Triumph & heartbreak for Super GT stars at Le Mans

The 2017 edition of the fabled “Grand Prix of Endurance”, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, will be remembered as one of the most eventful, memorable editions of the event – one that saw a determined victory from the #2 Porsche 919 Hybrid of Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley, and Earl Bamber, recovering from eighteen laps and one hour down to win the race.

Ten current and former drivers from the Autobacs Super GT Series took part in this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours, all of them experiencing a range of emotions; from the heartbreaking misfortunes at Toyota Gazoo Racing, to the improbable 2nd place overall result for former Super GT driver Oliver Jarvis and the Jackie Chan DC Racing team – which won the LMP2 class, and so nearly took the most unfathomable overall victory in modern Le Mans history.

A meltdown in a depleted LMP1 category saw the #38 JC/DC Oreca leave the racing world nearly thunderstruck when it took the overall lead of the race with three hours left to go.

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© JOTA Sport

With the nearest LMP1 car, the #2 Porsche, needing to get back three laps to salvage victory after their one-hour spell in the garage to repair a broken front-axle motor, for a moment in time, it looked possible that an LMP2 car could win Le Mans in the first year for the revised category – or at the very least, the race could be decided on the final lap.

Ultimately, the #2 Porsche assumed the lead with one hour to go, and drove on to take Porsche’s 19th overall victory at Le Mans, and their third in a row since 2015. Bernhard and Bamber took their second Le Mans victories, Hartley his first.

But that took nothing away from the performance put on by Jarvis, Thomas Laurent, and Ho-Pin Tung aboard the #38 Oreca, which took a commanding victory in its class, three laps the better of the second #37 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca (David Cheng/Tristan Gommendy/Alex Brundle).

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© JOTA Sport

“I was in the car when I saw the #1 Porsche at the side of the road and started to think we could end up winning this thing,” Jarvis said after the race. “It wasn’t quite to be but what a day for us winning in LMP2 and second overall – but there is that little bit of me that thinks how special it would have been to win it outright!”

In the end, Jarvis also added that he felt that chasing an overall victory in the end would have ultimately backfired. ““The fact that it was four or five minutes it was easier to take,” he said. “If it was going to be down to the last lap like predicted, that would have seriously hurt. Take nothing away from that though Jackie Chan DC Racing – what a day for them – first and third in LMP2 and an overall podium. They would have taken that at the start.”

Jarvis scores his best-ever overall finish at Le Mans after finishing 3rd overall with Audi three times (2012, 2013, 2016) – and ironically does it in the year that the Burwell native, who formerly drove for Lexus Team TOM’s (2007) and Lexus Team SARD (2014) in the GT500 class, stepped down to LMP2 after Audi folded their LMP1 squadron. In total, Jarvis did 122 laps out of a possible 366 that the #38 crew completed.

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© JOTA Sport

The LMP2 class victory and 2nd place overall makes Jackie Chan DC Racing, the team founded by Chinese-American driver David Cheng and supported by legendary actor and martial artist Jackie Chan, the first Chinese team to ever grace the overall podium at Le Mans – a landmark achievement for a team founded just a few short years ago, now supported by LMP2 stalwarts JOTA Sport and carrying the team’s signature number 38.

19-year-old French phenom Thomas Laurent became the youngest driver to ever score an overall podium since the late Ricardo Rodríguez in 1960, and Ho-Pin Tung became the first Chinese driver to ever stand on the overall podium at Le Mans.

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© Toyota

For Toyota Gazoo Racing, there was very little to celebrate as the race that could have marked the end of their 32-year quest to win Le Mans, only served as another painful chapter in their struggle towards the ultimate goal. By 1:30 in the morning on Sunday, two of the three Toyota TS050s had retired, and one had lost two hours in the pits due to repairs.

The sole surviving Toyota was driven to a ninth-place overall finish by Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi, and Lexus Team au TOM’s driver Kazuki Nakajima – but it was little consolation to the team, even after rallying back from two hours and several laps down – suffering a similar mechanical issue to the #2 Porsche that won the race.

Le Mans 24 Hours Race
© Toyota

“It was a tough race for the whole team as it always seems to be here,” said Nakajima. “I have no words really; we just need to try again next year. We had the car and the speed but we missed something else. So many things happened to us despite all the hard work and preparation; it was not enough I guess. Next year we have to try even harder, prepare better and fight harder.” Nakajima drove 113 of the car’s 358 laps.

The #7 Toyota TS050 of Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway, and Stéphane Sarrazin had the pace to win the race by a crushing margin – but their race would end at 1:15 AM with a simple clutch failure, Kobayashi bringing the car to a painful halt in the dark of night.

“”It is very disappointing because I thought it was going to be our day because we were quick and we felt we were controlling the race,” said Kobayashi, who set the outright lap record at Le Mans in qualifying. “Again we found out how hard it is to win Le Mans. Big thanks to the team who put so much effort into this race. It is not only about speed, because we had that but in the end we missed the win. We just have to come back and go for the win again next year.” Kobayashi will drive for Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh in this year’s Suzuka 1000km in August.

Just seven minutes later, a collision with an LMP2 car would knock the #9 Toyota of reigning Super Formula champion Yuji Kunimoto, with Nicolas Lapierre and José Maria López, out of the race as well.

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© Toyota

“My first Le Mans was a tough and frustrating race,” said Kunimoto. “I was really enjoying the experience and we looked quite strong until the problem. When I saw the car had stopped I was so disappointed because the whole crew worked so hard to be ready for this.” Kunimoto only got to run a single 41-lap shift in his Le Mans debut for Toyota.

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© Porsche

The LMP1 heartache didn’t end with Toyota of course – three hours from the chequered flag, the #1 Porsche 919 Hybrid of two-time GT500 champion André Lotterer lost oil pressure and broke down from a commanding 13-lap overall lead for he and co-drivers Nick Tandy and Neel Jani. It denied Lotterer a chance at a fourth Le Mans crown – and plunged the race further into chaos.

“We were driving really conservatively but suddenly the oil pressure dropped,” said Lotterer. “To retire this way is hard, but this is Le Mans.”

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© Porsche

Porsche’s new mid-engined 911 RSR enjoyed a productive debut at Le Mans, and former Suzuka 1000km winner Frédéric Makowiecki helped co-pilot the #91 Porsche 911 RSR to a fourth-place finish in an ultra-competitive GTE Pro class, won by the #97 Aston Martin Racing Vantage (Darren Turner/Jonathan Adam/Daniel Serra) on the final lap of the race!

Makowiecki, who joined co-drivers Patrick Pilet and Richard Lietz, was on pace for a podium finish, before being forced to pit for a puncture in the final lap of the race – and given how the last lap unfolded, it may have cost them a dramatic victory to boot.

“It was a good race. The whole team worked brilliantly,” Makowiecki said after the race. “We tried literally everything to reach the podium. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite enough. Still, the Le Mans 24-hour race was once again an unforgettable experience.”

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© G-Drive Racing

Ryo Hirakawa, the top prospect of the Toyota Young Driver Programme (TDP) and current ace driver for Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s, endured another tough-luck Le Mans 24h in the LMP2 class, finishing 40th overall and 18th in class after losing an hour in repairs due to a gearbox failure on the #22 G-Drive Racing by DragonSpeed Oreca 07.

Hirakawa did finish the race, something he didn’t do last year through no fault of his own, along with Mexican co-drivers Memo Rojas and José Gutiérrez. He drove 114 of the car’s 327 laps.

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© Team Signature

Former Toyota Team SARD driver, and two-time & defending Le Mans overall champion Romain Dumas, had a gritty race of his own aboard the #36 Signatech Matmut Alpine A470, co-driven by Gustavo Menezes and Matt Rao.

Recovering after gearbox issues of their own, they scored an 11th place overall finish, 8th in their class.

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© Andrew Hall / DailySportsCar.com

There were mixed fortunes for Clearwater Racing’s two Ferrari 488 GTEs in the GTE-Am category, which was won by another Ferrari 488 GTE – that of the JMW Motorsport team and drivers Rob Smith, Will Stevens, and Dries Vanthoor.

The #61 Clearwater Ferrari, driven by two-time former Suzuka 1000km GT300 class winner Keita Sawa, alongside team founder Weng Sun Mok and Matt Griffin, recovered from a disastrous puncture to finish fifth in the class, and 32nd overall.

The #60 Ferrari, however, was less fortunate after multiple single-car incidents set the team back. Longtime GT300 veteran Hiroki Katoh, together with co-drivers Richard Wee and Álvaro Parente, would finish 11th in class, 41st overall. Katoh drove a productive 128 laps out of 327 completed.

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