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Autocar’s digital editor, James Attwood, will be providing regular updates and insight from the 24 Hours of Le Mans throughout the week. Check back here in the coming days for more coverage.
Friday, June 15, 0100 CET: the joy of spectating as the sun sets
One of the best things about the qualifying sessions for the 24 Hours of Le Mans is that they take place in the evening, running into the dark.
That’s designed to ensure the drivers can practice driving at night ahead of the race, but it adds hugely to the spectacle as well. It’s a bit of a cliche, but there truly is something special about watching racing cars at dusk, the bright lights of the fairground wheel blinking on the horizon.
It’s always worth a trek out to spectate, mingling among the vast number of fans who flock to France for the event. As 24 hour races go, the Le Mans spectators might not rival those at the Nurburgring Nordschleife for sheer craziness, but they make up for that in multicultural variety.
This is a truly global event: on the train from Paris to Le Mans, I sat next to two Canadians who’d flown over from Toronto especially for the race. “We want to see a good race, and have some good drinks,” one told me. I’m not entirely sure which was a higher priority.
Heading out among those fans, I took a trip up to the Dunlop Curves during Thursday’s final qualifying session, just as the sun was setting. Dusk is when spectating truly becomes a multi-sensory experience: with the bright lights of the cars dazzling, it’s their engine notes that give away their identities before you can see them in focus.
The most distinctive was the guttural roar of the 5.5-litre V8 turbo in the Chevrolet Corvette C7.R. It’s the sort of engine note best described as ‘rumbling’.
Despite a light drizzle in the session, Kazuki Nakajima went even faster than he did on Wednesday, with his laps of 3min 14.791secs securing pole for the Toyota TS050 Hybrid he’ll share with Fernando Alonso and Sebastien Buemi.
In GTE Pro, nobody could top Gianmaria Bruni’s best time from Wednesday, securing the class pole for the number 91 Porsche 911 RSR (that’s the one in imitation Rothmans livery).
Walking back from the Dunlop Curves shortly before the end of qualifying, my route took me through the Le Mans fan zone, a collection of shops, food stalls and display stands.
With the wonderful sound of racing engines still piercing the night air, it was interesting to see a Tesla stand, featuring a Model S and a Model X. It seemed like a brave case of Tesla parking their (electric) tanks on the lawn.
And then I turned a corner, and courtesy of the French army discovered an actual tank parked on an actual lawn. It’s all part of the atmosphere of Le Mans.
Thursday June 14, PM: The return of Porsche’s Pink Pig
Porsche might not be competing in the top class of the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year but the firm still has a major presence in the event, running four works 911 RSR cars in the ultra-competitive GTE Pro division.
Even better, to celebrate its 70th anniversary, the firm is running two of those cars in retro liveries. One of the cars is in Rothmans colours (although without a cigarette brand name in site, obviously), reflecting various Porsche machines that carried the blue and white scheme through the years.
But it’s the second car that really grabs the attention, carrying the amazing ‘pink pig’ colours of the Porsche 917/20 from 1971. Porsche designer Anatole Lapine chose the colour for the original car, and then labelled each of the body parts according to butcher-style cuts. It caused a stir then, and it looks just as good adorning a modern-day 911: the show car version in the spectator fan village was surrounded by admirers (Porsche is even selling a pink T-shirt with the same design on).
Even without the livery, the 1971 Pink Pig (apparently also known as the Truffle Hunter) was a notable car: the 917/20 was a unique version of the fabled 917 that was designed to combine the aerodynamic benefits of the short- and long-tail versions of the car. Despite a lack of testing, drivers Reinhold Joest and Willi Kauhsen impressed in practice, but retired midway through the event following an accident.
Still, a Porsche still triumphed that year, with Giljs van Lennep and Helmut Marko taking victory in 917K (in very pleasant, if somewhat less distinctive, Martini racing colours).
And if all that Pink Pig talk made you hungry, you didn’t have to go far in the fan village to find the perfect solution…
Thursday June 14, AM: Alonso’s Toyota on provisional pole
Fernando Alonso’s Toyota TS050 Hybrid is on provisional pole position for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, thanks to team-mate Kazuki Nakajima’s efforts in the opening qualifying session on Wednesday night.
Former Williams F1 racer Nakajima made the most of cool track conditions early in the session to set a fastest time of 3min 17.270sec in the car he shares with Alonso – who is contesting the full World Endurance Championship season alongside his McLaren F1 commitments – and Sébastien Buemi. That was 0.107sec faster than the sister car of Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and José María López.
The SMP Racing BR1 was the quickest of the privateer cars, with Stéphane Sarrazin setting the third-fastest time in the machine he shares with Egor Orudzhev and Matevos Isaakyan, 2.213sec down on Nakajima’s time. The second SMP Racing entry, driven by Jenson Button along with Vitaly Petrov and Mikhail Aleshin, was seventh quickest.
Porsche claimed the top two positions in GTE Pro, with Gianmaria Bruni fastest, more than a second quicker than the sister 911 RSR. It wasn’t all good news for Bruni, who shares his machine with Richard Lietz and Frédéric Makowiecki: he went off the lap after setting his time, ending his session early.
Michael Christensen, sharing with Kévin Estre and Laurens Vanthoor, was the fastest driver in the second 911, narrowly ahead of the top Ford GT of Olivier Pla, Stefan Mücke and Billy Johnson.
Aston Martin had a tough session with its new Vantage GTE, with Alex Lynn’s fastest time more than five seconds adrift of Bruni’s best.
IDEC Sport’s Paul-Loup Chatin set the quickest time in the LMP2 class in the Oreca-Gibson he shares with Paul Lafargue and Memo Rojas. Oreca chassis set the five quickest times.
Dempsey-Proton’s Matteo Cairoli, who shares his Porsche 911 RSR with Khaled Al Qubaisi and Giorgio Roda, was quickest in GTE Am.
The section qualifying session takes place this evening (Thursday).
Wednesday 13 June: why GTE Pro is the class to watch
Spoiler alert: a Toyota is going to win this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. Well, almost certainly.
Following the withdrawal of Porsche, the Japanese firm’s pair of TS050 Hybrids are the only works cars left in the top LMP1 prototype class. Without demeaning the efforts of the privateer teams also in the division, the race is Toyota’s to lose.
I may well be proved wrong; 24-hour races are grueling and never easy. And it was only a year ago when all five works LMP1 cars hit trouble, with the winning Porsche overhauling an LMP2 car with only an hour left to go.
But even if drama is in short supply at the front of the field, things are going to be far less predictable in GTE Pro, the top class for production-based grand tourers.
And there are six good reasons why: Aston Martin. BMW. Corvette. Ferrari. Ford. Porsche.
Those six manufacturers are all running works-backed efforts at Le Mans and all have a realistic shot at victory. That’s testimony to the balance of performance regulations in the GTE division that allow rule-makers to ensure something close to parity and keep costs in check.
That also makes the competition fierce, putting the emphasis firmly on the teams and drivers to push hard and avoid mistakes from the moment qualifying begins this evening (Wednesday) through to the finish of the race. Last year, the class was only decided on the final lap, with Jonny Adams leading Aston Martin to victory.
The machinery is stunning, too, including the latest Vantage GTE and the new BMW M8 GTE, both developed alongside their new road car counterparts. Ferrari returns with the latest version of the 488 GTE, while Ford is back for a third year with the GT. Porsche has the venerable 911 RSR (and is also running two awesome retro liveries to mark its 70th anniversary), with a driver line-up that includes a number of its LMP1 drivers from previous years, while Corvette is back for a remarkable 19th consecutive year.
The GTE class is so successful that it’s little surprise motorsport bosses are looking to replace the top LMP1 class with a new prototype category based on hypercars. After all, as exciting as it will be to watch six manufacturers battle for class glory, imagine if they were doing so for outright victory this weekend…