A historic Le Mans
History took centre stage at this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans as the classic event celebrated its 90th anniversary. The race will however be mostly remembered for all the wrong reasons. After what was already an accident packed build-up, Danish driver Allan Simonsen tragically lost his life after a big crash on only the third lap. For reasons not quite clear at this time, his Aston Martin ran slightly off the line at Tertre Rouge onto the damp rumble strip, which caused him to loose control and hit the Armco barrier at a very high speed. Our thoughts are with his friends and family, who specifically asked Aston Martin Racing to remain in the event and race in Allan Simonsen's honour, which they did formidably well.
In what were very challenging conditions for many more reasons, our reporters also worked around the clock. The result of their labour is the following concise report, illustrated by a 370-shot gallery
of the eventful and historic 2013 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Practice and qualifying
Following two days of scrutineering in down town Le Mans, the action started at the track on Wednesday afternoon with a four-hour practice session. This was followed by three two-hour qualifying sessions; one on Wednesday evening and the others on Thursday evening. The two run between 10 pm and midnight not only served to determine grid positions as they were also used for each driver to complete the three mandatory night laps in order to qualify for the race. Even before the practice began, there was already drama for the Lotus team as a dispute over money saw many components of the team's T128s seized on Tuesday. Fortunately, the courts ruled in the team's favour on Wednesday and the cars were hastily rebuilt and both would start the race.
The free practice session set the tone for the event with changeable track conditions and two big accidents. The first one was Eric Lux in the Caterham-backed Greaves Zytek and the second was for Tracy Krohn in his Ferrari, which required a brand new chassis to make the start. Both incidents resulted in red-flag situations with the second curtailing the session by over 30 minutes.
When the action resumed on Wednesday with the first qualifying session, Loic Duval was among the first drivers out on track. With the #2 Audi he put a marker down of 3:22.349, which was faster than the 2012 pole time and would not be bettered in the remaining six hours of qualifying. Due to changing conditions, the only other time to get proper lap times in proved to be the very last part of the third session on Wednesday evening, during which neither of the others Audis came close, while the two Toyota TS030s were surprisingly off the pace. Who did make the most of that last-minute opportunity was Olivier Pla, placing the #24 Oak Racing Morgan on pole in LMP2. In both GTE categories, the quickest times were also set in the final session with Fred Makowiecki clinching the GTE Pro pole in his Aston Martin V8 Vantage, and the late Allan Simonsen displaying his exceptional talents in his Aston Martin by beating the nearest rivals by over a second in GTE Am. Like practice, the qualifying sessions also proved incident packed and the first two were again cut short by red flags. Quite a few drivers had had little to no dry running, so it was decided to start the third session 30 minutes early.
Le Mans Legend
One of the traditional support events is a historic race for cars that starred at Le Mans in the past. This year, a spectacular field of 60 sports cars from the 1950s and 1960s lined up for a 45-minute race on Saturday morning. Among the rarest cars on the grid was the Maserati Tipo 151 piloted by Joe Colasacco and Derek Hill. Built in 1962, this was one of Maserati's very last cars built specifically for Le Mans and the only one remaining of three built. It was expected to be among the front runners but in qualifying niggling problems saw it place just inside the top ten. Further highlights on track included the 1955 Le Mans winning Jaguar D-Type and a beautiful Ferrari 250 LM. Fastest of all, and by quite a margin, was Alex Buncombe in the ex-Briggs Cunningham Lister Jaguar. The changeable conditions also hit the Le Mans Legend race as just like last year, the heavens opened right as the classic cars entered the track. Not all parts of the circuit were equally hard hit, so the drivers had to be very careful. Fortunately the race got underway without any serious issues as Buncombe managed to maintain his lead. He finished first ahead of a hard-charging Jon Minshaw in another Lister Jaguar and Gary Pearson with a Jaguar D-Type, who managed to get by Roger Wills' Bizzarrini on the very last lap.
