the drama, the British-based driver was able to reset the electronics on the prototype and restart the car after losing about a lap off his lead. Thankfully, the malady did not affect the car’s pace for the remaining five hours to perform and despite letting a few contenders get back on the lead lap, the initial lead was enough to hold back reigning Le Mans LMP-2 winners Jota Sport and G-Drive Racing, who comprised the top four in the final order.
The Jota Sport result was amazing considering the Gibson 015S spyder runners were delayed early in the first hour by mechanical gremlins and were in comeback mode for the remainder of the distance. G-Drive, who had been the strongest LMP-2 squad in the FIA World Endurance Championship in 2015 to date, drove a steady race with its pair of Ligier-Nissan coupes, but never was able to mount a serious challenge toward KCMG and settled for third and fourth.
For Bradley and his co-drivers Matt Howson and Nicolas Lapierre, it is their first success at Circuit de la Sarthe, plus it is the first a team from the Chinese province of Hong Kong has claimed a victory in this event.
What started as a competitive nose to tail battle for the first 20 hours of the race, turned into a survival of the fittest in the GTE-Pro division as despite entering the race Saturday with one fewer car than they planned to have, Corvette Racing overcame the early adversity to claim their first class victory at Circuit de la Sarthe since 2011. The triumph also completes a clean sweep of the endurance racing triple crown for the American legendary marque, after winning at both Daytona and Sebring earlier this year.
The incident at the Porsche Curves suffered by Jan Magnussen during qualifying Thursday, forced Corvette Racing to withdraw the team’s No. 63 C7.R, putting the pressure to win squarely on the No. 64 driving team of Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner, and Jordan Taylor. Despite starting last in the division on Saturday afternoon, the team quickly moved through the field and claimed the lead for the first time in proper around the eight-hour mark and started a spirited duel with the Aston Martin Racing No. 99 Vantage V8, a battle that would continue for the next eight hours.
When AMR’s challenge ended after contact on course forced a lengthy repair in the garage, Corvette would face a second challenge from AF Corse’s Ferrari 458, finally taking control of the race, when the No. 51 machine succumbed to a long garage stay of its own with mechanical problems. With Ferrari out of the mix, Corvette breezed through the final three hours to claim the checkered flag five laps ahead of the class field. Despite battling issues with both of its entries, 2014 Le Mans GTE-Pro champions AF Corse recovered to claim the second and third spots on the podium.
The triumph is the eighth at Le Mans for the Doug Fehan-guided Chevrolet Corvette program, since their return to Circuit de la Sarthe in the year 2000.
Aston Martin’s frustration this weekend were not limited to GTE-Pro. After dominating the first three quarters of the event with their GTE-Amateur No. 98 entry, a crash at the Ford Chicane would send that entry out of contention late, allowing the SMP Racing-owned Ferrari 458 of Aleksey Basov, Viktor Shaytar, and Andrea Bertolini to take the win on Sunday. Despite not showing the pace of the AMR machine, the Russian squad held best of the rest honors and stepped up to the main role when their British rivals gave way late.
The victory in GTE-Amateur was only part of a strong day for the conglomerate, who also managed to get their brand new BR Engineering LMP-2 challenger to the finish on Sunday to claim a sixth place result in the baby prototype division.
Behind SMP, it was famous American actor Patrick Dempsey who took a majority of the headlines, as he joined forces with Patrick Long and Marco Seefried to finish second, the first time in four races the former Grey’s Anatomy star has found the podium at Le Mans. The Proton-supported Porsche 911 RSR was flawless from start to finish and while unable to match the pace of either AMR or SMP, they were able to avoid the maladies that ruined the race results for other teams near the finish.
In addition to Corvette’s victory in GTE-Pro, another TUDOR United SportsCar Championship regular reached the podium in GTE-Amateur as Scuderia Corsa, in their own debut at Le Mans finished third, as Townsend Bell, Bill Sweedler, and Jeff Segal also were consistent and managed to stay out of trouble from start to finish.
As the book closes on the 2015 edition of the Grand Prix of Endurance, the focus toward 2016 is already underway. With Ford Motor Company joining a GTE fleet that will have new regulations next season, plus an increase in the field size from 56 to 58, anticipation for an equally exciting event compared to this one is already on the minds of many leaving the Le Mans grounds tonight.