Ross Gunn (left) shakes Ian James’ hand at the podium as co-driver Alex Riberas looks on.
Photo by Bruce Vild
Happy Birthday, Mr. James
Double Win for Heart of Racing’s Astons at Lime Rock
by Bruce Vild
LAKEVILLE, Conn., July 21-22 — Most people remember their 50th birthday, and it’s highly unlikely Ian James will forget his any time soon.
That’s because James’ special day came on a weekend when his race team, Heart of Racing, delivered the pole in GTD Pro, and went on to win GTD Pro, GTD, and overall at IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship (IWSC) race at Lime Rock Park.
It was quite the present, but something of a nailbiter right until the very end.
Weather or not
IMSA came to “the Bull Ring” the third weekend in July with thunderstorms in the forecast and this writer wondering whether alternating wet and dry track conditions would lead to “mechanical black flags” as seen at the Glen.
And memories were fresh from two years ago when the race ended under a red flag due to lightning in the area. The cars and drivers huddled in the pits, and the clock kept running until it ran out. Heart of Racing won that one, too, being in the right place (the lead) at the right time.
This year, though, things were looking up Friday as the only thunderstorms likely in the region were to come late that afternoon — maybe during qualifying.
Great Britain was represented by Aston Martin and McLaren in the IWTC. Ian James’ Heart of Racing was returning with its two Aston Martin GT3s, #23 in GTD Pro and #27 in GTD. Also running an Aston in GTD (and new to Lime Rock this season) was Andretti Autosport, in the #94 car, while Inception Racing was back with its #70 McLaren.
Lime Rock saw a reduced field: only GT cars (GTD and GTD Pro) in the IWSC, and Touring Cars (TCR) in the Michelin Pilot Challenge (IMPC) race. No prototypes in WeatherTech, no Grand Sports in Michelin. As no British cars are racing in TCR, this report will skip the IMPC.
We will mention, though, that there was another series running that weekend at Lime Rock — the VP Racing Sportscar Challenge, which featured LMP3 prototype cars and GTs. Those who missed seeing Rob Ecklin, for example, and his #09 Automatic Racing Aston Martin GT4 in the IMPC could catch both of them here.
Qualifying took place under sunny skies — no thunder, lightning or rain after all.
Ross Gunn set a stunning performance in Heart of Racing’s #23 Aston, grabbing the pole in GTD Pro with a time of 50.593, about 0.2 seconds ahead of runner-up Jack Hawksworth (#14 Lexus) and 0.3 ahead of 3rd-place Antonio Garcia (#3 Corvette).
Gunn’s teammate, Roman De Angelis, would be starting further down the pack in GTD with the #27 Aston, having qualified 4th.
Both Gunn and the pole sitter in GTD, Mike Skeen in the #32 Mercedes, set track records with their qualifying times.
Inception Racing’s Frederik Schandorff qualified 2nd in GTD with the #70 McLaren. Jarett Andretti in Andretti Autosport’s #94 Aston came in 12th.
In the post-session interviews, Ross thanked the Heart of Racing crew, who had to deal with getting a new chassis rushed to them after the team’s accident at Mosport and then comply with a schedule that was very tight so they could make Lime Rock.
He admitted struggling a bit during practice and having the crew “do some adjustments” afterward to dial in the car. Obviously, it worked.
Gunn added, “I really love coming here.” As the fan walk began on Saturday, he was asked what he thought about being at the very head of the pack overall, without prototypes in front of him.
“I like multi-class races,” he mused, “but a GT-only race is pretty cool.”
Andretti Autosport and their #94 Aston, sadly, did not have things go their way at Lime Rock.
Photo by Bruce Vild
What would the team strategies be without the distraction of traffic from prototypes?
IMSA commentator Jeremy Shaw predicted the GT-only race would require some patience from drivers as opportunities to pass might be scarcer with everyone so evenly matched. He added tire wear would be an issue, too, and of course the number of pit stops each team would take.
“This track is tough on tires,” said Shaw’s partner John Hindhaugh. No doubt by all the right turns (there is only one “left-hander” on the 1.5-mile track). Gunn had commented earlier that his Aston had been a trifle hard on tires.
The green flag waved at 12:10 p.m. on Saturday. At the end of the first lap, pole-sitters Ross Gunn (GTD Pro) and Mike Skeen (GTD, in the #32 Mercedes) maintained their leads, and De Angelis gained a position.
