Starworks Motorsport turned their first visit to the Circuit de la Sarthe into a class victory as the American squad emerged as the best – and most reliable – entry in a hotly contested LMP2 category at the 2012 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Though much of the pre-race talk was of a new LMP2 class – born out of the cost-cap regulations put forward by the ACO – the race had the feel of an older style LMP2 squabble, with reliability as important, if not more so, as sheer speed.
If speed alone decided the class, then victory doubtless would have belonged to either of the OAK Racing Morgans or to the ADR–Delta ORECA 03. Indeed the latter both took pole position thanks to John Martin, and set the fastest lap in class with Jan Charouz at the wheel. Both they and the pair of Morgans had their time at the front of the race, but all three would lose time, or retire altogether with technical problems.
John Martin led throughout the trouble free first nine laps stint, but lost time with a slow pitstop as most of the LMP2 field pitted together further technical problems would hamper the comeback that their pace proved would have been possible, limiting them to sixth place in class eight laps off the leader's pace.
The peaks and troughs for OAK were even more pronounced. The team's two cars – one Judd engine, the other powered by the numerically dominant Nissan unit – led just over 100 laps of the 139 completed in the first nine hours. As the Le Mans clocks ticked past 8pm the two cars had a lead over anyone else of two and a half minutes, and the lead car had a lead of over a lap at a time when the largest gap at the top of any other class was just 27 seconds. Domination looked likely.
But the darkness hours would not be kind to Jacques Nicolet's team. First to suffer was the Nissan powered #35 driven by David Heinemeier Hansson, Bas Leinders and Maxime Martin. In quick succession the car suffered three punctures and electrical failure, confining them to the garage and costing them and chance at victory – they would finish seventh in class.
“We had incredible pace,” lamented Leinders, “certainly enough to claim the podium and perhaps even to fight for the victory, what we have done until midnight. It’s really bad luck that has stopped us. Once all these issues resolved, the car was going very well again. I could do a triple stint with the same tires, and the prototype was so enjoyable to drive. Of course it’s always good to finish Le Mans but we know we could have done much better.”
Just as the #35 was beginning their comeback after initially falling outside the top 15 in class with their problems, the #24 took its place in the OAK garage, coming in from the lead and bringing to an end OAK Racing's spells at top of the class. The Judd engine suffered a loss of oil pressure that despite nearly two hours toil by the team proved terminal and resulted in the retirement of the car.
The fourth and final team to take a turn at the front of the class in the formative first 139 laps was the Irish Murphy Prototypes ORECA. The OAK car only took it's final stint at the front – from laps 133-139 – because of a right-rear puncture for the Murphy Prototypes car, driver Warren Hughes limping it back with a shredded tyre and resultant damage that lost the team nearly 15 minutes in the pits.
With OAK's cars either well down or on the way to retirement and Murphy Prototypes – with Jody Firth replacing Hughes when the car returned to the track – well down the order Starworks Motorsport stepped into the lead.
And would never give it up, leading uninterrupted for the final 215 laps. Faultless.
“The car ran perfectly for the entire 24 hours with only two small issues which was amazing,” said driver Tom Kimber-Smith. “The Starworks team was faultless all week and they truly deserved this win. Enzo drove so well in his stints, he stepped up and was quicker than many of the pro drivers out there during the early morning stints. Ryan was outstanding, fast and consistent all race despite being a Le Mans rookie.”
Peter Baron's team, which also included Le Mans debutants Ryan Dalziel and Enzo Potolicchio, finished a lap clear of Thiriet by TDS Racing, wither Pecom Racing completing the podium positions.
Signatech Nissan's troubled season continued. While the squad's second entry – Nelson Panciatici, Pierre Ragues and Roman Rusinov – finished fourth the #23 continued hit further troubles after accidents in the first two FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) rounds.
The car – shared by Jordan Tresson, Franck Mailleux and Olivier Lombard – was running in the top five in class, just a lap behind Starworks in the lead, as dawn approached. However, under braking Lombard suffered a scary accident, the car spearing off under braking for Mulsanne Corner, impacting the barrier in almost the exact same spot as Anthony Davidson had in his Toyota hours earlier.
In total of the 20 cars in the class 12 were classified finishers, though the fact the much delayed #35 OAK Racing car and the #42 Greaves Motorsport Zytek featuring father and son Brundle finished seventh and eighth betrayed the number of problems that had affected those outside the top five.
All three Lola coupes in the class retired, the two Gulf Racing Middle East cars exiting the race relatively early after each suffering accidents, Marc Rostan the first posted retirement in the #29 after slapping the concrete wall in the Porsche Curves as early as the second hour. Yelmer Buurman and Status Grand Prix joined the DNF list on Sunday, a broken alternator leading to battery failure that left his stranded out on track.
Level 5 Motorsports – running the same HPD chassis as won the class in the hands of Starworks – completed only a lap more before a communication breakdown left Scott Tucker out of fuel exiting Arnage. Spa-Francorchamps victors JOTA completed the list of retirements after a spin into the wall at the Porsche Curves destroyed the rear of the car and – despite Simon Dolan's best efforts at crabbing the car back to the pits – spelled the end of their race.