A Le Mans of surprises, attrition and comebacks
Le Mans 2017 will perhaps be the most remembered Le Mans in recent years.
It was a year of great expectations from Toyota as well as a year of great upset.
It was the year when the Jackie Chan-backed DC Oreca LMP2 car almost seemingly had the race in the bag.
It was the year Porsche, which started strong, looked outclassed by the Toyotas in the early part of the race and even managed a rare oil problem for the engine in one of the 919s. In the end, Porsche took their third overall consecutive win, a hat-trick that allowed them to keep the prized Le Mans trophy.
At the start of the race weekend, all eyes were on Toyota as Kamui Kobayashi set a truly blistering pace, lapping the famous Circuit de la Sarthe with a physics-bending 3:14.719 seconds.
This time is eclipsed only by a previous record set by Neel Jani in 2015.
Crucially, it was faster than a lap record set by Hans Stuck in 1985 when Le Mans had a different layout that was four corners less.
Indeed, modern Le Mans endurance racing has turned into a 24-hour sprint race where cars go flat out practically most of the time.
No wonder many thought Toyota would finally be able to win especially after having been so close to taking first place in the past.
Additionally, Toyota was fielding a full trio cars which increased the marque’s chances of winning the event.
Toyota had also won two of the last three races at this year’s World Endurance Championship, and Le Mans—being fourth on the WEC’s calendar—seemed to be the next.
For many, the season’s hat-trick seemed to be going for Toyota.
2017 was different in that it was a very hot and humid race. As 250,000 fans worldwide converged at the sleepy town of Le Mans in France, the race started at the traditional 3 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, and the crowds cheering wildly as the cars thundered past the start/finish line in rolling formation.
Toyota led at a blistering pace, and though it was still early, the Japanese looked invincible.
After some time, disaster struck the #2 919 LMP1 Porsche, driven by Timo Bernhard, Earl Bamber and Brendon Hartley.
The drive was lost on the front wheels, necessitating a pitstop to replace a defective motor generator unit (MGU).
It took the team an hour and 5 minutes to fix. It looked very bleak for the #2 car as they rejoined the race 19 laps behind the leading Toyota.
After a nerve-wracking night stint, the #2 car was down by only 12 laps from the new leaders, the #1 919 LMP1 Porsche driven by Neel Jani, Andre Lotterer and Nick Tandy.
But despite Porsche being true meisters at Le Mans, nobody escapes her vicious humor.
Disaster struck as the #1 car, which at that time was driven by Andre Lotterer, ground to a halt at lap 318, so tantalizingly close to the finish, from an oil pressure problem emanating from the 919’s flat-four turbocharged powerplant.
Suddenly, the #2 car had a true fighting chance. The #30 Jackie Chan-backed DC Oreca LMP2 car took the lead after the #1 Porsche 919 ground to a halt to retire; many thought it was indeed going to be the first time an LMP2 would win Le Mans.
But the #2 Porsche 919 put its head down low, got to work, and proceeded to claw its way to the very front of the field, lapping between 12 to 15 seconds per lap faster than the leading LMP2 car.
After 367 laps, Porsche finally won the Le Mans 2017 race, one lap clear of the Jacke Chan Oreca DC Car, and hoisted the trophy.
It was also only the second time that two Kiwis took the top spot on the podium since 1966 when Bruce McLaren and Bruce Amon did so.
What happened to Toyota? After the Japanese came so close to winning last year when their car malfunctioned three minutes before the race ended, the Toyota Curse at Le Mans struck with a ferocity like a horror movie.
The first brutal blow came when the #8 Toyota TSO50 driven by Anthony Davidson, Sebastien Buemi, and Kabuki Nakajima lost its front motor and battery, which necessitated an hour in the pits and losing 29 laps to the lead car.
In the end, they garnered ninth place, a respectable finish.
The biggest blow came when the pole-setting #7 Toyota TSO50 driven by Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway, and Stephane Sarrazin, which had led comfortably for the first 10 hours, burned up its clutch ironically due to a confusion from the pits.
Kobayashi was in for a scheduled pitstop when a driver from another team gave Kobayashi a thumbs up.
Kobayashi had mistakenly thought the driver was a pit marshall who had signaled Kobayashi to proceed.
As Kobayashi attempted to re-start the car, the pit crew frantically told him to stop the car.
The confusion saw Kobayashi start and re-start the car a couple of times, which ultimately damaged the clutch.
Kobayashi was able to finally leave the pits, but the clutch failed completely right after the car exited the pit lane.
As per Le Mans regulation, a competing car cannot receive any assistance outside of the pit lane.
Kobayashi tried to limp back to the pits, which meant enduring a very long 6.5 mile lap of the infamous Circuit de la Sarthe.
The car failed to make the pits and Kobayashi had to exit from the car in utter disappointment, but was given a standing ovation by the crowd for his truly valiant efforts.
As if to add insult to injury, the third Toyota TSO50, car #9, was damaged when the rear was struck by the Manor LMP2 car; it failed to even make it back to the pit lane for repairs, with the shattered carbon-fiber bodywork ripping the rear tires.
It also ground to a halt, only 15 minutes after Kobayashi retired.
Lastly, the GTE Pro class was truly racing at its finest, with Aston Martin narrowly taking class win with the #97 car driven by Jonny Adam, Daniel Serra and Darren Turner, edging out the #63 Corvette Racing driven by Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Jordan Taylor.
2017 Le Mans was exciting, different and truly memorable. The LMP2 cars are becoming faster than ever, and there is increased interest in the GTE classes (both pro and amateur).
And as competition heats up, more manufacturers are taking interest in fielding a full factory-backed effort, which can only mean better things for motorsports and fans alike.
Toyota has already promised they will be back next year, and Porsche will surely want to cement their record of being the true masters at Le Mans not just next year, but for years to come.
But before anyone else thinks winning Le Mans is easy, think again. As Porsche can attest, Le Mans teaches us all one thing: if you want to finish first, you first have to finish.