The AF Corse line-up of Gianmaria Bruni, Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander outlasted their class rivals to take the victory in the LMGTE Pro class of the 2014 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The Ferrari team ran nearly trouble free through the race, and were so allowed to take victory by a lap after their staunchest rivals during the race fell back with mechanical problems.
The tone for much of the race was set inside of the first stint as the top four in the class battled nose to tail with the eventual winners in the #51 Ferrari facing up against the pair of Corvette Racing C7.R and the #97 Aston Martin Racing Vantage GTE, the lone AMR entry in the class following the withdrawal of the Craft-Bamboo supported car following their qualifying crash.
The quartet exchanged positions, the #73 Corvette of Jan Magnussen able to pass the polesitting Ferrari to take the lead as Darren Turner passed the #74 car to take third position.
However, while the exchanged the lead early on with the Ferrari the #73 team were the first to be pushed down the order by a technical problem, losing time in the pits to an issue with the air jack on the car. However, as their problems paled into insignificance compared to those that afflicted others in the race the team of Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Jordan Taylor were able to recover back up the order to take second place in class.
Running trouble free through the remainder of the race – and with much the same pace as made them early leaders – the #73 crew were able to take second place in the closing hours from the #92 Porsche of Marco Holzer, Fred Makowiecki and Richard Lietz.
A year on from taking a 102 on their return as a works entry in the class Porsche only had a minor supporting role to play in the battle for the class lead. Between the pair of Porsche Team Manthey 911 RSR the team led only 16 laps.
The #91 machine staffed by Joerg Bergmeister, Patrick Pilet and Nick Tandy was taken out of the battle for the top spots by fuel pressure issues but the #92 continued on with minimal delays. However, lacking the ultimate pace of the Ferrari, Corvettes and Aston the Porsche gradually fell away from the lead battle.
If the Porsches had the supporting roles the stars were the Ferrari, Aston and #74 Corvette as daylight faded on Saturday night the trio were in lock-step, positions exchanged as the differing strategy schedules selected by the three factories played out.
The hours of darkness took the #74 Corvette from the lead battle, having to make several stops in the pits waiting for remedies to a number of issues including the need for a new door after its illuminated number panel was deemed too dull before a longer stop followed team as the team’s mechanics dealt with a transmission issue. Their slide down the order left the lone Aston and Ferrari teams remaining in the class fighting for victory.
Both the second AF Corse entry in the class – the #71 repaired after the qualifying crash that ruled James Calado out of the race – and the Ram Racing entry were both taken out of the race, the Ram machine at the end of a trying race for the British based privateers as both the Pro and Am entries struggled for reliability.
Ferrari and Aston teams swapped the lead back and forth between themselves, the Aston team of Turner, Stefan Muecke and Bruno Senna leading the majority of laps with the gap opening and closing with driver and tyre changes for either team. The sequence was finally broken when the Aston came into the pits and rather than being routinely dispatched back into the battle was pulled back into the garage with a power steering problem that was to lose the 20 minutes.
What had been a fight for victory became, at that point, an attempt to take back a place on the podium. However a minor error at Mulsanne Corner by Turner saw him glance against the tyre barriers, the contact leading to a cracked exhaust manifold that put them back in the garage, dropping them further down the order to finish sixth in class, one place behind the ProSpeed Competition Porsche, only promoted to the Pro class after Bret Curtis was stricken from the driving roster after his qualifying crash.
A similar power steering issue as took the #97 from the lead battle in LMGTE Pro had earlier stripped Aston Martin Racing’s #98 team of the LMGTE Am lead. However, as the team of Pedro Lamy, Paul Dalla Lana and Christoffer Nygaard, dropped down the order the lead passed to the Young Driver AMR team of Nicki Thiim, David Heinemeier Hansson and Kristian Poulsen.
The all-Danish team – a year on from the tragic events in the early laps of 2013’s Le Mans – picked up the lead during the tenth hour in the wake of their stablemates’ problems and continued on to run a near faultless race to win by two laps, their margin trimmed by a precautionary visit to the garage in the final hour.
There was also early drama in the class. Having taken pole position in class by a distance – both in terms of time and overall position – Sam Bird lead the class through the first hour. However, he was to be caught out when torrential rain arrived on the Mulsanne Straight.
While weather and visibility remained clear on one side of the track conditions on the Mulsanne deteriorated leaving several drivers skating into accidents. As drivers began to slow an out of control Bird slid into several cars, including the #3 LMP1 Audi and as rear end damage took the R18 out of the race with corresponding front end damage Bird was forced to retire from the race by the side of the road.
Bird’s crash removed a potential class winner from the race, but throughout the race challengers to the Aston Martin crew stepped up before falling back, largely due to accidents.
AF Corse’s #61 was able to drive away with a crash in the Porsche Curves – the occurrence something of a rarity across the Le Mans week – with Mirko Venturi at the wheel. The car sustained minor damage, carrying a scrape on the left-rear corner for the rest of the race, but was still able to salvage third place in class, a lap behind second placed finishers Proton Competition for who Christian Ried, Klaus Bachler and Khaled Al Qubaisi turned in a quiet, consistent performance, picking up positions as other teams hit problems.
Aside from Bird’s early exit the most serious accident affecting the class happened when Viktor Shiatar crashed the #72 SMP Racing Ferrari violently out a podium place in the Porsche Curves.
The Russian first hit the barriers on drivers’ right before ricocheting across the track for a second impact with the wall. The repairs needed to the barriers and catch fencing at the initial point of impact was testament to the severity of the accident, but Shiatar was able to walk away from the car.
Behind the podium positions in the class 8Star Motorsports finished fourth with the Dempsey Racing Porsche – which led laps in the opening hours of the race – and the #95 Aston fifth and sixth, the Aston team five laps down on the class winners.