Toyota won again but, elsewhere, there was excitement and drama aplenty as the WEC Super Season came to an end

The 87th edition of the legendary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans brought tears of joys in the eyes of a few and tears of despair in the eyes of many. It was a race jampacked with thrilling battles in the GT ranks as well as some truly dramatic moments in the prototype classes, and we even got a topsy-turvy finish at the sharp end of the field. This may not be one for the history books, but there are plenty of stories emerging from France after last week’s 24-hour race that ended the FIA WEC 2018-2019 Super Season.

The FIA WEC is for the world what the IMSA Weathertech Championship is for North-America, namely the premier sports car racing series. lsoBorn from the ashes of the ill-fated Intercontinental Le Mans Cup that only survived two meager years, the WEC (which stands for World Endurance Championship) wishes to continue the decades-old tradition of the original World Sports Car Championship (turned World Manufacturer’s Championship at one point) that debuted in the mid-’50s but perished in 1992 due to the rising costs of the F1-derived Group C prototypes.

The current World Endurance Championship has also been through some dark days and, in more ways than one, these dark days are bound to continue. Scroll back just three years ago, and you’ll find a healthy and exciting LMP1-Hybrid class with three works programs ducking it all out on the track. Then Audi left. Then Porsche left. And the FIA and the ACO (the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, organizer of the 24 Hours of Le Mans) found themselves without two the headliners of the show. Board meetings followed board meetings and discussions with interested parties, and it was agreed that privateers could compete in the top class, LMP1, with non-hybrid cars and they’d be roughly on par with the lone works team, Toyota Gazoo Racing.

However, the Japanese giant, who’d tried to win Le Mans since the ’80s, was in a position of power and pushed rule makers to dance to its own music and the end result was the lackluster 2018-2019 Super Season we just saw come to an end last weekend.

The 2018-2019 Super Season stands as the longest FIA-sanctioned racing season ever

Endurance racing is, oftentimes, about records: who has traveled the farthest? Who completed said distance at the highest average speed? Who spent the least amount of time stationery on pitlane? All of these things matter in long-distance endurance racing and, as such, if you missed the first part of the 2018-2019 Super Season, you may wonder what’s up with that nomenclature because it doesn’t sound "super" at all. Well, as I said, the WEC’s undoing was its reliance on giant manufacturers. At one point, there were no less than four, but now we’re down to one. The main reason behind their departure was the cost of running a pair of high-tech hybridized LMP1 prototypes in a globe-trotting summertime championship.

Seeing that the grim reaper is looming in the shadows, the organizers decided to alter the format of the series completely in a bid to save costs. As such, the FIA WEC would no longer be a summertime championship like most other FIA-sanctioned series (the Formula 1 World Championship, the World Rally Championship, the FIA World TCR Cup, and so on and so forth) and, instead, switch to a wintertime schedule. A summertime schedule begins in Spring and ends in Autumn with a small summer break in between.

5 Interesting Stories From the 2019 24 Hours of Le Mans
- image 845865

A wintertime calendar, however, begins in Autumn and ends in Spring the following year - like in Formula E. But to make this switch, the WEC organizers needed a season that would bridge the gap, a season that would start in Spring and extend all the way to the summer of the following year so that the first full-blown wintertime season could kick-off that Autumn. The 2018-2019 Super Season was the FIA’s solution, an eight-round championship that began at the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps in May of 2018 and ended last week, at Le Mans. It will go down in history as the only season to feature two 24 Hours of Le Mans races as well as two Spa 6-hour races. It also featured races in Shanghai, China, Fuji, Japan, and Sebring.

For those that read our report covering last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, you’ll know that Toyota dominated that event as it had the opening round of the season at Spa and the dominance was bound to go on due to a multitude of reasons. Indeed, this is exactly what happened and, in the remaining six rounds of the championship, privateers were only able to win once, and it wasn’t even on the track that they did so. The double recorded by privateer Swiss team Rebellion Racing at the 6 Hours of Silverstone came after both Toyotas were disqualified in a freak turn of events as both TS050’s failed the post-race tech inspection.

