World Endurance Championship Round 2. Le Mans, France. June 2018. Credit: Nick Holland for SportscarGlobal

As we approach the next round of the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) lets have a refresher on the last round, the first visit of the 2018-19 Super-Season to the Le Mans 24-hours.  SportscarGlobal has partnered with @TheBPillar to take a closer look at some of the post-Le Mans data, and Matt Griffin (no, the other one!) has pulled these words together to give us all some insight into some of the hidden performances that were buried in the 24-hours.  We hope it whets your appetite for the weekend ahead and the veritable sprint by sheer comparison the Six-Hours of Silverstone will be.

LMP1

With much fanfare and to little real surprise, Toyota took home their first overall Le Mans victory. The withdrawal of Audi and Porsche in the top category, the absence of any significant mass-market manufacturer to invest funds in a hybrid prototype, and the relative performance and financial gap to the privately-entered competitors that did appear, all provided the Japanese (Cologne-based) team with the motorsport equivalent of an open goal; in theory, all they had to do was not trip over their own shoes. 

A cursory glance at the fastest laps would suggest that Sebastien Buemi and Jose Maria Lopez were the main weapons in the Toyota arsenal; indeed, it was the second year in a row that Buemi had set the overall fastest lap, and the third straight year that the Swiss driver had set his car’s best time. Looking underneath the single lap speed reveals another story. 

Analysing the best 25 laps of each driver in the LMP1 field brings a familiar name from another series to the forefront. With his Formula One career closer to its conclusion that its origin, Fernando Alonso has admirably embarked on the next phase by exploring other areas of motorsport. Last year’s headline-grabbing efforts at the Indianapolis 500 were matched by his decision to join Toyota for the 2018-19 WEC super-season. One could argue that the marriage benefits both parties equally; Alonso had a gilt-edged opportunity to add another world title to his belt, Toyota added one of the most recognisable names in the sport at a moment where endurance racing (at least at the very zenith) needed something positive.

Credit: Matt Griffin @TheBPillar

Alonso just edged Buemi on 25-lap average; remember, though, that Buemi had the benefit of a clear track in the race’s first few laps, before he and Conway caught up to the slower GTE Am runners. Remove Buemi’s first few laps from the analysis, and suddenly Alonso is nearly a full half-second to the good of Sebastien. But possibly the most significant statistic we could find was Fernando’s performance overnight; the Spaniard, across similar stints to the sister car, was about 2.5s a lap quicker. Even if everything were in Alonso’s favour, that is still a super impressive gap. Along with Kazuki Nakajima’s stint to follow Alonso, it brought the #8 back into contention.

Credit: Matt Griffin @TheBPillar

As the hours ticked down and overall victory began to look a surety, a thought must have been spared for Anthony Davidson, a driver for whom Le Mans delivered a pair of podium finishes but mostly disappointment and heartbreak. Toyota’s decision to replace the feisty Brit with the two-time F1 World Champion cannot have been made easily; in recent years, however, Toyota have shown that they have limited scope for sentimentality in their driver lineups, and Alonso’s performance simply underscored this.

There were eight further starters in the LMP1 class; three of these were enjoying their first race outing and could only reasonably expect to get as far as possible before inevitable teething problems struck. That the Manor team got a Ginetta to the finish was testament to the team’s tenacity after a fraught beginning to the season at Spa. DragonSpeed arrived with a rebuilt BR1 for Ben Hanley, Hendrik Hedman, and Renger van der Zande; the car finally expired just beyond 2/3rds distance, but not before Hanley yet again showed his prowess behind the wheel.

SMP Racing brought two BR1s to the show; Stephane Sarrazin spent much of the early running leading the non-hybrid chase in #17 but had to endure watching his former teammates disappear into the distance. The sister car suffered from everything but leprosy, and Jenson Button finally brought the #11 car to an unglorified halt within the race’s final hour. ByKolles brought their endlessly re-badged prototype (now carrying the ENSO moniker) for another outing at Le Mans, though they seem no closer to solving their reliability or performance issues; Dominik Kraihamer and Tom Dillmann looked well matched in the car before its untimely demise.

World Endurance Championship Round 2. Official Test Day, Le Mans, France. Test Day June 3rd 2018. Image: Nick Holland for SportscarGlobal

This left the Rebellion Racing R13s to scrap over the final outright podium position. It could so easily have been decided at the race’s first corner, where Andre Lotterer found himself (or, more accurately, his car’s front bodywork) skating into the path of Hanley’s BR1, leaving the #1 to play catch-up after a stop to clean itself up for the fight. The #3 car gave Rebellion its first outright podium, which may have gone some way to clearing out the bad taste left after 2017’s third-on-the-road and subsequent disqualification. Of note was that the two fastest drivers for Rebellion were the relatively inexperienced Gustavo Menezes and Thomas Laurent, with Menezes just over a half-second quicker based on their fastest 25-lap average; given that Thomas benefited from starting the race and having no traffic to impede his progress, the young Brazilian-American’s performance was nothing short of remarkable.

LMP2

2017 almost saw an upset, outright victory from the LMP2 category; 2018 would entertain no such proposition. Fifth overall was the best that a P2 entrant could have reasonably expected. From early in the race, the lead was monopolised by the #26 G-Drive (entered under the TDS Racing banner) ORECA. Their lead grew incrementally, and every so often it would make a jump. These jumps occurred just after their routine pit stops. It all looked too easy. Turned out to be the case; word filtered through post-race that the #26 (and the sister #28) were disqualified for a technical infringement. Given the car’s in-race pace advantage, it all seemed so pointless.

Yet it was the #28 TDS Racing ORECA that the numbers suggest had the superior pace; it is only when factoring in the driving strength that the difference in the two cars becomes apparent. TDS Racing’s mandated “silver or bronze” driver, businessman and racing enthusiast Francois Perrodo, has come on exceptionally well in his short racing career. Expecting him to be close on times to his counterpart in the G-Drive ORECA, Andrea Pizzitola, is an act of lunacy. Perrodo’s 25-lap average was by no means the slowest of the “amateurs”, but it paled against Pizzitola, who was only 0.45s behind Jean-Eric Vergne, the now reigning Formula E Drivers Champion.

World Endurance Championship Round 2. Le Mans, France. June 2018. Image: John Stevens for JellyBaby.Media

Having spent the best part of 23 hours watching their main competitor remain tantalisingly out of reach, the Alpine nameplate therefore capitalised on the indiscretions of others to return 40-years after overall victory with Renault to the Le Mans winner’s circle. For Nico Lapierre, a driver whose recent career has been marked with highs and lows, feelings of deja vu may have surfaced as he finished fifth and class winner in #36, just as he did in 2016. Nico shared the car with Andre Negrao, who like in 2017 put in a stellar shift for Signatech, and Pierre Thiriet, whose consistency and pace would have been exactly what the team required. 

Credit: Matt Griffin @TheBPillar

Graff-SO24 stood on the class podium and were promoted to its second step post-race. Better known for a moment of utter foolishness at this race last year, Vincent Capillaire should have erased any doubts about his racecraft an excellent performance, as he and Jonathan Hirschi backed up the underrated Tristan Gommendy (the only returnee to the LMP2 podium from 2017). There could hardly have been a more balanced squad in the class, and their ultimate finish position was just rewards for the team.   

IDEC Sport and DragonSpeed had their moments with a pair of young French drivers showing their abilities. Paul-Loup Chatin sat atop class pole for IDEC but failed to lead a lap in class, and eventually suffered retirement while still in the mix for a class podium. Nathaniel Berthon took over the lead from Chatin in the DragonSpeed ORECA early on, showing an excellent turn of speed and even shading his teammate, Pastor Maldonado, who showed none of the erraticism that littered his post-Spain 2012 F1 career.

Credit: Matt Griffin @TheBPillar

The folk heroes of the rollercoaster 2017 event, Jackie Chan DC Racing by JOTA Sport outfit saw the other side of the coin as #37 was rendered out of contention before spectators had time to lower their heart rates from the start, and then #38 suffered from punctures (one of which led to a direct impact on the result in another class) that led to more serious issues. Ultimately, 6th and 8th in class were strong recoveries from those issues, but still in stark comparison to their shock result last year.

Thoughts must be spared, too, for the Panis Barthez Competition. Their ORECA, in the hands of Will Stevens, Timothe Buret, and the ever-improving Julien Canal, held down second place in class as late as the 18-hour mark, before mechanical gremlins struck and consigned them to an unrepresentative finish. 

World Endurance Championship Round 2. Official Test Day, Le Mans, France. June 2018. Image: Nick Holland for SportscarGlobal

Notable elsewhere were Giedo van der Garde, who practically carried the Racing Team Nederland Dallara around the track on his shoulders to a well-deserved 7th in class; United Autosport, who benefitted from a clockwork performance and the troubles of others to snag the final podium spot; and Felipe Nasr, whose pace in a car that may have been lacking in outright speed may have gone unnoticed for Cetilar Villorba Corse.

GTE-Pro

It is often far too simplistic to point to a single event in time and identify it as the moment that changed the course of a race; in the case of the GTE-Pro battle, it is also not far from the truth.

World Endurance Championship Round 2. Le Mans, France. June 2018. Credit: Nick Holland for SportscarGlobal

At the end of lap 52, the #92 Porsche 911 RSR dived for the pit lane, with the #69 Ford GT and #81 BMW M8 following suit 15 and 22 second behind respectively. Elsewhere on the circuit, the Mighty #38 LMP2 Oreca suffered a puncture that necessitated a Safety Car. Its appearance meant that while the three GTE Pros that stopped on lap 52 left the pits without undue delay, the rest of the pack (who pitted at the end of lap 53) were held at pit exit. Even more fortuitously for Porsche, the Safety Car was deployed between the “pink pig” 911 and its rivals from Ford and BMW. At a stroke, #92 was granted a corrected lead of just over a minute. They were never headed.

Credit: Matt Griffin @TheBPillar

This is not to say that Porsche didn’t deserve to win the class with their throwback liveried Pink Pig 911; indeed, luck and timing are prerequisites to any form of success. But it is worth examining the data; looking at each car’s fastest 75 laps, the winning Porsche comes out almost a half-second behind the #68 Ford GT, and 0.35s slower than the tobacco-inspired 911 in the garage next to it. In fact, the #92 car comes out 7th in class, behind all four Fords, its sister Manthey Racing-prepared car, and even the #63 Corvette. The numbers themselves are not earth-shattering, but the gap would translate to a three-minute gap when extrapolated across 24 hours…

World Endurance Championship Round 2. Le Mans, France. June 2018. Credit: Nick Holland for SportscarGlobal

Ed – It will be interesting to see if this analysis correlates with the Porsche GT team, and whether the pace was a result of the benefit received or real, ie. Did they drive conservatively having been lucky or were they just slower on-track??

The winning Porsche did spend the least time in the pits compared to their class competitors, but only 37 seconds less than their sister car, and 44 seconds less than the second placed #68 Ford. Perhaps, then, it is better at Le Mans to be lucky than superior.

Credit: Matt Griffin @TheBPillar

Returning to Le Mans were BMW, with a car that looked at times to be a “tank” racing against race cars – the M8. The car showed great potential in the hands of its capable drivers, in spite of their lap times being slightly behind their more established rivals. It would hardly be a surprise to see them back at the pointy end come next year’s race.

Aston Martin performed mightily to get the #95 to the start line after a huge accident for Marco Sorensen at the Test Day, but the race proved tough for the team. Around three seconds off the pace, team management touted the values of their new car being in development. (Ed. though its livery may point to a more fundamental problem!)

GTE-Am

The GTE-Am category provided the latest point in the race where the lead changed between marques in any class – but only if handing over the lead during pit cycles is counted. The team at Dempsey – Proton Racing held the lead in spirit (if not on the scoreboard) from around 2½ hours into the race.

World Endurance Championship Round 2. Le Mans, France. June 2018. Image: John Stevens for JellyBaby.Media

JMW Motorsport #84 were the only other team to lead a lap in GTE Am once the #77 Porsche’s dominance had been established, and only then during pit cycles. That they led at all was due to a storming stint by Jeff Segal, who was hunting down Christian Ried; Proton’s switch to young dynamo Julian Andlauer stabilised the gap, and the Ferrari’s driver change to Cooper Macneil saw the car fall away from the lead again. Their charge back was halted by mechanical issues that left them well back from the leaders.

It fell to the Keating Motorsport-entered Ferrari 488 GTE #85 to provide the most serious threat to the Proton Porsche. While not quite there on ultimate pace, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Luca Stolz traded very similar lap times, while Ben Keating himself set a pace that was second only to Egidio Perfetti of all Bronze-rated drivers. Sadly, it was Keating whose off-track excursion put an unfortunate end to their hopes for class victory, but third in class was a tremendous result for all concerned.  

Credit: Matt Griffin @TheBPillar

Spirit of Race called upon the services of Giancarlo Fisichella in their #54 entry, and he ended up as fastest across the best 25 laps in class; indeed, their Ferrari was fastest across the best 75 lap averages. Fisichella combined with Francesco Castellacci and Thomas Flohr, they landed second in class, though the eventual margin of victory was compressed by Proton’s late-late stop to install Ried in the car for the run to the chequered flag.

Amongst the rest of the class were strong performances from Ben Barker and Euan Hankey, who were lightning fast in their early stints but could only watch as their respective Gulf Racing Porsche and TF Sport-run Aston Martin went on several unplanned adventures. 

Credit: Matt Griffin @TheBPillar

Ed. Huge Thanks go to Matt Griffin for his input above and provision of custom analysis. You can find more from those guys on twitter by following @thebpillar

To conclude Toyota came away with their long sought after overall victory thoroughly beating all-comers. Had Audi Sport or Porsche stuck around would it have been different we will never know, they did not risk their past glories by considering the possibility.  We do know that despite hitting cruise on Sunday morning the #8 TS050 came within 124km or 77miles of a Le Mans all-time distance record…

Though unable to celebrate on the podium Alpine-Signatech #36 celebrates a 40-year anniversary of victory at Le Mans. And for Porsche its 70th anniversary of GT development through competition sport was suitably honoured in La Sarthe.

The 2018 edition of the 24-Hours had much to offer, its raised profile due to the renewed interest of Formula 1 drivers like Alonso, Button, Montoya and Maldonado as well as their less renowned colleagues is positive, but altering the nature of the race. Pace and sprinting ability is now key to driver selection, line-ups and ultimate victory. No longer does conservative, considered and mechanically sympathetic driving gain reward, that can be left for the parts lifing and computer systems to take care of.  A.J. Baime’s title ‘GO LIKE HELL’ has never been truer!