Stelvio Automotive looks back at the biggest race in the motorsport world and how this year’s event may go down as the greatest disappointment in racing history; unless your name was Jackie Chan. 

By Sean Smith

2016 was a classic Le Mans 24hrs. It was a close event all the way through, there was squabbling and cheating afoot, there was the big plot twist on the last lap which had some Toyota fans of 10 or more years in tears, ahem, and all in all it was memorable for many of the right reasons. 2017 though was a very different story.

Things started well when the action began on Wednesday. Teams took to the 13km Circuit de la Sarthe in North Western France and instantly set about destroying all pre-existing lap records in the GT-Am, GT-Pro and LMP2 sub classes. They were to be expected with new rules and development over last year, what wasn’t expected was the lap Kamui Kobayashi was going to do in LMP1.

Toyota’s most famous son after his time in Formula 1 was a part of the #7 car which was already on provisional pole position after Wednesday’s first qualifying round, but come Thursday afternoon he set history. Kamui, on a lap with no major traffic interruptions set a 3:14.791s lap, 2.1 seconds faster than the 2015 lap record, this despite the cars being slowed with power ceilings and aerodynamic limitations since that last record was set.

This set up fever pitch levels of excitement for the race, especially for Toyota fans. The team had 3 cars, a pace advantage over Porsche and fewer cars they needed to defeat due to Audi no longer being present after pulling out after the VW diesel scandal. All that stood between Toyota’s TS050 becoming only the 2nd ever Japanese car to win the French classic was two Porsches 919 Hybrids. This on paper was their best ever chance.

The race began at 3pm CET and the 5 factory Hybrid cars were instantly attacked by the 6th LMP1 car; the #4 ByKolles Enso CLM P1/01. My favourite car in the world had also set qualifying records as the fastest ever non-hybrid and fastest ever non-factory entered vehicle, the car was 10 seconds quicker than a year ago and on the first straight it overtook the #9 Toyota for 5th.

Toyota Lead Porsche as the got to Tetre Rouge before the infamous Mulsanne Straight when suddenly the ByKolles veered wide. What had happened was a piece of debris had hit the car, firstly breaking the nose section but also the car’s radiator. The resulting damage would initially send the car to last, but 7 laps in the head gasket would blow as no air could reach the engine and it was race over. In only 4 flying laps the car would set a faster lap than any LMP2 car would through the rest of the 24 hours; and looking at what would happen over the rest of the race, it is possible the car could have won the race if it wasn’t for this lap one bad luck.

At the front Toyota soon established a 1-2 ahead of the Porsches. In the first couple of hours Toyota clearly established their advantage with tyre life and pace. The Porsche cars were doing what they could but were clearly no match. The #2 Porsche then suffered a Hybrid related issue on the front axle that would take the team 90 minutes to fix. But just as Toyota were looking odds on favourites, the beginning of their demise reared its ugly head.

The 2nd place #8 car entered the pits for 2 hours needing major repairs. That was a blow to the team but nothing compared to what would occur soon afterwards. The leading #7 car suffered a clutch failure on the restart from a safety car. The car forced itself along but couldn’t get back to the pits on only its electrical energy. Only minutes later the final Toyota, the #9 crashed into an LMP2 car on the front stretch. The crash caused a puncture on the left rear and the delamination then caused the gearbox to fail with the car halting in sight of the pits.

Porsche’s #1 car now had a huge lead. 9 laps over not a fellow LMP1 car, but the lead LMP2 class machine of at the time Bruno Senna’s Rebellion Racing #31. This lead would grow through the night as the Porsche team conserved their car but still extended its lead as the LMP2s had to take more pit stops than the Hybrid leader. The race looked set until around midday on Sunday, when the #1 Porsche slowed and stopped on the Mulsanne straight. It took 40 minutes for the 2nd placed Jackie Chan DC Racing #38 car (above) to physically overtake the Porsche and for a brief period looked good for the overall win. This would have been guaranteed if it weren’t for the #2 Porsche.

That first factory car to suffer a problem had spent the last 20 hours pulling itself back up the order and was now lapping 10 seconds faster than the LMP2 contenders. The maths eventually worked out and with little more than an hour left Porsche retook the lead and would go on to collect their 19th victory of the great race.

Jackie Chan’s team finished 2nd and 4th initially, but the Rebellion #31 would be disqualified during the next week due to the team cutting a hole in the bodywork to access a faulty starter motor. This very petty ruling by the ACO and FIA meant Rebellion lost 3rd place on the overall podium and Jackie Chan’s teams being 2nd and 3rd overall and 1st and 2nd in LMP2. In GTE Corvette and Aston Martin had been fighting it out for the majority of the race and it was to be a penultimate lap punch up and final lap mistake between the two that was to give Aston the win, causing anguish for all Corvette fans.

Le Mans 2017 was a very close call for Hybrid technology, for Toyota it was a disaster. The race was particularly hot in the mid 30 degrees and like we saw at Spa in 2016 the Hybrids can’t handle the racing conditions of high heat on demanding tracks. Toyota came out after the race and said Hybrid technology might not be ready for this kind of racing but equally said that it would only improve by continuing its racing at Le Mans.

It was also a highlight of the blow to the sport with Audi leaving the sport. 5 Hybrids and 1 privateer is simply not enough for the top class. 2018 will see this change as although there will probably be only 4 works cars, LMP1 will have more private entries. ByKolles, who should have won, will have 2 cars next year and they will be joined by Ginetta who have confirmed the Manor team on their books, Dallara/SMP who will run a new version of the BR-01 (now called the BR1) which SMP ran last year, as well as Perrinn, a small British team who have also said they’ve sold 2 cars.

This influx could have up to 10 LMP1 privateers along with 4 Hybrid, what’s more these new privateer cars will be a lot faster due to new rules so it’s entirely possible that Porsche and Toyota, especially at Le Mans, could be under severe pressure. We’ll also hopefully see a new all electric Panoz in the field.

Le Mans 2017 for me will be remembered at the year every single car I wanted to win a class either retired from the race or had some sort of incident that meant it had no chance, 2018 can only be better on that front!! At least that’s what I’m going with, but yet again Le Mans showed it is the greatest and most demanding race in the world.