By Maitland Cook
La Chartre sur le Loir.
Sitting on the terrace at the Hotel de France considering the events of the previous 24 hours, enjoying a crisp glass of Jasnieres…
The 86th running of the Le Mans 24 Hour race was interesting without hitting the levels of excitement of previous years. After the cruel losses of the past two years, including the last lap power failure, the sentimental vote went to Toyota to finally win even if the competition did not exist this year following the withdrawal of both Audi and Porsche from the prototype class. However a number of the ‘brains’ in the press room opined that their reliability record was not good and they probably would not last 24 hours.
The senior prototype class was undoubtedly the weakest class in terms of numbers with the Rebellions making up the only possible challengers. The great attraction was Fernando Alonso, who is combining his Formula 1 duties with McLaren with a full season of World Endurance Championship races for Toyota. The double world Formula 1 champion dominated the time sheets in qualifying finishing 2.00 seconds ahead of his team mates, who in turn were 2 seconds ahead of the quickest Rebellion. The other refugee from Formula 1 and the main British interest, Jenson Button, was in seventh place a further 2 seconds back.
The junior prototype class was dominated by the French entries, the GT classes, both ‘pro’ and ‘am’ by Porsche, being comfortable quicker than the Ford GT’s, and Ferrari’s. Sadly for their large number of travelling supporters the Aston Martin works cars were uncompetitive in qualifying the quickest being nearly 5 seconds a lap slower than the Porsche. The team appealed against the balance of performance settings, but in reality it made no difference. The formula has been used by the World Championship organisers to create close racing, a show, but Aston Martin did not get close to their rivals this year.
The star attraction to start the race this year was the French Open tennis champion Rafa Nadal, supporting his compatriot Alonso. Jacky Ickx, the six-time winner from the previous era was the grand marshal and led the field on their formation lap, as he said in his speech before the start it was the only time he could ever get in front of Alonso!
The race started in warm weather and immediately the two Toyota’s took the lead they were never to lose throughout the race, with the Alonso car behind it’s team mate until a stint of extremely impressive night driving hauled his car up to and into the lead, the display of a great champion through the night. The Rebellions circulated in formation behind the two leaders and finished in third and fourth albeit 12 laps down at the finish. Jenson Button sadly retired in his first Le Mans while fifth, after covering 315 laps. The winner completed 388 circuits.
The GT classes produced far and away the closest racing, as last year. At six hours twelve cars were within one lap of each other, at twelve hours it was still seven cars, and at three quarter distance the same number and finally at the finish four cars. Porsche finished first and second in the ‘pro’ class, and first in the “am” class The Ford GT’s finished in third and fourth, their management feeling very hard done by from the balancing of performance as their cars were clearly the class act and ran very much below their natural capability. The leading Aston Martin of Turner, Thim and Sorensen was only ninth 5 laps behind, hampered by a lack of top speed.
At the finish the joy of Toyota was clear to be seen and enjoyed, but the fear has to be that now they have finally won they will withdraw from the prototype class. When I first came here fifty six years ago I suggested the race should be GT cars only…maybe it is finally heading that way.
Time for another glass…looking forward to coming back for my fifty fourth race already, I will still be waving my Aston Martin flag!