One for the history books
First held in 1923, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is a race steeped in history. That once again became abundantly clear in 2016 as Ford celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of their first ever victory both on and off the track. Most significant was the 'Blue Oval's' first works effort since the early 1980s with no fewer than four examples of the virtually purpose built GT racer. Just like in 1966 one of Ford's primary rivals was Ferrari but this time only for class honours. The protagonists for the outright victory were once again defending champions Porsche, Audi and Toyota. The stage was set for a close fight as in the two opening rounds of the FIA World Endurance Championship, the three manufacturers were matched in pace almost perfectly. The 60-car strong field also featured a record number of LMP2 cars. The 'Garage 56' entry for experimental entries was reserved for the team of quadruple amputee Frederic Sausset and their heavily modified Morgan LMP2 racer.
At Le Mans to capture the race for us was Bob van der Wolf, who returned with this 200-shot gallery
Practice and qualifying
Rain was a major factor during the practice and qualifying sessions on Wednesday and Thursday. A dry line was a very rare thing and once available everybody went out making heavy traffic a big issue as well. As a result not all lap times were representative, it did become painfully clear that Ford and Ferrari had not shown their hands fully in earlier sessions and were in a league of their own in the GTE Pro class. This was, of course, great for the Ford vs Ferrari narrative but was equally frustrating for rivals Aston Martin, Corvette and Porsche. In a last minute attempt to reign in the two turbo-engined machines, the 'Balance of Performance' was adjusted on the eve of the race by increasing the minimum weight of the Ferraris and Fords and offering a restrictor break to Corvette and Aston Martin. At the head of the field, the two Porsches were marginally fastest with Neil Jani clinching his second consecutive pole position in the updated 919 Hybrid. The two Toyota TS050s filled the second row and the interestingly styled R18 e-tron quattros were fifth and sixth.
A race to remember
The rain had not yet cleared at 3 pm on Saturday afternoon, so it was decided to start the race behind the safety car. After nearly an hour, during which most of the standing water had disappeared, the cars were set free for the first time. A close battle at the head of the field ensued and an early stop for slicks appeared to give the Audi piloted by Andre Lotterer a slight edge. Unfortunately, a turbo failure delayed the car significantly and on a dry track the sister car also lacked the outright pace. This left the race for victory between the two Porsches and the two Toyotas. The #2 Porsche's chances evaporated after around eight hours due to a water-pump failure, while the #6 Toyota lost a lot of time after Kamui Kobayashi had an excursion into the kitty litter on Sunday morning trying to regain second from the #1 Porsche. In the final hour, the #5 Toyota had a healthy lead over the #1 Porsche of over a minute and looked set to final break Toyota's duck at Le Mans. All was well until the final 10 minutes of the race when Toyota's rotten luck played up once more and the #5 Toyota slowed significantly. This allowed the Porsche to pass the stricken Toyota going into the final lap and claim a surprise victory. The heartbreak for Toyota was complete when the #5 car failed to make it round the track in time and was not classified. This promoted the faster of the two Audis to third behind the winning Porsche and the surviving Toyota.
In the GTE Pro class, the adverse weather conditions of the opening stages brought the rear-engined Porsches briefly to the fore. Once the track dried, it became apparent that the adjustments to the Balance of Performance had above all been symbolic. Eventually only three of the Fords (one was delayed from the start with gearbox issues) and the sole Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTB emerged to be in the running for class honours. It almost looked like 1966 all over again when the Fords outnumbered the Ferraris at least three to one as well. This time, however, Ford did not score a one-two-three victory as despite some late race penalties, the 488 GTB placed second in class. Often a race of attrition, due in part to the different levels of driving talent, the LMP2 class remained hotly contested this year. The only truly outstanding car was the #36 Nissan-engined Alpine A460 of Gustavo Menezes, Nicolas Lapierre and Stephane Richelmi, which finished a lap ahead. In the GTE Am category a Ferrari did win, in particular the Scuderia Corsa 458 Italia of Bill Sweedler, Townsend Bell and Jeffrey Segal.
Toyota's last minute heartbreak left everybody somewhat bewildered. With perhaps the exception of the three drivers of the #1 Porsche, two of whom scored their first win at Le Mans. The support and kindness from all in the paddock must be but a small consolation for the people at Toyota, who have had almost the exact same thing happen several times before both at Le Mans and in rallying. Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda has already vied to be back in 2017 and we can only hope the Japanese team will once again be in the running for their much deserved victory. For Ford, the return to Le Mans was a great success, finishing first, third and fourth in class. Long after the controversies over the Balance of Performance have disappeared from thought, the result will still stand. A winner for even driving a racing car at speed was certainly Frederic Sausset, who managed to make it to finish despite his crippling disability. For those who witnessed the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans, including the 263,500 spectators at the track, it will be a race not easily forgotten.