Text: Steve Tarrant
Photos: Rick Kiewiet
While Team WRT pounded around and around, maintaining their 1-2 positions in LMP2, the #28 JOTA Sport car set about securing third place ahead of #65 Panis Racing by remaining on the lead lap but seemingly unable to close the gap unless some issue befell the leading cars.
Equally, in GTE Am, the #83 AF Corse Ferrari maintained its lead over the #33 Aston Martin, despite the best efforts of Ben Keating who triple stinted through the transition from dark to dawn, including his first stint being on very used tyres. Once again, he showed his passion and enthusiasm for Le Mans, and fingers were being crossed that finally he might achieve the podium success that he deserved.
News started filtering through that both the #7 and #8 Toyotas were managing a fuel pickup issue, the length of the stints having been irregular throughout rather than the normal 12-13 lap stints between pitstops. Was this the first sign of a vulnerability?
Guido van der Garde was the latest driver to scare the photographers situated on the outside of the Esses, dropping the left rear wheel onto the grass which turned the car 90 degrees to the direction of the course, where it slid for some distance. Thankfully, he made no contact with anything solid, and pitted soon after for a driver and tyre change.
The #82 Risi Competizione was the next car to suffer a failure, Oliver Jarvis making a very late decision to dive into the pitlane, and depositing a large quantity of oil once it had stopped in front of its garage. Pushing the car into the garage, the mechanics set about see if repair was possible.
The #708 maintained their pace in the 3:33s range, while trailing the Alpine ahead of them by twenty seconds. They had done three fewer pitstops than the cars ahead of them, but the slower pace of the car more than offset the advantages of their pit strategy. But given this has been only the third ever race for the car and team, they were fairing very well, and better than some of the other new teams in the past.
A short Full Course Yellow was called by Race Director Eduardo Freitas to allow the removal of floppy markers and debris from all around the track, which almost caught out the #80 Iron Lynx Ferrari, which had to take to the grass at Arnage to avoid running into the back of a prototype.
With nineteen and a half hours completed, the Association SRT41 #84 car was placed in thirty third position in the overall standings, which would place it nineteenth in the LMP2 class. Team owner Frederic Sausset remained upbeat that the car would be there at the finish, to be only the second of the “Garage 56” entries to reach the chequered flag.
With just four hours remaining, the gaps at the head of each of the four classes remained consistent, as the runners now started to set their sights on reaching the finish. Teams were considering their options, seeing how much of their tyre allocation was available for use, and looking to see if their “hot shoe” driver was ready to make the difference.
One driver being prepared was the newly crowned Formula E champion Nyck De Vries, who was preparing to be installed into the #26 G-Drive. Sure enough, once aboard, he set the car’s fastest lap of the race.
The #8 pitstop with Brendon Hartley at the wheel included a change of an electrical module, which delayed its progress by some forty seconds while the system was rebooted. The car re-joined the track still more than a lap behind its sister Toyota, but three laps ahead of the Alpine.
The pair of Team WRT cars remained at the head of LMP2, the only other car on the same lap being the #28 JOTA Sport which was running approximately three-quarters of a lap behind, but with lap times between all three cars being much the same, it was going to take a driver error or mechanical failure to bring about any change of order.
A welcoming radio message given to the #7 Toyota was that any ‘issue’ they had with braking had been resolved, but a lap later he almost out braked himself while trying to pass the #84 SRT41 car, and then appeared to be out dragged away from the corner. Additionally, the #8 car was seen to be constantly adjusting the brake bias via the buttons on the steering wheel. Even so, large clouds of black dust were seen on each and every Toyota pitstop, especially from the rear axle. An additional issue for the #8 was the replacing of the passenger side door.
The onboard cameras showed the return of dark, heavy clouds, and the speculation was whether rain would return for one more time. Indeed, a few drops did fall over the Indianapolis section of the circuit, but it quickly disappeared.