5 Interesting Stories From the 2019 24 Hours of Le Mans
- image 845864

All of the other races, including the 1,000-kilometer race at Sebring Raceway, were won by Toyota who basically ran away with all of the titles in LMP1 while Porsche did much of the same in the top GT category, the factory-supported GTE-Pro class that saw (for the last time) Porsche, BMW, Ford, Aston Martin, and Ferrari duke it all out for class honors. If you’d like to know more about the way the stage was set for the FIA Super Season to play out the way it did, you can read through the preview published back in May of 2018 that discussed Toyota’s technical superiority and its hard-written superiority agreed with the series’ bosses.

Having said all this and having established a base for our discussion, here are eight interesting stories that emerged from the 2019 running of the Le Mans 24-hour race.

Fernando Alonso Becomes World Endurance Champion

Spanish stalwart Fernando Alonso, who walked away from Formula 1 at the end of 2018 after four battling seasons aboard the ailing McLaren team, found a temporary home in sports car racing. His first outing in a prototype was during the 2018 Daytona 24 Hours when he raced an LMP2-spec Ligier for United Autosports, an Anglo-American team co-owned by McLaren boss Zak Brown. He’d previously tested for Toyota, and he ultimately joined the team for the 2018-2019 Super Season.

It all kicked-off at Spa, as mentioned, where the No. 8 Toyota shared by Alonso, Sebastien Buemi, and Kazuki Nakajima (all ex-Formula 1 drivers) won ahead of the sister No. 7 car that encountered problems. The No. 8 then won the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Alonso putting in some game-changing stints during the night. The No. 7 crew of Jose-Maria Lopez, Mike Conway, and Kamui Kobayashi fired back with victories at Fuji and Shanghai, the fourth and fifth rounds of the season.

However, Alonso & Co. all but sealed the deal before Toyota even landed at Le Mans for last weekend’s race conquered both races held this year prior to Le Mans to push their tally of victories to three. With the No. 7 having a tough race at Spa last time out and finishing outside of the podium, the No. 8 didn’t even need to win at Le Mans to clinch the world championship, but that’s exactly what they did.

The win, though, came as a tough blow for Conway, Lopez, and Kobayashi since the No. 7 Toyota dominated all throughout the weekend while the No. 8 car never seemed to have the pace as engineers and drivers struggled to find the optimal setup. Alonso himself said after the race on Sunday afternoon that he and his team-mates did not deserve to finish ahead of the faster No. 7 car which was pegged back during the last hour of the event with tire sensor problems that saw the car come into the pits twice and drive around the track slowly with a misidentified puncture. Ultimately, Toyota still scored a 1-2 finish and brought home all the titles available.

After last weekend’s success, Alonso can boast with quite an impressive resume. He’s now only the second ever driver to have become world champion in two different FIA-sanctioned series, the first being Norway’s Petter Solberg who first won the World Rally Championship in 2003 for Subaru and then went on to win the FIA World Rallycross Championship twice, in 2014 and 2015. Alonso, meanwhile, is a two-time Formula 1 World Driver’s Champion (with Renault, in 2005 and 2006) and how now added the World Endurance Championship crown to the mix.

Alonso is also the only driver ever to have won the F1 World Driver’s Championship more than once and the 24 Hours of Le Mans more than once. American Phill Hill, who became F1 World Driver’s Champion in 1961 driving for Ferrari, is the only other F1 champion to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans race more than once but he never won a second World Driver’s title in F1. All other F1 World Driver’s Champions that have also won at Le Mans (I’m only talking about overall wins) have only done so once in their careers. Even Graham Hill, the only holder of the ’Triple Crown,’ only won at Le Mans once, in 1972.

5 Interesting Stories From the 2019 24 Hours of Le Mans
- image 845867

Fernando is sure to also target the ’Triple Crown’ as his two appearances at the Indianapolis 500 have shown that he wants to win the race, but he’s yet to accomplish this goal. The Spaniard was doing good in 2017 before the Honda engine let go but, this year, he had to bow out early after not qualifying for the race at all. Still, he will probably get to try again next year since he’s ticked all the other boxes with two Monaco Grand Prix victories to his name scored in 2006 and 2007. On top of all that, Alonso has also won this year’s 24 Hours of Daytona race outright aboard the Wayne Taylor Racing-entered Cadillac DPi-V.R.

