Le Mans: Initial thoughts on an instant classic

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LE MANS, France – This past weekend’s 24 Hours of Le Mans left me feeling with something I don’t often feel at a race track in modern times:

Damn excited and thankful for what I saw.

You occasionally forget how dull an only-personality, or only-spec car championship can be. When the rules makers fail to allow for true innovation, outside the box thinking or other lack of forward outlook, things can get stale rather quickly.

Quite by contrast, Le Mans and the FIA World Endurance Championship continue to offer unparalleled diversity and variety among the 56 cars entered.

Just in the top class alone, you have four incredibly different options:

The simply spellbinding Porsche 919 Hybrid was already a fast enough car last year, and now has gone next level with its energy restoration and simply surreal kick off the corners with its 8 MJ hybrid system. All this with just a 4-cylinder!

You still have the Audi R18 e-tron quattro, the benchmark manufacturer for endurance racing this century, which maintains a whoosh and silent stealth bomber feel that sends chills down the spine.

The Toyota TS040 Hybrid is a more conventional prototype by crazed LMP1 standards – a naturally aspirated V8 with its supercapacitor – but one that still makes a great noise when it goes past.

Then there’s the debuting, radical, front-engine, front-wheel drive Nissan GT-R LM NISMO. The thing shouldn’t work, and right now isn’t going particularly smoothly, but my goodness is it wacky. And the amount of buzz they build around the car makes people care, which is half the battle sports car racing has to begin with.

That’s without even touching the LMP2 class, where 19 cars featured 11 different chassis/engine combinations, and the GTE ranks, which featured the likes of American mights Corvette and Viper matched up against Ferrari, Aston Martin and Porsche.

In short, LMP1 racing in 2015 at its pinnacle is the zenith of what modern racing can and should be today, and what we witnessed over the last 24 hours as all the different ways of getting there fastest took their shots, will go down in history as an instant classic.

It will truly take some time to sink in.

Some other brief thoughts:

  • Porsche Team, not Porsche Driver: A certain Formula 1 ace named Nico Hulkenberg will undoubtedly get a bunch of ink today, and it’s likely some media outlets will write the narrative as though it was only the Force India driver who did the task and that it may have been “easy” for an F1 driver to come in and win on his Le Mans debut. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The team element in sports car racing, particularly with having a multiple-driver lineup, is the sole reason why teams win or lose – while a driver can account for deficiencies in single-seater racing on occasion, rare can one driver single-handedly rise a team to the occasion in sports cars. So while Hulkenberg’s debut drive was a good one, it was the efforts of co-drivers Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber – Porsche’s rising factory GT aces – that should get as much ink today.
  • Audi’s issues: It’s rare that Audi ever has a Le Mans where issues hit all three cars, but that was the case this weekend for the trio of Audi R18 e-tron quattros. But between an engine cover coming loose (No. 7), a crash and nose change (No. 8) and suspension replacement (No. 9) all striking, each of the four rings’ three bullets missed their target. A podium extends Audi’s streak at Le Mans to 17 years running, but the result ends a five-in-a-row win streak and the run of 13 wins in 15 years.
  • Toyota’s anonymity: Was Toyota even in the race? Physically, yes. Engagingly, no. An outright pace gap existed all week and the manufacturer’s idea of playing the long game, hoping for reliability issues for ze Germans, simply did not pan out as planned. Sixth and eighth in the top eight overall is a tough one to swallow.
  • Quality, not quantity, in GTE: GTE-Pro turned into a battle of survival with the winning Corvette C7.R winning by multiple laps, but all manufacturers, save for Porsche, figured into the lead equation at some point. GTE-Am saw tough luck for the No. 98 Aston Martin Vantage V8, which was due a win after a dominant drive before the last hour accident for Paul Dalla Lana.
  • LMP2’s dominant drive: KCMG led all but nine laps over 24 hours in the cost-capped prototype class – a simply staggering, near perfect effort from drivers Nicolas Lapierre, Richard Bradley and Matthew Howson in the team’s No. 47 Oreca 05 Nissan, in the car’s Le Mans debut.
  • The fans care: A record crowd of 263,500 was announced Sunday afternoon. That comes after the throngs of fans there you see on Tuesday, for the all-driver autograph session and Friday, for the pit walk and driver parade. It no doubt matches or exceeds the number the Sunday for the Indianapolis 500, although they come throughout the whole of the race and are spread over 8.4 miles rather than 2.5. Still, everywhere you go, the passion is evident.