Petit Le Mans 2021: how it started.
Photo by Jack Webster
Mazda, AER, Aston Close Season with Victory
by Jack Webster & Eddie LePine
BRASELTON, Ga., Nov. 10-13 — Motul Petit Le Mans was later than usual this year, due to schedule changes (blame COVID) and the “Grand” Le Mans (the 24 Hours) moving from June to August.
All in all, however, the rescheduled event was an outstanding race and provided a fitting end to an outstanding season of IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship (IWSC) competition.
The 24th running of the 10-hour endurance classic — held at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta — featured more night racing than usual, due to the change from Daylight Savings Time the week prior to the race. That time change meant that almost half the race would be held in darkness.
On top of that, temperatures, which would top out at under 60° during daylight hours on race day, would drop into the mid-30s by the end of the race. Due to the cold, many predicted carnage after sunset with teams trying to get new tires up to operating temperatures.
There were accidents, including one spectacular one that led to the retirement of four cars — but most of them, and their accompanying full-course yellow periods, happened during daylight hours.
The race marked the end of a class in the IWSC (GT Le Mans, or GTLM) and unfortunately the final race for a team that has become a favorite of fans from around the world — Mazda Motorsports. Mazda is pulling the plug on its DPi prototype racing program, and coming into the race week at Road Atlanta the Mazda drivers were determined to go out on a winning note.
And win they did, after coming back from three laps down in the early stages of the race.
American Jonathan Bomarito and Brits Oliver Jarvis and Harry Tincknell combined for an outstanding drive with their Mazda RT24-P DPi taking the lead with just 22 minutes remaining in the race. They scored a 3.297-second victory over the 2nd-place Whelen Engineering Cadillac DPi of Felipe Nasr, Pipo Derani and Mike Conway.
Tincknell, the man who brought car home, took advantage of Nasr’s going off-course re-entering from the pits, d what he called a “divebomb” and called the result “a Hollywood script come true.”
“This is pure hard work by everyone at Mazda, Multimatic, AER,” he added, citing the chassis and engine manufacturers. “We had such a fantastic team. Sebring, Watkins Glen and now Petit Le Mans!”
Work in progress: the Heart of Racing Aston Martin heads for the win.
Photo by Colin Sword
Jarvis chimed in, “What a drive by Harry at the end there! We had a great car. We had a few issues there early on, but three laps down there and to win it!
“What a way to end the Mazda story. What a way for Harry, myself, Jonathan and the whole team to finish it off. It’s been a monumental effort and we did it. We are over the moon. We’re going to party hard tonight!”
The cool temperatures during the day under clear skies gave way to quite chilly (actually rather cold) conditions after sunset. Even with temperatures hovering around 36° at the finish of the race, there was no containing the enthusiasm of the winning teams and drivers and champagne shower celebrations were the norm on the podium.
Class win for Aston Martin
In the IWSC’s GT Daytona (GTD) class, it was another outstanding victory for the Heart of Racing team. Their Aston Martin Vantage GT3, piloted by Brit Ross Gunn, Canadian Roman De Angelis and American (and team principal) Ian James, took top honors at Petit in what is a very competitive class of IMSA racing.
The lead was swapped many times during the 10-hour race, with the Aston Martin squad finally taking a 7.857-second victory over the Pfaff Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3.R of Zacharie Robichon, Laurens Vanthoor and Lars Kern.
This was a great year for the team, as not only did Heart of Racing win its class at Petit, they also secured the season-long IWSC Sprint Cup for Aston Martin and drivers Gunn and De Angelis, as reported last issue.
James commented the outcome was “awesome.”
“What a testimony to everybody who works on this team and the great effort they did! My teammates were amazing today, and nobody was going to beat us there at the end. Ross Gunn [who drove the car across the finish line] was just on fire!
“That’s three wins for the year, one sprint championship, great position in the overall championship. Couldn’t be happier.”
And now for a very short off-season before getting underway for 2022 at Daytona for both the “Roar Before the 24” and the Rolex 24 in January.
See you there.
Top British car at the IMPC race Petit weekend was the AWA McLaren.
Photo by Jake Galstad (LAT Images)
IMPC: McLaren on Podium (Technically)
by Bruce Vild
BRASELTON, Ga., Nov. 12 — Kuno Wittmer and Odey Fidani fought their way up to 4th position in the Fox Factory 120 today after starting 17th, just missing a podium finish in their AWA McLaren 570S GT4.