At twenty one hours, the #33 TF Sport was able to take the lead of the Am class, with Ben Keating at the wheel. Partly, this was caused as a result of their pitstop timings, where the car behind had done one more stop, so it would come down to the strategy calls to the end to see if this advantage would last.
The order at the head of the LMP2 changed when the #31 pitted, time being lost because the onboard air jacking system failed, requiring an external airbag to be used instead. The resultant delay caused it to drop behind the #41 car, but comfortably ahead of the #28 JOTA Sport.
The Dragonspeed car #21, with Ben Hanley at the wheel, had a scare when they slowed on what was normally the last lap before pitting with low fuel pressure. However, he was able to get back to the pits, have a full tank of fuel, and then carry on. Only afterwards did it transpire that the driver had missed the pit entry the lap before, so needed to complete a slower lap in order to get back safely.
With the clock winding down to the final hour, teams started to go through the last of their scheduled pitstops, and all eyes appeared to be on seeing the finish first, and just being there if anything unfortunate were to occur to their opponents.
This included seeing the #31 Team WRT using their inflated airbag to raise the rear of the car, change the rear tyres, then the comic sight of mechanics standing on the rear bodywork to apply downward pressure which deflated the bag, allowing it to be removed from under the car before it pulled away.
Porsche #91 had a scare when the Porsche failed to brake for the Ford chicane, and ripped off the rear diffuser leaping over the grass at the chicane, and then other rear body parts at the Dunlop chicane. As a result, race control instigated a Full Course Yellow for the retrieval of debris, and ordered the #91 to pit for repairs. Just five minutes were lost while a replacement tail section was fitted, and the car sent on its way.
Will Stevens set the fastest lap for #65 Panis Racing with forty five minutes to go, still trying to apply pressure to the #28 JOTA Sport ahead of them. Meanwhile, the #28 itself was chasing hard after the #31 Team WRT car in the hope any further pitstop delay might affect its progress, knowing the #31 was using tyres of differing ages front to rear caused by the airjack failure. At the final stop, with thirty one minutes remaining, the gap was down to thirteen seconds, and all to race for.
Toyota chose to bring both cars into the pits with just 10 minutes remaining, and both cars left in formation for a picture run to the flag. But behind them, the LMP2 battle for second and third was down to seven seconds and closing.
After the threatening storm clouds of earlier, the finish was held under clearing blue skies, with bright sunshine to greet the finishers. As ever, there were both winners and finishers.
Incredibly, on the very last lap, the #41 Team WRT car stopped at the bottom of the Esses, the engine quitting, promoting #31 and #28 to first and second, with just a 1.8 second gap at Arnage, which would become 0.7 seconds at the line.
Finally, the crew of the #7 Toyota, Mike Conway, Kamui Kobatashi and José María López, achieved what has previously been the impossible dream, after so many attempts, only to see their sister car win the plaudits.
The #8 Toyota duly came home in second, with the #36 Alpine coming home in third place.
Even though the Glickenhaus cars did not reach the podium, their victory was to get both cars to the finish line, and set up an unexpected 100% finishing record in the Hypercar class.
The race to the line by the LMP2 cars almost caused issues, with the slowing Toyotas and other cars almost blocking the race to the finish line, but they just about made it to the line, just 0.7 seconds apart. It was both joy and tears for Team WRT, the #31 making it to the line as winners in their first attempt, but suffering the agony of retirement for the #41, and JOTA Sport getting yet another Le Mans podium in second. Coming through into third place was the #65 of Panis Racing, getting due reward for their efforts.
In both of the GTE classes, it was AF Corse to the fore. The #51 crew of Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado and Côme Ledogar winning the Pro category by forty one seconds, over the #63 Corvette and the #92 Porsche GT, while the #83 crew of François Perrodo,
Finally, congratulations has to go to Pierre Fillon and all at the Automobile Club de L'Ouest for the staging of the race, to Race Director Eduardo Freitas and his team in Race Control, and to all the #orangearmy volunteers who made the running of the event safe.