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24 Hours of Le Mans 2015

13th - 14th June 2015

Event report

After an announcement of Nissan's involvement in WEC and Le Mans last year, the 2015 Le Mans race looked to be set to be great, one of greatest editions in recent years. With Toyota losing victory last year only because of incident, which it was hit by a spinning Ferrari in a rain, with Porsche very quick but still with just one modern WEC win, and with Audi's recent Le Mans records, everything seemed we would have a tight battle between four manufacturers, something not seen in Le Mans for ages (since 1999).

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However, when Nissan revealed their unusual concept, it became clear to many that first year competitiveness that showed Peugeot, Toyota and last year Porsche, will hardly repeat for Nissan again. And Nissan withdrawal from the early season race only supported those that feared that this concept would hardly work well. Thus we were back down to three real challengers for the victory.

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Races in Silverstone and Spa, which preceded Le Mans 24 Hours, revealed another two facts. The cars are now much faster than ever before (including Group C era), and that Toyota, despite making visible progress compared to the last year, clearly lagging performance compared to Porsche and Audi. Thus it is very, very unlikely that Toyota will try to repeat last year Le Mans attack, which was originally hoped by Japanese to be concluded in 2015, successfully - with a victory.

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Realistically Le Mans 2015 is set to be a battle between Porsches, and hopefully Audis, provided Audi better tactics, proven many times, not only in recent WEC, but also during their Audi-Peugeot are, when they won more races and title despite usually slower cars compared to Peugeots.

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Qualifying

Qualifying sessions proved all these presumptions almost perfectly. Within first flying lap on Wednesday the Porsche no.17 set time 3:17 and immediately broke the old record set by Peugeot in 2008 (during our first and so far the last visit to Le Mans with RSC). Porsche no.18 then improved the time to 3:16 within the next few minutes. It looked as if the best ever Le Mans time 3:13, set in 1971 by Porsche 917 on a much quicker track, could be attacked. Unfortunately, this was all. The top positions, i.e. the first grid row places were never attacked during the next 6 hours of qualifying.

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Only Porsche no.19, which ended the first session in 3:19, improved to 3:18, while Audi no.8 stayed fourth with 3:19 for the rest of the practice. Audis no.7 and no.9 took the provisional third row in 3:21 - both improved to 3:20 and swapped their positions on Thursday.

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Toyotas took only fourth row since the beginning of the qualifying sessions and stayed there until the end. Whether they really concentrated only on the race setup, knowing they do not have the pace for first two rows, or they are really that slow, it will be known soon. The race starts today at 15:00. While last year Toyotas set 3:21 and 3:22, this year they set 3:23 in the first session and never improved since.

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Generally the qualifying was not that thrilling as expected. Almost all top time were set and decided very early in the session and then there was really no drama among LMP1s. Only Rebellions no.13 and Lotus (officially CLM) improved. Rebellions will starts from 5th row, followed by the CLM and two Nissans. Nissans improved continuously for the entire qualifying, originally behind some of the LMP2 cars and ending at 12th, 13th and 15th grid positions. They were split by the best LMP2 car, KCMG Oreca 05 coupé, which set 3:38.

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It is slower than LMP2 used to be by end the last decade. However according to the ACO Press Conference, the new LMP2 class, planned since 2017, should be notably quicker. The bad news is that ACO confirmed only four manufacturers would be allowed to build the cars for ACO championship. When this idea was applied in sports car racing for the first time, seven allowed chassis builders for Daytona Prototypes in Grand-Am, the clear result was that most of the cars were not built in expected numbers; most appeared to be a little slower and in the end Riley completely dominated the class. While now we have diversity, numbers, new teams in LMP2 as never before, this step seems to be far from a clever decision. So far several current or potential LMP2 builder announced they will not try to bid to be selected. A very sad development of the class, which is now limited even more than the new LMP3 class, which brought some really nice looking prototypes to the regional ACO series in Europe, Asia and potentially also in IMSA.

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Among other ACO announcements, we can confirm that also GTE class will be made quicker, to run at clearly different than a common GT3 car. To add more spice to all that Ford announced official return as a factory team with a Ford GTE next year. Back to qualifying and GTE: Aston Martins took 4 places among the TOP6. They took both class Pro and Am, 1st and 3rd overall. AF Corse Pro Ferraris were 2nd and 5th in GTE class combined.

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Bad news is that the factory Corvette no.63 crashed heavily in Porsche curves and was withdrawn from the event. The driver Jan Magnussen was OK and it was not his fault. It was a mechanical issue.

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Warm Up

Warm up proved one notable thing. The top teams probably really concentrated on the race setup rather than fighting for best qualifying times. Audi were now simply fastest and the car no.9 was the only car breaking 3:20, actually beating their own qualifying time by 1.5 seconds. Toyota no.1 also improved their qualifying time by half a second. Porsches were 4th, 5th and 7th, while Nissans almost ignored the session. Just of them set 3:45 and it was all from them.

