Porsche end a sixteen year absence from the top class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans this week, bringing a pair of Porsche 919 Hybrid LMP1-H racers to the Circuit de La Sarthe. With a target of finishing the race with at least one car, the most successful brand in the history of the race is recognising the limitations imposed by their long absence.
Still the team have equipped themselves well for their LMP1 debut, fielding a world class team of six drivers across the two chassis. The #14 919 Hybrid will be driven through the gruelling twice round the clock battle by Romain Dumas, Neel Jani and Marc Lieb. The #20 machine will carry Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley and Mark Webber, who is himself breaking a 15 year run of absences from the biggest race in Endurance.
Team Principal for the factory effort, Andreas Seidl, paid tribute to the team which has brought Porsche back to the front end of the Le Mans battle for the first time his millennium. He said, “The operating task for a Le Mans team is enormous. We had to build an organisation with new personnel from the ground up. They are all excellent people. But even a hundred top soloists must first learn to play together as an orchestra. Responsibilities, communication, procedures, manual tasks – everything must mesh together perfectly.
“We have only competed in two races so far: in Silverstone and in Spa-Francorchamps. Everything went remarkably well. Our training was intensive. The team will have carried out 1,573 pit stops up to race week at Le Mans. We have also tested at night. Nonetheless, we have not yet experienced the stresses of a 24-hour race as a team. Everyone is looking forward to this challenge.”
Alexander Hitzinger, technical director for Porsche Motorsport’s P1 programme added, “The constraints of the new race regulations have made this task even more difficult, but fascinating as well. Even in areas that were routine for the competition, we had no experience whatsoever. Nonetheless, we chose the boldest solution for our drive concept, because it offered the best future potential. In the pre-testing period, the aerodynamics that were once again modified to achieve lower air drag for the Le Mans event proved themselves, as did advanced developments that enhanced durability. The Porsche 919 Hybrid is our first LMP1 race car design. It is fast – but not all of its potential has been realised yet; that is the reality.”
Romain Dumas leads the #14 car line up and brings thirteen years of Le Mans experience to the first of the Porsche 919 Hybrids. The Frenchman also has the benefit of racing for principal rivals Audi in their LMP1 programme, taking his sole overall Le Mans victory in 2010 with the team. He raced in GTE Pro for Porsche last year after returning from Audi Sport Team Joest to the sister brand to develop the new LMP1-H machine.
“Le Mans is the most famous and toughest race in the world,” Dumas explained, “And it is even more special for me as a Frenchman. I have been driving here since 2001, and I also lived here. In 2010 I won the race; I would love to repeat that one day – together with Porsche. So many people have been anticipating this return to LMP1 by Porsche. It makes me very proud to be one of the six drivers here. I have wanted to be with Porsche ever since my father put me in a 962 as a child. My favourite part of the track is the Porsche bends. Not because of their name, but because they are so quick and difficult. When you race down the Hunaudières at 330 km/h at night – all by yourself in your own world – you live a dream. You see and smell what is happening around the track. But you have to remain focused. We want to get to the finish line.”
Dumas isn’t alone in the #14 though and along with Neel Jani’s five appearances and Marc Leib’s eight, there are 26 24 Hours of Le Mans to draw on through all classes for experience heading into the race.
Leib, who admits he owes his career to Porsche taking him on as a young GT driver with short budgets, is making his debut in the top class after eight years in LM GTE and its predecessors. “Porsche took me on board in 2000 when my bank account was empty and the prospects for my Formula racing career had almost run out,” he said.
“It means a lot to me to now be part of a return to the top class, especially since we have this incredible technology that our engineers have created for the 919 Hybrid. Starting in the LMP1 class changes your perspective entirely compared to racing in the GT categories. You look less in the rear-view mirror and more at the cars out front that you are going to lap. Radio contact with the pit crew is also much more intensive to achieve efficient energy usage. The racing is incredibly tough for everyone involved. Whenever I won class victories, the most enjoyable thing for me was to look down from the podium and gaze at the tired but happy faces of the mechanics.”
The #20 car is led by the vastly experienced Timo Bernhard whose seven appearances form the bulk of the line-ups eleven appearances. The headlines will be made by Mark Webber however who hopes to make his first start at Le Mans despite being entered in 1998 and 1999. His first year back in sportscars after a long and successful career in Formula 1 is an emotional time for the Australian.
“To return to Le Mans is emotionally very special for me,” Webber explained. “Le Mans stands for endurance, trial of man and machine, an incredibly long day, often with changing conditions and, above all, there is the teamwork. Naturally, I want to leave here with happier memories than previously, which should not be too difficult. And, of course, I want to win this race sometime. We have a fast car with fantastic technology. I also like the seating position, tucked behind the windscreen, and I am looking forward to the night-time driving at Le Mans. The team is still very young, but the bonding in the team has been very quick. If we were to come up with a good result in our first year that would be a massive statement for Porsche as a brand.”
Bernhard added, “In my first start for Porsche in 2002, Le Mans was stunning. And people always asked me: When will you return to the top league. I was involved with the building of the LMP1 team right from the start, and in 2013 I drove at the roll-out, then did testing and development work. The entire time I had the big goal in mind; I can hardly express how much I am ready for it now. The week leading up to the race will still be intensive, right up to the starting ceremony. I always found it satisfying to be the starting driver, and to finally close the door after all the pre-race show was over. And then at some point on this long circuit you find a very special rhythm. Especially at night when everything gets even faster, and when it might drizzle or rain … It is indescribable; there is a certain magic to it.”
The youngster of the group is Brendon Hartley whose two LMP2 class appearances make him the least experienced of the six Porsche Prototype drivers. “Sometimes I can hardly believe that I have been chosen to sit in this car. I especially like Le Mans at night; that is the best. The lights fly past you, and everything feels a lot faster. You nearly get tunnel vision – that is when the cockpit is the perfect place for me. I also have a sporting score to settle at Le Mans.”
The Porsche factory backed team, Porsche AG Team Manthey, will also contest the LM GTE Pro class with two Porsche 991 RSRs where they arrive as the class defending champions.