Oh what might have been if Le Mans was only a 23 hour race, the finishing order could have looked very different.
The class meant for ‘Gentlemen’ drivers – a phrase complete untrue if you had ever seen them race – saw some of the most exciting racing, and some of the cruelest heart break reserved mainly for Aston Martin.
The #98 of Paul Dalla Lana was leading coming into the final hour of the race, and with a two lap lead over their nearest rival it seemed as though it was his to lose – and lose it he did. Going through the Ford Chicane it appeared as though a suspension part snapped sending the Vantage into a sharp left turn and crashing into the wall.
Thankfully Dalla Lana was fine, but in two seconds 23 hours of work was undone the extent of which we will need to go back to the start to examine.
At the end of the first hour the #98 – which Dalla Lana shared with Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda – was lying in second place with the eventual category winning #72 SMP Racing Ferrari 458 less than one second up the road and not able to pull away.
Behind was the #55 AF Corse Ferrari of Duncan Cameron, Matt Griffin and Alex Mortimer – sadly they would have to retire well into the second half of the race, a rare failure for an AF Corse machine. However, when they were still going they provided a credible threat to the leaders.
Ever a presence in that first hour was the Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche 991 of Messrs Long, Dempsey and Seefried who would eventually involve themselves in a battle that will be detailed further below.
Into hour two and the Russian entry was still in the lead, but this time rather than an Aston Martin leading the chasing pack it was the Dempsey Porsche and the #88 Abu Dhabi-Proton Racing Porsche trying to put the Ferrari under pressure.
The reason for the #98 falling behind? A differing pit strategy which saw it take two pit stops to the leading trio’s 3.
Showing just how competitive the GTE Am class was, the leader at the end of hour three was none of the cars entered above but a car that was fifth in class at the end of the hour previous – the TI Automotive Dodge Viper.
The show of American Muscle, commandeered by Jeroen Bleekemolen, Ben Keating and Marc Miller, charged up to the head of the field in a burst of noise – they blew their rivals away with a commandeering 37 second lead.
However, an hour later and you would see a three way scrap for that very same lead with Detroit’s finest stormer slipping down to third and the #98 Aston Martin back in the mix fighting with SMP Racing as the afternoon made way into the evening.
It remained that way for a number of hours as darkness descended over La Sarthe, the #83 AF Corse Ferrari joined in the fun for a bit but still the same players bubbled to the surface.
Until that is, Hour 11 – two cars had retired, the Larbre Competition Corvette for damage and the #88 Abu Dhabi-Proton Porsche for an impromptu engine BBQ – but that didn’t affect the Dempsey-Proton of Patrick Dempsey, Patrick Long and Marco Seefried who found themselves closing within a lap of the top two runners.
A couple of hours later and another key machine would surface, and another taste of America as the Scuderia Corsa Ferrari (the prancing horses were popular in GTE Am) of Bill Sweedler, Jeff Segal and racing all-rounder Townsend Bell got themselves into a position to hassle come crunch time – which considering this is Le Mans, is as soon as the green flag flies.
They wouldn’t be able to make much progress to the leaders but did get into a titanic hours-long battle with the Dempsey crew which spanned through the witching hour and into day break.
Lap after lap they would be going at it hammer and tongs, sometimes the Ferrari pulled ahead, sometimes the Porsche. The time either team boiled over was into Sunday morning as a hard charging Bill Sweedler – trying to close on Long – spun the Ferrari at Arnage corner and put him more than a minute behind.
However, that lead would be eroded in hour seventeen as a lengthy safety car period grouped the field back together as Aston Martin’s GTE Am sister car of Roald Goethe suffered a heavy crash at the Porsche Curves which saw the Vantage broken into thousands of little pieces. Thankfully, Goethe himself walked away with only very minor injuries.
As the safety car finally came back in, 18 hours were in the book and there was only the length of a standard WEC race to go with the #98 Aston so far ahead, all of us at The Checkered Flag thought they were sure fire winners – especially when the #72 Ferrari had to be recovered from the gravel trap at Indianapolis.
Indeed at the line at the end of hour 21, Paul Dalla Lana had two laps in hand. It’s worth noting at the same period, Patrick Long was less than half a second ahead of Bill Sweedler after 287 laps of racing!
For those two scrapping for third, the result seemed elementary going into the final few hours of the race – the Porsche would have a lap in hand over the Ferrari – seemingly consigning the Americans to fourth place and just missing out on a podium.
However, as mentioned right at the start of this review it all went pete tong for Dalla Lana when his iron clad Aston Martin speared into the wall.
That promoted the SMP Ferrari up into an unlikely victory, Dempsey and Co. moved up to second and the Scuderia Corsa Ferrari had sweet redemption by claiming third place.
Behind them were two of the 44,964 AF Corse Ferraris (that might be a slight exaggeration but they do race A LOT of cars) with the Team AAI Porsche 911 finishing in sixth place.
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