Qualifying showed why you must hide your pace at Le Mans

Three years ago, in 2016, Ford was accused of sandbagging during the second round of the World Endurance Championship at Spa-Francorchamps and during the official Le Mans Test Day in a bid to get a satisfactory BoP (Balance of Performance) come race week. You see, that year, Ford debuted its Ford GT GTE-spec race car, and it did so on the 50th anniversary of its first overall victory at Le Mans which is why the Blue Oval wanted to repeat the feat (albeit in the GTE-Pro category) to celebrate appropriately. The gimmick worked, and Ford finished first, third, and fourth in class with nobody barring for the second-placed Ferrari 488 GTE of Risi Competizione being able to stay with the Ford armada.

Since then, many have believed that you shouldn’t show your true colors so that you don’t get pegged back through the BoP. Essentially, the idea is simple: if you show that your pace is dismal, you can hope that the organizers will help you and lower the car’s minimum weight or allow it to run with more boost in the turbos which would make you even faster if you didn’t show your true pace anyway before race day. That’s why many teams don’t even bother to qualify particularly good as the ACO can still change the BoP on the Friday before the race if it notices that a particular manufacturer dominated qualifying.

The idea behind BoP - that all cars are equalized so that we, the fans, get to watch a thrilling race because everyone’s more or less on the same level of performance - is a good one and, frankly, it’s what keeps GT racing alive nowadays. With a variety of engine types, engine capacities, and engine positions (front-mid-engined or rear-mid-engined), it would’ve been impossible to get close racing if there wasn’t a way to slow the quicker cars and make the slower cars faster. But, knowing this, some teams have tried to play the game to their advantage.

Aston Martin, however, wasn’t one of those teams and it paid the price. The British manufacturer, that has been racing at Le Mans year in and year out since 2005, showed up this year after a poor debut outing for its new-generation Vantage GTE race car last year. With many of the gremlins out of the way, the two Vantages set out to beat all the other five manufacturers present, and that’s precisely what happened.

The No. 95 Vantage driven by Marco Sorensen ran a 3:48.000 in the third qualifying session that was enough to put it ahead of the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing U.K. entry which lapped the track in 3:48.112 in Harry Tincknell’s hands during that same session. This fairytale turned into a nightmare on Friday when the organizers announced that the Vantage was hit with a number of BoP changes meant to slow it down - although it was less than two tenths faster than the second-placed Ford that wasn’t slowed down at all. What happened was that the Vantage was forced to race with less turbo pressure across the rev range and a fuel tank that could take two liters (0.52 gallons) less fuel.

The result of it all? While Nicki Thiim managed to keep the Vantage at the sharp end of the field during the first dozen or so laps, the car’s lack of speed saw it tumble down the order. It was a genuinely poor decision on the organizers’ part and, in some way, a move that showed that both the ACO and the FIA do not really care about its long-standing partners in a sport that’s all about creating long-term partnerships just like the one between Aston Martin and the WEC.

5 Interesting Stories From the 2019 24 Hours of Le Mans
- image 845863

To add insult to injury, during the Le Mans weekend, Aston Martin also announced its plans to compete in the Prototype Hypercar class that will replace the LMP1 class in 2021. Will Aston follow through on its promises after being dealt such a tough blow this year? We’ll have to wait and see, but it’s beyond doubt that the ACO needs to find a way to more transparently change the BoP and also explain such changes.

Last year, when Porsche took pole by a large margin, the ACO did not change Porsche’s BoP in a particularly harsh way like it did this time around with Aston Martin. For context, Gianmaria Bruni put a 3:47.504 on the board while the second-quickest car, also a Porsche, couldn’t go below 3:49.097 and best of the rest was the No. 66 Ford with a 3:49.181, some 1.6 seconds in arrears. Then again, that was the year when Porsche celebrated the 70th anniversary of the 911, and conspiracy theorists will tell you that Porsche had to win. We’re not about conspiracy theories here although you can’t help but notice such obvious inconsistencies in this area.

