89th Running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans 2021
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is a byword for speed. Paired with driving precision, control, and endurance—it’s the on-track battles and heroic driving efforts that keeps its fans enthralled by the action. There is, however, so much more that goes into a successful racing weekend.
In truth, much of the historic race happens out of sight. Mechanics and crew prepare the car and the team long before a single wheel is turned in anger. The essential work happens long before race week at a side of the garage we rarely get to see. Care, practice, and preparation play a huge role in the build-up to the event, but when the flag drops—it’s determination and grit that invariably see you through to the end.
The return of America’s Corvette teams and the expansion of the Hypercar field saw 62 cars testing at the start of the week—one of the largest fields the race has seen so far.
Throughout the test sessions, the No.86 car built its pace lap-by-lap to go into free practice 6th in category. Throughout early sessions, the team managed to continue improving their lap time to climb to 2nd in category and demonstrate a strong outright pace in both car and team.
On Thursday, even the thirteen kilometres of the Circuit de la Sarthe began to feel crowded with 62 cars jostling for position.
For GR Racing, it was a chance to put down a lap time when and where it mattered most. Ben Barker took the car into the first session to put down a lap that took 2nd for the team.
With Le Man’s unique Hyperpole configuration, another blistering lap was needed to secure the team’s place amongst the top six cars in the class. With running underway, Ben Barker did it again, putting in a lap half a second quicker than the last, securing 2nd place and a spot on the front row of the grid beside the No.88 Dempsey-Proton Porsche.
A sensational result for the team and one to enjoy ahead of Saturday’s start. With so much race still to go, however, there was still plenty to be done before the chequered flag on Sunday.
With the main event approaching fast, pressure was beginning to build on teams up and down the grid. In GTE Pro, the No.92 Porsche spun off the track after a rare error by driver Kévin Estre.
With a near-complete rebuild of the No.92 car required before the race—the all-important racing grit required of Le Mans was in heavy use in the Porsche factory garage. Both teams, throughout the race, would require plenty more still.
In the 30 minutes leading to the start of the race, the weather took a dramatic turn that saw torrential rainfall on track. A 4 pm start on this day in August would define the race for the 61 cars that took to the grid.
In near-impossible looking conditions, the 24 hours began behind the safety car for two opening laps. Yet, even with the pace slowed, every car across every category looked to be struggling for grip, tyre temperature, and visibility.
For GR Racing Ben Barker took the car’s opening stint. With a breadth and depth of driving experience, and plenty of racing know-how to go with it, the team’s most experienced driver proved invaluable in treacherous conditions.
With green flag racing underway, chaos seemed to start from the front of the grid and ripple backwards down the field. The No.708 Glickenhaus car, running for the first time in wet conditions, slid off into the first corner and collected the Toyota No.8 car with a heavy impact that damaged both cars.
Both Glickenhaus cars fell down the running order and into the rear of the LMP2 field. The No.8 Toyota recovered to the back of the race with a lot of recovery left to do and a difficult track to work on.
The recovering No.92 Porsche and 2nd placed No.36 Alpine both had spins of their own that saw their race plans upturned again. Few teams made it through the early stages without some incident, near-miss, or loss of position.
The running order seemed to shift dramatically from one turn to the next, with teams dropping down the field and others gradually being promoted up.
Even as the track started to dry following the first chaotic hour of running, few had an easy time on the damp and greasy surface. For the third stint in the No. 86 car, Mike Wainwright took his first shift behind the wheel amongst a field of 61 cars still running.
The trailing Toyota No.8 had fought its way back into 2nd behind its sister No.7 car with the No.36 Alpine also making its way back to third. The Glickenhaus team, with damage to their car, would fight into the evening to make their way back into Hypercar contention against the LMP2 teams.
It was into the race’s 3rd hour that catastrophe struck for the No.86. Damage on track meant an unscheduled stop and a trip into the garage that saw the crew repair the car with what looked like a remarkable running repair in less than 40 minutes in the garage.
The GR Racing car rejoined the track in the fourth hour, 61st place and several laps down on the field. With more than 20 hours of racing still to be run, experience at Le Mans and racing grit were going to prove every bit as valuable as straight-line speed and the car’s outright pace.
Already, as teams raced into the early evening light, drivers were beginning to struggle as challenging conditions continued.
The No.98 Aston Martin Racing car suffered a catastrophic off from 2nd in GTE Am that saw the car withdrawn from the race. The No.99 Proton Competition, No.1 Richard Mille Racing Team and No.32 United Autosports were similarly retired with damage as teams raced into the night at Le Mans.
The GR Racing team continued to put in steady, quick, clean, and consistent lap times to make headway back into the field through the darkest hours. Driver Tom Gamble was proving himself as a Le Mans natural during his first outing in the historic race—a specialist in quick clean laps that saw the No.86 car begin to reclaim lost ground.
By halfway, at 4 am, the team had climbed from 61st to 49th in the field. Maintaining 15th position in a class of 23 GTE Am cars. Once more, the car came into the garage for racing repairs. Rapidly fixed, the car was sent out again by a seemingly tireless race crew who had worked through every hour to keep their car in contention.
Similarly, the Hyperpole stricken No.92 Porsche had fought its way through the night too. The team now in contention against their No.91 sister car for 3rd place on the GTE Pro podium.
Late-night was rapidly turning to early morning and, before long, cars were racing out into the sunlight. In the daylight, the race had an entirely different outlook from the one we left behind the night before.
The early morning fog burned off and conditions were suddenly warm, dry, well-lit, and downright pleasant for the cars remaining on track. Few had taken an easy route to get there, and almost all were harbouring some severe technical issues, but there was a full-length 8-hour race still to be run.
Even with three-quarters of the race run, the battle for the GTE AM win was separated by just 30 seconds on track. A close-fought field with blisteringly fast pace, the strength of this year’s category was readily apparent.
The No.86 GR Racing car had fought back to within striking distance again. Gaining back an armful of laps against the competition, the team ran into the afternoon still in the race and chasing their closest competitors in the No.88 car ahead.
The 89th edition of the 24 Hour of Le Mans proved that the race is about so much more than just outright speed.
The number 8 car, despite issues at every stage in the race, came home 2nd behind the sister No.7 Toyota. Signatech Alpine’s No.36 car took the final podium step with both Glickenhaus cars successfully surviving their first Le Mans outing to ensure the entire Hypercar field successfully finished the race.
In LMP2, there was last lap heartbreak for Team WRT as their No.41 car failed on the final lap. Instead, it was their sister car, the No.31, who took the category win, followed by the No.28 JOTA and No.65 Panis racing.
Having never taken a category win at Le Mans, AF Corse brought home two this year in both GTE Pro with the No.51 and GTE Am with the No.83 car. TF Sport’s No.33 came home 2nd in the Am class followed by the No.80 Iron Lynx.
For GR Racing, the number 86 car overcame near-impossible technical challenges and put in exceptional work both on track and behind the scenes to complete the team’s 6th successive Le Mans Race. The team climbed from 61st place and survived one of the most challenging races in recent memory to finish 43rd on track.
There’s no doubt that for the team’s crew and the exceptional work achieved by all; this year’s Le Mans will be a race, experience, and challenge to remember for all the right reasons.