Wednesday, 26 June 2013

2013 Le Mans 24H - Red and White... and Black

A fan's video of the crash explained in the third paragraph

The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the greatest and most prestigious endurance race in the world, with the same status in sports car racing and possibly motor racing overall, depending on who you ask (if you ask an American they'll probably say the Indy 500 holds that status, while older F1 buffs might give that title to the third in the "Triple Crown", the Monaco Grand Prix). The first race was run 90 years ago this month, but due to a world war here and a strike there, this is only the 81st running of the LM24, or Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans, if you want to sound knowledgeable and say it in French. The 56-strong grid is essentially a grid of two halves, with two classes of purpose-built "LMP" prototypes racing alongside slower "GTE" road car-based machinery adapted for GT racing.

With three drivers per car driving for up to four hours at a time, the cars these days are now so reliable that they can aim to go flat out for the entire day-long race, providing they aren't slowed down by a Safety Car period. Alas, the appearance of what these days is a red Audi with flashing lights on the roof - or rather three of them spaced out around the lap due to the 8.48-mile length of Circuit de la Sarthe - is all but inevitable thanks to flat-out racing on an often-bumpy track that's as road-based as the GTE cars, as well as the speed difference between LMPs and GT cars that's much bigger in corners than it already is on straights.

This year, the Safety Car was called out just 10 minutes or so into the drizzle-sodden race, as on lap 3, Danish rising star Allan Simonsen ran onto the kerb exiting Tetre Rouge corner to find that his Aston Martin V8 Vantage GTE wasn't finding as much grip as he expected. As it slid around on the "greasy" track surface, he countersteered the slide. Suddenly, the tyres found grip and the car speared off to the left and into the barrier sideways. By some terrible stroke of luck, the Aston Martin struck part of the barrier that had a large tree right behind it, meaning that there was no give in the barrier at all. The car was smashed to pieces, with wheels and body panels falling off long after the initial impact, an impact so great that the rollcage-reinforced frame of the car was bent quite dramatically around the windscreen area (on the passenger's side). Simonsen was rushed to hospital during the hour-long Safety Car period, where tragically he succumbed to his injuries an hour or two later. He was 34. It was the first driver death during the famed endurance race in 27 years.

Simonsen last year
Allan Simonsen was a well-liked and talented racing driver who had raced in a variety of series with a variety of success. While his five-year run in Australian V8 Supercars from 2003-07 was dismal, he won the 2007 Australian GT Championship and the 2009 Asian Le Mans Series GT2 Class trophy. His racing career started on a high in 1999 with a Danish Formula Ford Championship win on home turf, while recently he'd scored 4th in the 2012 Aussie GTs and 12th in last year's British GT3 Championship. His best result at the race that took his life was 2nd in the GT2 class in 2010, driving a Ferrari F430. This year he was sharing an Aston Martin Vantage with fellow Danes Christoffer Nygaard and Kristian Poulsen, racing in the GTE Am class for GTE cars driven primarily by Amateur drivers, a status which I think is based on the highest level at which they've raced.

Simonsen's family requested to Aston Martin Racing that they continue racing in his memory, and they duly obliged while issuing an official press statement. With the barriers eventually repaired, the Safety Cars pulled into their respective stations and the race got underway again. Something worth noting at this point is that in the 90-year history of Le Mans, the race has never been red-flagged (stopped), even in 1955 when a Mercedes SLR was launched into the crowd killing over 80 people and injuring dozens more. Mike Hawthorne's and Jaguar's was a hollow victory that year...

Thankfully nothing quite that horrific has been allowed to happen since, and returning to 2013, Aston Martin eventually scored 3rd place in the highly competitive GTE Pro class (which features up to three Pro-level drivers per car). It was looking like they'd win the class, but not long before the end the lead car lost control in a very similar way coming out of the first chicane on the Mulsanne Straight (onto which Tetre Rouge leads) and smashed into the barriers, which then had to be repaired under yet another Safety Car period - probably the 10th or 11th one of the race - during which spectators saw the barriers being replaced and repaired using a lorry full of spare bits and a van full of men and hammers. It wasn't a modern-looking sight, but it was a sight we saw multiple times this race, which I argue isn't good enough. Granted, these are barriers for public roads that are used as a race track one week per year, but in an age of TekPro barriers at F1-grade circuits, it doesn't cast a good image on Le Mans, and possibly sports car racing in general, as for many people this is the only endurance race they watch. Plainly more needs to be done, and the tree-lined section that Simonsen hit should have tyres or TekPro put in front of the traditional metal barriers to avoid a similar incident at next year's race. Ideally though, the whole length of skinny three-high Armco should be replaced or updated to not need extensive repairs every time they're hit. The Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) who organise the race have pockets plenty deep enough to sort that out...

At the sharp end of this year's race, the LMP1 class was again dominated by Audi vs Toyota, with privateers Rebellion Racing and Strakka fighting amongst themselves for best of the rest honours. The speculation was that while Audi had the faster car (an evolution of last year's R18 e-Tron quattro with a Toyota-like longer tail), Toyota with their requested three litres of extra petrol would have fuel economy and a more potent hybrid system on their side. Could they be the tortoise to Audi's hare and sneak past them towards the end with fewer pit stops? Unfortunately for those tired of Audi's dominance, no. They were actually faster than the Audis at the start of the race, due to a softer tyre compound and apparent preference for cooler conditions, with both newly-overhauled TS030 Hybrids making progress from 4th and 5th on the grid to be 2nd and 3rd before Simonsen's ultimately fatal crash ended Anthony Davidson's fight for the lead in TS030 #8. After that things evened out again, with the overtaken Audis returning to their original positions in the third hour. R18 #1 then got past R18 #2 to see cars 1, 2 and 3 in positions 1, 2 and 3. How very German. It wouldn't last, though, as the #1 Audi was forced into the garage to have a crank sensor replaced in hour 7, which required Audi Sport Team Joest mechanics to dig out much of the 3.7-litre V6 turbo diesel just to get to it. This caused the car driven by André Lotterer, Marcel Fässler and Benoit Tréluyer (which nobody can pronounce...) to fall back to 27th place, at least 13 or 14 laps behind the leader.

Later, Audi #3 piloted by Marc Gené, Oliver Jarvis and Lucas di Grassi had a puncture and lost several minutes limping back to the pit lane, which promoted the Toyotas back up to 2nd and 3rd place, but they weren't without problems themselves as car #7 (piloted by Kazuki Nakajima, Alex Wurz and Nicholas Lapierre) was seen grinding to a halt on the Mulsanne straight at one point, but it turned out that all they had to do to fix that was to turn it off and on again. Through the night, the Audi team worked frantically to get their two troubled cars back up the grid, while the Toyotas just found a groove and stuck to it, plugging in lap times and maintaining their gap from the leader as the moon and sun slowly swapped places. There were more crashes up and down the field of course, with an LMP2 car in particular hitting a concrete wall so hard that it ripped the back axle off - taking the gearbox with it - and the car set fire for a bit. The driver got out on his own, though, and was fine. As the race pressed on, hour 22 of 24 saw a downpour of rain and Toyota #7 sliding off at the Porsche Curves into the tyre wall. Lapierre got out of the car, but then changed his mind about abandoning it (drivers can only walk a certain distance from the car for help before being classified as retired) and got it going again with the help of marshals and a big tractor. This let Audi #3 past, though, making a double-decker sandwich of Audi bread and Toyota meat. This is how the top 5 of the top class finished up in the end.

LMP2 and GTE Pro were almost impossible to predict even in the final hours of the race, but with the aforementioned Aston Martin taking itself out, Porsche took the GTE Pro win with a brand new, factory-backed 991-generation 911 RSR, while OAK Racing (sponsored by Morgan) won the fiercely competitive LMP2 class. A privateer Porsche won GTE Am, which was the 100th class victory for Porsche cars at Le Mans. That's one hell of a milestone! But then, Porsche's record at Le Mans is second to none, not even Audi, although the ringed racers are getting close to their record of overall wins, which is why Porsche are preparing an LMP1 return next year with an all-new car.

Audi #2 won the race, which meant Le Mans race win number three for Scottish former F1 driver (for Toyota, no less) Allan McNish, but overshadowing that massive achievement was a record ninth overall victory for Danish driver Tom Kristensen, popularly called "Mr. Le Mans," who drove the car in the final stint to take the chequered flag. The celebrations were subdued given that there had been a driver fatality, and Kristensen, who had mentored Allan Simonsen in his early career, payed tribute to him on the podium, saying: "In a way this is the dream come true, winning the toughest and fastest race, but we lost somebody yesterday who had the same dream as well and who was absolutely humble and a nice guy, so it is mixed feelings in that sense. I am driving with my father's determination and his ambition. He died in March but he had said: I will win Le Mans with my boys this year. I hope there will be another one. Maybe we can win another one and I can dedicate it to my dad. Because this one is for Allan Simonsen." His message was echoed by all.

The podium-scoring Aston Martin drivers made their own sombre tribute at the end of the race as well, by holding up a huge flag and saying that they were all Danish that day. After Simonsen's death was announced, a flag of Denmark was flying at half mast above the iconic clock and podium hovering over the pit lane for the rest of the race.

Ultimately, this race will not be remembered fondly. The noteworthy things about it include two Safety Car records - twelve outings and around five and a half hours of total time, both the most of any LM24 - and the first driver death since 1986, or 1997 if you count Frenchman Sebastien Enjolras's pre-qualifying accident in preparation for the event, in a Peugeot-powered Welter Racing WR LM97. Positives to take from the race? Well, a ninth win for Kristensen will be significant for him, even if it is soured by the loss of a fellow countryman, and Audi will be pleased with scoring a twelfth win in fifteen years. We can all only hope that next year, everybody gets to go home on Monday.

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