Sunday, June 7, 1998, 2:00 p.m.: The #26 Porsche GT1-98 crosses the line to take the flag in the Le Mans 24 Hours for the company’s 16th overall victory. The #25 Porsche GT1-98 finishes in second place. Behind the wheel in the winning car is Laurent Aiello, Stephane Ortelli, and Allan McNish, and in addition to winning the world’s greatest endurance race, the occasion is made all the more significant for other reasons: 1998 is also the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Porsche company, and, just two months earlier, the man largely responsible for setting Porsche on the road to success, Ferry Porsche, had died at the age of 88 years.
Fifteen years on, and the company is back at the Sarthe circuit to do battle once again as an official works team. Of course, the new Porsche 911 RSR has been in action already this season, competing in the first two rounds of the 2013 World Endurance Championships (WEC), but neither of those two outings resulted in a podium finish. Le Mans is, however, different, and while there is a certain amount of pressure on the team and drivers to deliver a result, the same pressure is on all of the other teams to do the same. One team in particular, Aston Martin, is under an even bigger spotlight: This is the company’s centenary year, and their form in the first two WEC races makes them pre-race favorites in GTE-Pro.
It is an appropriate time, on the 90th anniversary of this great race, for an official Porsche factory effort to return to Le Mans. First run in 1923, the only gaps in an otherwise continuous history were the years 1936 (race cancelled due to strikes) and in the war years between 1940 and 1948. It was just three years later that the Stuttgart manufacturer first competed in this classic French twice-around-the-clock endurance race, and this year’s race marks the 62nd year of unbroken competition by a Porsche at Le Mans. You don’t participate in any event for that long without racking up a substantial record of achievements, and Porsche enters the 2013 24-hour with 16 overall victories and an astounding 97 class wins. Audi is the only team to have come close, registering 12 overall victories (including this year’s race).
For Porsche the march to victory had begun many months ago, but following the valuable experience gained in the two rounds at Silverstone and Spa, as well as the three test sessions between the last race and Le Mans, the team is in a stronger place.
Technically the car is outwardly identical for Le Mans as it had been in the first two outings. It differs aerodynamically from the GT3 RSR (Type 997) in that the rear wing is now 100mm lower than the roofline, and is level with the rearmost point of the bumper. Olaf Manthey also told us that the Porsches had received an increase in air restrictor size for the Le Mans race (for both GTE-Pro and GTE-Am cars) from 29.3 mm to 29.6 mm.
Great expectations are placed on the Porsche team, run this season by the very able Olaf Manthey, but, as Wolfgang Hatz pointed out, “This is a full works team, where the cars are produced and prepared at Weissach with Manthey managing the team at the track.” In fact, the 911 RSR (Type 991) is produced by a team of around 60 personnel just a few yards away from where the new LMP1 racer is being prepared for the 2014 season.
So, did the disappointing results of the works Porsches so far this season put any additional pressure on the drivers? “For me as a driver, my outlook doesn’t change, because I always want to win, so therefore no added pressure,” a confident Jörg Bergmeister (#91) replied with a smile. The Porsches have shown a reassuring reliability. Works pilot Bergmeis-ter, during Porsche’s “meet the team” briefing at Le Mans, said, “The new car is a little better in a lot of different ways without being sensationally different in just one area.”
Race week at Le Mans, at least in terms of any track action, begins on Wednesday with the first free practice session run from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. The weather this week is not able to make up its mind whether to rain or shine, so this leaves the teams with incomplete data for setting up the car for qualifying and the race itself. Qualifying, which follows the free practice on Wednesday, sees Richard Lietz dump the #92 Porsche in the sand at turn 2, where he just goes straight in after missing his braking point. No damage is done, except perhaps to his pride. The vehicle is recovered without delay, and the trio sets fifth fastest time in class, gridding the #91 car in seventh place.
As is the way at Weissach, the team and engineers never seeks attention and, in fact, plays down their potential, but the feeling in the paddock is palpable: The RSRs has performance to spare. This would indeed prove to be the case, as the following evening’s qualifying sees the #92 Porsche take third place on the grid and the #91 car finish seventh, the latter a victim of torrential rain and red flags from other cars going off in the wet conditions. The improvement in pace puts the #92 Porsche just .08 sec. behind the class-leading Aston Martin, hinting at the car’s untapped performance potential.