Thirty-seven minutes into it came the first yellow flag. The #91 Porsche had hit the back of the Andretti #94 Aston and sent it off the track and into the tires. The Porsche could drive back to the pits but the Aston’s race was done. The Porsche was assessed a penalty, which it would never serve because the car was retired (as was the Aston shortly after).
The full-course caution brought cars into the pits, but not all of them. Heart of Racing’s #23 stayed out to regain three positions it had lost when it had to duck into the pits earlier to fix a problem with its fuel hose. The pit rotation brought Gunn back to the top, with Jack Hawksworth (#14 Lexus) in 2nd and Antonia Garcia (#3 Corvette), who had led briefly, in 3rd.
With more than an hour and a half of racing left, Gunn kept his lead and actually widened the gap between himself and Hawksworth. Madison Snow’s #1 BMW led GTD, with De Angelis running 2nd, until Snow and Skeen had contact. Snow was hit with a drive-through for incident responsibility, which moved De Angelis to the front.
The Inception McLaren did not seem to be having a good time of it. Brendan Iribe was running 12th in class at this time, though still on the lead lap.
The next round of pit stops came with an hour and 12 minutes to go, with the top three contenders in GTD Pro doing fuel, tires and a driver change. The 4th-place Porsche and 5th-place Mercedes rotated to the top, but the Porsche fell back into 4th after Alex Riberas, the new driver in #23, emerged from the pits in 2nd, and Ben Barnicoat, Hawksworth’s successor in the #14 Lexus, in 3rd.
In the jumble Iribe moved up several positions. But then a slight tap came from behind, and the #70 McLaren wound up in the tires.
Now came another full-course caution as the McLaren was pulled out of the tire wall to be towed away. Back in the lead, under the caution, in their respective classes, were the Heart of Racing Astons, with Riberas in #23 and Marco Sørensen in #27.
Ian James, Marco Sørensen and Roman De Angelis (left to right) take reporters’ questions after the race.
Photos by Bruce Vild
In the last 40 minutes, the race among the top three was much tighter in GTD than in GTD Pro, with Sørensen keeping only half a second ahead of Julien Andlauer in the #92 Porsche and just under a full second ahead of Trent Hindman in the #77 Porsche. But the gap started to tighten in GTD Pro as well, as Riberas tried to keep Barnicoat and Klaus Bachler (#9 Porsche), at bay.
With 12 minutes to go, the commentators started worrying about tire life and concluded it was a waiting game at this point — all the teams were in the same basket, so all were crossing their fingers that the tires would hold up to the rising track temperatures. That may explain why all the cars, at least those in the top three in class, seemed to be pacing rather than racing for the last half hour or so. With a GT-only field, it was extremely difficult to pass, so it is a matter of not making a mistake and forfeiting championship points.
Shaw suggested that the drivers in the lead three positions probably wish there were prototypes in the race, maybe to present an opportunity, through traffic, for them to pass.
With five minutes to go, the 2nd-place Lexus seemed to drift a bit in a turn, and suddenly the gap between Barnicoat and Riberas grew to nearly a second and a half (it closed a bit later). Where the tires finally reaching their limit?
It was ultimately a follow-the-leader trip to the checkered flag, and the leader in each class was an Aston. It was a double win for Heart of Racing. With the pole, this was, as Hindhaugh commented, a tremendous comeback for the team — particularly Gunn and Riberas and car #23.
With super-consistent lap times for just about the entire field, a hard-earned victory it was. In the post-race interviews, De Angelis said he was disappointed with his result in qualifying but he knew “we had a good car” because Gunn got pole in the sister car.
“Over the night I thought about it and what I could do differently, and we got a good result,” he commented.
Ross Gunn confessed he was worried about tire wear, too, particularly the left rear. But he realized other drivers were having the same concern. He also said he was lucky that Barnicoat was behind him and not Garcia, whose Corvette, he believes, had more pace than the Aston. Barnicoat, who finished 2nd, was blocking everyone behind him, including the Porsche that would finish 3rd and the Corvette that came 4th.
All agreed the GTD Pro victory was a long time coming, their last win being Daytona. Happy Birthday, Ian James.
[With thanks to IMSA Radio and Lee Driggers’ Pit Notes.]
Yes, they did it again at Road America.
Photos by Jack Webster
On a Roll!
by Jack Webster & Eddie LePine
ELKHART LAKE, Wisc., Aug. 5-6 — As you’ve read in this newspaper, things have been looking up lately for the Heart of Racing Team’s Aston Martins in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, both in GTD and GTD Pro.