Considering the number of major accidents in practice and qualifying, it was actually somewhat surprising that all 56 entered cars could line up for the race; two did need a new chassis. In the opening two laps of the race, the Toyotas immediately launched an attack on the Audis and briefly ran second and third behind the #1 Audi, which had grabbed the lead. Then, on lap three, tragedy struck and the race was neutralised for nearly an hour to repair the damaged Armco barrier. Once racing resumed, the Audis looked more comfortable and gradually opened up a gap to the chasing Toyotas. For the fans of the Japanese team, there was an early scare when Nicolas Lapierre ground to a halt in the #7 TS030. One of the fuel pumps had failed and once he had switched over to the second the Frenchman was on his way again. Meanwhile in LMP2, the Oak Racing Morgan Nissans proved as fast as they did in qualifying with both the #24 and #35 cars featuring at the very top of the field.
Due the track's length, there are three safety cars at Le Mans running at about equal distance. The first safety car period had a profound effect on the GTE Pro class as the top three were a group ahead, gaining a lead they would not give up. These were two of the Aston Martins, now racing to secure victory for Allan Simonsen, and one of the works Porsches. They were very closely matched for most of the race, until Makowiecki crashed his V8 Vantage on Sunday morning in an eerily similar matter as Simonsen had almost 20 hours earlier. Fortunately, the Frenchman was able to walk away from this one. This brought out the safety car for the umpteenth time as further repairs to the barriers were needed. The remaining Aston was still in with a good chance, until a late shower and yet another safety car period caused it to lose almost a lap. The second works Porsche also got ahead, to score a one-two victory on Porsche's first outing at Le Mans with the factory effort since 1998. Richard Lietz, Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas are all three more than worthy winners but most would have like to see the Aston Martin Racing team score that fairytale victory in honour of their fallen driver. The GTE Am category was far more open with the lead changing almost hourly. Heading the class at the right period was the #76 IMSA Performance Porsche of team owner Raymond Narac, Christophe Bourret and Jean Karl Vernay.
At the five-hour mark, Audi seemed to hold a comfortable 1-2-3 lead but in a matter of minutes that all changed. The leading #1 was pulled back into the pit-box for extensive surgery, which saw the engine removed from the chassis to replace the alternator. Soon after the attention turned to the #3 R18, which was forced to complete almost an entire lap on three wheels due to a puncture. Both cars were able to resume but at least a lap down on the second of the Toyotas in the case of the #3 and several more laps down for the repaired #1. This reduced Audi's hopes to the #2 car, which was fortunately in the more than capable hands of Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Loic Duval. They did not make a single mistake and even opened up a one-lap advantage over the Toyotas. Both TS030s did remain in the hunt and keeping the ever changing conditions in mind, it did remain a race until the very end. In an effort to keep the #3 Audi at bay, Lapierre took too many risks on a damp track and ended up with his #7 Toyota in the barriers at the entry to the Porsche curves. With his nose missing, he did manage to return to the pits and the car was repaired to get back out before the #1 Audi. So the race ended in the neat order of Audi, Toyota, Audi, Toyota, Audi. In the LMP2 class, the tables had been turned in favour of the #35 Oak Morgan, despite a late spin and Bertrand Baquette, Martin Plowman and Ricardo Gonzales scored Oak Racing's first major victory after many years of trying. They finished ahead of their team mates in the #24 and #26 G-Drive Racing Oreca Nissan.
Fittingly, the Danish flag had been hung at half-mast above the podium during the race and before the prize giving ceremony started, Le Mans legend Jacky Ickx spoke on behalf of Aston Martin Racing owner David Richards and ACO president Pierre Fillon. Following his touching words, he asked the crowd for a big round of applause to honour Allan Simonsen. In what must have been the most bittersweet moment of his career, fellow Dane Tom Kristensen soon after received his record-extending ninth Le Mans winner's trophy. He dedicated the victory to his compatriot and later during the GTE Pro ceremony, Simonsen's Aston Martin team mates also brought a big flag onto the podium. To some extent this was a fitting finale to what must have been the most eventful 24 Hours of Le Mans of the modern era. Although the race saw several more big hits, fortunately no other driver was critically injured.