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Le Mans: 2014 race and week observations

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Another year, and another 24 Hours of Le Mans is in the books. Here’s a number of brief thoughts and observations after the week that was, with the race now completed to add to my thoughts heading into the race.

  • Audi rolls over the media, again: In 2010, Audi was viewed as the underdog with a heavily revised version of the R15+ chassis, and Peugeot had three bullets that were expected to dominate … and then did before blowing their engines all within a two or three-hour period. Audi ended 1-2-3. In 2014, Toyota was viewed as having its best chance to win, and then did dominate with the No. 7 car before an electrical failure around 5 a.m. tossed them out. Porsche put up a good fight for its first effort, but this was a race where Audi once again proved they are the kings of Le Mans until otherwise dethroned.
  • Cleaner, safer race than expected: The worry I had going in was that the carnage that peppered practice and qualifying was going to do likewise on race day. There were still a number of incidents, and the brief rain deluge in the second hour proved chaotic, but overall, it was not a day where we had to worry about heavy accidents. The retirement rate was rather low, and primarily as a result of mechanical issues rather then accidents.
  • Poignant GTE-Am win: You can’t publicly root for any particular entry as a reporter, but, it was hard not to root for the No. 95 Young Driver AMR all-Danish entry for Aston Martin Racing in the GTE-Am class, a year after Allan Simonsen’s fatal accident. For Nicki Thiim, David Heinemeier Hansson and Kristian Poulsen, it was a flawless drive interrupted only by a couple brief scares in the final hour. I briefly stopped by the Aston Martin garage post-race, where joy was the overflowing emotion after last year’s heartbreak. And for DHH, from an actual racing standpoint, it was a brilliant recovery after a second place in LMP2 last year – the Danish programming ace has quickly developed into one of the world’s top, fastest and cleanest gentlemen drivers.
  • Heavy variety in LMP1, GTE-Pro; not as much in LMP2, GTE-Am: Relative to the number of cars entered in each class (9 LMP1, 17 LMP2, 1 experimental, 9 GTE-Pro, 18 GTE-Am), the two all-pro classes featured the best amount of variety. Audi, Porsche and Toyota all led in LMP1 and with mechanical issues affecting most of those seven cars, Rebellion Racing was there to capitalize with a surprise, yet impressive, fourth place overall finish in the LMP1-L Rebellion R-One Toyota. In GTE-Pro, all four manufacturers entered (Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin and Corvette) and the BoP was much closer than a year ago. It made for a thrilling race throughout that as my colleague Luke Smith mentioned yesterday, featured a margin of victory wide of the mark of how close it actually was. But with really only three or four cars pacing LMP2 and GTE-Am, there wasn’t much in terms of diversity there. Maybe that made it easier to follow?
  • America’s day: Corvette Racing flew the flag for the U.S. with a runner-up finish in GTE-Pro, with the No. 73 car driven by Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Jordan Taylor. A valve stem breakage on a pit stop cost them nearly two laps, ultimately the margin of victory to the class-winning No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italia.
  • Big crowd: The ACO announced a crowd of 263,300 spectators for the race – and you could tell how many were on the grounds in trips into and out of the 8.4-mile circuit. There’s nothing else in the world like Le Mans.

Palmer ‘gutted’ after spin costs him first F1 points in Hungary

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 24:Jolyon Palmer of Great Britain driving the (30) Renault Sport Formula One Team Renault RS16 Renault RE16 turbo on track  during the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 24, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Jolyon Palmer felt “gutted” after a likely top-10 finish in Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix was lost following a spin in the closing stages, costing him his first Formula 1 points.

2014 GP2 champion Palmer joined Renault for its return to F1 as a constructor in 2016, but arrived in Hungary without a point to his name from the opening 10 races of the season.

Palmer was left disappointed on Saturday after a red flag knocked him out of qualifying at the first hurdle, but a long first stint brought him into contention for points.

Palmer moved into the top 10 after jumping Nico Hulkenberg in the pits, only for Renault’s hard work to be undone when he spun off at Turn 4, losing three positions in the process.

The Briton was ultimately classified 12th after Esteban Gutierrez’s time penalty, extending his points drought to 11 races.

“I’m gutted as my first points in Formula 1 were there for the taking,” Palmer said.

“The car was good and I was driving well within myself in P10. I turned in the same as normal at turn four – I wasn’t hanging everything out and I was looking after the tires – but for some reason I lost the car in a massive snap.

“I need to look at everything with my engineers to see if there is anything we could have done to prevent it.

“I was running tenth, we had completed all our pit stops, we had good pace relative to those ahead and behind so it looks like we’ve made a real step forward this weekend.