After an expensive race at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park (a/k/a Mosport) where their #23 car was punted off the track while in the lead and suffered major damage, the team came back at the next race at Lime Rock Park and took 1st place in both classes.
The next race on the schedule was at the newly-paved four-mile circuit at picturesque Road America, where all classes in the IMSA championship would be racing, including the three prototype classes absent at Lime Rock.
At the beginning of the week it looked like the weather on race day would be a major factor, as rain and thunderstorms were predicted. However — as is often the case in Wisconsin — other than the storms that rolled through the area on Thursday night, the weather was clear for the weekend and the race was held in dry conditions.
A very strong field of 45 cars were entered for the race, with 15 GTD and five GTD Pro entries.
Heart of Racing was strong, right out of the box. Alex Riberas put the #23 Aston Martin on the GTD Pro pole, besting the #79 WeatherTech Racing Mercedes AMG and the #3 Corvette Racing C8.R. In GTD, the #27 car qualified 5th in class, well within striking range of a race podium.
The other team to keep an eye on in GTD was Inception Racing, whose #70 McLaren 720S GT3, in the hands of Brendan Iribe, qualified 2nd in class — repeating the result at Lime Rock. Hopefully things would turn out better at Road America than they did at Lime Rock on race day.
Sunday saw a spirited race for the GTD Pro lead among the #4 Vasser Sullivan Lexus, the #3 Corvette C8.R and the #23 Aston. At the end, the Aston squad, with Ross Gunn co-piloting again with Riberas, came out on top with a solid win — a full one lap victory over the 2nd-place finishers in the class, Ben Barnicoat and Jack Hawksworth in the Lexus.
On the way to victory Gunn set a new track race record for the class of 2:04.441 (117.105mph) on lap 46 while in battle with the Corvette, which ultimately finished 3rd.
In GTD, it was almost a win for the #70 car, returning Inception Racing to the happy place it enjoyed earlier in the season. Co-driven by Iribe and Frederik Schandorff, the McLaren finished 2nd in class, just 2.2 seconds behind the class-winning BMW.
Inception Racing’s #70 McLaren bounced back after Lime Rock to finish 2nd at Road America.
Photo by Jack Webster
Not only that, but as IMSA commentator Mark Robinson noted, Schandorff set the fastest lap of any GT driver — GTD or GTD Pro — two laps before the checkered flag at Road America.
Looking at the team’s six top-six finishes so far this season and this runner-up result, Robinson concluded, “A breakthrough win seems closer than ever for McLaren.” Inception Racing is now in 3rd place in the GTD championship with just three races to go.
The second Heart of Racing entry, the #27 Aston with Roman De Angelis and Marco Sørensen, finished 7th in class. De Angelis and Sørensen now sit in 2nd place in the GTD championship.
Ross Gunn, meanwhile, grinned after the race and said, “We’ve just been on a roll lately. Things have just changed in our fortune.” He credited this to “hard work with the team” and his co-driver Alex Riberas.
“Alex did an amazing job yesterday to put the car on pole, which is so critical in sprint races. From there we had a really good race with the Mercedes and the Corvette. It was a really fun, fair race.
“There was a bit of different strategies going on so it made it a bit interesting. And then the last stint was really tough. We really had to look after the fuel, as you saw a lot of people were stopping there at the end.”
True enough. There were several cars, prototypes and GTs, scooting into the pits for that last splash of fuel to carry them over the line as the clock ran down. GTD driver Katherine Legge even reported to her crew that her car was “out of fuel” with only 10 minutes to go.
While their GTD teammates have a shot at their championship, where do Gunn and Riberas stand in GTD Pro? One interviewer joked at Lime Rock that they could win every race left and be a contender as they’re now in 5th (and last) place.
“I don’t want to get too carried away,” Gunn laughed, “but we’ve always known we have a solid team and a solid car. Things just didn’t really click at the start of the season, and we knew it would come eventually. I’m just so proud that everyone stuck in there and kept pushing.”
Next up for the GTD and GTD Pro cars is Virginia International Raceway, where the battle for the 2023 IMSA WeatherTech Championship will continue.
[With thanks to IMSA’s Mark Robinson and Lee Driggers’ Pit Notes.]
Heart of Racing’s #23 Aston Martin Vantage GT3 lifts off its left wheels as it rounds a corner during Sahlen’s Six Hours of the Glen. Fans report it did that every lap.
