All looked hopeless for the 2017 LMP1 919 Hybrid Porsche Team. But then the resident rennsport gods of immortal Circuit de la Sarthe at long last appeared to grudgingly smile down on Stuttgarter Teammitglied [the team members from Stuttgart].
Despite impending gloom and doom, one LMP1 prototype hurtled round and round the track, playing Herculean catch-up. That Hybrid race car finally managed to finesse the 2017 Le Mans hat trick* — as well as secure the unprecedented 19th overall Porsche win at the 85th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
*Hat Trick” or “Hat-Trick” or “Hattrick”
“A hat trick or hat-trick in sports is the achievement of a positive feat three times in a game, or another achievement based on the number three in some sports….
In motor racing, three successive race wins, winning the same event three times in a row….”
But before the gods turned their furrowed frowns upside down in favor of Porsche, disaster struck in deuces.
The No. 2 Porsche LMP1 919 Hybrid first suffered the Le Mans trademarked agony of looming defeat. It happened at 6:30 p.m. local time. It was only three and a half hours after new American Formula 1 CEO Chase Carey started the race by flying France’s Tricolor flag.
Piloted by Earl Bamber (NZ), Timo Bernhard (DE) and Brendon Hartley (NZ), the No. 2 car lost its front-axle drive, with Bamber behind the wheel. It languished in the pits over an hour for repairs on the MGU (motor-generating unit), leaving ultimate Le Mans 24 conquest up to the No. 1 car.
But just when it looked like the No. 1 hybrid was a cinch to bring home Porsche’s 19th Le Mans victory, disaster struck the Porsche LMP1 919 Porsche Team for a second time.
With Neel Jani (CH), André Lotterer (DE) and Nick Tandy (GB) tag-teaming driver duties, the No. 1 prototype likewise fell prey to the omnipresent enduro-gremlins du Mans, with 3 hours 51 minutes to go in the race.
At 11:09 a.m. Le Mans time, on lap 318, in the rising Pays de la Loire heat, Lotterer radioed the pit crew, “—Uhhh, no oil pressure.” Lotterer’s engineer urged him to shut down the internal-combustion engine. Immediately.
Parenthetically, the Porsche 919 Hybrid prototypes each utilize both an internal-combustion V-4 turbocharged engine and electric motors on both ends of the car to generate neck-snapping torque and mind-blowing speed.
Adding insult to injury, No.1’s battery charging level simultaneously plummeted all on its own. So our new man Lotterer from former WEC arch-rival Audi couldn’t even rely on the electric power units to get him back to the box.
Adding more insult to injury, after leading the race for only the past 10 hours, No. 1 bid auf Wiedersehen to the June French classic. This spelled a big fat fatal D-N-F for the No. 1 Porsche 919 Hybrid at the 2017 WEC Le Mans 24 — a devastating heartbreak after initially leading the entire field by a whopping 13 laps.
“We tried to nurse the car home but it was not to be,” lamented Neel Jani. “Last year we had the luck on our side but this year was not the case.”
No doubt dejected, too, and probably more so since it happened on his watch, Lotterer recounted the pesky little gremlins’ shenanigans firsthand: “We were driving really conservatively but suddenly the oil pressure dropped. To retire this way is hard. But this is Le Mans.”
In fact, watching No. 1’s on-board video feed, one could sense the utter despondency just peering into Lotterer’s piercing blue eyes through his helmet while his 919 was stalled on the side of the track.
Once he was able to walk back into the garage, it became even more palpable as he embraced all of the Porsche executives as if in wordless apology for not finishing the race, Lotterer choking back the heartbreak. Four-time overall Le Mans winner with Porsche and class-act Jackie Ickx in turn chatted with Lotterer in the garage, clearly consoling him.
Meanwhile, however, those aforementioned deities of the Sarthe slowly began to unveil an encouraging change of heart in Porsche’s favor.
Bamber, Bernhard and Hartley’s No. 2 919 Hybrid had earlier emerged from the pits about 1 hour and five minutes after their MGU snafu. That’s how long (or, depending on whose side you’re on, short) it took Team Porsche to work their German-engineering magic on the front axle’s hybrid motor-generating system.
Hartley took the wheel for the first time and rolled out the pit box with exactly 19:24:59 left in the race. The No. 2 prototype jumped back into the fray at 7:35 p.m. In 54th place. A mockingly provocative 19 laps down. Waaaay behind the race-leading No. 7 Toyota Racing LMP1 car.
In fact, one Fox Sports announcer essentially wrote off the No. 2 Porsche. That commentator was purported racing guru Brad Kettler, who joined the Le Mans broadcast team for the first time this year.
A viewer’s tweet during the broadcast drooled, “Brad on the air is the greatest thing since sliced bread.” Kettler pretty much seemed to concur, if his wordless reply meant anything.
Conversely, Kettler wasn’t at a loss for words moments later when, in his sleep-inducing sotto voce monotone, he decreed that the No. 2 Porsche 919 Hybrid “is too far back to really be a factor in the race.” He was referring to that challenging 19-lap deficit.
In spite of Kettler’s aloof brush-off, the No. 2 car steadily advanced. More than up for the challenge, Hartley pulled multiple stints, gaining one lap after another after another. He pitted for his final refueling at lap 312.
Then at lap 325, Hartley turned the car over to Bernhard — Hartley having brawled his way back, all the way up to an historic P4 from P54, in the No. 2 Porsche.
Unprecedented? Anything’s possible when it comes to legendary Porsche.**
**When is a Race Car Too Far Back to Be a Factor in a Race?
It was exactly 40 years ago. 1977. Porsche was way down back then too. In P42 during the 45th Running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In those days, the race was also known as the 45th Grand Prix of Endurance.
