Porsche Defeat Audi at Le Mans

The Le Mans 24 Hours has turned a corner. Those days of watching the four rings lap rampant around the world’s greatest race? They’re over. In years to come the motor racing world will remember 2015 as the year that endurance racing came of age again.

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Three LMP1 rookies stood on the top step of the famous podium, bemused but delirious. Just a month earlier Earl Bamber, Nick Tandy and Nico Hulkenberg had had their first taste of competition in top flight sports car racing - now they were the maestros, orchestrating a perfect race across the course of what must have seemed an age.

And they’d beaten the modern masters, demolished last year’s pretenders and opened a new chapter in one of the most historic annals of sports car racing. Audi had been brushed off, Toyota were left behind in the French countryside, and Porsche had taken a record 17th overall victory.

Audi had started well, the #7 of three-time winners Lotterer, Treluyer and Fassler at one point passing both #17 and #18 Porsches in the space of four corners. But soon their story began to unravel, strand by strand.

A crash for the #8 required a nose change - completed in Audi’s typical fast fashion. Filipe Albuquerque caught Brendon Hartley before having to pit slightly earlier - but without the pace advantage needed to make that strategy work. Rear bodywork came loose, in one instance being shredded by the air passing over it - fixed, yes, but valuable minutes lost.

Audi looked like a team in crisis. This wasn’t them. Not that Porsche went untroubled, with early leader Mark Webber being penalised with a minute’s stop and go penalty for overtaking under yellow flags, and the #18 of Jani, Lieb and Dumas suffering from brake issues which left it in the tyre wall twice.

But circulating steadily and keeping it on the road allowed the ‘white’ Porsche to rise to the top of the field. Bamber had only raced here in a 911 while Hulkenberg and Bamber had only raced here in a simulator. Still they swept around the Circuit de Le Sarthe, never overstepping their talent, always pushing without risk.

Not even the spectre of a full field of slower cars troubled them, despite that field having and causing problems of its own. Aston Martins littered the track, the two Amateur entries heavily into separate walls in the last sector, the three Pros either suffering mechanical failures or suffering long post-crash stints in the garage.

The end of the #98 V8 Vantage was particularly brutal; Paul Dalla Lana’s foot slipping off the brake pedal and nosing heavily into a concrete barrier - just 45 minutes from the end and from a lead of almost two minutes. The Canadian slapped both hands on the side of his helmet again and again and again, distraught.

Last year’s GTE Pro winning AF Corse of Gimi Bruni, Toni Vilander and Giancarlo Fisichella went a similar way, a gearbox issue depositing it from the lead and into the garage with just two hours to go.

This left it to Corvette Racing to take an ecstatic chequered flag, made all the more sweet by the fact that they had had to withdraw the sister #63 C7R after a chassis-ruining shunt for Jan Magnussen in qualifying.

The #64 team of Oli Gavin, Tommy Milner and Jordan Taylor ran strongly throughout the 24, first dicing with the #97 and #99 Astons and then holding off the challenge of the #51. The #71 Ferrari took a plodding second, while a stellar performance by Bruni’s mechanics (under the Italian’s stern gaze) allowed him and his teammates to take the third step.

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LMP2 on the other hand was almost never in doubt. The Hong Kong based KCMG team, running a new Oreca 05 with a Nissan engine, led from the start. In fact, bar a handful of early laps in the pit stop period, the team of Nico Lapierre, Matt Howson and Richard Bradley were away at the front of the field for the entire race.

The Thiriet by TDS team could have had a go had they not been taken out by a brake-failed Aston Martin in the early hours of Sunday morning. A late surge by 2014 class winners JOTA Sport saw them scramble to second with the Russian G-Drive team bringing their Ligier home in third.

A similar scramble happened the instant that Dalla Lana went into the wall at the Ford Chicane, with SMP Racing slipping their Ferrari 458 Italia up into first place in GTE Am at the hands of Victor Shaytar, Aleksei Basov and Andrea Bertolini. They too had been lapping quietly, largely unopposed and with only a few small errors - a tactic which, unsurprisingly, tends to work well in endurance.

Second in class was the Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche of Pat Long, Marco Seefried and hollywood star Patrick Dempsey, just ahead of compatriots Scuderia Corsa. The podium was a moment to remember for US racing fans, with five homegrown drivers spraying champagne in front of the crowd.

But as always it was the main event which brought the fans running along the track and scrumming beneath the podium, as Hulkenberg drove his victorious 919 Hybrid the wrong way down the pit lane, Bamber and Tandy sitting either side, all three screaming like maniacs. This wasn’t what they had expected, or really prepared for.

The sister #17 919, in ‘classic red’ livery, was driven to 2nd place by Webber, Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley. Audi were left to scoop up a distant third, last year’s race winners left looking up at the top step jealously.

There was a mixture of joy and relief rippling around the crowd. Audi will always have their place in the history of Le Mans, but with this win Porsche have become only the third team to beat the four rings in their dominant era while adding to Stuttgart’s own, unbeaten tally.

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That honour could have been Toyota’s in 2014 were it not for a couple of procedural errors. The 2015 iteration of their TS040 was so far off the pace however, that the Cologne-based marque became a footnote in the story. Seven seconds a lap off the pace, running without issue, ending the race eight and nine laps down, the two blue and white prototypes of the reigning world champions were worse than bad; they were irrelevant.

The privateer LMP1s were similarly unimportant but at least still brought excitement to the race, with Rebellion and ByKolles’ cars both looking and sounding like proper race cars should. The former finished 18th and 23rd overall, the latter almost overcame their 100% record of failure but unfortunately retired with fifteen minutes to go.

A special mention should go to Nissan, who turned up with three bizarre and innovative cars that were never going to be on the pace but still contested the race as if they were going for an overall win.

The front engined, front wheel drive GT-R LM Nismos ran intermittently, frequenting the pits like moths to a light, always either running round and learning or back in and fixing. The team was exhausted by the end of it - of all those here the Nissan boys and girls were the busiest.

The self proclaimed ‘bad boys of racing’ have a lot of ground to make up - they qualified more than 20s behind the polesitter. But with the addition of an 8MJ hybrid system, improved braking and more time to perfect set up they may well come into contention in 2016.

But today was all about who had won it now; who had triumphed in 2015 and how they had done it. Porsche outstrategised Audi, they worked better as a team and they had built a fankly phenomenal sports car, one that broke the previous lap record by seconds rather than tenths.

The era of hybrid monsters has now properly arrived. These aren’t the experimental tech labs of the past, they’re the product of a space race to the top of the power charts, 8 megajoules of energy per lap being hoovered up and squirted back out by the winning car, a figure that contributed in a concrete way to the victory.

And it’s no longer just endurance either; Toyota have proved that you can’t win with reliability any more. When none of the top drawer cars fail over 24 hours you need more than that, you need speed and consistency and drivers who can handle it.

So 2015 has signalled a phase change in the way that endurance racing has to be approached. There’s no dominant force arrogantly ‘welcoming challengers’. There’s no underdog hopefuls. There’s just the world’s best racing teams at each others throats for the sweet taste of winning. For them it’s marketing, sales and prestige. But for the rest of us, it’s the best racing in the world, and the 83rd running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans has proven that.