Photo by Jack Webster
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at the Glen and CTMP as IMSA’s Season Passes the Midpoint
by Jack Webster, Eddie LePine & Bruce Vild
The two IMSA series this publication has been covering, the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship (IWSC) and the Michelin Pilot Challenge (IMPC), are now halfway through the season, with four sprint races and one enduro to go.
All the class championships are still on the line for teams, manufacturers and drivers. It is certainly possible for British marques and drivers to climb to the top of the standings before the end of the season, as they are all within striking distance.
It’s not over yet — and Sahlen’s Six Hours of the Glen on June 25th, and the Chevrolet Grand Prix at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (Mosport) two weeks later, provided both promising and disappointing results.
Jumbled outcomes at the Glen
At the Glen, a British driver, Nick Yelloly, took the overall victory with Connor De Phillippi in the #25 BMW M Hybrid V8. It was the first GTP win for the manufacturer and BMW M Team RLL after strong 2nd place finishes at Sebring and Long Beach.
But the story had a twist. When the checkered flag flew at the Glen, Yelloly and De Phillippi had come 2nd again, behind Penske Motorsports’ #6 Porsche 963. They were promoted to 1st when the Porsche failed tech after the race, the culprit a chassis skid plate that was thinner than the legal minimum.
Yelloly later commented that while he was “incredibly happy” with the result, “It wasn’t the way we wanted to win. We prefer to win on the track and celebrate on the podium.”
In GTD and GTD Pro, success was hard to come by. The Heart of Racing Team fielded their two Aston Martins (one in GTD and one in GTD Pro) and both finished 6th in their respective classes, on the same lap as the class winners.
But their story had a twist as well. Over the course of the Six Hours no fewer than 11 cars were ordered into the pits under “mechanical black flags” relating to errant tire pressures. They had to change tires because their pressures were too low or a sensor measuring same had malfunctioned.
The affected cars were given four laps to do so after being “dinged.” One of the team managers, Marc Maurini of Corvette Racing, commented that this “significantly impacted the race” in obvious and perhaps not-so-obvious ways.
The Team TGM Aston ran well at the Glen in the Michelin Pilot Challenge race but failed post-race inspection.
Photo by Jack Webster
According to Daniel Lloyd, writing for Sportscar365, the black-flagged cars lost several positions. Some were unable to recover lost ground, particularly the cars ordered to pit during the second half of the race — which included both of the Heart of Racing Astons, running 2nd in GTD Pro and 3rd in GTD at the time.
Risi Competizione engineer Rick Mayer blamed track conditions changing from sunny to shady resulting in tire pressures, “basically set for the sun,” dropping below the IMSA-assigned minimum. He questioned the harshness of the rule’s enforcement, which prior to this race was a warning to get the problem fixed at the next pit stop.
Heart of Racing’s Ian James shrugged and said, “Rules are rules, and we have to adhere to them” — but he indicated some bewilderment about the black flags as the team’s own data showed the tires “were exactly the same pressures that went on the stint before.”
Did the black flags cost the Astons their podiums? Maybe. But IMSA’s John Doonan pointed out that lower tire pressures can give a team a distinct competitive advantage (which is why, as one team manager admitted, absent the rule many teams would use lower pressures in their final set in a race). There are safety concerns as well.
“We have to make sure people are following the regulation and not gaining an unfair advantage over the other cars,” he told Richard S. James from Racer.
“IMSA officials don’t like penalizing people,” he added, and that while 11 black flags may have been “too many,” that shouldn’t “excuse people who are running out of compliance.” Doonan pledged to work with the teams and with Michelin, who provides the tires to the IWSC race cars, to improve communication and an understanding of the rules.
Being “out of compliance” also ruined the day for two of the Aston teams in the IMPC contest, Sahlen’s 120 at the Glen — more along the lines of what disqualified the Penske Porsche from overall victory in the IWSC race, a bodywork issue.
Ted Giovanis and Owen Trinkler had just chalked up their best result so far this season, a 3rd-place finish with Team TGM’s #64 Vantage GT4, while Archangel Motorsports’ Todd Coleman and Billy Johnson, in the #88 Vantage GT4, had come 4th.
Both Astons, however, went on to fail the post-race tech inspection, each with a rear wing that exceeded regulations, so both were sent to the back of the pack. This advanced one of the Murillo Racing Mercedes, formerly 5th, to the podium.
This had to be absolutely gutting to Giovanis and Trinkler, who had fought their way up the field from 15th at the start (which was delayed by more than an hour due to a massive rainstorm complete with thunder and lightning).