But then a post-race inspection showed that the Chevrolet Camaro that crossed the finish line 3rd failed to meet the minimum weight requirement, making everyone else in the field move up one position — putting the McLaren 3rd and on the podium.
It seemed a fitting dénouement to a Michelin Pilot Challenge race where, as commentator Phil Allaway of Frontstretch put it, “much of the first half of the race was spent under yellow,” and drama followed the restarts all the way to the end.
The action (that is, the missteps) occurred mostly among the Grand Sport (GS) cars. There were spins following contact, and cars nudged off-course and into the gravel — which is what happened to two drivers vying for the lead with 26 minutes to go in the race. Eric Foss and Bill Auberlen collided in a chicane after Auberlen attempted a pass, allowing 3rd-place Jan Heylen to pass them and take the lead in his Porsche.
This would eventually lead to a win for Heylen and his Wright Motorsports team, and the GS driver championship, though a hard-charging Toyota piloted by Scott Andrews did cause some worry in the race’s final moments. Heylen’s margin of victory was a mere 0.162 seconds.
British cars in the GS mix included another McLaren, the Motorsports in Action 570S GT4 co-driven by Sheena Monk and Spencer Pigot, and two Aston Martin Vantage GT4s, helmed by VOLT Racing w/Archangel’s Alan Brynjolfsson and Trent Hindman and Notlad Racing by RS1’s Patrick Gallagher and Stevan McAleer.
The two Astons each had their own controversial moments, one of which Allaway called “the scariest incident of the race.” As he explained it, Brynjolfsson was attempting to pass Vin Barletta and his BMW entering Turn 12 and lost it, pitching the Aston into Barletta. The BMW then spun and slammed head-on into a tire wall.
“Barletta was able to exit his BMW and stand on his own two feet without assistance,” Allaway reported. “However, the BMW was thrashed.”
The VOLT Aston escaped significant harm, but Brynjolfsson was assessed an “avoidable contact” penalty for causing the accident.
It was not a good day for Turner Motorsports. They lost both their cars — Barletta’s in this instance and, as mentioned above, Auberlen’s near the end. What made it worse for Barletta is that he and his co-driver, Robby Foley, were sitting 3rd in championship points at the start of the race and their shot at the title was now dashed.
But also dashed was the 30-point lead Auberlen and co-driver Dillon Macavern had coming into the race, the GS championship clearly in their grasp. Heylen’s victory gave him the championship by 190 points.
Brynjolfsson and Hindman wound up finishing the race in 5th place (after the disqualification of the Camaro). They had started 7th.
The RS1 Aston was penalized for an equipment violation. Pilots Gallagher and McAleer came in 7th after starting 5th. The MIA McLaren, which apparently suffered no such controversy or penalty, finished a disappointing 27th after starting 9th.
IMSA’s Michelin Pilot Challenge is now over for 2021. There were some surprises and, I hear, a few nasty words between the teams at the end. But that’s racing.
Though attendance was down from pre-COVID levels, there was still a remarkable variety of cars on the show field — including what seemed to be a record number of Jensens.
Photo by Bruce Vild
‘British Invasion’ Passes Milestone: 30 Years!
by Michael Gaetano
STOWE, Vt., Sept. 10-12 — The British Invasion returned in person to Stowe this year after a one-year pause due to COVID.
Not only that, the Invasion celebrated its 30th anniversary as the largest all-British motorcar show and “British lifestyle” event in the eastern United States, typically attracting between 550 and 650 British vehicles each year.
This was a milestone that organizers and attendees were very proud to achieve.
A three-day event
British Invasion XXX started as usual with a welcome reception (thanks to Total Beverage Solutions for their beer sponsorship) and then the downtown Stowe block party on Friday evening, with British motorcars parked on Main Street, vendors, and a live band.
Saturday, however, was the big day as activities moved to the 15-plus-acre Stowe Special Events Field. Highlights included the Invasion’s Concours d’Elegance, a judged competition with judging standards based on Jaguar Club on North America and Rolls-Royce Owners Club guidelines, and the British Classic, a people’s-choice competition featuring over 60 separate classes.
Saturday’s Concours award ceremony featured a drive-by review of the winning entries. A similar drive-by took place on Sunday for class and other award winners in the British Classic.
Also on hand was our very own “Queen,” Michelle Dickson, holding court once again over a Ladies Hat Competition on Saturday, and an “Incognito Judge” canvassing the grounds for deserving winners in our British Attire Competition.
