New Zealand's Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber, with Porsche co-driver Timo Bernhard, have claimed a come-from-behind victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans — just the third overall victory for a New Zealander at the world's most challenging race.
The win comes after a race-long fightback for the trio of drivers. An axle issue dropped them more than an hour behind the leaders (down to 56th out of 57 cars) early in the race. But in a resilient showing, they pressed on — accumulating positions in the LMP1 class as all of Toyota's challengers struck trouble one by one.
They then shot back into overall contention after their teammates in the No. 1 Porsche 919 Hybrid had troubles of their own while holding a comfortable race lead and seemingly cruising to the finish line. They then had to charge down a series of giant-killing LMP2 machines, took the lead with just over an hour left to go, and never looked back.
Ironically, the win also comes on the 51st anniversary of Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon's famous 1966 win for Ford, where they too wore the No. 2 on the side of their car.
With the No. 1 Porsche failing, the lead went to Jackie Chan DC Racing's LMP2 Oreca, with 19-year-old rookie Thomas Laurent taking over the race lead. They would have to make a higher volume of pit stops than the lead Porsche in the final phase; subsequently sending gains No. 2 Porsche pilot Timo Bernhard's way. One particularly long stop for the minor team dropped them more than a minute to second place.
With 2 hours and 10 minutes to go he hopped back onto the lead lap. Bernard's next issue were the potential for slow-zone cautions, the first of which happened on the cusp of the two-hour mark for the spun LMP2 machine of Matthew McMurray. These periods restricted the amount of time each lap that the LMP1 pilot could gain on the leader.
For the leaders, Ho-Pin Tung took over the reigns with an hour and a half to go, and by now his gap to Bernhard was just 1min 30sec. That gap was down to a minute 10 minutes later, and by an hour and 13 minutes, it was less than 20 seconds.
The crucial pass for the lead everyone knew was coming came with an hour and seven minutes to go in the race; a clean pass while the pair of cars fired down the Mulsanne straight. Five minutes later Ho-Pin Tung pitted out of second to extend the race lead even further, as Bernhard set in for likely the longest hour of his Le Mans career.
There were thoughts that Bernhard was likely to retain the controls of the sole-remaining LMP1 Porsche, and those thoughts were seemingly confirmed when the team made what was their pennultimate scheduled pit stop with 55 minutes to go.
The leader's final stop happened with 24-minutes to go, with everything occuring faultlessly. By now the gap to second was a lengthy one, closing in on three minutes. And as the giant clock ticked down below 10 minutes, then five minutes, and then down to zero minutes, nobody could catch the No. 2 Porsche or prevent Hartley, Bamber, or Bernhard from claiming a famous win by a lap over the second-placed car of near-giant killers Ho-Pin Tung, Oliver Jarvis, and teenager Thomas Laurent (who themselves claimed victory in LMP2).
It's the second win for Bamber and third for Bernhard (including a class win), while it's also the very first win for Hartley after having come close on multiple occasions with Porsche.
The closing battle commanding the most attention was that for the win in GTE-Pro. It came down to a fist fight between Chevrolet's Jordan Taylor in the No. 63 Corvette and Aston Martin's Jonathan Adam in their No. 97 entry. The whole final stint saw them following each other nose-to-tail, and with five minutes to go the Adam unsuccessfully fired inside Taylor at Arnage; taking the lead for a few seconds before losing it again on corner exit.
Dramatically, the Corvette ran through a chicane and sand trap on the penultimate lap, further complicating the result for the team. The margins tightened as the Corvette struggled to get his momentum back, and he lost the spot at the final corner as they began the final lap. And with Taylor now racing with a puncture and struggling, Adam was able to scamper off with the win.
Results (overall top 10)
1. Brendon Hartley/Earl Bamber/Timo Bernhard (LMP1)