Coleman and Johnson’s run was also epic as they started 16th, and Johnson had the distinction of turning the fastest lap in the race at 106.369mph.
Inception Racing’s #70 McLaren came back from a disappointing finish at the Glen to grab 2nd in class at CTMP.
Photo by Jack Webster
But as Ian James said, rules are rules.
On to Mosport
Sahlen’s Six Hours featured another Aston team, Magnus Racing with the #44 Vantage GT3, and Inception Racing with the #70 McLaren 720S GT3 EVO. Both cars ran in GTD. Neither was black-flagged for tire pressures, and Magnus drivers Spencer Pumpelly, John Potter and Andy Lally managed a 9th-place finish.
The McLaren, co-piloted by Brendan Iribe, Frederik Schandorff and Ollie Millroy, had a harder race after briefly leading the class early on, then getting assessed a drive-through penalty for an off-course incident with NTE Sport’s Lamborghini. From that point on it would not advance any further than 5th place, and ultimately finished 15th, one lap down.
Two weeks later at the Chevrolet Grand Prix at CMTP, things were much improved for Inception Racing, as Iribe and Schandorff finished 2nd in GTD after a hard-fought battle with the winning Paul Miller BMW.
Iribe qualified 9th and Schandorff turned in the fastest lap of the race in GTD.
Heart of Racing ran strongly in GTD and GTD Pro early on, well-seated to do so after qualifying saw Roman De Angelis taking the GTD pole with the #27 Aston and Alex Riberas placing #23 in 4th in GTD Pro.
Both cars diced for the lead several times over the course of the two-hour, 40-minute race. The GTD entry, with Marco Sørensen at the helm, ended up 4th. Unfortunately the #23 car, handed over to Ross Gunn, tangled with Daniel Juncadella in the #79 GTD Pro Mercedes about halfway through the race, crashed heavily into the tire wall, and was unable to continue. The Mercedes came out of it and went on to a podium finish, though Juncadella had to serve a drive-through penalty for incident responsibility.
There were no mechanical black flags in this race, but track temperatures were not subject to the weather-induced swings seen at the Glen. However, an earlier tire pressure controversy surrounding one of the GTP teams, Meyer Shank Racing, may have been on a few minds.
Back in January, MSR’s victory at the Rolex 24 at Daytona was spoiled post-race when officials stripped the team’s championship points for tire pressure infractions (among other serious charges) — but allowed them to keep the win, raising many eyebrows.
On the rebound from this, and after a few disappointing finishes in subsequent races, MSR put on a stellar show at CTMP. Brit Tom Blomqvist put their Acura ARX-06 on pole, set the fastest lap of the race, and claimed overall and class victory with co-driver Colin Braun.
It wasn’t without drama, however, as the team had to go into fuel-saving mode and hope for a full course yellow at the end of the race to secure the victory. They got their wish, as GTP driver Renger van der Zande put his Cadillac into a tire wall with only seven minutes left in the race, causing the race to finish under yellow.
As Blomqvist later explained, “We rolled the dice to try and go long, and knew the only way we were going to win that race was if the yellows kind of played into our corner. And thankfully, they did.”
Each one a winner — the #25 BMW M Hybrid V8 (left) at the Glen, and the #60 Acura ARX-06 (right) at CTMP.
Photo by Jack Webster
The IMPC race, the Canadian Tire Motorsport 120, left Rory van der Steur fans with big smiles. Robert Megennis and Cameron Lawrence took the win, only to have it taken away from their Turner Motorsport team for two technical infractions — which elevated van der Steur and co-driver Austin McCusker to the podium.
Readers will remember that on the Detroit street course in June, Megennis’ #95 BMW caught van der Steur’s #19 Aston around a curve right after exiting pit lane, driving up and over it and into a tire wall, then off the tire wall and back to pit lane. The Vantage GT4 suffered heavy damage to its roof and driver side, and both cars had to retire.
Megennis was placed on probation for wrecking the Aston and for forcing an unnecessary amount of track clean-up by deciding to drive his damaged car back to the pits.
At CTMP it was determined post-race that the BMW had a refueling time less than the minimum required and was also under the minimum allowed weight. Placing Megennis and Lawrence at the bottom of the finishing order moved everyone else up a place, so a Toyota that the BMW had bested by more than 27 seconds was now in victory lane and the 4th-place Aston in 3rd.
There remain just five IWSC races this season. All five feature both GTD and GTD Pro, but only three races feature all the classes, including GTP.
