24 Hours of Le Mans 2020

24 Hours of Le Mans 2020
Photo by Erik Junius

Nothing defines a race event quite like its rhythm. An ebb and flow between outright pace and abundant caution to get the most out of a car and its drivers over full race distance. It’s precisely why the 2020 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be very well remembered for many decades to come.

This 88th edition of the 24-hour race had its unique rhythm disrupted for many reasons this year, some intentional—others not. Since the race began, in 1923, only three events have taken place outside of the traditional mid-June billing. The most recent, in 1968, a September event which brought a historic Le Mans victory and whole new era to the Gulf Racing team.

Amongst this year’s changes was the introduction of Hyperpole. The format, a top 6 qualifying shoot-out in every category, encouraged high-speed action and an early climactic event before the Saturday race had even begun.

Close Battles In WEC’s Very First Hyperpole

Both LMP2 and GTE Am deserved particularly close attention this year. With 22 teams in each category, many of them capable of strong race results, the racing was always going to deliver close-fought battles and plenty of on-track action.

Photo by Porsche Newsroom

In qualifying, Racing Team Nederland’s 29 qualified in first, carving out time ahead of the 22 car of United Autosports. Both teams had strong pace, maintaining momentum built from podium finishes at Spa just one month ago. The 86 Gulf Racing set blistering times of its own to secure a comfortable third place and a safe ticket for Friday’s showcase event.

When Friday came around racing momentum had shifted once again. The 22 car won out ahead of the 16 G-Drive and 3rd place 29. Toyota, looking to dominate at the font of the field, were split by the number one Rebellion and an exceptional lap time. The number seven car, just shy of setting a swansong lap record in the final year before Hypercars are introduced into the field.

Photo: Porsche Newsroom

Luzich Racing’s Ferrari took pole position in GTE Am, narrowly beating out the 77 Dempsey-Proton and 71 AF Corse. Gulf Racing crossed the line to start Saturday’s race in 6th, close behind the number 90 TF sport and 98 Aston Martin.

A Clean Slate

Reset must have been the word on many driver’s minds from Friday night into Saturday morning. Overnight rain washed down the track thoroughly and completely between racing sessions. Organisers could have scarcely ordered a greener surface to go racing on.

At 14:30 the race got underway and instantly into a rate of attrition which nobody seemed able to solve or explain. The 29 car and 36 Signatech Alpine both suffered first-lap issues, forcing them immediately into the garage and well down the running order. Throughout the field cars appeared to suffer with both electronics and mechanical parts calling time 23 hours too early.

No car looked as comfortable on track as the number seven Toyota out front. The team had found a rhythm to work to their advantage and pulled out a comfortable lead over the rest of the field. Number eight had no such luck, falling to 4th with a puncture and left searching for answers very early-on.

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The opening hour set up battles which would come to define Le Mans 2020. United Autosports’ 32 and 22 cars were trading times and positions with the 33 High-Class Racing and the 39 Graff cars. Aston and Ferrari were in a close battle for GTE pro which would continue from start to finish. 22 cars looked more than capable of contesting the GTE Am battle, the toughest looking fight taking place on track.

Those first few hours were defined, above all, by outright pace. The opening daylight stint was only interrupted by occasional slow zones as several more cars were caught out by dreaded mechanical failure, excursion into the gravel, or both. Without an early safety car, or full course yellow to temper the race, the pace remained relentless towards the night time hours.

Through slow-zone issues, penalty, and even a rapid pit-stop door change, the Gulf Racing car fell back in the opening stints to run outside of the top 10 as golden hour started to descend earlier than the conventional racing hour. Despite so many early technical issues and mechanical troubles, 58 of the 59 starting cars had made it into the night.

Nightfall At Le Mans

Almost no sooner had darkness fell than the shape of the race changed again. The 52 Ferrari suffered a heavy crash, one which which brought out the event’s first safety car. Teams limping on early issues and with work still to do set about making rapid running repairs with the pace temporarily slowed.

