Despite the action in the prototype classes it was arguably the GTE Pro class that gave us the closest and most exciting racing of this year’s event. For most of us the epic final-lap battle between Jonny Adam in the #97 Aston Martin and Jordan Taylor piloting the #63 Corvette will be the over-riding memory from this year; however, arguably the more important result from this year’s race is just how close it was between the five manufacturers in GTE Pro with a different marque taking each of the top 5 positions after 24 hours or wheel-to-wheel racing!
With most public and commentators, including us it has to be said, convinced of some serious ‘sandbagging’ by many of the teams in the run-u to the race in an effort to avoid a negative BoP adjustment, many of us expected the Ford GTs to leap past the Pole sitting #97 Aston Martin. However, as newly installed F1 Supremo Chase Carey dropped the tricolour to start the race it was Guidi in #51 AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE that propelled himself forwards to lead the class from 2nd on grid.
After the first hour of close racing the #95 Aston Martin Racing of Sorensen, Stanaway and Thiim lead the class timing sheets by 6s over the sister car of Turner, Adam and Serra thanks to some blistering laps put in by Thiim. The #51 Ferrari had by now dropped back to third.
The first of the GTE retirements came in hour two as an ill conceived move by Roman Russinov speared the #26 G-Drive Racing Oreca LMP2 into the #88 Am car of Proton Racing Porsche, ironically at the Porsche Curves, ending the race for both cars.
By the third hour the two British based Fords had started to show some pace with the #66 Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK car up to third followed by the sister #67 car in fourth then the first of the Porsche GT Team’s new 911 cars, the #92 up to fifth.
In GTE Am, Aston Martin were continuing their dominance from practice and qualifying into the race with the #98 car of Dalla Lana, Lauda and Lamy holding top spot from hard charging JMW Motorsport’s brand new Ferrari 488 GTE.
The #95 car’s dominance was not to be however and by the fourth hour it had dropped to the bottom of the timesheet after suffering a puncture. This saw the first hour that the Fords topped the class times with the #66 car lading Aston’s #97 by a mere 1.339s.
JMW Motorsport had by now leapfrogged the #98 Aston to claim the lead of the Am class by under 1s with the #55 green Spirit of Race Ferrari claiming third.
Hour eight saw the first of the GTE Pro retirements with the official announcement that the damage to the #82 Risi Competizion Ferrari was too significant to repair following an earlier incident where Pierre Kaffer was catapulted into the armco on the Mulsanne by TDS Racing driver Matthieu Vaxiviere (1:37-2:02 in the video below). By hour 16 the #92 Porsche 911 RSR had joined it having been retired on lap 179.
As the weather and carbon debris on the track took their toll and the LMP1 machines failed through the night, the GTE fields continued to lap time and time again within moments of each other – truly this was turning into the ‘race within the race’ – with the #97 Aston Martin Vantage proving to be the car to beat, continually topping the class times hour after hour. At around 08:25 on Sunday morning Richie Stanaway found the gravel trap at Arnage and although he got the car to the pits the subsequent damage required an extended stop for repair.
With four hours remaining on the clock the Corvettes made their move as the #63 took the hour’s top spot by a somewhat enormous 22.264s from the #97 Aston. The remaining Porsche, the #91, lapped into third ahead of the only Ford that appeared to remain a viable challenger, the #67. An hour later as noon arrived we had six cars from five different manufacturers on the lead lap, GM heading the field in the #63 Corvette C7.R from Porsche (#91) and Ford (#67) with the #97 Aston dropping down to fourth position. Fifth position saw the first of the Ferrari challengers, the #71 AF Corse car.
Throughout this time the #84 JMW Motorsport Ferrari 488 of Smith, Stevens and Vanthoor had continued almost faultlessly to bang in those laps, almost robotically topping the GTE Am time sheets and at the top of the hour it had been joined by the the #55, #62 and #61 cars making it an all Ferrari top four with three hours remaining.
As the GTE Pro cars started to make their final pitstops the tension began to rise around the circuit as the race outcome remained open until the very end. With less than an hour to run all eyes were on Jordan Taylor in the #63 Corvette as he emerged from his final stop a shade ahead of Jonny Adam in the #97 Aston Martin, snatching GTE Pro lead. A perhaps misjudged late stop from the #91 Porsche allowed Harry Tincknell’s #67 Ford GT to slide into third.
After nearly 24 hours of some of the closest racing we have seen for many years, the two leading cars, Taylor in the #63 Corvette and Adam peddling #97 Aston, were separated by just 0.7s! There pair began a gladiatorial battle with Taylor just managing to stay ahead in the Corvette after what appeared to be contact at Arnage. In the final laps, with Adam hounding him all the way, the Briton forced Taylor into a mistake the American locking up at the second chicane and having to take the shortcut yet he remained ahead; but the win was not to be for the American, a charging Adam made the pass at the exit of the Ford chicane form where he stayed to take the class win for the British marque. Taylor, having picked up a puncture, straight-lined at Dunlop allowing a stalking Tincknell in the #67 Ford to pass the ailing Corvette to steal 2nd place in the Ford GT #67.
And let’s not forget the GTE Am race here. JMW Motorsport continued their almost faultless domination of the class to take the win putting Le Mans debutants Smith, Vanthoors and Stevens on the Top Step of the class podium in an all-Ferrari finish. Andrew Howard’s #99 Beechdean AMR was the only non-Ferrari in the top 5 finishing a steady race in 4th position ahead of the #61 Clearwater Racing Ferrari of Mok, Sawa and Griffin who now lead the Am class of the WEC by six points from the #98 Aston Martin.
And there you have it, what a race! If ever there was any doubt that BoP does not provide close and exciting racing this year’s running of the Le Mans 24 hours should dispel that. From the next round of the WEC at Germany’s Nurburgring the globe-trotting championship moves into a new, computerised system of BoP so we will be watching how this affects the remaining races going forwards. But for us, this year’s GTE Pro battle will go down as one of the all time greats.
The double points haul offered by Le Mans now puts Ford at the top of the GTE manufacturer’s World Championship with 117 points ahead of Ferrari (108), Aston Martin (95) and Porsche (72). In the driver’s championship the #67 crew of Andy Priaulx, Harry Tincknell and Luis Felipe (Pipo) Derani lead the #97 Aston Martin drivers Darren Turner, Jonny Adam and Daniel Serra by 74 points to 63.
Full results are available here.