Up next (as of press time) will be GTD and GTD Pro cars at Lime Rock Park on July 22nd, followed by all the classes at one of our favorite tracks — Elkhart Lake’s Road America on August 6th.
And in IMPC, Lime Rock will feature only Touring Class (TCR) cars. Grand Sport (GS) entries, such as the Astons and the Motorsports in Action McLaren, will skip a turn. They will be back, though, for Road America 120 at Elkhart Lake.
[Additional sources for this report include IMSA commentators John Oreovicz and Mark Robinson and Lee Driggers’ Pit Notes.]
The Oman Racing Team’s #25 Aston Martin qualified 2nd in its class at this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans and finished the race 2nd as well. The team is affiliated with TF Sport, which fielded another Aston in the race but did not finish.
Photo by Kelvin Pope/Red Firecracker
Aston on the Podium at Le Mans’ Centennial
Bested by Corvette in Swan Song for LMGTE Am at La Sarthe --
Ferrari Hypercar Usurps Toyota in Thriller for Overall Win
by Rajan Jangda
LE MANS, France — As you can see from the headline and photo cutline, an Aston Martin team just claimed a podium step at Le Mans’ Circuit de la Sarthe, second only to a brilliantly handled Chevrolet Corvette, and Toyota’s attempt at a sixth consecutive overall win was scuttled by Ferrari.
That’s the big story. Now consider what else was going on, which is just as newsworthy.
This year was historic. It saw the centennial edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which naturally created a lot of looking to the past and fond memories of “golden eras” that have come and gone.
But fans and commentators got to witness what is arguably the start of a new golden era. The initial trickling of the faucet last year for the new Hypercar class has led to the tap being fully opened, with 16 cars entered and more to come in the future.
And although it will still be featured in next year’s 24 Hours, the LMP2 class familiar to fans of IMSA racing is set to be axed from the 2024 FIA-WEC season to make room for the burgeoning Hypercar class — and a new class that is also attracting huge interest, GT3, which will replace LMGTE Am.
Though this would be the final time we’d see a GTE class either “Pro” or “Am” at Le Mans, the complete shift to GT3 machinery next year means that for the first time since the 2000s all major GT championships around the globe will have a universal top category.
And though change was in the wind, the entry list for LMGTE Am had very strong numbers, with a total of 21 cars — five of which were Aston Martin Vantage AMRs, coming courtesy of the Oman Racing Team, a/k/a ORT by TF (#25), GMB Motorsport (#55), TF Sport (#72), Heart of Racing (#98) and D’Station Racing (#777).
This year’s race also had an incredibly popular guest star in the “Innovative Car” Garage 56 slot, with Hendrick Motorsport bringing a full-blown NASCAR Cup Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. The car was incredibly still very close to its original spec despite numerous modifications such as carbon brakes, additional aero parts and the removal of the bump draft structure in the car’s rear. In total the team managed to shave off 525 lbs.
AF Corse and drivers Pier Guidi, Calado and Giovanazzi brought Ferrari its first overall Le Mans victory in nearly 60 years.
Photo by Kelvin Pope/Red Firecracker
On to qualifying
Just like last year the “hyperpole” system was used in qualifying, with the top eight finishers from each class progressing to the hyperpole session while those finishing 9th and below were immediately placed on the grid.
For the first time in many years, it was truly up in the air as to who was going to take overall pole, with Toyota, Porsche and Ferrari leading practice sessions. Not only that, but all the hypercar manufacturers — which included Cadillac, Vanwall, Peugeot and Glickenhaus — appeared to be close on pace, the prime example being Practice 1 where the first nine cars were within one second of each other.
However, one thing that many did not expect was for Ferrari to lock out the front row in Hyperpole with the #50 car of Antonio Fuoco, Miguel Molina and Nicklas Nielsen leading the #51 of James Calado, Antonio Giovanazzi and Alessandro Pier Guidi. The entirety of their Hypercar drivers were direct call-ups from last year’s LMGTE Pro line-up.
Third on the grid was the #8 Toyota of Sébastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Ryo Hirakawa, and a close 4th was the #75 Porsche of Mathieu Jaminet, Felipe Nasr and Nick Tandy.
There was also a dramatic moment in qualifying, with the #3 Cadillac of Sébastien Bourdais, Scott Dixon and Ranger van den Zande bursting into flames exiting the Daytona Chicane.
LMP2 saw a who’s who of usual suspects in the top three, with the #48 IDEC Sport car taking the class pole from the #28 car of the prolific Jota team and the #41 car of Team WRT in 3rd.
In LMGTE Am there was Aston Martin on the front row — the #25 Oman Racing Team car of Ahmad Al Harthy, Michael Dinan and Charlie Eastwood being second-quickest behind the not-actually-factory-but-still-factory #33 Corvette Racing entry of Ben Keating, Nicky Catsburg and Nicolas Varrone.
The next highest Aston Martin after a sea of Ferraris was the #55 GMB Motorsport car of Gustav Birch, Jens Reno Møller and Marco Sørensen, which qualified 7th.
An incredible 350,000 people were in attendance to witness Saturday’s race, with tickets having sold out rapidly at the start of the year and basketball legend LeBron James serving as the official starter. (LeBron is no stranger to motorsports, having a stake in NASCAR’s Roush Fenway team.)
The start was held in tricky conditions, with a slightly wet track meaning there was going to be action right from the word go — and boy, was there action.
IMSA fan favourites Heart of Racing had their first-ever run at Le Mans, finishing a respectable 6th in class after starting 18th.
Photo courtesy Aston Martin Racing
Heading through the Dunlop Chicane both Ferrari hypercars kept their lead while the #75 Porsche went for an ambitious move up the inside of the #8 Toyota leading to contact. Both cars would survive, but this marked the first of multiple outings for the safety cars and slow zones.
Being caught out by a slippery white line on the exit, Jake Aitken in the #311 Cadillac oversteered, then turned abruptly left and went into the barrier, destroying most of the hypercar’s front end. It went back to the pits for repairs but was now out of contention.
By now the #8 Toyota had taken the lead and as the race went back to green, its #7 sister car was up to second — but both were on soft tyres and would begin to fade later, while the #51 Ferrari would be closing on the lead.
The #8 Toyota became embroiled in an entertaining melée with all three works Porsches. This fierce early fighting set the tone for the rest of the race, which would see a total of 35 on-track changes for the lead and each of the hypercar manufacturers having the lead at different points.
It was non-stop action across all classes till we saw the arrival of heavy rain in the third hour, causing several cars to aquaplane down the escape road at Porsche Curves, including the #3 Cadillac and the #709 Glickenhaus. This brought the #94 Peugeot with Gustavo Menezes and the #38 Jota Porsche into contention, with both taking the lead.
The Porsche, in the hands of Yifei Ye, ended up taking the lead — impressive, having fought back from starting last — and was beginning to stretch out the lead till disaster struck when he ran wide at the Porsche Curves after a twitch of oversteer and clipped the wall, spinning and shearing off all of the car’s rear bodywork.
This appeared to begin the “attrition phase” of the race, as following this the #75 Porsche retired with a mechanical problem. As darkness fell the #51 Ferrari led again till a spin at the seemingly troublesome Daytona Chicane left it beached in the gravel. The lead was lost to the #7 Toyota, with team principal Kamui Kobayashi at the wheel.
Next there was more drama among the hypercars, with the #7 Toyota finding itself the helpless victim of a pile-up with two LMP2 cars and a GTE Ferrari, the damage proving terminal for the Toyota. The #94 Peugeot hypercar inherited the lead, but soon enough it joined the Daytona Chicane club, doing a four-wheel drift towards the wall resulting in extensive nose damage.
It was another one of those years where no matter how fast a team was, they needed to have the luck. As night turned to morning it was now a dual between the #51 Ferrari and the #8 Toyota, with the Toyota battling through a rear braking issue. The two teams frequently exchanged the lead throughout the morning till the Toyota’s brake problem returned, driver Ryo Hirakawa locking the rears and sending the car left into the wall and down the run-off area.
This handed the Ferrari a three-minute lead, and despite a late scare in pit lane cutting its lead in half, the trio of James Calado, Antonio Giovanazzi and Alessandro Pier Guidi gave Ferrari its first victory since 1965 — cementing themselves in legend. Second was the #8 Toyota of Hirakawa, Sébastien Buemi and Brendan Hartley, and 3rd the #2 Cadillac of Earl Bamber, Alex Lynn and Richard Westbrook.
With all of the drama of the chase for the overall victory it was easy to forget that there were two other classes, both of which had enough of their own drama to fill another two articles!
Electrical problems bedeviled D’Station Racing, resulting in a DNF.
