Le Mans 24hrs: Porsche and Toyota cash cows undermined by affordable racers

Hybrid wondercars humbled by pro-am LMP2 racers in the round-the-clock French classic

French driver Stephane Sarrazin (R) and English driver Mike Conway react after teammate Kamui Kobayashi’s No 7 car goes out of the race in the middle of the night.

French driver Stephane Sarrazin (R) and English driver Mike Conway react after teammate Kamui Kobayashi’s No 7 car goes out of the race in the middle of the night.

 

Porsche won the 2017 Le Mans 24hrs, extending the Stuttgart brand’s winning run at the great French race to a record 19 victories, all since 1970. Not only was the victory snatched from the jaws of embarrassing defeat, though, it may just be that Porsche is thinking of quitting Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship altogether.

Toyota, which was the clear pre-race favourite following a terribly unlucky failure on the cusp of what should have been a first win for the Japanese brand last year, was in lockstep with Porsche in having very poor reliability at Le Mans, both brands losing cars to mechanical malady and spending unscheduled hours in the pits for repairs.

Toyota had the quicker car by far, its TS050 Hybrid setting a searing pace in the hands of Japanese driver Kamui Kobayashi in qualifying. He set the fastest lap ever of the current variation of the 13km Le Mans circuit, blasting around its mixture of purpose-built race track and closed public roads in just 3min 14sec - a time that was well out of reach of Porsche’s 919 Hybrids.

Toyota on top

Toyota it was and Kobayashi too who put an early stranglehold on the race, powering ahead in the No.7 TS050, never relinquishing the lead for more than the time taken to stop for fuel, tyres, and a driver change during the initial hours. Behind it though, all hell was breaking loose.

The No 7 Toyota leads into the night, with all expecting it to end the race first
The No 7 Toyota leads into the night, with all expecting it to end the race first

The No.2 Porsche 919 Hybrid was the first to falter, suffering major hybrid system problems, which meant that it had to be wheeled back into the garage, while the Porsche mechanics essentially had to disassemble and then reassemble the entire front end of the car. That put Timo Bernhard, Earl Bamber, and Brendon Hartley apparently out of the running, more than an hour behind the leading cars.

Toyota then began to suffer similar problems, its No.8 car sidelined with its own hybrid issues, and like the Porsche having to spend far too much time in the garage being rebuilt, tumbling down the ranks.

High drama

As day turned to night, and as a stunning and dramatic blood orange sunset pulled Le Mans deep into the dark, the wheels began to come off Toyota’s seemingly unassailable challenge. First of all, the No.7 Toyota, with the perennially unlucky Kobayashi at the wheel, refused to accelerate at the end of a brief period of running behind the safety car. Kobayashi limped around as far as he could, the car stuck in first gear, but eventually it would go no further, and the Japanese ace was faced with a long walk home from a broken car.

More despair at Toyota as its No. 9 car goes out within an hour of the leading No 7.
More despair at Toyota as its No. 9 car goes out within an hour of the leading No 7.

That would have been bad enough, but worse was to come mere moments later, when the No.9 car, Toyota’s supposed ace-in-the-hole, part of its strategy of racing three cars against the two fielded by Porsche, was punted into retirement in a collision with a lower-ranking LMP2 car.

That left Porsche, slightly stunned, in the lead with its No.1 car piloted by the experienced Andre Lotterer, Nick Tandy, and Neel Jani. Through the long, dark night the 919 Hybrid added to its lead, eventually finding itself 11 full laps ahead of its nearest competition.

German woes

All seemed set for another weekend of Porsche domination at Le Mans, until suddenly, early on Sunday morning, Lotterer pulled off to the side of the track, near to the famed Indianapolis corner. In spite of efforts to get the car moving again, nothing could be done, and Porsche’s hopes suddenly rested on the broken No.2 car.

After taking the lead from Toyota and looking set for victory, Andre Lotterer’s Porsche 919 Hybrid N°1 is brought back to the stands after it was abandoned due to an oil pressure problem
After taking the lead from Toyota and looking set for victory, Andre Lotterer’s Porsche 919 Hybrid N°1 is brought back to the stands after it was abandoned due to an oil pressure problem

First though, it would have to pick its way through a filed of fast-moving LMP2 cars. LMP2 is supposed to be the bulk filler at Le Mans, the class for racing cars that are neither as fast nor as exciting as the front-ranking LMP1s of Toyota and Porsche, but much more affordable to buy and run. In fact, all of the cars (most of them built by the French company ORECA, which is also involved with the Toyota effort) used the same 4.2-litre Gibson-built V8 engines. The use no hybrid system and are close to stone-age compared to the energy-harvesting, hybrid-running LMP1 cars, but here we suddenly had an Oreca-Gibson, run by the Jackie Chan racing team (yes, that Jackie Chan) leading the race and several laps ahead of the chasing Porsche. Could we see the biggest upset at Le Mans in the race’s long history?

