The race week was one of anniversaries as it is seventy years since the race recommenced after the Second World War, the sixtieth since Aston Martin scored its only outright victory and the fiftieth since Ford recorded its fourth straight victory with the Mark 2 cars and the GT40. The closest finish ever being recorded by the Gulf sponsored GT40 in 1969 when the Porsche of Hans Hermann was beaten by less than 100 metres.
During the build up on Saturday afternoon as Princess Charlene of Monaco, the official starter, was paraded in front of the stands the venerable GT40 was demonstrated to the crowd, doing one lap of the circuit driven by the winning drivers of 50 years ago, Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver.
The theatre that is Le Mans pre start included the starters flag being delivered from out of the sky by French commandos dropping from their helicopter on the pit straight while the tricolour was blazen across the skies by fighter jets to the accompaniment of a lusty rendition of the French national anthem, the Marseilleise.
As to the race itself the victorious Toyota’s of last year returned as the class act of the leading prototype class and would undoubtably win providing they did not have any problems. The race really was about third place. However the organisers have developed formula’s that offer very competitive racing, and in all the other categories the qualifying times were almost identical. In each case there being a minimum of three cars within one second of each other. In the GT professional driver class British hopes were raised by the performance of Aston Martin which led the way. The American actor and now team owner, Patrick Dempsey, proudly surveyed his team performance with the quickest time in the amateur driver class.
Of course Le Mans is the one place where qualifying speed is not necessarily the portent of a good race. The start saw the two team Toyota’s lead comfortably from the start and disappear slowly but surely into the distance, Michael Conway setting consecutive fastest laps to cement the lead over his team mates. In the GT class the pole winning Aston Martin had been penalised by the balance of performance(BoP) regulations and at the end of the first hour was tenth in its class, although only 10 seconds down on the leading Corvette…..close racing indeed, a real bonus for the paying spectators.
As the battle ebbed and flowed behind the leading Toyota’s it was a splendid competitive battle particularly in the other classes there were always 5 cars within a lap of each other with pit stops determining the gap. It was exciting stuff through the night, except sadly two Aston Martins retired in the early hours, although the second team car in the professional class did finish despite a spin resulting in body damage and other delays seventeen laps back. The highly professional Ford team, with the most sophisticated GT car in the field were totally reliable and ran in convoy behind the leading Porsche’s and Ferrari, again handicapped by the BoP regulations. Some small consolation being that in the amateur drivers section the Ford won by less than a lap from Porsche.
Eventually the Toyotas finished in the first to places 5 laps ahead of the next car, The French crowd loved the Alpine winning the next class, while Italian pride was preserved as Ferrari won the professional class.
There has since been major drama as the stewards have disqualified two cars for technical infringements in relation to fuel tank capacity, both being Ford GT’s, including the winner in the GT amateur class. No doubt there will be appeals and the decision will be ratified in due course. Therefore the results remain provisional, but none of this affects the total domination of the Toyota’s.
Except at the very front the spectators witnessed some titanic battles, this “ manufactured” racing does give value and excitement.