The 2019 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans was all about anniversaries

Aston Martin Marks 60 Years Since Only Le Mans Win with Special DBS 59 Edition
- image 836725

Talking about Porsche’s anniversary last year had us realize that this year was filled to the brim with anniversaries too as many manufacturers enjoyed great days in the sun at Le Mans in years ending with a ’9’. Aston Martin was on the list too as it’s only outright Le Mans win came in 1959, exactly 60 years ago. But the British manufacturer wasn’t the only one adding celebratory stickers to its cars.

BMW was another of the automakers present (and racing) that celebrated past success at the Le Mans circuit. The Bavarian brand scored its sole overall win 20 years ago with the glorious V-12 LMR prototype. Touted as his biggest professional success by the late, great Charly Lamm, former head of BMW Team Schnitzer, the victory almost got away from BMW that year when J.J. Lehto’s car crashed out after the throttle stuck open.

5 Interesting Stories From the 2019 24 Hours of Le Mans
- image 845866

At that time, on Sunday morning, the No. 17 car driven by Lehto was about two laps ahead of the sister car that went on to win when Ukyo Katayama’s Toyota (shared with Keiichi Tsuchiya and Toshio Suzuki) suffered a disastrous tire blowout with less than an hour left to go. The incident allowed the No. 15 BMW (driven by Pierluigi Martini, Yannick Dalmas, and Joachim Winkelhock) to hold on to the lead and win by one lap.

Sadly, BMW couldn’t celebrate in a fitting manner. The two M8 GTEs entered by Team MTEK in the GTE-Pro class struggled all race long with suspension issues and a thorough lack of pace. The M8 debuted last year as BMW returned to world-class endurance racing eight years since last racing at Le Mans with the M3 (E92) GTE.

Sadly, the return of the Bimmers proved to be really short-lived as BMW Motorsport Boss Jens Marquardt announced late last year that BMW would not continue with its commitment in the FIA WEC due to it focusing on customer racing and Formula E. Alas, if you want to see an M8 GTE in the flesh you can, the Rahal-Letterman Lanigan Racing team is still campaigning a pair of these racing land yachts in the IMSA Weathertech SportsCar Championship this season, and they’re poised to do so next year as well with the North-American program still receiving some funds from Germany.

5 Interesting Stories From the 2019 24 Hours of Le Mans
- image 845869

Ferrari, too, celebrated in 2019. That’s because it’s been seven decades since a Prancing Horse first won the 24 Hours of Le Mans overall. All the way back in 1949, Luigi Chinetti drove Lord Selsdon’s Ferrari 166 MM (MM stands for Mille Miglia as this model was primarily designed to compete in the classic endurance road race which it also won that year) for over 23 hours to capture a one-lap victory over a Delage. Only two Ferraris were entered in that year’s race, one by Lord Selsdon (who only drove about 45 minutes in total) and the other by Chinetti himself.

The victory made Chinetti realize that Ferraris are genuine performance cars and, with his links in the United States, he managed to bring the marque across the Atlantic. It’s often said that without Chinetti’s efforts to import, sell, and race Prancing Horses in North-America, Ferrari would’ve succumbed in debt before long as Enzo himself was never really interested in selling road cars, he just wanted to race.

The stark contrast between BMW’s and Ferrari’s celebration is that, while BMW’s last (for now) Le Mans outing was lackluster at best, a Ferrari won the GTE-Pro class. A Maranello-built car last won in the premier Grand Touring category five years ago. Now, helped by some sterling pit work and some safety car periods that arrived at the right moment, the No. 51 AF Corse-entered 488 GTE Evo shared by Daniel Serra, Alessandro Pier Guidi, and James Calado moved clear of the pack and claimed victory ahead of Porsche. The American Risi Competizione team that fielded the third 488 GTE Evo in the GTE-Pro class was less successful as Giuseppe’s car was tough on its rubber (all GTE-Pro cars had to make use of no more than 15 sets of tires throughout the 24-hour race) and finished towards the bottom of the top 10.

5 Interesting Stories From the 2019 24 Hours of Le Mans
- image 845871

While Porsche finished second, it left with the Manufacturer’s World Championship and the Driver’s World Championship for the No. 92 crew of Michael Christensen France Kevin Estre. The two had a torrid Le Mans outing after the exhaust failed, but they still manage to come home within the top 10 and became world champions. If they would’ve finished 11th, their team-mates in the No. 91 Porsche would’ve become World Champions. The No. 92 car was the one that finished second on the road, but they needed the win to take the title no matter what the No. 91 did.

Porsche too celebrated an anniversary of its own, albeit quietly. That’s because the 1979 winner, while being a Porsche, was not a factory effort. 40 years ago, a Kremer Racing-entered Porsche 935 K3 won the race overall ahead of the works Porsche 936 prototypes that faced numerous setbacks. That K3, currently owned by Bruce Meyer, was driven by Bill Whittington, Don Whittington, and Klaus Ludwig and was famously ’seized’ in 2014 by the DEA.

The American manufacturers present in the GTE-Pro class, namely Ford and Chevy, had their own reasons to look back at the past. Ford, on the one hand, celebrated its swansong in the WEC by bringing back some legendary liveries worn by Le Mans-winning Fords of the past, while Chevy reached an important landmark: its 20th consecutive participation in the 24 Hours of Le Mans that makes Corvette Racing a record-breaking works-backed program. Sadly, both the Fords and the Corvettes didn’t deliver on their promises.

5 Interesting Stories From the 2019 24 Hours of Le Mans
- image 845887

The Blue Oval brought four cars 50 years on from its last overall win (by a John Wyer-prepped GT40 driven by Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver) and, while they ran in formation for most of the race, they never had the pace to challenge for the win. The drivers often complained that they were left for dead on the straights and, indeed, the highest-placed Ford finished fourth.

On top of all that, the No. 68 car that finished fourth was later disqualified when the stewards found that its tank could hold almost 2.0 liters (0.52 gallons) of extra fuel over the 87 liters (22.9 gallons) that were allowed as per the regulations. To add insult to injury, the GTE-Am-winning Ford GT entered by Keating Motorsports and prepared by Riley Motorsport was also disqualified for the very same reason, although in Keating’s case the margin was of just 0.1 liters.

Corvette Racing’s weekend, the last at Circuit de la Sarthe with the front-engined C7.R, got off to a good start. The No. 63 car was third quickest in qualifying, and then Antonio Garcia, Jan Magnussen, and Mike Rockenfeller led extensively in the first half of the race. The other Corvette, shared by Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner, and Marcel Fassler, never got to bloom as it crashed out of the race after only six hours when Fassler tried to pass a slow-moving GTE-Am Porsche on the inside in the Porsche Curves just as that Porsche started moving towards the inside line.

5 Interesting Stories From the 2019 24 Hours of Le Mans
- image 845874

The Porsche hit the Corvette and sent it spinning into the wall ending its race on the spot. Later on in the race, the No. 63 lost some three minutes on the pitlane during a safety car period, and its chances of victory were forever dashed when Magnussen spun the car in the Porsche Curves just after that safety car period had come to an end. Still, Corvette will be back next year with the C8.R to celebrate two decades since it first showed up at Le Mans in 2000.

An all-female crew graced the grid of the 2019 24 Hours of Le Mans

The championship-winning Kessel Racing team from Switzerland entered a pair of Ferraris in the GTE-Am class this year. Both featured a rather striking livery, but the big story in the squad’s garage was the presence of the all-female lineup aboard the No. 83 car. An initiative of the Iron Dames project, the collaboration with Kessel Racing sees the three female racers also compete in all of the rounds of the European Le Mans Series. The collaboration received support from the FIA Women In Motorsport commission and successfully competed in the race.

The three ladies that made up the driver roaster were Manuel Gostner from Italy, Rahel Frey from Switzerland, and Michelle Gatting from Denmark. All three are familiar with endurance racing and GT racing in general although only Frey had previously competed at Le Mans in the 24-hour race. The 33-year-old Swiss driver was part of the last all-female crew to compete in the race all the way back in 2010 when Matech Competition entered a GT-class Ford GT for Frey, Natacha Gachnang, and Cyndie Allemann. The trio retired after completing just 59 laps. This year, though, Frey and her team-mates finished the race and within the top 10 in the GTE-Am category.

We want to encourage other young girls, to show them that the sport is not only for men but also women," said Michelle Gatting before the big race, quoted by Evening Standard. "For me, it’s very important to show we’re serious. Some people expect us just to be there, but we are actually there to win races and show that a female line-up is possible," added Gatting who finished second in the Pro-Am class in the 2018 Gulf 12 Hours race alongside Frey and Gostner. The latter has competed in the past few years in the GT4 ranks finishing third in the 2017 GT4 European Series Northern Cup in the Am Cup.