Not quite - the maths, shy of another major disaster or an unlikely cloudburst of rain on what was one of the hottest and driest Le Mans weekends for years, was inevitable and with fast-charging Timo Bernhard at the wheel, the sole-surviving Porsche 919 Hybrid reeled in the Jackie Chan Oreca, and passed it with just over an hour of the race left to run. Drivers Oliver Jarvis, Thomas Laurent and Ho-Pin Tung were sanguine about the Porsche’s pass, and at least take away the price of the LMP2 win, the points, and the knowledge that they had come very close to an unimaginable humbling of the giants of motorsport, using an engine that cost less than Porsche’s catering budget.

Thus Porsche set its newest record. Three wins on the bounce. Only one win away from an unassailable 20 victories at Le Mans. Toyota, for all its pre-event hopes and determination, limped home tenth with that single, remaining No.8 car. With Toyota boss and racing enthusiast Akio Toyoda looking on impassively from the Toyota pit, one has to wonder whether the Japanese brand can possibly summon the will and the cash for more of this.

Auf wiedersehen Porsche?

An unexpected win for Porsche’s No 2 car, driven by Timo Bernhard of Germany, Earl Bamber of New Zealand and Brendon Hartley of New Zealand
An unexpected win for Porsche’s No 2 car, driven by Timo Bernhard of Germany, Earl Bamber of New Zealand and Brendon Hartley of New Zealand

Porsche’s future at Le Mans is in doubt too. Just ahead of the race, the rulemakers from the Automobile Club l’Ouest (ACO), which runs Le Mans, released new technical rules for the top-ranking LMP1 category, which essentially keep the core of the existing cars but add in moving wings for more slippery aerodynamics, and fast-charging batteries that must carry the car for a minimum of one kilometre following a pit stop. Porsche’s team boss Andreas Seidl pronounced himself happy with the new regs, but it’s known that the racing budget is under tight scrutiny from the high-ups at the Volkswagen Group, which is struggling with the fallout from its diesel scandal. Rumour has it that Porsche it set to follow its stablemate Audi out of Le Mans and into all-electric Formula E racing.

That would leave Toyota without a competitor, and the ACO with a major problem as its contract means it must always have at least two big, manufacturer-backed teams in the sport. If Porsche goes, Toyota almost certainly will follow and then what?

GT heroes

Perhaps the greatest battle on the track was between the GT cars, with Aston Martin coming out on top in the final laps
Perhaps the greatest battle on the track was between the GT cars, with Aston Martin coming out on top in the final laps

There are some hopeful signs on the horizon though, mostly in the shape of the GTE category at Le Mans, for cars vaguely based on road-going models. Last year, Ford steamrolled the category with its GT, which (and not for the first time at Le Mans) effectively sidestepped the GTE category rules by being built as a racing car first, and a road car second.

The oft-derided Balance Of Performance (BOP) rules, though, did their job this year and helped to equalise performance between the Ford GT and its rivals from Corvette, Aston Martin, Ferrari, and Porsche. The GTE battle, all through the 24hrs, was an utter ding-dong, with honours being more or less equally divided between the competing marques.

Anyone of them deserved a win, but it was Aston Martin, with its near-decade-old Vantage Coupe that took the flag, when the No.97 Jonny Adam, Daniel Serra, and Darren Turner-driven car passed the leading, but mechanically tired, No.63 Chevrolet Corvette driven by Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Jordan Taylor on the very last lap of the race, following 23-hours and 59-minutes of racing.

With BMW definitely coming back to Le Mans GTE racing next year, with the new M8 Coupes. and Honda and Jaguar both reportedly eyeing up the category, it could be that we are due a return to the early nineties, when road-based cars dominated at Le Mans, and in sports car racing in general.

Certainly, it seems as if the big-banger LMP1 category is now holed below the water. Toyota and Porsche are both reportedly spending north of €250-million on a season of World Endurance Championship racing, yet both brands - brand which pride themselves both in marketing and in fact on their robust build quality and reliability - have been exposed in front of an on-track audience of 250,000 people and a broadcast and online audience of many millions more, as being less reliable than a cheap Gibson V8 engine which dates back to the early 2000s for its basic architecture. The record books will show that Porsche took its latest victory at Le Mans, but won’t show that it was the most pyrrhic of the 19.