We featured “British Invasion” music all weekend, plus a Car Corral of British motorcars and motorcycles available for purchase, a Vendor Marketplace, and a variety of food and beverages to satisfy just about everyone’s palate.
Saturday evening we hosted a very successful Enthusiasts’ Dinner at a local restaurant.
Sunday started with an optional 70-minute drive over Smuggler’s Notch, a route favored by sports car enthusiasts for its scenery and twists and turns, then followed back roads to return to the Stowe Special Events Field.
Back at the show grounds we had the Competition of Colors, with returning British motorcars parked by color — red, white, blue, British Racing Green, two-tone (for those who could not decide what color to paint their motorcar), and rainbow (in case we forgot someone). Awards were presented to the best motorcar of each color as chosen by people’s choice.
Collector Ernie Boch, Jr., had a special display that included a super-rare Gordon Keeble GK1 (left) and an Aston Martin.
Photo by Bruce Vild
On Sunday we also hosted the Tailgate Picnic Competition and, along with the rolling review of returning winners from the Saturday British Classic show, more British music, vendors and food.
Featured marques, a special display
and Bests of Show
We rotate featured marques from year to year and this year featured Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Austin-Healey and Singer. Normally the Singer Club of Canada brings an award-winning club display to Stowe featuring between 20 and 30 Singers. In 2021, we sadly missed over 100 Canadian British motorcars, including those Singers, as the U.S. border remained closed to Canadians for entry.
Speaking of displays, several vehicles from the Ernie Boch Collection, which includes many examples of Rolls-Royce and Bentley motorcars, were brought to this year’s Invasion. During the Tailgate Picnic Competition, Ernie presented his 2021 Rolls-Royce Cullinan (the marque’s new SUV) with all the picnic accessories one could purchase, getting into the spirit of things and inviting the public to share some pastry.
One of other motorcars Ernie brought was a 1964 Gordon Keeble GK1 Coupe, which is one of only 99 ever built. The body was by Giorgetto Giugiaro and it came equipped with a 327/230hp Corvette engine that went from 0 to 60 in six seconds with a top speed of 140mph!
The Best of Show in the Concours d’Elegance went to Charles Marshall of Dayton, Ohio, and his 1938 Derby Bentley 4 1/4 liter drophead with coachwork by HJ Mulliner.
Charles also earned a 1st Place Concours Award in the Rolls-Royce & Bentley (Shadow & Later) Class with his 1957 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud II saloon, also by HJ Mulliner.
The Best of Show in the British Classic popular-vote competition went to Joseph and Deborah Conlon of Taunton, Mass., and their rare 1953 Nash-Healey Le Mans Coupe, a unique and most impressive motorcar with a Nash Ambassador engine tweaked for performance by Donald Healey and body designed by Pinin Farina.
All told, even with a lack of Canadian participants, British Invasion XXX had more than 500 cars on the show field. A full list of award winners is included below.
For more photos and insight on this year’s Invasion, please visit www.britishinvasion.com.
We hope to see you at British Invasion XXXI, coming September 9-11, 2022!
Michael and Paula Gaetano accepting their own award for their good work these past 30 years.
Photo by Bruce Vild
An Award for the Chairman, Too
by Bruce Vild
Michael and Paula Gaetano received a special award themselves this year. It was given on behalf of the British car clubs in the area and the many hundreds of enthusiasts who have benefited from their efforts, year after year, to deliver to all of us the quality event known as the British Invasion.
The plaque read as follows:
Eighteen British sports car clubs from throughout the New England region, their past and present members, join together to thank Michael and Paula Gaetano for their hundreds of hours of tireless dedication as they organized and promoted 30 years of the highly successful “British Invasion” in Stowe, Vermont.
Thank you for your vision and all you did to enhance the British car hobby. It is most appreciated.
Club member and MGA owner Phil Roy made the presentation to Michael and Paula at the awards ceremony on Saturday.
The traditional parade of classic cars and vintage racecars through town on Thursday afternoon began with a line-up on the track’s Sam Posey Straight. It was good to have it and all the spectators back.
Photo by Bruce Vild
‘Historic’ Weekend for Fans
In-person Enjoyment of Vintage Racing Returns to Lime Rock
by Bruce Vild
LAKEVILLE, Conn., Sept. 2-6 — Spectators returned to Lime Rock Park for Historic Festival 39 this Labor Day weekend. The old saw about New England weather (“if you don’t like the weather, wait… it’ll change) applied, with cloudy skies, fog, showers, drizzle and sunny skies greeting them, but everyone took it in stride.