Six-time overall winner Jacky Ickx (BE, 72) recalls the miraculous turnabout in the No. 4 Martini Porsche 936 Spyder — not unlike Porsche’s latest 19th win — this way:
“But they were having trouble as well. We were in 42nd place. I still can’t get my head around what happened next. It was this euphoric state. I drove the whole night at top speed, always on the limit. In rain and fog. I just got faster and faster.
“42nd, 35th, 28th, 20th, ninth, sixth, fifth.
“Everyone felt that we could achieve the unimaginable.
“Jürgen and Hurley drove faster than ever, and the mechanics did an incredible job. I didn’t feel tired at all. Then we took the lead. On Sunday morning I was totally spent. In the end, Jürgen hauled the 936 across the line with only five cylinders. I wouldn’t have been able to.
“There are a lot of great stories about a lot of races. But 1977 stands out. That was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Races like that have made Porsche a legend.”
This was Porsche’s 4th overall win at the 24 Heures du Mans.
[Or maybe more than a “once-in-a-lifetime thing” when it comes to Porsche, hmn? –ED.]
Surprisingly, or maybe not for Circuit de la Sarthe, the remaining LMP1 cars in the class endured their own setbacks during the 85th Running of the 2017 24 Heures du Mans.
The cats from Japan suffered the greatest attrition. The No. 7 Toyota sustained clutch issues. The No. 8 Toyota LMP1 flamed out in trailing billows of smoke, forced to box-box for major front-motor repairs, while the No. 9 danced the clumsy-footed cha cha with the No. 25 LMP2 Manor Oreca at pit-out, putting itself out of the race.
Then, at 12:50 p.m., the No. 2 Porsche 919 Hybrid clawed all the way back to running on the same lap, race lap 330, as the leader.
As alluded to above, that leader wasn’t an LMP1 car, though. Because the LMP1 prototypes were so beleaguered at that stage in the race, P1 was an LMP2 car — the No. 38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca 07-Gibson.
Bernhard had to pit for fuel, however, after 338 laps. It appeared as though all of his dogged efforts might have been in vain.
But then it happened.
On lap 347 the long-time factory team driver for Porsche wrestled away the race lead from the Jackie Chan Oreca.
Bernhard refueled on lap 351, and again pitted for a final splash and go on lap 360.
Then — as has happened for almost the past 7 decades in over 30,000 race victories — Porsche providence intervened once again in yet another race: After the sole-surviving 919 initially went down 54 laps, the German took the checkered flag for the marque of Porsche after 367 laps.
The Jackie Chan Oreca crossed the finish line behind Bernhard in P2 to become China’s first Le Mans entry to win its class (LMP2).
“What a dramatic race!” exclaimed Dr. Oliver Blume, Chairman of the Executive Board, Dr. Ing. h.c. Porsche AG. “A fight back from P54 to P1 — the Le Mans myth is alive, exactly because of such unbelievable stories like we experienced [here].”
Some will say that luck is always in the mix during such circumstances. Perhaps. But maybe it could be a little luck, along with an admixture of some mysterious Factor X.
So what else could have indulged the Rennsport Deities de la Sarthe to this degree?
Perhaps Fritz Enzinger, the man who has been there ever since the genesis of Project 919 Hybrid, has the simple and perhaps entirely explicable answer about any such Factor X: “It’s unbelievable what you can achieve in a focused team effort.
“Sometimes it is not the fastest car but the best team performance that makes the difference,” mused Porsche’s Vice President of the LMP1 Program knowingly.
This year’s winners call themselves members of the “Porsche Team.” Yet all along they’ve been just the latest iteration of that Team Porsche which embarked upon racing since the genesis of the marque in the late Forties.
Aptly named for more reasons than one, Porsche No. 1 was the very first winning race car for the marque. After the war, on July 11, 1948, Herbert Kaes, Ferdinand Porsche’s nephew, raced Porsche No. 1 to a class victory in Austria — Porsche’s very first race win.
Ever since then, Porsche has been one of the winningest sports-car manufacturers in the world.
“This team is the best of all and made today’s success possible,” Mr. Enzinger continued. “Personally I can only say ‘thank you’ to Porsche for putting me in the position to set up such a great program and thanks to every single team member for the total support and the great team spirit.”
Well, rumor has it that this illustrious and wildly successful 919 Hybrid program may soon be coming to an end — but if so, then, thankfully, it’s culminating on such an extremely positive note and an ecstatically high climax.
Amid such rumors, Porsche scored the monumentally elusive Le Mans hat trick — thus entitling Porsche to retain the priceless Le Mans 24 trophy.
“The ‘triple’ in Le Mans is a dream come true for Porsche and the way this third consecutive win happened is very special,” extolled Michael Steiner, Board Member of Research and Development, Porsche AG. “I’m proud of the Porsche Team that kept fighting despite the long stop for repairs.”
Indeed, what a team, and what an extraordinary team effort — now immortalized in the annals of Le Mans. We may or may not ever see such a group endeavor garnering three successive race wins, including a simultaneous record-holding 19 wins at Le Mans, ever again.
The gods du Mans indeed tend to smile upon near-flawless teamwork.
So kudos to our Stuttgarter Teammitglied. Nothing about winning can be taken for granted at Le Mans, of all motorsport races in the world. Of any sports competitions in the world. Period.
Each and every one of you Porsche LMP1 Team members attained Le Mans victory the old-fashioned way, as the saying goes — you all earned it.
Now here’s our compiled video homage to the Porsche 919 Hybrid team and program: