LE MANS, France—58 years is a very long time for anything, but this weekend’s centenary race at the 24 Hours of Lemans was just as historical as for the first time since 1965, Ferrari, in only their first year of racing in the World Endurance Championship, scored victory Sunday at the Circuit de La Sarthe with drivers Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado and Antonio Giovinazzi upsetting the favored Toyota defending champions by finishing 1 minute 27 seconds ahead of their Japanese rivals.
Taking third overall and in the same hypercar class were Chip Ganassi’s American Cadillac team, with Earl Bamber, a former Lemans winner, driving alongside Britons Alex Lynn and Richard Westbrook.
Toyota got of to a great start as Sebastian Buemi, who partnered with Brendon Hartley and Rio Hirakawa in the defending titleholders’ number 8, quickly took the lead in the race, passing the leading Ferrari within the first minutes of the race. However, the first and only rainy period of the race occurred in the second hour, as a few areas and later, the whole circuit, was affected by a deluge which made many cars spin off the track, far away from reaching the pits for wet tyres. The many accidents and debris that was littered all over the track began a few hours of running many slow zones around the circuit.
Suddenly, all these delays found Peugeot, with their 94 entry of Loic Duval, Gustavo Menezes and Nico Muller leading their teams home race. The lead dragged into the early part of the evening and later, the morning, when the round of pit stops put the defending Toyota back into the lead, with the 95 Ferrari holding on to second and the Peugeot still in contention with third.
But Menezes lost his chances for a podium when the American crashed his car just before Mulsanne and ruined his opportunities, tearing his front end and shattering debris all over the circuit. But Menezes dragged his wounded Peugeot back to the pits, but now made the race for the rest of the day a two- way fight between only Toyota and Ferrari. This were made only worse for Toyota as the number seven car, with Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez exited the race when Conway crashed into a bunch of cars at the slow zones.
With only a couple of hours to go, Hirakawa took the last drive, with Pier Guidi doing the same for the prancing horse. But Ferrari’s chances were almost lost when the Italian could not restart his car after pitting and had to wait for nearly a couple of minutes before he could restart his car, giving Hirakawa a chance to close in. However, Hirakawa lost his opportunity for good when he spun by locking up his brakes at Arnage, damaging his front end and having to pit, giving Pier Guidi to increase his lead and finally an hour to go in the race, continuing on, winning the race, making history to finally break Toyota’s winning streak of five Lemans in a row.
The LMP 2 class, in its final race at this classic circuit, also had an upset, with the Inter Europol entry, who had dominated most of the race, being challenged with minutes to go, by the Belgian WRT team, which had Swiss driver Louis Deletraz taking on his countryman Fabio Scherer, only to lose out by nine seconds, having the latter along with his teammates Albert Costa and Jacob Smeichowski, became the first Polish team ever to take victory at this French classic. Third went to Duqueine’s trio of Neal Jani, Rene Binder and Nicholas Pino, who just held off a second WRT car, who dropped back to fifth after being passed by the Alpine Elf entry late in the race. For Duqueine, it is the best performance for them in LMP 2 at this circuit.
Corvette Racing was the big favourite in the GTE AM class, but it did not seem that way at the beginning, when the car of Ben Keating, Nicky Catsburg and Nicholas Verona developed a suspension failure early in the race. But the American team fought back during the evening and only a few hours to go, it found itself in the lead, going on to becoming the first GTE AM car in Lemans history to win the race from pole. Second went to the Middle East based ORT by TF Sport entry, led by Ahmed Al-Harthy, Michael Dinan and Charlie Eastwood, who battled with the Iron Dames driver Rahal Frey, before passing the Porsche car with hours left in the race. Third went the GR Racing Porsche of Mike Wainwright, Riccardo Pera and Ben Barker, who also passed the Iron Dames squad, who finally ended the race in fourth.
Hendrick Motorsports, who ran their Chevrolet Camaro ZR 1 NASCAR entry with Jimmie Johnson, Mike Rockenfeller and former F1 champion Jenson Button, finished with a faultless display of driving in 39thplace overall.
The WEC entries will resume the racing again on July 9that the Monza Autodromo in Italy, who should have nearly a sellout of fans following an historic victory at this classic race.
By Mark Gero