The usual recipe of two days of racing — actually three, if you count the practice and qualifying sessions on Friday — and a race-free Sunday with car displays and book signings was augmented by personal appearances by Brian Redman, Stefan Johannson, Sam Posey, Bill Warner, Gordon Kirby, Skip Barber, and of course Burt “BS” Levy.
There were also dinners and car corrals (for display and camaraderie, not sales), and courtesy rides available to get fans and exhausted media types, like me, from one end of the track to the other.
What follows is a day-by-day report with a British car slant.
The days preceding the Historic Festival did not bode well for the traditional vintage racecar/sports car parade, with rain from the remnants of Hurricane Ida expected — and this writer’s usual passenger seat, in Al Chicote’s open-two-seater 1959 Elva Courier, in jeopardy. But as the weekend drew closer, the forecast continued to improve, and came the day, it was perfect weather for a parade, with clouds covering the sun to keep things (including cars) cool and pleasant but not bringing any rain with them.
In fact, the weather may have attracted a record number of cars in the parade, including quite a number of cars I had never seen before. Ed Cooke and his brother Martin from Abingdon Spares were there in a lovely black MG Y-type and kindly offered me a ride just in case. But Al so loves to drive his car that he took a chance on the weather, and I was able to take him up once again on his offer for a ride.
Early publicity for the event indicated that the parade would start and end at the track, rather than end in Falls Village for a block party. However, it was decided to do the party after all, and as they always say for successful events, the place was packed. To accommodate all the cars, parking took place on both sides of the street and right down the middle.
Arrivals were treated to a live jazz combo and a complimentary drink. The real treat, though, was seeing everybody again in a social setting and catching up, talking about our cars, their cars, and mutual friends as we usually do. I haven’t seen so many grins in a long, long time.
Chris Towner’s 1938 Morgan F-type trike setting its pace in Group 1 (Prewar).
Photo by Bill Richardson
Friday was a mellow day, some morning chill, then partly sunny. Perfect for practice and qualifying. There were nine racing groups here today, including an all-Mazda Miata class linked to the Lime Rock Drivers Club and an all-air-cooled-Porsche group, fitting since architect Steven Harris, an air-cooled Porsche enthusiast, was the weekend’s Honored Collector.
British machinery was present in seven of the eight other groups, spanning the range from prewar racecars (look for Ivan Zaremba’s 1935 Railton Light Sport Tourer and Chris Towner’s 1938 Morgan F-type Trike here) to wild sports racers from the 1970s and ’80s (full of Lolas, Ralts and Chevrons). Most heavily subscribed with British iron (and perhaps not coincidentally most heavily subscribed overall) were Group 3, Tin Tops & IMSA RS Reunion Group 5, Mid-Century Sporting Cars & Formula Jr. Group 7, GT & Sports Cars under 2 Liter and even Group 8, Wild, Wild Horses & Big Bore Production (with five — five! — Jaguar E-types, plus Bill Warner in a Group 44-liveried Triumph TR8).
And Minis! There were a lot of Minis, and four is a lot compared to recent Lime Rock history. Perhaps the most charming racecar of the weekend ran in the Minis’ group, Tin Tops, and that was the 1958 Austin A35 of Nial McCabe. The roster showed the cute baby Austin was running a 1275cc engine. Hmm! A later conversation with McCabe revealed that it was sourced from an MG Midget.
Qualifying produced some interesting results, with British cars topping three of the seven groups in which they participated, and featuring in the top three in the rest. Simon Kirkby’s 1963 Hillman Imp made 3rd in Tin Tops, besting a Porsche 914, BMW 2002 and Volkswagen GTI and 16 others. Padding Dowling’s 1934 ERA came 2nd in the Prewar group, well ahead of such formidable competitors as a Ford Indy Special and two Stutz Specials. Brits took the top eight spots in GT & Sports Cars, with two Triumph Spitfires (Tom Brown’s in 4th and Kent Bain’s in 7th) finishing impressively among a Lotus 23, an Elva Mk7 and three Ginettas.
Donovan Motorsports has always been an active participant at Lime Rock, and this year they fielded three cars (all E-types) in the familiar silver and green. Jack Busch took #61 to 2nd place behind a Porsche 911 and ahead of a Corvette in the Wild, Wild Horses group. Jason Rabe, car #62, qualified 6th, while Courtney Crone in #63 qualified 16th — around the middle of the 28-car pack.