“It was the best drive of my career today and just one small spin took away those points.

“I’m gutted today but I’ll be fighting to get in the same position or better in Hockenheim.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Hungarian Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 24:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates his win in parc ferme during the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 24, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton moved into the lead of the Formula 1 drivers’ championship for the first time this year on Sunday after a masterful victory in the Hungarian Grand Prix.

Despite facing race-long pressure from pole-sitter and Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg, Hamilton held his own at the front of the pack to lead all but two laps en route to his fifth win at the Hungaroring.

The result sees Hamilton open up a six-point lead over Rosberg in the championship with 10 rounds remaining, having cut the gap down from 43 points six races ago.

The race in Hungary offered a number of interesting fights and strategic battles up and down the field, resulting in an entertaining affair.

Debriefing all of the action in Budapest with interviews and analysis, NBCSN’s Will Buxton brings you the latest edition of Paddock Pass.

Defending champs bank first FIA WEC win of 2016 at Nürburgring

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At the same site where the trio of Timo Bernhard, Mark Webber and Brendon Hartley set sail for their eventual 2015 FIA World Endurance Championship title, the Nürburgring, the trio took their first win in their title defense year at the same circuit in Sunday’s 6 Hours of Nürburgring.

That win last year kicked off a string of four wins in a row through Shanghai.

This year, it’s Porsche’s third win in four races to open the 2016 FIA WEC season, although this one was a far more straightforward performance compared to the fortunate wins at Silverstone (Audi disqualification) and Le Mans (Toyota’s turbo failure). Audi then won at Spa in the Le Mans warm-up act.

Perhaps not the out-and-out fastest car during the weekend, the No. 1 Porsche 919 Hybrid otherwise avoided trouble during the majority of the race and inherited the lead with just over an hour to go when the sister No. 2 car’s race came unglued in the final two hours.

The No. 2 car – driven by 24 Hours of Le Mans winners and points leaders Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb – controlled the middle portion of the race, before an ambitious move occurred at Turn 7 by Lieb when trying to overtake the polesitting GTE-Am class car, the No. 88 Abu Dhabi Proton Racing Porsche 911 RSR (Khaled Al Qubaisi, David Heinemeier Hansson and Patrick Long).

Lieb darted to Al Qubaisi’s inside at the last minute of the downhill right-hander, with pitched the GTE Porsche into a gravel and triggered a drive-through penalty for the avoidable contact.

Lieb, to his credit, offered no blame elsewhere, went to apologize and took it in stride.

“These are the rules, and I caused the accident,” he said. “I hit the 88 car. We accept the decision. It’s tough. But in these cars, you make decisions quickly. I tried to pass on the inside. But that’s racing.”

That penalty brought the No. 2 car into the pits and when it returned, it was in third behind the No. 8 Audi R18 (Loic Duval, Lucas di Grassi, Oliver Jarvis).

A battle between Jani, who took over from Lieb, and then Andre Lotterer in the No. 7 Audi followed. Lotterer got by Jani into the chicane and with Jani’s momentum slowed, he was then hit in the left rear legality panel by one of the SMP Racing BR01 Nissans. Lotterer then proceeded to barge past Jani at Turn 6, unpleased by Jani’s late-race racecraft.

An eventual black and orange flag was displayed to the No. 2 car, and it was brought into the pits for repairs with just over half an hour remaining. It dropped that car off the podium for the first time this year, down to a season-worst fourth.

By contrast, the two Audis were both on the podium for the first time this year, with the car’s higher downforce package proving a more viable one after its relative struggles at Le Mans.

The aforementioned No. 8 car of Audi’s younger guns finished ahead of the No. 7 Audi, driven only by Lotterer and Marcel Fassler with Benoit Treluyer sidelined due to injury and thus missing the first race of his FIA WEC career.

Toyota Gazoo Racing – the Le Mans dominators – struggled at its second “home race” as it’s based in nearby Cologne. A lapped fifth and sixth was all that was on the cards for the Nos. 5 and 6 Toyota TS050 Hybrids with its ultra-high-downforce package.

Among the LMP1 privateer entries, Rebellion Racing’s No. 13 Rebellion R-One AER picked up the win with Dominik Kraihamer, Alexandre Imperatori and Matheo Tuscher. Nick Heidfeld, Nico Prost and Mathias Beche were second, the latter in his first Rebellion start this year after Nelson Piquet Jr. ran the first three rounds.

Poor Team ByKolles suffered yet another fire with its CLM P1/01 AER, after two during Le Mans week, as noted by Oliver Webb. Credit though must go to Webb and Pierre Kaffer’s teammate, Simon Trummer, for coming up with a solid AC/DC reference…

LMP2

In LMP2 it was more of the same with the Signatech Alpine trio of Nicolas Lapierre, Stephane Richelmi and Gustavo Menezes continuing their sterling run of form in its No. 36 Alpine A460 Nissan.