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Gibsons (former Zyteks) were first two among LMP2 in the warm up, while Aston Martin and Ferrari were first two among GTE. Best GTE among amateur entries were Porsche no.88. Bad news of the warm up was another accident involving a Corvette - this time it was the private amateur Larbre entry. Fortunately, it was not as heavy as the factory car before and should be repaired in time for the race.

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Support Races

This year the Le Mans legend race was destined for sports car from 1950s until mid-1960s. Ford GT40 dominated the field with a lone Alpine A220 providing some challenge to them. The race was then marred by the Safety Car. Same applied for the second support race, Aston Martin Challenge. Stuart Hall raced a Lola Aston Martin LMP1 from 2009, set the pole position by a margin almost 25 seconds. Before the formation lap he turned to the pits, and re-entered the race while the leaders had almost one lap completed. What could have been an interesting catch up drive, turned into a Safety Car period and later a red flag disappointment. All that after one of the GT Aston Martins spun and crashed heavily into the wall. Actually most of the field was formed by GT2, GT3 and mainly GT4 cars.

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Grid

The released grid caused some doubts and confused opinions. All Nissans and the CLM were penalized for not achieving a time within a 110% range of the fastest Porsche, and were moved further back of the grid, behind the LMP2 cars. Not only their effort in the final qualifying session was neutralised, but we could also question all those statements and about safety, about their honesty. What safe on a fact that faster cars would start among slower cars despite setting faster times and despite being notably quicker on the straights.

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The Race

This year the race started at 15 o'clock, under sunny, very good weather conditions, and with quickest cars ever running in the Le Mans race. All was set to break overall covered distance record, set in 1971 and broken recently in 2010 - only with organisers did not call Safety Cars as often as never. The first hour it was a nice fight between Porsches and Audis. Porsches were slightly prevailing Audis, leading all the time. However, generally all six factory cars were very close to each other. Two Toyotas slowly faded, while the two Rebellions filled the gap between factories and LMP2s.

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It was all nice until the end of the first hour when factory Manthey Porsche GTE got fire, and caused collision of another two cars, Rebellion no.13 being one of them, Ligier no.30 the other. Then a long SC period followed. This was at least good that it brought all factory cars back together, including Toyotas and race could start again.

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Within the range of 3-hour mark we had another Safety Car period. This time one SC headed Porsche no.17, while another headed all other top cars. This really influenced the race very much and we can only regret that local yellow, of Code 60 rules are not applied in Le Mans, as they are applied in other WEC races. The reason for this second SC was an accident of Audi no.8, which collided with a Ferrari during overtaking - actually Audi tried to avoid the Ferrari. Videos actually show some inconsistency in signalisation yellow and green in that place. And some GTE cars run slower, cars from behind faster and when the Audi approached, together four GTE cars one next to other, running slowly, almost blocked the course and the Audi driver did not have too many chances to go through or to slow down as much as needed.

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Since then Porsche no.17 was usually at the lead, thanks to SC strategy in the Hour 3. Later asynchronous pit stop strategies allowed Audis no.9 and no.7 to feature at the top at times. A few hours of Audi catching Porsche was interrupted by another SC period... After SC was released no.17 went to the front again soon, however 30 minutes before midnight it received by 1 minute stop/go penalty for overtaking under yellow. This may a bit compensate the advantage it gain during the SC2 period but still we think that the race would deserve more fair control and less manipulation with Safety Cars, and stop & goes.

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By the way, the fastest lap set by Albuquerque in Audi no.9 is 3:17.647 - actually better than Audi qualifying time, and more notably, the new absolute lap record set in the race, beating even all cars on a quick track from 1971, which were until today holders of fastest laps - better than any Group C, and better then Peugeots in 2008 and in 2010, at their top years.

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Behind Audi and Porsches, in LMP1 two more notable things happened during the first third of the race: Toyota no.1 had some smaller crash, actually damaging right front bodywork. Repairs cost them several laps, so it then ran behind better Rebellion no.12 for a few hours. On the other side, Rebellion no.13, delayed by the first hour collision already improved through the LMP2 field and gained back its 10th positions, it was used to since the start of the race.

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Remaining LMP1 cars faded as the race progressed. CLM, which started almost last, was able to overtake all LMP2 cars and circulated well behind Rebellions for some time, before hit by long delays in the pits. Nissans were never able to overtake all LMP2 cars (after starting from rear of the prototype grid), two of them managed to get in to TOP15 but then dropped down significantly, while mostly running. One of them even did not start and re-joined the race later.