The initial races saw some squirrelly moments and an off or two, though the first serious yellow this writer saw came in the Wild, Wild Horses group with but one lap completed. The race was temporarily suspended, then resumed after the usual safety car parade.
The results would do Her Majesty proud. British cars were on top in five of the seven groups where they ran. In Group 2, Formula Ford, they took all five of the top five spots in the morning (four for Van Diemen, one for Northern Ireland-based Crossle), and four of the five in the afternoon (top three for Van Diemen, 4th for Crossle). Chris Fahan’s #10 RF81 won both races.
1958 Austin A35 from Group 3 (Tin Tops) in the Sunday Concours, with owner/driver Nial McCabe in back.
Photo by Bruce Vild
Group 4, Wings & Slicks, hosted familiar British marques such as March, Chevron and Lola. From the Antipodes came three Ralts (an Australian marque ultimately sold to March) that did very well, capturing 1st, 3rd and 4th in both races.
Lotus positively owned Group 5, Mid-Century Sporting Cars & Formula Junior, with Lotus 7s and a Lotus 18 F/J in the top three positions morning and afternoon. Michael Taradash’s #254 Lotus 7 won the morning race, with Paul Stinson’s #7 Lotus 7 coming 2nd. They switched positions in the afternoon, with Stinson the victor and Taradash the runner-up.
Group 7, GT & Sports Cars under 2 Liter, saw another Lotus triumph, with Graham Adelman and his #58 1962 Lotus 23 the victor in both the morning and afternoon, followed closely by Thomas Grudovich’s #94 Ginetta G4.
And last but not least, Donovan Jags #61 and #62 grabbed the top two positions in the morning race in Group 8, Wild, Wild Horses, but victor Jack Busch was bested by a Porsche in the afternoon.
There’s still no racing on Sunday by local ordinance, and Lime Rock links the Saturday and Monday races with a Concours d’Elegance and a non-judged car display, the Gathering of the Marques, open to car clubs and unaffiliated enthusiasts. This event, called Sunday in the Park, occupies most of the one-and-a-half miles of track and is full of Concours classes and (somewhat) reserved parking areas for specific marques (such as Lotus, Morgan, Fiat, etc.) or clubs.
Sunday in the Park this year was both encouraging and disappointing. The weather brought with it some unexpected showers that lingered all day, but car owners still showed their cars and the crowds were large enough to make the owners’ effort worthwhile. That was encouraging. The awards ceremony was abbreviated, however, with the announcement of special awards and a drive-by by each recipient, but not for class winners. That was disappointing.
But the cars themselves were wonderful. One of the Concours’ “highlight classes” featured alternative energy vehicles, attracting not Teslas but a Stanley and a White steamer and a Waverly Electric — all of 1909/10 vintage.
The most highly-subscribed of those highlight classes was Best of Britain, featuring “iconic English touring and sports cars,” with Allan Warner’s 1932 MG J2 and Wayne Carini’s ex-Dave Garroway 1938 Jaguar SS100 heading a line-up that included Big Healeys and Bugeyes, an XK150S, two E-types and a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud.
Kobus Reyneke was the constructor of the “Beast of Turin,” a scaled-down replica of a prewar racecar that was the last remnant of the Fiat contingent in the Gathering of the Marques after the Concours awards ceremony concluded. Word has it that this small-gas-engine machine competes against similar replicas of scaled-down racecars — the Goodwood Revival perhaps being one place to watch for these.
As usual, there was some attrition between the Saturday and Monday races.
Prewar Group 1 had but ten cars for the morning race, but Paddins Dowling prevailed in his #7 1934 ERA R2A, with the only other British car, Ivan Zaremba’s #6 1935 Railton Light Sport Tourer, coming 7th.
Group 2 belonged to three of the five Van Dieman cars running, Chris Fahan’s #10 1981 RF81 winning again in the morning, with Jim MacNicholl’s #17 RF81 the runner-up and Joseph Griffin’s #23 1975 completing the podium.
Racing Group 5, Mid-Century Sporting Cars & Formula Juniors, had the widest variety of cars competing and the largest number entered. The vast majority of them were British — street cars modified for racing, purpose-built specials or formulas.
