Le Mans miracle: How Kiwi duo went from down and out to the top step at Circuit de la Sarthe
Kiwi duo Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber and German team-mate Timo Bernhard achieved a dramatic victory in the prestigious Le Mans 24 Hour race on Sunday (Monday NZ time).
Piloting the No 2 Porsche 919 Hybrid, the trio's hopes of winning what is one third of world motorsport's triple crown suffered what appeared a fatal blow when their car experienced a major technical issue early in the race.
But, from a seemingly impossible position, they picked their way through the field and when their other main challengers fell by the wayside, they snatched the lead in the closing stages to secure a stunning come-from-behind success.
So just how did a hopeless position become a heroic victory for Hartley, Bamber and Bernhard at the famed Circuit de la Sarthe?
"I HEARD IT GO BANG"
The No 2 919 started fourth on the grid behind the leading pair of their Toyota LMP1 rivals and the No 1 Porsche. It remained there and right in the mix as the race entered its fourth hour, before things went awry. With Bamber behind the wheel, the electric motor of the high-tech hybrid machine failed, forcing him to return to the pits so the issue could be assessed. "When I heard it [the engine] go 'Bang' I thought 100 per cent our race was over," Bamber would said afterwards.
THE FIGHTBACK BEGINS
Having spent around an hour in the pits, the No 2 car returned to the track in 59th place and 18 laps down on the leaders. At that point, their goal was simply to push as hard as they could to try and salvage some championship points. Top five, they believed, would be a great effort. But even that, with one lap covering no less than 13.6km and the four other LMP1 class entries so many laps in front, appeared a stiff task.
FORTUNES START TO TURN
Winning the Le Mans 24 Hour is as much about your ability to get to the end of the race as it is about being the fastest. It wasn't perhaps so surprising, then, when their rivals began to run into problems of their own. On the eight-hour mark, the No 8 Toyota was forced to pit from second, losing 30 laps while its front motors were replaced. In the next hour, the remaining two Toyotas were out of the race, the leading No 7 experiencing a major clutch problem and the No 9 hit by an LMP2 car and unable to make it back to the pits with significant drive-train damage.
CAN WE REALLY DO THIS?
Having assumed the lead, the No 1 Porsche had a huge nine-lap lead at the halfway point and an 11-lap buffer as day broke in the French province of Maine. That advantage was a whopping 13-laps to the second-placed car when it too was struck by mechanical gremlins with less than four hours of the race remaining. The oil pressure issue handed the No 38 Oreca LMP2 entry and unlikely lead, but by now the No 2 car was up to fifth, and suddenly just four laps from the front of the race.
FROM DOWN AND OUT TO THE TOP STEP
The chase was on, and it quickly became clear the No 38 car would be struggling to hold off a No 2 machine circulating the track between 10 and 13 faster per lap with Hartley behind the wheel. Bernhard took over for the final stint and with just two hours left he got on the same lap as the leader, a little more than three minutes back. With just 66 minutes left in the 24 hour race, the No 2 car hit the front for the first time. All that was left to do for Bernhard was to extend away, taking the chequered flag with more than a lap to spare and sealing a victory of improbable proportions. "It was unreal. This race is always a roller coaster," debut Le Mans winner Hartley said. "It was an incredible team effort. I'm going to remember this forever."