That trio won its third race on the trot, ahead of the No. 43 RGR Sport by Morand Ligier JS P2 Nissan (Ricardo Gonzalez, Bruno Senna, Filipe Albuquerque).

There was nearly a last lap change for third, but despite Jonny Kane’s closing stint in the venerable No. 42 Strakka Racing Gibson 015S Nissan, he was unable to get around Ryan Dalziel, in the No. No. 31 Tequila Patron ESM Ligier JS P2 Nissan in its first race on Michelins.

Dalziel held off Kane by just 0.071 of a second for ESM’s third podium in four starts, in the car he shared with Pipo Derani and Chris Cumming. Kane shared the Strakka Gibson with team debutante Lewis Williamson doing a solid job on debut in place of Danny Watts, and Nick Leventis.

Manor, with a similarly changed-up lineup of Tor Graves joined by team newcomers Matt Howson and Antonio Pizzonia (replacing James Jakes and Will Stevens from the regular races, and Matt Rao and Roberto Merhi at Le Mans), rounded out the top five in class in its No. 44 Oreca 05 Nissan.

G-Drive Racing’s quest for its first win this year with another new lineup – Alex Brundle now in to join Rene Rast and Roman Rusinov – came undone with gearbox issues resigning the No. 26 Oreca 05 Nissan to the garage.

GTE

GTE-Pro’s Ford dominance at Le Mans did not carry over to the Nürburgring, with Ferrari back on top in a 1-2 result led by the No. 51 Ferrari 488 GTE turbo of Gianmaria Bruni and James Calado. It’s AF Corse’s third win of the season after the No. 71 car of Sam Bird and Davide Rigon opened the year with back-to-back wins.

Ford’s No. 66 GT of Stefan Muecke and Olivier Pla, the class points leaders heading into the race, looked set to bank a podium in third place ahead of the No. 95 Aston Martin Vantage V8, which showed improved form this weekend.

But a drive-through penalty was assessed to the No. 66 Ford for a pit stop infringement; Pla served it in the final 20 minutes and that dropped that car behind the “Dane Train” No. 95 Aston Martin of Nicki Thiim and Marco Sorenson.

It was a tough race for the No. 67 Ford, as it was at Le Mans, this time with a pit fire striking when Andy Priaulx was behind the wheel. Priaulx emerged unscathed though.

GTE-Am witnessed the No. 98 Aston Martin Vantage V8 back on top for its second win this year with the trio of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda. The No. 78 KCMG Porsche 911 RSR and No. 83 AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italia completed the class podium.

A crowd of 58,000 was reported for the race, and the date confirmed for a Nürburgring return next year, about a week earlier – July 14-16, 2017.

The FIA WEC resumes at the inaugural Six Hours of Mexico City on Sept. 3, at the redone and relaunched Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.

It’s a massive event for the RGR Sport team, Gonzalez serving as both that team’s owner and co-driver, and the event’s promoter.

Vettel ‘expected a bit more’ than fourth in Hungary

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 24:  Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 24, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Sebastian Vettel says Ferrari “expected a bit more” than fourth place in Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix as Red Bull moved to within a point of the Italian marque in the Formula 1 constructors’ championship.

Vettel claimed his second race win for Ferrari in Hungary last year, but was left to settle for P4 this time around after failing to pass Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo for third in the closing stages.

The result extended Ferrari’s winless run in 2016, and allowed Red Bull to pull up just a point behind in the constructors’ championship.

When asked by NBCSN if Ferrari now how to admit it was in a battle for second, Vettel said: “We never denied it! We have to fight Red Bull.

“Our target is always to fight for P1 but Mercedes is strong. It’s not big news. We try everything. So is Red Bull.

“I think we had a good package today. We expected a bit more. But we’re up against it trying to improve it. We have the best pace right behind it.

“We need to get better Saturdays to have a chance on Sundays.”

Vettel was left fuming over the radio on multiple occasions during the race on Sunday after getting stuck behind lapped cars, calling for blue flags to be respected.

“I calmed down. I don’t think they showed the bit where I said please wave a blue flag,” Vettel said after a couple of his messages were broadcast, albeit censored.

“Obviously you get the impression you lose more than others. Lapped cars are usually doing a good job.

“Mirrors aren’t that big. It’s not like a 75 inch 4K resolution mirror you’re looking into. And we’re quite a bit faster in three to four corners.

“I know that I got pretty loud in the car but I’m not going to criticize anyone.”