Photo by John Morris
There was some disappointment for British car fans when Brian Cotter’s #15 1964 Mini Cooper S blew a head gasket and retired after the first lap of the Group 3 morning race, but he was back with the car in the afternoon and finished 11th out of 15. Trouper Nial McCabe was also there till the end, placing his A35 11th in the morning and 13th in the afternoon. Otherwise, Group 3 was dominated by non-British iron, and the other Minis finished toward the back (Amy Gorsline’s #3) or retired early (Richard Brown’s #49 and Mack McCormack’s #109).
Group 4 was down to 12 entrants in the morning, 11 in the afternoon. The main contest was between two Ralts and Tony Carpanzano in a Reynard 93H Formula Atlantic — who placed 2nd in the morning and won in the afternoon.
Brits again carried the day in Group 5, with Lotus 1st, 2nd and 4th in the afternoon race, and Thomas Grudovich’s #76 Lola Mk1 besting them in the morning. Cosme Fumex and his #50 Lotus 7 won in the afternoon, with Joshua Mitchell’s #800 and J. R. Mitchell’s #54, both Lotus 18FJs, in 2nd and 4th respectively. The Grudovich Lola was absent.
Grudovich won Group 7’s morning session, too, this time in his #94 Ginetta — which was also notably absent in the afternoon (he must have gone home early). Graham Adelman, who won both Saturday races but only placed 7th Monday morning, came back to win the afternoon session in the #58 Lotus 23.
Donovan Jags #61 and #62 placed and showed in the Group 8 morning race, behind the victorious #171 Porsche of Charlie Mayer. In the afternoon, however, the result was muddied by an incident involving at least three, and impacting four cars — two of them the Jaguars.
Donovan Jaguar #63, driven by Courtney Crone, and Mark Lydell’s #86 Datsun 260Z had contact on the third lap. Jim Glass’ #37 Camaro was also involved, coming to a stop at a right angle midway down Sam Posey Straight. Another Donovan Jag, Jack Busch’s #61, had collision damage as well.
The race was paused, then called after many of the teams decided to return their cars to the paddock for an early trip home. The Jaguars were placed 2nd (Busch), 4th (Rabe) and 5th (Crone — ironically, his best result of the weekend) and a Porsche d the victor.
The track was cleared of debris, and Group 9, the Mazda Miatas, were able to run their final race — but the curtain had closed on the British cars, and with it, Historic Festival 39.
Thanks to all who made it happen.
TF Sport’s #33 Aston Martin Vantage was one of four Astons at Le Mans this year.
Photo courtesy Aston Martin Racing
Aston, Gibson on Podium at Le Mans
by Rajan Jangda
LE MANS, France, Aug. 21-22 — The 24 Hours of Le Mans was very much in a transitional phase on multiple fronts this year.
Gone was the LMP1 class (sort of), and in its place the fledgling LM-Hypercar class, soon to be joined by the LMDh class that will eventually compete in both the FIA World Endurance Championship and IMSA.
(This development is already luring the big manufacturers into the top class, attracting Peugeot, Ferrari, Porsche, Audi, BMW and Cadillac, with rumours of further entries coming from Lamborghini, Bentley, McLaren, Nissan, Hyundai, Geely, Lexus and Jaguar.)
Meanwhile the GTE Pro class was left with only three manufacturer teams — (Ferrari, Porsche and Corvette — following Aston Martin’s decision to step away from Le Mans to focus on F1.
(The entirety of GTE is set to be replaced by a GT3 Pro-Am class by 2024, GTE Pro to be ended after 2022 and 2023 set to be an all-GTE Am affair.)
But perhaps the biggest change at Le Mans’ Circuit de la Sarthe this year were spectators, 55,000 strong, cheering their favorite teams on in person — instead of ‘virtually’.
Brits at La Sarthe
With Aston Martin ending its Hypercar effort and GTE program, this year’s GTE Am class could potentially have been the last hurrah for the familiar Vantage at la Sarthe, unless GTE Am cars hang around till 2023 before the GT3 program succeeds it in 2024.
In total there were four Astons in GTE Am: AMR’s #98 of Nicki Thiim, Paul Dalla Lana and Marcos Gomes, TF Sport’s #33 of Felipe Fraga, Ben Keating and Dylan Pereira and #95 of Ross Gunn, Oliver Hancock and John Hartstone, and D’station Racing’s #777 of Tomonobu Fujii, Satoshi Hoshino and Andrew Watson.
