The 2013 24 Hours of Le Mans – The Most Bizarre Race I’ve Seen

The 2013 24 Hours of LeMans. Where does one start?  It was a tragic, bizarre, cliffhanger of a race.  It won’t be remembered as a great race, but it will be remembered.  It will be remembered, though, for two reasons.  It will remembered for the death of Allan Simonsen, a Danish GT driver killed on lap 4.  It will also be remembered for how strange it was.  It truly was the strangest most bizarre race I can remember watching.  Le Mans week started off strange and it stayed that way until the end.  Every practice/qualifying session saw rain and was shortened by red flags caused by crashes and Armco barrier damage.  It continued into the race, which never seemed to get into a rhythm due to over 10 safety car periods (full course yellows) which lasted for a total of almost 9 hours.  The safety car periods were the result of frequently changing weather conditions and resulting crashes that required repairs to the course’s Armco Barriers.  The corner workers and course maintenance personnel truly got a workout this year.

The tone of the race was set on lap 4 when Allan Simonsen’s Aston Martin crashed hard in Tetre Rouge.  For still unknown reasons, he lost control of the car and it made a very hard impact into the Armco barrier lining the course.  The impact was hard enough to knock one of the doors completely off of the car and jarred open the other door.  Amidst reports that he was conscious coming in, there was really no news on his condition for an hour.  Eventually it was reported that he had been taken to the Medical Center at the course where he passed away.  It came as a shock and initially there were questions of how to continue both overall and for the Aston Martin team.  Those questions were erased when it was announced that Simonsen’s family requested that Aston Martin carry on in the race.  The rest of the race would be run in honor and as a memorial to Allan Simonsen.  After a fierce fight for the win in GTE-Pro, Aston Martin would end up finishing third in class.

After finishing third in GTE-Pro, the Aston Martin team holds up a Danish flag in honor of Allan Simonsen during a subdued podium ceremony.

After finishing third in GTE-Pro, the Aston Martin team holds up a Danish flag in honor of Allan Simonsen during a subdued podium ceremony. (Photo from the 24 Hours of LeMans website)

I still don’t know how the Aston Martin team carried on for 23 more hours under such circumstances.  It had to emotionally draining and a terrible distraction from the task at hand.  Only through teamwork and the dedication of a good group of people could it have been possible.

Most of the rest of the race was disjointed.  It had no rhythm due to changing weather conditions and  frequent safety car periods to repair the Armco barriers.   It seemed that every time the race was developing and pit strategy was becoming clear there would be a lengthy safety car period.  Finally in the closing hours of the race, a battle between the #2 Audi and the #8 Toyota was picking up.  Even though the Toyota was a lap down Audi couldn’t let up.  Any slight bobble would bring the Toyota within striking distance, not to mention the Toyotas were faster in the rain – which was always threatening.  As the final hour approached, all hell broke loose.  There was a deluge and cars began to spin off and crash everywhere.  The track was half wet and half dry.  Would the rain end soon?  How long was the safety car period going to last?  Was it going to rain again?  Tire strategy turned into a crap shoot.  Fuel strategy again became anyone’s guess.  Even Paul Truswell was stumped!  The final hour of the race was a cliffanger as everyone waited to see if they had chosen the right tire and whether they would have enough fuel to finish the race without another stop.

Despite the tragedy, there was also historic triumph.  In the 90th running of the great race, Tom Kristensen scored his 9th 24 Hours of Le Mans overall victory when the #2 Audi won.  Kristensen’s co-drivers were fellow veteran Alan McNish (his 3rd overall Le Mans win) and Loic Duval (his 1st).  Kristensen and McNish ran their typically quick but dependable races but Duval was especially impressive, he was tremendously quick in all of the conditions the teams faced this year. It will be a long time indeed before we see anyone set a record like Kristensen has and it’s not out of the question that he’ll be able to add to his total.

If you want a narrative of the race, I would suggest reading John Dagys’ article on the Speed website.  There are many others that can write better stories about the race, so what follows are some of my thoughts on the 90th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

  • Like last year, this year’s race was not an example of Audi’s traditionally trouble free performance.  The #1 car spent an extraordinarily long time in the pits and potentially could have finished behind at least one of the Rebellions. Fortunately for the #1, the Rebellions had their own late race problems.  The #3 car had it’s problems as well but managed third place.  The #2 car did have an Audi-like trouble free race and were rewarded with the overall victory.
  • Toyota has nothing to be ashamed of either.  In their second year back at Le Mans they not only finished the race but were in a position they could have won from.  They didn’t have the speed to beat the Audi’s but they did have the fuel mileage and it wouldn’t have taken but a slight mistake on the part of the #2 team and Toyota could have won.  This can only make them even hungrier in 2014.
  • I said it during the race and I still have the opinion that Nicolas LaPierre walked too far away from the #7 Toyota after his late crash into the tire barriers.  He climbed over the barrier and walked quite a distance from the car before going back, getting it out of the barrier and driving it back to the garage during the safety car period.  Under the rules, he should not have been allowed to rejoin the race.
  • This year, Michelin had a non-grooved “Hybrid” intermediate tire.  One of the things I love about sports car racing is the technical innovation and this was a great one.  At 8 miles long, the track at LeMans can often be wet in one section and dry in another, complicating tire selection.  The new “Hybrid” intermediate combines the construction and soft compound of a rain tire with a slick tread that can work better in some mixed or drying track conditions.  With so many periods of changing conditions, these new tires saw frequent use by Audi and Toyota.
  • I don’t want to take anything away from Porsche but I think they played the Balance of Performance political game masterfully in the run-up to this year’s race.  I’m not sure that any of the teams showed their true pace in the opening rounds of the WEC but Porsche clearly didn’t.  I don’t thin they chucked out all of the sandbags until the Tricolore fell on Saturday.  They still may not have been as quick as the Aston Martin’s but they were more dependable and both cars stayed out of trouble.
  • Audi’s performance this year was somewhat of a role reversal.  Typically, in their battles with Peugeot , Audi may not have equaled Peugeot’s pace but they could run longer stints.  This year, Audi made the decision to turn up the boost and put pace over stint length.  In the past, Audi always seemed to be the quicker car in the rain; this year the Toyota was quicker in the rain.
  • I think and I hope that we are going to see a serious discussion in the near future about the barriers and safety around the Circuit de La Sarthe.  While much is still unknown about Simonsen’s fatal crash, one has to wonder if a better barrier might have saved his life.  I’m in no way trying to blame Aston Martin whatsoever, but the car itself have been safer?  As more details of the crash become known, we’ll know more and be able to ask better and more specific questions.  Perhaps the ACO and the WEC could become a series known for it’s proactive safety technology as well as it’s performance technology.

My negative surprise from the 2013 24 Hours of Le Mans has to be Corvette.  Given their history at Le Mans in the GTS and GT1 classes then with the C5R and the C6R, one would expect them to be up front contending for the GTE-Pro class win.  From the test weekend to the race in 2013 it wasn’t to be.  They simply did not have the pace of  Aston Martin, Ferrari, or Porsche.  Consistently in 7th/8th place in almost every session, their only hope was that they could climb up through attrition.  Another heavy crash for Aston Martin (which Fred Makowiecki thankfully walked away from), a mechanical malfunction on another Aston Martin, and late race spins on the part of both of the AF Corse Ferraris put the 74 Corvette in fourth place at the end but they were still 3 laps off of the leaders.  Let’s hope it had to do with concentrating on next year’s C7R and that they return to being a contender in 2017.

My positive surprise from this year’s race is Dempsey Del Piero Racing.  While they ran in conjunction with the experienced Proton team they were still a first year team.  They had a very quick factory Porsche driver in Patrick Long and a solid professional driver in Joe Foster but the rest of the team still had to measure up as well.  Measure up they did.  I don’t think you could criticize Patrick Dempsey’s driving; he had a spin but it was caused by contact from another car; he quickly righted himself and got back to it.  He was quick and competitive, making legitimate passes on the track and racing in the top 3, including the class lead.  They ended up fourth in class but I don’t think they have a thing to be ashamed of.  I would love to see them back again, the participation of a high profile person such as Dempsey can only help the sport of Sports Car racing.  It’s also worth mentioning that Dempsey Del Piero’s twitter account was THE best team account of the race; @DempseyDelPiero, run by racer Ryan Eversley (@RyanEversley), was informative, witty, and entertaining, mostly through the sharing of of radio traffic between the engineer and the drivers.  Eversley and the team connected with fans and enhanced the event.

The 2013 24 Hours of Le Mans isn’t going to be remembered as a great race, quite fair because it wasn’t. It will ultimately be remembered for the death of Allan Simonsen.  It will also be remembered for the strange nature of the race and for the frantic final hour.  It wasn’t a great race and it may often have seemed tedious but it ended up being a fun race to watch.  As in past years, I massively enjoyed watching the race with a global community of sports car fans on Twitter; it’s like having everyone right there in front of the TV with you!  In no way am I trying to detract from the job Speed TV did covering the race but once again Radio Le Mans did an outstanding job covering the race.  They not only kept listeners abreast of what was going on, they did with class and dignity after the death of Simonsen and with humor (the midnight shift with Jim Roller and Sam Collins was just hilarious) and enthusiasm throughout.  I can’t wait until next year!

Categories: 24 Hous of LeMans, Audi, Corvette Racing, Motor Sports, Porsche, Sports Car Racing, Toyota, WEC

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