I am as excited as a school boy on his first date! If you are a follower of motorsport you will understand why. New Zealand motorsport has a chance to repeat history this year. What an opportunity!
This year is different because Kiwi drivers are in with a big chance. Not since the heyday of the 1960’s – when Bruce McLaren, Chris Amon and Denny Hulme strode the world, winning motor races all over – have we had this chance. Now commercialism and needing lots of money steal away the chances of most aspiring Kiwi drivers reaching the top. To reach the top something special had to happen, and by golly something really special has happened.
We are here for the 24 Heures du Mans; indeed the 83rd edition of this most famous of motor races. Held every year since 1923 (apart from the war years of the 1940’s) on the Circuit de la Sarthe, comprising mainly public roads, but closed for the racing. Just south of the city we are just a part of the 350,000 crowd here to witness the unique challenge of racing for 24 hours’ duration. Nothing comes close to this challenge of man and machine being stressed to the limits of endurance and speed.
In 1966 McLaren and Amon won this event driving 360 laps of the circuit and 4,843 kilometers in a Ford GT40 to win and be the only New Zealanders ever to do so.
Over the decades, famous marques like Bentley, Alfa Romeo, Mercedes, Jaguar, Ferrari, Porsche and Audi have all competed at Le Mans for the prestige that winning this endurance event brings. Fortunes have been spent and so to have four Kiwi drivers racing there, with two of them having a real chance of outright victory … it’s just too good to miss!
Brendan Hartley and Earl Bamber have done hard yards. Relying on family, friends and personal sacrifice they have become Porsche factory drivers and will race in the premier LMP1 class for Porsche, who are here to win – outright! LMP1’s – with hybrid technology that captures heat energy from the engine and brakes, turning it into electric power saved in a powerful battery that drives an electric motor together with the turbocharged engine – are premier class … these cars look sinister and fast.
‘Beautiful’ is the other word to describe their ‘dark invader’ appearance. With nearly 1,000 horsepower the fastest cars will be reaching 345kph down Mulsanne straight, 275kph through the Porsche curves, according to Earl when discussing the ‘feel’ with us. That’s fast!
Porsche are spending €200 million on this venture, such is the prestige and financial reward on winning this event. And there is no doubt this technology is the forerunner of what we will be buying from the showroom very soon.
Mitch Evans and Richie Stanaway will also represent New Zealand, but race in different classes of car than Hartley and Bamber.
Qualifying has resulted in a Porsche 1, 2, 3 for the race start. Our boys are looking good so far, but this is a race over 24 hours, not just a sprint for an hour or so like a grand prix. Twenty four hours is a hell of a long time for man and machine to be at the limit, and the organisation to get three of the most sophisticated cars to the end is simply massive.
We got to the track by 12.30pm, two and a half hours before race start. The track was already crowded, but thousands upon thousands kept pouring into the circuit jamming every vantage point for the 3pm race start; expectations of a titanic struggle between the three giants – Porsche, Audi, Toyota – was expected.
For a full 40 minutes the national anthems of every driver participating was played. We leapt to our feet for ‘God Defend New Zealand’, to the notice of a few who surrounded us. ‘Kiwis eh?’, the chap next to us said with a very British accent. Yeah, right on mate, we’re here for a repeat of history, and it was agreed this was possible.
Le Mans is special. It’s like four races in one because there are four categories of cars all racing at the same time, all competing within their individual classes. The parade lap behind the safety car over, the fastest cars (LMP1), the ones called hybrids where our two boys were competing, surged from the line in such an awesome display of speed, it was breathtaking. After only one lap the four separate divisions became very clear, with the next category (LMP2) already being 25 seconds behind the hybrids.
From the get-go this was clearly going to be a dogfight between Audi and Porsche for the next 24 hours, as already last years’ championship winning Toyota’s were suffering under the lap record pace of the two marques in front.
Red 17 Porsche (Hartley’s, driven by his teammate) was setting the pace, while in the initial exchange the white 19 Porsche of Bamber’s teammate drifted slightly behind in 6th place. After one and a half hours Audi hit the front for the first time of many lead swaps. This fierce dicing was to continue all race long.
You might think that it’s not possible to race at the limit for 24 hours. Not so, the reason being there are three drivers per car, all driving stints of three to four hours at a time. The teams can measure a driver’s pace sector by sector, lap by lap, hour after hour so every driver is driving his best, every corner. What makes their efforts so remarkable is the speed differential between the fastest hybrid cars and the slowest GTE category cars. Just why there aren’t more massive shunts is remarkable as the hybrids swoop upon these slower cars so quickly. Every driver is on full alert, especially at night. It’s part of the drama of Le Mans. Minimising pit stops for refuelling and tyres means this is a truly team event. And breakages result in the mechanics too coming under extreme pressure. Night time racing adds to the intensity and drama.
Getting to the ‘witching hour’ stints before the dawn, Webber in Porsche 17 copped a 1min 20sec penalty for a pit lane infringement, putting Audi back in front. But, two Kiwi lads from Whanganui and Palmerston North held the fortunes of the mighty German factory Porsche team in their hands. How ironic is that?! And they did it well.
Bamber in 19 Porsche delivered an outstanding 3+ hour stint through to the dawn and was now in the lead. Hartley in 17 Porsche was chasing, trying to recover lost ground.
We returned to the circuit at 6.30am having had a few hours sleep ourselves to find our boys’ cars were not only in with chance … but were the ones to beat! Could they hang on?
Bamber was a lap up now, anything could go wrong under this pressure. Hartley’s Red 17 was the factory favorite to win, but to Porsche’s credit they didn’t invoke team orders. The ‘junior’ third entry car was too far ahead and if they tried to switch the lead around it could all end in tears if Audi slipped by while the Porsche boys played with the outcome.
And so it was. After 24 hours of gruelling racing and 395 laps, 24-year-old Earl Bamber became a rookie winner of Le Mans. 25-yearold Brendan Hartley sent out for the last stint to try to reel in the leader had to settle for second place. Atop the podium amidst the laurels, the trophies and, of course, the champagne were two New Zealanders.
Mitch Evans was also up there having come in second in the LMP2 class and for a while it looked possible that Ritchie Stanaway in GTEPro might get up there too, but not this year.
We waved the silver fern high and long! We managed to get into the enclosure (illegal of course, but that’s another story) to congratulate our heroes. Earl looked drawn, such had been the intensity of his effort. Brendan tired and somewhat wistful that it wasn’t him on the top step, I suspect, but what an outcome. Le Mans 2015, New Zealanders made history on the track again punching way above our weight. Was I proud to be a New Zealander that day? You bet!
The party at the car park later was a biggie. Dawn came around all too soon and we had other plans to fulfill, all efficiently made by the expert staff at House of Travel in Havelock North. Why didn’t they give us a bigger break….Jenny?! Thankfully a day of sobriety has put us back on track. Yes Dave, we will make your flights to Majorca after all, so thanks for your care and planning. Cheers!