Adding to the British presence were the U.K.-built Gibson V8 engines that powered all the cars in the LMP2 class. Another Gibson V8, dialed back to meet class specifications, was in the #36 Alpine A480 in LM-Hypercar.
Heading into qualifying, there was talk of a potential upset pole from either the non-hybrid #36 Alpine or one of the LMP2 teams. The Alpine had split the LM-Hypercar favorites, Toyota Gazoo Racing’s TS050 hybrids, in regular qualifying, and the LMP2 cars (mostly Oreca 07s) were a lot closer to the Hypercar entries on lap time than expected.
However, like last year, pole was decided via a “hyperpole” session featuring the top qualifiers from each category, and Toyota immediately silenced any hopes of an upset by locking out the front row with its #7 and #8 cars. Toyota #7 would be co-driven by Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and José Maria López over the course of the 24 hours, and #8 by Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Brendon Hartley.
In 3rd was Alpine Elf Matmut’s #36 car, to be co-piloted by André Negrão, Nicolas Lapierre and Maxi Vaxivière, followed by two Hypercars from Glickenhaus Racing that managed to narrowly edge the LMP2 class.
The Gibson-powered Alpine A480, an LMP1 car modified to meet Balance of Performance standards and very much a contender in the LMHypercar class.
Photo courtesy www.motorsactu.com
The #38 Jota Oreca of Rodolfo González, António Félix da Costa and Anthony Davidson took the LMP2 class pole, while the GTE Pro pole was grabbed by only the non-works team in the class, the #72 HubAuto Racing Porsche 911 RSR-19 of Dries Vanthoor, Álvaro Parente and Maxime Martin.
In GTE Am, the #88 Dempsey-Proton Porsche of Julien Andlauer, Lance David Arnold and Dominique Bastien made pole, while the highest-placed Aston Martin Vantage was the #33 TF Sport car in 6th.
On race day and with an hour remaining to the start the heavens opened, giving us a period of heavy rain. As a result the start took place under a safety car, but not without two bizarre incidents on the grid. The #20 High Class Racing Oreca had somehow been left on its jacks and got stranded on the grid, while Corvette Racing’s #64 car was slow to get away on the formation lap and was rear-ended by the #51 AF Corse Ferrari. This happened directly in front of the High Class car, leaving some to believe it was the result of rubber-necking.
Thirteen minutes later we finally got our first round of green-flag racing, but the chaos continued. Heading into the Dunlop Chicane, Olivier Pla locked up both front brakes on his #708 Glickenhaus, skating uncontrollably into the back of Sebastien Buemi’s #8 Toyota and spinning him in the process. On the exit the #72 Porsche was spun around, as well as the #48 IDEC Sport Oreca.
Incidents continued at the first Mulsanne Chicane as the #92 Porsche pirouetted on the exit, while the #8 Toyota had to stop and restart its electrical system. The #48 Oreca beached itself in the gravel at the second Mulsanne Chicane while the #8 Toyota found more problems, this time overshooting Arnage Corner after tripping over an LMP2 car, the #74 Team India Ligier JS P217.
There were a multitude of other spins and collisions throughout the field that briefly left the #7 Toyota and the #36 Alpine with a huge margin at the front, up until the Alpine suffered a spin exiting Indianapolis and dropped back. Meanwhile, the #8 Toyota began a remarkable fight through the pack and found itself back in 2nd place after 70 minutes, and, despite a later collision with an LMP2 car, kept itself in 2nd.
The #7 Toyota continued to control the race from the front and went on to finally break its jinx at the circuit — remember when it ran out of fuel just before the finish line? — ultimately beating its sister car by two laps following more electrical problems for #8. The #36 Alpine would complete the podium, while the two Glickenhaus cars placed 4th and 5th after recovering from various incidents.
In LMP2, following the chaos at the start, the #38 Jota Oreca at the hands of da Costa found itself in 2nd overall for a while and leading its class. It would maintain its lead until co-driver Davidson stranded it in the gravel at the Dunlop Chicane, the result of having to avoid a spinning GTE Am Porsche. This handed the lead over to the #26 G-Drive Racing Aurus 01 of Franco Colapinto.
Later in the evening, Wayne Boyd took the class lead briefly in the #23 United Autosports Oreca before the two Team WRT Orecas, #31 and #41, took control of the race as many had predicted they would while their rivals tripped over themselves.
