Why Le Mans victory is so sweet
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Like a lot of motorsport followers, I spent a great deal of last weekend riveted to the TV watching the 24 Heures du Mans as a main course with the Australian Supercars event from Hidden Valley, Darwin, liberally sprinkled on as a side dish.
Now we have seen the 2017 versions of the world’s three major motorsport races, I have no doubt the Le Mans 24 hour event can claim the title of the most challenging to win, most difficult in which to compete, most unpredictable, demanding, toughest, gripping, heart-breaking and, in winning driver Brendon Hartley’s words “brutal” race on the racing calendar.
And that applies for the best and most professional of drivers, through to the most “gentlemanly” amateur participants, young and not so young.
The engineers and mechanics also have to endure the privations and pressures unique to this event with its strict rules, procedures and traditions set by the autocratic French, Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO).
At what other event would you have to load up the cars to travel three hours into the town of Le Mans for the public and free spectacle of scrutineering in the Place de la Republique, or take part in the traditional photo-call of all 180 drivers and 60 cars?
The event is the greatest test of man and machine. In short, it is, ultimately, the world’s greatest motor race.
Apologies to the Indy 500 and Monaco F1GP, but you cannot compete with the drama and diversity of perhaps the most technically advanced racing cars, racing on purpose-built and public road sections over its 13.6km at average speeds up to 250km/h for 5200km.
In Formula 1, drivers complain about slow drivers not leaping out of the way when the cars have a minimal speed differential from faster to slower.
At the fastest parts of the infamous Mulsanne Straight of the Circuit de la Sarthe, the top LMP1 cars are reaching speeds of 330km/h while navigating the traffic and slicing through the LMGTE cars trundling along at anything up to 100km/h slower.
All this at night, on the unlit D338, normally a public road, sometimes in the rain, possibly with fog. And, like driving on any motorway, less-experienced drivers in the enormous field are occasionally unaware of fast approaching cars while embroiled in their own on-track battles.
The fabulous (in engineering terms) closed cockpit LMP1-H cars (Le Mans Prototype 1-Hybrid) are so technically advanced and expensive they can be developed and entered only by the most dedicated of manufacturers and sadly they number just two at this time — Porsche and Toyota.
If one of those decides the job is now done and withdraws from the event, then almost certainly so will the other.
With the regulations for this class more open than the others, they have different approaches with the Porsche 919 having a 2.0 litre V4 engine and the Toyota TS050 a 2.4 litre V6.
Both, however, have hybrid systems producing some 600-800 megajoules of power through cutting-edge energy recovery from both brakes and engine which, when combined with the petrol engine, amounts to more than 670 kW available.
The similar-looking but slightly slower LMP2 class is more controlled and regulated with all the cars having a 4.2 litre V8 engine.
Then comes the LMGTE Pro and Am cars, essentially production-based two-door road-legal cars for both professional drivers and amateurs.
More than any other, the 24 Heures du Mans, the world’s oldest endurance race, is a race of survival, and this year’s event was a prime example.
In front of hundreds of thousands of spectators, with fairgrounds, campgrounds and a city of off-track activities going on throughout the long night, on the hottest day of the European summer so far, two Kiwis and one German kept the faith and total concentration in their own personal and mental overdrive long enough to survive this most testing of weekends of their year.
With their internationally staffed crew of Porsche mechanics and engineers they overcame all the event could throw at them and won the biggest prize in their careers.
No less effort was put in by the Toyota team but uncharacteristic mechanical failures and accident damage robbed it yet again of a famous victory.
There are other 24 hour races around the world, but Le Mans is unique in so many ways. Along with the incredibly advanced cars and systems comes the history and the ghosts, the famous names of the past, the tragedies and triumphs and stories of human endeavour and failure.
It is a standalone race like no other and one in which Kiwis now have a proud tradition.
Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon won in 1966 co-driving a Ford.
This year Earl Bamber won the event for the second time co-driving with 2015 World Champion Brendon Hartley and past winner Timo Bernhard.
Two boys from New Zealand and one from Germany.
The Indy 500 may claim to be “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and I think it is, but the 24 Heures du Mans is surely “The Greatest Race”.