Photo courtesy Aston Martin Racing
In LMP2 (where the cars are all powered by U.K.-built Gibson engines), the #34 Inter Europol Competition Oreca 07 — which survived multiple penalty scares, a broken radio and a foot injury to driver Fabio Sherer — went on to win the class. Sherer’s co-drivers were Jakub Smiechowski and Albert Costa. Second was the #41 Team WRT car of Rui Andrade, Robert Kubica and Louis Delétraz, and 3rd the #30 Duqueine Team entry of René Binder, Nico Pino and Neel Jani.
In LMGTE Am, the #33 Corvette Racing car would incredibly come back from two laps down (courtesy of an early brake problem) to win the class by a full lap simply by keeping itself out of trouble while the majority of the class continuously tripped themselves up.
Second was the previously mentioned #25 Aston Martin of Ahmad Al Harthy, Michael Dinan and Charlie Eastwood. Third was the #86 GR Racing Porsche of Ben Barker, Riccardo Pera and Michael Wainwright.
The Garage 56 car meanwhile ran in a class by itself, co-piloted by a star-studded line-up including F1 and SuperGT champion Jenson Button, seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, and former Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller. The car proved 4-5 seconds faster than the GTE entries, slotting it within the target range between LMP2 and GTE, and despite fans’ concerns over engine life it lasted the entire race without trouble.
Aston teams: impressive driving, recovery, debuts
(but some bad luck)
The podium result for #25 was not a sure thing, even though it qualified 2nd in the hyperpole session. Following its first pit stop, the ORT Aston dropped outside the top 15 and it was facing (along with everyone else) the additional challenges of rain, safety cars and caution periods. But it managed to work its way back to 2nd place with two and a half hours to go, at which point the Aston pitted and Eastwood took the wheel for his final stint.
Eastwood closed a 20-second gap with the car in front of him and passed it on the outside with 90 minutes left to regain 2nd, where he eventually finished. The result moved Harthy, Dinan and Eastwood up to 2nd place in FIA-WEC championship points in their class.
The only other Aston Martin to survive the race was the #98 Heart of Racing car of Ian James, Daniel Mancinelli and Alex Ribeiras, which took 6th in class. They completed 310 laps, down three from the winning Corvette.
This was Heart of Racing’s first appearance at Le Mans, and their result was excellent considering they had to come up from behind twice — at the start, where they were in 18th place, and in the second hour of the race, where they had a one-lap delay in the pits to repair damage caused by contact.
In order to be “classified” at Le Mans, you must complete 70% of the overall race winner’s distance. This year the minimum was 239 laps. Not classified therefore were the Astons of D’Station Racing (#777, 163 laps, electrical problems), TF Sport (#72, 58 laps, accident), and GMB Motorsport (#55, 21 laps, collision).
D’Station Racing recovered impressively from a crash during practice by bringing in a replacement chassis Thursday morning. The car was ready for action, but with a run of bad luck and an electrical issue co-drivers Satoshi Hoshino, Tomonobu Fujii and Casper Stevenson had to retire in the race’s 15th hour.
TF Sport fielded its own ‘extremely fast’ car in addition to giving support to three other Aston teams.
Photo courtesy Aston Martin Racing
An all-French crew — Arnold Robin, Maxime Robin and Valentin Hasse Clot — piloted the TF Sport entry, and an extended opening stint by Hasse Clot placed the car in podium territory before an accident dropped it out of contention.
Marco Sørensen, driving for first-time Le Mansrunners GMB Motorsport, topped the class in the opening practice session, boding well for qualifying (where it placed 7th). Sadly this Aston suffered contact early in the race and was eliminated in the second hour.
While these results seem a mixed bag, Huw Tasker, Aston Martin Racing’s Head of Partner Racing, had nothing but praise for all his partner teams.
“It’s great to see [the Aston Martin] Vantage on the podium at Le Mans, and not just any Le Mans, but the centenary event. ORT by TF did an excellent job. The Vantage GTE now has seven class podiums at Le Mans in four years, which is an excellent run of successes.
“Finishing 6th on their Le Mans debut was an excellent achievement for Heart of Racing, D’Station Racing did a fantastic job to get to the start after their practice incident, the TF Sport car was extremely fast in the hands of all its French drivers while GMB Motorsport made hyperpole on their Le Mans debut.
“All the crews look to have everything they need to score many strong results through the rest of 2023.”
Looking back, this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans was a genuine classic that I’m certain will be talked about for years to come — which makes you wonder if 2024 will be able to top this!
[Rajan is a frequent contributor to this publication based in London. Additional remarks came courtesy of Aston Martin Racing.]