As rain struck the circuit again Colapinto’s Aurus collided heavily with Sophia Flörsch in the #1 Richard Mille Oreca. Meanwhile, Manuel Maldonado in the #32 United Autosports Oreca ran wide in the rain at Dunlop Curve, skipped all the way across the gravel, and T-boned the side of the #23 sister car.
The two Team WRT cars continued to fight amongst themselves, until, with but three minutes remaining, Ye Yifei in the leading #41 Oreca ground to a halt just past the Dunlop Bridge. A throttle sensor had broken, causing a total shutdown of the car’s ECU. This handed victory to the #31 sister car, which Robin Frijns, Charles Milesi and Ferdinand Habsburg had co-driven.
Taking 2nd in LMP2 was the #28 Jota car of Tom Blomqvist, Sean Galael and Stoffel Vandoorne, followed by the #65 Panis Racing Oreca of James Allen, Julien Canal and Will Stevens.
AMR’s #98 Aston was in the lead, took a turn too wide, spun in the gravel, and hit the barriers hard, ending its race.
Photo courtesy Aston Martin Racing
In GTE Pro, following the #72 Porsche’s spin, the #51 and #52 Ferraris of James Calado and Miguel Molina would briefly fight for the class lead before a brave strategic call from the Corvettes to switch to dry tyres saw the #64 Corvette of Tommy Milner take the lead. Before evening, however, the two Ferraris took it back, while the Porsches seemed to drop back a little.
The class was then a straight fight between Corvette and Ferrari into the night, with all four cars exchanging the lead on multiple occasions. Porsche managed to get themselves back into it, the #92 and #93 cars beginning to battle for podium positions after Sam Bird in the #52 Ferrari collided with a GTE Am car (also a Ferrari).
Ultimately, however, the #51 Ferrari of Calado, Alessandro Pier Guidi and Côme Ledogar managed to break clear and claim class honours, a lap ahead of the #63 Corvette of Nicky Catsburg, Antonio Garcia and Jordan Taylor. Third in class, achieving their podium result, was the #92 Porsche of Michael Christensen, Kévin Estre and Neel Jani.
And the Astons?
The GTE Am class was where all of Aston Martin’s hopes were confined, with the previously mentioned four cars. Just as in the Pro class, GTE Am was led by a Ferrari at the start, in this case the #47 Cetilar car of Antonio Fuoco. The #98 AMR and #33 TF Sport Astons would make their way up into the lead battle, both holding positions in the top three and leading at different points — up till the evening, where drama hit both cars.
Entering the right-hand curve at Indianapolis, Marcos Gomes in #98 ventured too far onto the Astroturf run-off and lost the rear end of the car while leading. The car spun into the gravel and made a heavy head-on impact with the barriers, putting the car out on the spot and causing a length safety car period. Later, after building a strong lead, Felipe Fraga in the #33 TF Sport car hit the tyre wall at the first Mulsanne Chicane — immediately after the Egidio Perfetti’s #56 Project 1 Porsche — in what appeared to be incidents caused by either fluid or debris on track.
Number 33 lost a chunk of time to splitter damage and a puncture but fought its way back to the front of the class, taking the lead from the #83 AF Corse Ferrari with only three hours remaining on the clock. With a clear pace advantage, it looked like the team was well on its way to victory when there was yet another late twist, this time in the form of an unscheduled pit stop.
The Aston was forced to pit with an engine misfire and had to surrender what looked like a certain victory.
The class would be won by the #83 AF Corse Ferrari, co-driven by Nicklas Nielsen, François Perodo and Alessio Rovera, while Fraga and his teammates Keating and Pereira would salvage 2nd in their Aston. In 3rd was the #80 Iron Lynx Ferrari of Matteo Cressoni, Callum Ilott and Rino Mastronadi.
The other TF Sport entry, the #90 Aston of Gunn, Hancock and Hartstone, finished 8th, being beaten by the 6th-place #777 of Fujii, Hoshino and Watson.
Aston Martin Racing’s #98 car retired following its Indianapolis shunt.
Although it remains to be seen if Aston Martin will still be around in GT racing for next year’s Le Mans 24 Hours, there is hope in the shape of the upcoming switch to GT3 cars — a move praised by Porsche. And, with the upcoming influx of new entries within the Hypercar and LMDh classes, there is a strong chance to see more British engines coming from the likes of Gibson, Zytek, Judd and Cosworth.
As they say, stay tuned.
[Rajan is based in London, England, specializes in FIA-WEC motorsports, and is a frequent contributor to this publication.]