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LMP2 class is thus far dominated by the two starting Oreca 05 coupes, KCMG usually in front of Thiriet by TDS Racing. GTE is a battle between the surviving factory Corvette and Aston Martin no.99. After 8 hours we had only two official retirements, though it seems that Gibson no.41 is gone as well.

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Race after 16 Hours

The battle between Porsche and Audi continues. As the night progressed, Porsche no.17 was losing while still holding 4th position overnight. At was one lap behind since hour 15. Audis 7 and 9 swapped on the second and third position, while Porsche no.19 continuously improved their lead margin and lost the lead only briefly because of the pit stops, different strategy and timing. Later the Audi no.7 got rear damage and had to be pushed into the garage for repair. This cost them 7 minutes, nearly 2 laps and it allowed Porsche number 17 to move to third, while the Audi no.7 still held 4th.

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Slightly delayed Audi no.8 and Porsche no.18 were running 5th and 6th respectively. Just ahead of both Toyotas. Unfortunately both Rebellions hit problems and spent too much time in the garage, so number 13 fell down to 18th, while no.12 was hit much heavier and settled among the GTE Am class cars and some delayed LMP2s. Two Nissans and the CLM were still showing some signs of running activity here and there - however they were all hopelessly last.

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In LMP2 the dominance of the new Orecas 05 coupes continued, KCMG no.47 first, Thiriet by TDS no.46 second, until the latter car was hit by one of Aston Martins in the first chicane. They tried and in the end managed to get the damaged car to the garage. But then it was declared as irreparable.

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In GTE class the originally dominating Aston Martins disappeared and Corvette with a Ferrari no.51 were now at the top, changing positions, at times closer than 10 second between them. Aston Martin at least still held GTE Am lead after two thirds of the race.

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The last 8 hours

Fourth Safety Car period was prepared for the 17th hour of the race. It followed an accident of one of the Amateur Aston Martin. It was really crashed heavily and the car was retired. Leading no.19 used the period for short garage maintenance. By that time it was leading by one lap. Porsche no.17 and Audi no.9 were now closed together for second and changed their positions according to the pit stops.

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During the last third of the race Porsche no.19 lead mostly by one lap ahead of Porsche no.17. Audi no.9 lost another lap but then short garage pit stops hit all Audis. As a result of this, the third place and podium finish felt in hands of Audi no.7, which finished 2 laps down. Audi no.8, despite also short pit stop for repairs, finished 4th 3 laps down. Audi no.9, which looked to be the only Audi's chance for the victory before it hit troubles in the last quarter of the race, spent most time in the garage and was thus actually beaten by better of the Toyotas and finished 7th.

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LMP2 was lead all the way by the Oreca 05 of KCMG, however its victory was not quite as easy. Its two off-course trip almost marred the team performance. The first once looks badly, it took a long time till the car get back to a running state, and it lost its all lap advantage. But they had a good luck despite these setbacks and received really deserved victory.

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Behind them, after unfortunate retirement of the other Oreca 05, it was mainly a fight between G-Force Ligiers and Jota Sport Gibson (former Zytek). In the end, the Jota team was successful. The LMP2 was the largest one and many of the cars finished rather delayed behind the GTE field. Of the unique cars, Dome did run well but retired in the last quarter of the race. Both BR01 from Russia finished. One of two Morgans finished (19th overall), notable is also a result of Ibanez Racing running yellow Oreca 03R (spider), which was really not the best LMP2 concerning the outright lap speed, however consistency and good performance of the team brought them 16th place overall, ahead of all GTE cars.

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The GTE class was won by the only factory starting Chevrolet Corvette C7.R, after a great performance during entire race. IN the final staged it was overtaken by the AF Ferrari no.51, which was set to win the class - however last hour long stop for repairs devoted them to only 3rd place in GTE Pro and 6th GTE overall. Second place in the Pro classification went to their team-mates Ferrari no.71.

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The amateur GTE Am class victory went to Russian team SMP Racing with their Ferrari no.72. They were second highest GTE finishing entry. The next GTE Am places belonged to Porsche (Dempsey/Proton) and two Ferraris (Scuderia Corse and AF Corse). All that after Aston Martins slowly vanished and retired from the race, despite rather dominating in both classes, early in the race.

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All in all, a good race, not as thrilling as the first two WEC rounds. It was a big shame that the new rules about zones 60 and Safety Cars were not used more cleverly, as they were suppose and hope to be used. Without that, the race distance covered race record would have been certainly broken. The winners (Nico Hülkenberg/Earl Bamber/Nick Tandy) covered 395 laps, which is the second highest number in Le Mans history. In 2010, the winner had covered 397 laps and the average speed was 225.228 kph. In 1971 it was also 397 laps, however the track was shorter and the speed was just 222.305 kph. We have yet to wait about the official AVG speed but we believe it was actually second fastest race in history.

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