As often happens in endurance racing, a single racing incident triggered many more issues as cars suffered from mechanical failure and electronic bugs coming to the surface. It took 30 minutes before the track was green and just a handful more before the number 4 ByKolles crashed out and brought out another safety car again. After several hours of high-speed running, the race had taken on a brief stop-start staccato with whole new challenges to contend with.

30 more minutes of safety car running got racing underway once again. Consistent reliability and steady pace were beginning to turn the tide for cars struggling in early stints.

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Gulf made strong progress and gained places up through the field. Andrew Watson took over from Mike Wainwright, taking the car out into the first full night stint during his debut Le Mans appearance.

After eight hours of running the pace was only getting faster and racing ever more perilously close. Less than seven seconds separated the top four in LMP2. Rebellion ran 2nd at the front with the number eight Toyota chasing them down. The number seven car looked calm, comfortable, and in control of the race. Aston and Ferrari continued to trade places both on-track and in the pits as performance and rhythm would ebb and flow from one team to the other and quickly back again.

By half distance Gulf had fought back to 6th position with some strong night stints and good pace in cool conditions. In GTE Pro, one driver called the night’s racing “the hardest laps they had ever done in Le Mans”. United Autosports led 1-2 with the 32 car leading the LMP2 field.

By the time daylight came around again it was all-change once more for many. The rhythm of the race had shifted again and no team was safe from its effects.

Toyota’s number seven car, which had led from Hyperpole with ease, suffered a turbo failure which left them in the garage for a 30-minute repair. The number eight now led handily with the seven looking unlikely contenders for even a podium position.

The 32 car suffered mechanical issues of their own, leaving their sister car to lead the LMP2 field instead. By sunrise, 10 cars were confirmed out, a few were terminally stricken, and a several continued in perilous running condition.

The End Of A Long Le Mans Night

The pace continued increasing as cars sped out into the morning stints and towards the closing hours of the race. Gulf left the night in 5th after maintaining a strong pace through the dark hours. Rebellion ordered their cars to hold station, car three ahead of one, for the final two podium positions. Le Mans, as always, had its own ideas.

Hour after hour of high-paced running ended when momentum began to shift once again. Clutch issues left both Rebellions struggling to leave the pits, the number three car losing valuable seconds to its closest competitor and sister car. Before long it would be losing valuable minutes to the chasing Toyota too.

Photo: Porsche Newsroom

The last hour of the 2020 race will be one remembered in Le Mans lore for many years to come. A major impact with the barriers for the 99 Dempsey-Proton car forced one more slow zone; changing the rhythm of the race once more. Again, successive failures and racing disasters closely followed the abrupt change of pace.

The 4th place 26 and 39 Graaf failed out of contention in the closing minutes. The safety car deployed one more time to set up 20 minutes of sprint racing which would cap an endurance epic.

Dempsey-Proton’s 77, AF Corse’s 83, and Team Project 1’s 56 traded places and paint as they battled for the podium.

The number eight car reached the flag after 387 turbulent laps of Le Mans, one stint shy of the outright record. The number one and number seven followed to make up the two remaining podium steps. Rebellion’s final WEC race rewarded richly with a second-place Le Mans trophy.

In LMP2, the 22 crossed the line ahead of the 38 Jota and 31 Panis Racing in a field full of upsets and triumphs. Aston’s 97 ultimately won out over the Ferrari 51 for GTE honours, with the 95 car taking the final podium step.

An exceptional drive saw the 90 TF Sport take 1st in the AM category ahead of the 77 Dempsey-Proton and 83 AF Corse. Gulf Racing crossed the line in 5th place to equal their best ever Le Mans performance to date.

The Gulf Racing Team
Photo by Erik Junius

In a season and year where the legendary historic race may well have never taken place, finding the ways and means to go racing at Le Mans again felt somehow more important than ever. While missing a lot: Corvette, Ford, and 250,000 fans or so; that it happened at all, in the final year before major changes in both rules and cars, made it a race even more special than it already was.

To come home 5th with some stints and drives which will make careers and create legendary tales is just simply the bonus which caps an incredible week at the track. In a race defined by finding rhythm, maintaining momentum, and gathering pace, Gulf racing did far more than find their own in a race which proved to be far more challenging than most.