The Iron Dames project is the brainchild of Deborah Mayer, a French racing driver herself who set out to try and open more doors in the racing world for women to come forth and race at the highest level. Mayer managed to get Kessel Racing onboard as she’s driven for the team in the past in the Ferrari Challenge series.

“As a girl, you simply have to prove yourself over and over again. But we get used to it and then no challenge can be big enough," said Frey who is usually seen driving Audis and has competed a number of times in the grueling Nurburgring 24 Hours race as well. “How can more women be encouraged to enter motorsport? We have to inspire them and their parents. Only with the support of their parents and their surroundings are the girls able to start in motorsport,” the Swiss racer added.

And, indeed, their results have been inspiring thus far in 2019. The team kicked things off at Paul Ricard, in France, where the trio finished second in the hotly contested GTE class, one lap behind the class-winning Luzich Racing Ferrari. Then, one month later, in May, the second round of the ELMS season took place on the legendary Monza circuit near Milan. Things didn’t go as well as in the first race, but the girls still finished fifth in class and two spots of their male team-mates in the No. 60 Kessel Racing Ferrari. They currently sit fourth in the GTE standings with four races still to go. The third round of the season will see the Iron Dames race around the Barcelona-Catalunya track, the home of the Spanish Grand Prix, in July.

Many outlets have written about this all-female lineup that has contested Le Mans, and quite a few felt compelled to underline the historic character of the whole thing. While seeing an all-female lineup contest the 24 Hours of Le Mans race is not a usual occurrence; it’s nothing new in and of itself.

The first female duo to compete at Le Mans did so all the way back in 1930 when Marguerite Mareuse and Odette Siko drove a Bugatti T40 entered by Mareuse. They finished seventh overall and second in class on their first attempt. Siko went on to finish fourth overall and first in the 2.0-liter class two years later, and she remains, to this day, the highest-placed female in the 24 Hours of Le Mans’ history.

In all, 24 all-women crews have competed in the race over the years, the high point being registered in 1975 when no less than three all-female lineups started the race. One of these lineups, the Societe Esso-entered one with Christine Dacremont, Michele Mouton, and Marianne Hoepfner at the wheel, won the Sports 2.0-liter category in the Moynet LM75. One year earlier, Christine Beckers, Marie Laurent, and Yvette Fontaine won in the same Sports 2.0-liter class driving a Lola. Throughout the ’70s, a multitude of female drivers competed at Le Mans, many of whom were French. This ’revolution’ of sorts started in 1970 when Marie-Claude Beaumont, famed for driving Corvettes many times alongside Henri Greder, fought with the ACO to get women back in the race as they’d been banned from even taking part by a rule enforced in 1956 following the fatal crash of Annie Bousquet in the 12 Hours of Reims.

5 Interesting Stories From the 2019 24 Hours of Le Mans
- image 845878

The last all-female team to finish on the podium at Le Mans pulled it off back in 1976, more than 40 years ago, so it’s easy to see why initiative such as Iron Dames receive media coverage and backing. However, we’ll have to wait at least another 12 months before we see another 100% female lineup try and conquer Le Mans and there is hope since we had a record-breaking grid of 61 cars starting the race this year and the grid count will go up to 65 in a few years which can only mean one thing - more room for girls to race!

Further reading

2017 24 Hours of Le Mans - Race Report High Resolution
- image 720937

2017 Le Mans 24 Hours Report

2018 24 Hours of Le Mans - Race Report
- image 783977

2018 Le Mans 24 Hours Report

2016 24 Hours Of Le Mans - Race Report
- image 680232

2016 Le Mans 24 Hours Report

The First Trailer for Le Mans '66 aka The Ford vs. Ferrari Movie is Out
- image 842868

Ford Vs. Ferrari to Hit Cinemas This Year

Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus Wants to Win Le Mans With SCG 007 LMP1 Exterior
- image 788571

Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus Wants to Win Le Mans With SCG 007 LMP1

What do you think?
Show Comments
Car Finder: