Le Mans 2017: Porsche aiming for a hat-trick in the LMP1 class
The pressure of racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans is immense. It's the sort of pressure that affects the drivers, and the crew of teams up and down the grid. It's an exhausting affair that includes the test day, three very stressful qualifying sessions, and a 24 hour long racing extravaganza where the slightest miscalculation could signal the end of all efforts. To win Le Mans once, is an achievement. To win it again, is even more special. And to win it multiple times is something that proves a team really is at the top of their game. Porsche, with 18 victories at the Circuit de la Sarthe, is the winningest manufacturer in the sport, with their last two wins having come after they made a return to Le Mans in 2014. So, following the victories in 2015 and 2016, Porsche is gunning for a third win in a row. Thus spoke the Fritz Enzinger, the vice president of Porsche's LMP1 project at the press conference held ahead of the race. "We want the hat-trick," Enzinger said emphatically.
Of course, everybody at the sharp end of the grid who competes at a race like the 24 Hours of Le Mans, especially a manufacturer with Porsche's heritage in the sport, wants to win. And it's with this in their mind that the team is soldiering on. This, despite the fact that the car on pole at the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year, is the No.7 Toyota. It was Kamui Kobayashi who took the Toyota TSO50 to pole, setting a lap record of 3min 14.791 seconds, that puts him and team-mates Stephane Sarrazin and Mike Conway at the head of the order. Kobayashi's lap-record shattering run was faster than the previous record by 2 seconds. This, however, still isn't worrying Neel Jani, whose record was broken, too much.
"To be honest, I'd have been a little pissed if it was by two-tenths or three-tenths," he said of losing the lap record at the Circuit de la Sarthe. "But when it's by two seconds, what are you going to do. You can only tip your hat off to them and say that they did a mega lap. If it was two-tenths or three-tenths, you can say that maybe they were lucky with this, this and this. But in this case you can only congratulate Kamui and Toyota for being at the right place at the right time, and for having a good car."
That being said, Jani, who was part of the winning contingent at Le Mans last year, did say that he believed that the Porsche team could have been faster during qualifying. "We could have gone faster and beaten our lap record, the old one from two years ago, but we couldn't have done a 3:14," he said. "We could have done a 3:15," Jani continued. The fact that Toyota had demonstrated at Silverstone, and then subsequently at the test day that they had the sort of pace that they did, was something that helped the Porsche team prepare for the sort of commanding qualifying lap that they'd seen from Kobayashi.
The Porsche LMP1 and GTE drivers, with Fritz Enzinger and Dr Frank-Steffen Walliser at the Porsche press conference ahead of the 24 Hours of Le Mans
Jani, however believes that this isn't something that can be replicated consistently over the course of a race. "We think for qualifying they are able to do something new. But during the race, even if it does not equalise, it is a lot closer," he said.
There's another factor that might help - the heat. For the first time in 12 years the sun is out in full force at the Circuit de la Sarthe, with the 2017 edition of Le Mans being the hottest since 2005. "I think this year the heat can be our friend," Jani stated. Normally, he said that the Porsches don't do very well in the heat, however, since the Toyotas are also struggling in the heat, and then doing well as it gets colder, there is the chance that it might be advantage Porsche during the day. The fact that reliability also plays a big role, and that every team has struggled with reliability issues, means that there could be something, over the course of the 24 hours, that swings things in the favour of Porsche, Jani said. Of course, provided being stuck behind a backmarker didn't cause worries for the LMP1 cars. "The LMP2 cars are so fast now, and if you get stuck behind one of them, with the gentleman driver in the car, it could slow you down a lot and cause something of an accordion effect," said Jani.
Meanwhile, of all the Porsche drivers currently racing in the LMP1 category, Brendon Hartley is the only driver who hasn't won at Le Mans. All his team-mates have, although Timo Bernhard's victory came with Audi back in 2010. Since Bernhard has been a part of the Porsche project from the very beginning, surely he feels like it's time that he won Le Mans with them! He laughs when we ask him this question. "Sure, I have the same feeling," he said. "But Le Mans is such a special race, and so many things can happen, that to win it once is something. Things like Tom Kristensen's record is impossible, it will never happen again. But to win again with Porsche will be very special." But Bernhard is taking a calmer approach to the race. It involves being prepared, he said. "I try and prepare as best as possible, and I stop having these thoughts (of another victory). With age you become wiser," he laughs. What he is waiting for, instead, is for the clock to strike 14:50. "That's when I get into the car, the light goes green, and the talking stops," he smiles. Then it's just the racing. Pure racing over the course of 24 long hours. Oh, yes. Porsche certainly is gunning for that hat-trick!