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2017 24 Hours of Le Mans
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A historic edition
Long before the flag dropped on Saturday at 3 pm, the 85th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans promised to be a historic one. Audi, a dominant force in the race for nearly two decades, was missing from the grid for the first time since the German manufacturer's debut back in 1999. This left the field of the top LMP1 class to just two manufacturers, Porsche and Toyota, and the privateer effort of ByKolles. There were substantial changes in the LMP2 class as well where a new generation of cars lined up. These were built by just four selected manufacturers and all featured the same Gibson-sourced drivetrain. Another major departure from tradition was the Porsche 911 used by the works team in the LM GTE Pro class; this was an all-new not rear-, but mid-engined machine. In a great five-way battle the new Porsche was pitched against the latest Corvette, Ferrari, Ford and Aston Martin could muster.
On hand for us was photographer Bob van der Wolf, who returned with this 150-shot gallery of a race that turned out even more historic than anyone could have expected.

The build-up
Having won the first two races of the year, Toyota arrived as the favourites. This role was re-affirmed during qualifying when Kamui Kobayashi set the fastest ever lap at Le Mans with 3:14.791 in the first of the three TS050s. He was close to 2.5s ahead of the best of pair of Porsche 919 Hybrids entered. The track was clearly very fast as the lap records in the three other classes were also shattered. The largest margin was certainly in LMP2 where Alex Lynn flung his G-Drive entered Oreca 07 around the 13.6 km long track in just 3:25.352. By comparison, there was a time that the organisers deemed 3:30 as the maximum performance threshold for LMP1 cars. The hike in LMP2 performance was predominantly down to the very powerful Gibson V8 engine, which helped the LMP2 actually clock faster top speeds than the LMP1 machines. Darren Turner proved there was life still left in the ageing Aston Martin V8 Vantage GTE by pipping his compatriot and Ferrari driver James Calado to the LM GTE Pro pole position with 3:50.837. Hard to miss thanks to the striking 'Human' art livery painted by Ramzi Adek, the Larbre Corvette was qualified on the LM GTE Am pole by Fernando Rees.

The race
In near scorching conditions, the start was given at 3 pm by new Formula 1 supremo Chase Carey. The pole-sitting Toyota grabbed the lead but within a few corners, it became clear that it would not become an easy race for the LMP1 field as the third Toyota was damaged by debris kicked up by the ByKolles car. The latter would turn out to be the first retirement of the race after just a handful of laps. While the the #9 Toyota only lost a few seconds, much more time was lost by the second Porsche, which suffered a failure of the electric motor. Replacing the motor dropped the car down the order to 56th overall. A similar fate was suffered by the #8 Toyota, which spent even longer in the pit-box for repairs. Toyota's race then completely derailed after midnight when the leading #7 had to retire due to a clutch failure and the #9 followed suit just a few minutes later after a collision with an LMP2 car caused fatal damage to the gearbox. This left just the #1 Porsche at the sharp end of the field, followed by the first of the LMP2 cars. A real sensation was on the cards when, with four hours to go, the leading Porsche also expired, handing the overall lead to one of the LMP2 cars, which had been 12 laps down the order. The absolute upset was eventually avoided by the repaired #2 Porsche, which had a trouble free run back up the order and took over the lead some 20 laps from the end to claim Porsche third win in three years.
The LMP2 car that briefly took the lead was the sister car to one of two Jackie Chan DC Racing entered Oreca 07s. Boasting a strong driver line-up and a smooth run saw the Jota Sport run machine clinch a class victory and an unexpected second overall with a three-lap margin over the sister car. This was after the first of the Vaillante Rebellion cars, which had crossed the line in third overall, was scratched from the results after making unauthorised modifications to their Oreca 07 and then trying to cover this up in parc ferme. One of the closest fights of the race was in the LM GTE Pro category where all five manufacturers were in the hunt for victory at some point in the race. Eventually it came down to Jordan Taylor in the #63 Corvette and Jonny Adam, who was right on the Corvette's tail during the final laps in the #95 Aston Martin. A brave move down the inside at the Arnage corner from Adam saw the two cars brush sides but still saw Taylor emerge in the lead. During the following lap, this year's Daytona and Sebring winning driver missed one of the chicanes either resulting in or as the result of a puncture. Either way, this allowed Adam and the first of the Ford GTs to pass. Taylor did manage to cross the line in third for the popular American team. Two laps ahead of the nearest rivals, the LM GTE Am win was for JMW Motorsports in the first outing for their brand new Ferrari 488 GTE.

Final thoughts
With more than a few upsets and incidents, the 85th 24 Hours of Le Mans was one to remember. At the end of the day, Porsche added a 19th overall win to their tally while Toyota's dismal luck continued. The Japanese manufacturer, however, vowed to return to clinch that elusive victory. Throughout the field, the race was hotly disputed and despite the very high temperatures there were relatively few retirements. The LM GTE Pro fight, in particular, was one to remember and it promises to only get better as BMW will join the fray in 2018. The German manufacturer was already present this year, replacing Audi as the supplier of the course cars, and underlining that the 24 Hours of Le Mans is bigger than any one manufacturer.

Report by Wouter Melissen and images by Bob van der Wolf for Ultimatecarpage.com