In contrast to the weather earlier in the week, race day dawns cooler and overcast, in defiance of the official summer solstice. Right on schedule, at 2:22 p.m., the fanfare gets underway as the cars wheel out of the pitlane and onto the track, line up against the pit wall, angled toward the first turn in an echo of the classic Le Mans start. The grid is invaded by team personnel, invited guests and celebs. The media always form a significant part of this scrum in their attempt to bring readers and viewers precise and up to the minute coverage of the world’s greatest endurance race; a pair of sharp elbows is essential here.
As the clock counts down, the marshals gradually move the non-combatants off the grid, followed by the glamor girls and the media, the team personnel and drivers. At around 2:40 p.m., the cars peel off to begin their warm-up lap before lining up in their conventional grid positions for the formation lap, which begins at about five minutes to the hour of three after being sent on their way by official guest starter Jim France. The field rounds the final curve of the Ford complex, the pace car feeds off into the pits, and the tension ratchets up a hundred notches as the cars move over the start line in a mass display of horsepower.
Watched by Dr. Wolfgang Porsche, Porsche CEO Matthias Müller and Board Member Bernhard Maier, the two works RSRs and the five customer-run GT3 RSRs (Type 997) begin the first of more then 300 laps. In the first hour of the race, works driver Marc Lieb (#92) moves up into second place in the GTE-Pro class, while colleague Jörg Bergmeister makes up three places in the #91 RSR. It quickly becomes evident that the Porsches have the speed advantage on the straights and in the faster corners, but, in the twisty stuff, such as through the Porsche Curves, they lose ground to the Aston Martins and Ferraris.
The first stop for the #91 car is at 4:40 p.m. when Joerg Bergmeister pits, followed three minutes later by the #92 car with Marc Lieb behind the wheel. The Porsches have planned to run 13 laps per tank of fuel, but there’s a tragic reason for delaying the first refuelling stop— the fatal accident at Tertre Rouge involving Allan Simonsen in the #95 Aston Martin. The safety car is deployed at 3:09 p.m. for almost an hour while the barrier is repaired, while drivers report that the first section of the track, including where the accident happened, is very slippery.
Olaf Manthey reveals that he’s hoping the brakes will last the full distance, but this is dependent on the pace of the race, the amount of time spent behind the safety car, and the rain. As it happened, the field spent a total of five and a half hours behind the safety car, and it rained heavily at times, but the race pace was so brutal that the brakes had to be changed in the twentieth hour.
A strong wind sets in during the evening and through Saturday night, lowering the temperature significantly, but this fails to dampen the spirits of the spectators as they enjoy the fairground attractions and the Earth, Wind & Fire concert that shakes the ground around the top of the Dunlop Hill.
At 10:22 p.m., and with 101 laps recorded, the #91 Porsche is first in class and the #92 Porsche lies in fourth place. A visit to the pit garage shows that Wolfgang Hatz looks very pleased with the state of play. As the night wears on into the small hours of the morning, there are some very tired pit crews, and even some team bosses take the liberty of snatching a yawn or two. However, this is Le Mans, and the teams need to grab a bit of shut-eye whenever they can to survive the full 24 hours of action. Team members cannot leave their stations in case their car is involved in an incident of some sort, because, as Hatz points out, “Le Mans is more than an endurance race; it’s actually a 24-hour sprint.”
At the halfway point, 3:00 a.m. Sunday morning, the situation remains pretty stable: Aston Martin occupies first and third place with the Porsches in second (#92) and fourth (#91). The British cars are still circulating quicker than the Porsches; a little more than half a second separates the fastest laps of the two rivals. The positions between the Aston Martins and the Porsches yo-yoes back and forth, the Porsche holding the lead for a couple of hours just before daybreak, but by breakfast the #92 Porsche is back in second place again.
A Le Mans 24-hour race can almost be divided up into sections: The first six hours are all about getting a place ahead of your rivals in the early stages, but, just as importantly, staying on track and out of trouble. The night hours from 9:00 p.m. to midnight are about building and holding that position, while the hours through to dawn are about surviving the perils of darkness (especially if it has been raining) when it is more difficult to see debris on the track or to anticipate the actions of others. During the morning hours and from daybreak through to midday, the teams work furiously to keep ailing cars patched together to see out the race, or, for those running well, ensuring that everything stays that way.
As one driver puts it, during the period from midday through to the end of the race, at 3:00 p.m., “That’s when you go racing!” There is, however, no period during the 24 hours when drivers or teams can afford the luxury of feeling the pressure is off. Too many times, a 24-hour race has been won or lost in the last few hours.
At 9:51 a.m. on Sunday, the #99 Aston Martin GTE Pro collides heavily with the barriers at the first chicane, leaving debris strewn across the road. With the car stopped in the middle of the track, the driver leaps out, runs to the side of the track, and jumps over the Armco to safety. Aston Martin’s loss is Porsche’s gain, though, as the incident virtually assures Porsche’s position at the top of the class right to the end of the race. Now the quickest car in class, the #92 car stays out front, apart from pit stops, while the lone remaining Aston Martin, now sandwiched between two Porsches, puts up a brave fight. In the 23rd hour, the #91 Porsche slips into second place, where it stays to the end.
Just as the race rhythm appears to settle back into some form of routine, with an hour and a half to go the heavens open as they only do at Le Mans. The television cameras are battling to pick up the cars in the deluge, as the combination of spray coming up from the tires and the downpour makes it almost impossible to see the cars through the enveloping gloom. The carnage starts when the #7 Toyota goes off quite hard and slides straight into a tire wall and ends up being wedged under it. Next, an LMP2 car spins and hits the barriers, and the rain is so hard that another LMP2 car strikes the stricken, rain-obscured car, which is jutting halfway onto the track. The rain lasts for 15 minutes; then the sun comes out and the weather stays dry to the end, although heavy clouds overhead still carry the threat of rain.
Down in the Porsche garages, the calm atmosphere no doubt disguises some concerns, if not for the reliability of their own cars then for others who might through some misjudgement unintentionally take out a Porsche. This fear is brought home around midday on Sunday, when a GTE-Am Ferrari spins in the Dunlop Curves, causing a Porsche to take avoiding action that results in a spin for the works car as well as major anxiety in the pit garage.
Timo Bernhard (#91) tells us, “The conditions have been very difficult for the whole week, which is why we’ve seen a lot of accidents. It’s drizzling on and off, and the marshals have been very good and wave the flags if it’s slippery, but of course they can’t really estimate exactly how slick the track surface is. One driver is more cautious in such situations; the other takes more risks and trusts that all goes well.
“One problem is the many safety car phases that arise from this, because the tires lose temperature during these slower laps, and afterwards you have to first get a feel for how much grip there is. We’re fast the whole time, and I hope that we now have a little luck on our side. A podium would be wonderful.”
Bernhard would see his wish come true, as the #91 RSR finishes in second place behind class winners and teammates in the #92 Porsche RSR. Snatching first and second in class is sweet, but it is made all the more pleasant because the works cars beat longtime class rivals Ferrari, Aston Martin, Corvette and 2013 WEC newcomers Viper in this accomplishment. In the GTE-Am class, the #76 Porsche 911 GT3 RSR, run by the customer team IMSA Performance Matmut, clinches victory by a lap from archrivals Ferrari. This double class victory helps Porsche to further extend its record in class wins with numbers 99 and 100, a truly remarkable achievement.
Watching in the pit garage is Dr. Wolfgang Porsche and Bernhard Maier (board member for sales and marketing), along with the team and motorsport management. Wolfgang Hatz tells us, “I am incredibly proud of what the entire team has done here. A double victory in the Pro class and even a win thanks to our customer team; you can’t ask for more than that.”
Hartmut Kristen, head of Porsche Motorsport, says, “In the 50th anniversary year of the 911 and 15 years since the last time a works team competed here at Le Mans, it’s the best result you can imagine. And I don’t just mean the performance of our Pro teams; our customer squads have performed brilliantly. We couldn’t have done better. The race was thrilling for the spectators, and it was nerve wracking, but the result after all that was well worth it.”
Olaf Manthey, team principal of the Porsche works team and a man of few words, finds talking about his team’s accomplishment even more difficult: “I’m still speechless about our success. After the penultimate safety-car phase, I was not feeling particularly optimistic. I still can’t believe this victory.”
There is no respite for the teams or time to rest on one’s laurels, as the WEC circus moves off to Sao Paulo in Brazil, where the victors from Le Mans will be under pressure to repeat their achievements at La Sarthe. Can Porsche turn its Le Mans victory into a season-long victory dance? It might well depend on how the FIA adjusts restrictor size after Le Mans. Will the rules committee reign in the RSRs? Can Porsche make adjustments if they do? Stay tuned.