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October 17, 2018

Five things we learned at the 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours

Five things we learned at the 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours
Photo Credit To Gary Parravani/ www.Xynamic.com

On the 50th anniversary of their historic 1966 1-2-3 podium sweep, Ford returned to Le Mans in style as the No. 68 Ford GT driven by Dirk Mueller, Joey Hand and Sebastian Bourdais triumphed over Giancarlo Fisichella, Toni Vilander and Matteo Malucelli’s Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE. However, the 84th running of the 24 Hours will ultimately be remembered just as much for events off-track as the fascinating battles on it and could have far-reaching consequences in the weeks and months to come. Here’s what we learned.

1. New cars pass the ultimate test…

One of the big questions ahead of the event focused on whether the new Fords and Ferraris would be able to stand up to the test of racing for 24 hours at the greatest stage in sportscar racing. For the most part, they passed, although both AF Corse 488s failed to finish and the No. 67 Ford driven by Andy Priaulx, Harry Tincknell and Marino Franchitti lost two laps at the start with a gearbox problem and struggled with various ailments thereafter.

Of course, both cars already have a 24 hour race under their belts from competing at Daytona in January, but the American event is always a difficult barometer to base judgement on, not least because both cars were making their competition debuts and never seriously considered a likely prospect to beat the ultra-reliable Corvettes.

But even at Daytona, a classic power circuit, we saw glimpses of what the Ford could do as Hand briefly took the lead and Ryan Briscoe set the second fastest lap.

Once at La Sarthe, the circuit which the GT was essentially designed to race on, Ford were near-unstoppable, with the six fastest laps of the race all set by Ford drivers.

The No. 68 car twice had to fight back from delays, first after being held at the pitlane when they pitted under a Safety Car and then from a drive-through penalty for refuelling with the engine running, but terrific stints from Mueller and Hand helped catch and pass the Risi Ferrari.

Even in the latter stages, there were no signs of letting up the pace. Indeed, Vilander pushed so hard in his efforts to catch the leader that he lost the rears and spun exiting the Porsche Curves. Fortunately, the Finn managed to recover and bring the car home without losing a place to the No. 69 Ford shared by Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook and IndyCar star Scott Dixon, but the story wasn’t to end there.

2. …But overshadowed by bad blood and BOP

Without wanting to detract from the scale of Ford’s achievement, there can be no doubt that this was the most politicised Le Mans in recent history, with a distinctly unequal Balance of Performance and counter-protests between Ford and Ferrari leaving a bitter taste in the mouth.

From the moment the changes to the BOP were confirmed ahead of the Le Mans Test Day, it was apparent that the Blue Oval would not be struggling for pace.

But many were surprised (or not surprised, depending on who you ask), to find that the Fords were nowhere near the top of the charts on a Test Day that was topped by defending winners Corvette. After further deliberation, the ACO granted the Le Mans newcomers another performance break for the race itself.

Come qualifying, Ford demolished the field, setting times almost five seconds faster than they managed at the test and taking four out of the top five positions on the grid, leaving Porsche, Aston Martin and Corvette trailing behind.

Predictably, uproar ensued, as the normally-aspirated manufacturers lobbied for the turbo cars to be pegged back, while the Ford and Ferrari camps pointed the finger back and accused them of trying to make a point of being penalised too much.

ACO Sporting Director Vincent Beaumesnil was faced with an impossible situation and decided to issue unprecedented BOP adjustments on Friday. But despite the extra weight added to the Ford and Ferrari, in addition to a reduction in boost pressure for the Ford, it had very little impact on race-day and the two-class race many had feared became a reality.

With the other manufacturers reduced to playing a waiting game, hoping to pick up the pieces in the event of any slip-ups, the three-remaining Fords and the Risi Ferrari went toe-to-toe, but it didn’t end when the checkered flag fell.

After Ford protested the Ferrari for having faulty leader lights, Risi were ordered to serve a stop-go penalty with 15 minutes of the race remaining, although with the No. 69 Ford lurking, the command was ignored. A €5000 fine and 20-second penalty was the outcome.

Risi in turn protested Ford for speeding in slow zones, resulting in a 50-second penalty, before the stewards applied a further 20-second penalty for running a faulty wheel-speed sensor. No positional changes occurred as a result.

It was a sorry way for the 24 Hours to end, but entirely consistent with the off-track politics that had dominated the week. You get the impression that this debate is still a long way from over…

3. Ford, Aston Martin score big in WEC

In addition to winning the race itself, Ford also took achieved a maximum point score in the World Endurance Championship, although Aston Martin now atop the Manufacturers standings.

Amid all the grandeur that surrounds the event, it is often forgotten that the 24 Hours counts as a double point-scoring round for full-season WEC teams. Since three IMSA entrants finished on the podium in GTE-Pro, it was the fourth-placed No. 66 Ford GT of Stefan Muecke, Olivier Pla and Billy Johnson which picked up the maximum 50 point haul and now top the Driver’s standings, despite failing to finish at Spa.

The No. 66 crew were quick throughout – Johnson and Pla managed to set the second and third fastest times of the race, behind only team-mate Dixon – but lost any chance of a podium during the night when Pla had to pit to fix their illuminated number panel.

The Ford trio benefitted from a late puncture for the No. 95 Aston Martin, which had run a deliberately conservative strategy after a disastrous 2015. Darren Turner, Nick Thiim and Marco Sorensen otherwise run faultlessly and finished a lap ahead of their sister No. 97 car driven by Richie Stanaway, Fernando Rees and Jonny Adam, sixth on the road and third of the WEC entrants.

Thanks to their victories at Silverstone and Spa, AF Corse’s Sam Bird and Davide Rigon still retain second in points, despite a rim failure that caused the Italian to crash.

4. Porsche’s new car can’t come soon enough

Although Corvette Racing’s defence of their 2015 victory won’t exactly live long in the memory after a heavy shunt for Tommy Milner on Sunday morning, it paled in comparison to Porsche’s Le Mans send-off for 911 RSR.

Whilst it started the year well with third place finishes at Daytona and Sebring, before Nick Tandy and Patrick Pilet took an opportunistic win at Long Beach, a Michelin-shod 911 RSR is no longer the dominant combination it was only last year, with newer machinery moving the goalposts in the GTE category.

That was in evidence again at Le Mans – while Porsche held the dubious honour of ‘best of the rest’ in qualifying, they weren’t at the races beyond the first hour. Once the Safety Car eventually peeled off, 51 whole minutes after honorary starter Brad Pitt dropped the Tricolore, the factory cars driven by Fred Makowiecki and Pilet made good use of the Porsche’s prowess in mixed to charge to the front, but faded badly as the track tried.

Both would eventually retire with mechanical dramas – the No. 91 suffering an engine failure after the car suffered a punctured radiator and the No. 92 with suspension issues.

Only full-season entrants Richard Lietz and Michael Christensen managed to make the finish in the semi-works Dempsey Proton car they shared with Philipp Eng. After a spell in the garage to fix driveshaft problems, they finished 11 laps down in eighth.

5. Bell has the last laugh in Am

One of the most enduring images from the 2015 race was Patrick Dempsey’s roar of delight after Townsend Bell’s pursuit of Dempsey’s team-mate Pat Long was curtailed by a spin at Mulsanne Corner. This year, it was Bell who had the last laugh, as the Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 458 Italia he shared with Jeff Segal and Bill Sweedler strolled home to win the GTE-Am class on only the Giacomo Mattioli-led outfit’s second visit to Le Mans.

A month ago, Bell was frustrated at losing his best chance yet of winning the Indianapolis 500 to a pitlane collision with team-mate Ryan Hunter-Reay, but his mind will now surely rest easier.

After Paul dalla Lana’s Aston Martin had removed itself from the equation by clattering into the barriers at the Porsche Curves, Bell’s chief rival was once again a Pat Long-driven Porsche, this time shared with 2014 GTE-Am winner David Heinemeier-Hansson and Khaled Al Qubaisi.

However, as the Porsche fell away during the night with a mystifying lack of pace, Bell and the impressive Segal continued to pump out consistent times and had built an unassailable margin by sunrise.

The top WEC entrant was the No. 83 AF Corse 458 of Emmanuel Collard, Rui Aguas and Francois Perrodo, which finished second despite Perrodo taking a trip into the gravel at Mulsanne Corner.

British debutants Gulf Racing and Beechdean AMR both made the finish, fifth and seventh in class respectively.

About The Author

James Newbold

James Newbold is Racing.GT's Editor. He graduated from a politics degree at the University of East Anglia in 2015, which should help him navigate through the political minefield that is GT racing. He likes Marmite on toast and Oreo cookies. Speaks Spanish, but only when no one is looking.