It comes as no surprise that more attention was paid to Toyota’s overall win at the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans, with its triumph in the top class this year coming after two heartbreaking losses to Porsche in 2016 and 2017. Toyota also added Formula One’s two-time world champion Fernando Alonso to their driver lineup, hoping that would give them another advantage.
But there was another story that deserved attention too, and it was arguably more hard fought than the bring-a-bazooka-to-knife-fight race that LMP1 has become: Porsche’s definitive finishes in the sports car classes, which were a big deal this year.
(Full Disclosure: Porsche provided a GT3 to get from London to Le Mans and paddock and team access, along with a hotel in France, but Jalopnik paid for travel from America to Europe and other expenses.)
Porsche may have left the top prototype class in 2017 along with corporate cousin Audi—let’s just say they all found themselves suddenly strapped for cash for some weird reason—but they’ve still got a big pack of GTE Pro and GTE Am teams flying their flag.
Plus, 2018 marks Porsche’s 70th anniversary, and the GT lineup for the 86th 24 Hours of Le Mans was a stacked as ever. Sending four factory cars and six customer team cars, this was the strongest effort Porsche has sent to the field in decades. And with the retro liveries for the two 911 RSRs, there was definitely a focus on that history.
Yes, the automaker took a break in the 2000s before returning to the prototype ranks in 2014, and Audi may have won stacks of trophies in its absence, but its 19 overall wins are still the most anyone has captured at Le Mans. I’d argue that when it comes to winning at Le Mans, Porsche’s still the best at it, even if people forget this sometimes.
Having been given access to the team during the race, I wanted to see how Porsche did it.
First You Have To Qualify
Having arrived just in Le Mans in time for a photo briefing ahead of qualifying Thursday evening, it was time to get to work without any touristy stuff. Taking the top two spots in the GTE Pro and three of the top four in GTE Am, it looked to be an exciting opportunity to collect more trophies.
Gianmaria Bruni laid down a 3:47.504 in the 91 911 RSR, which is the fastest qualifying time ever set by at GT car at Le Mans.
Qualifying is no cake walk either, as the American-based GT team’s 94 Porsche 911 RSR discovered, crashing on Thursday night, and having to pull off one Herculean effort to make it to the grid Saturday afternoon.
Friday Driver’s Parade
The teams get to have a little fun and take the pressure off when they hit the city center of Le Mans for the driver parade, but the party doesn’t last long. Yes, rolling through the streets as a team, throwing treats and gifts to fans in the crowd is a good time, but they know there’s a lot of work ahead starting the next day.
Time To Race
Once Saturday rolls around, game faces are on, and the teams are ready to rock. The Le Mans grid is a complete zoo, and somehow they stay focused on the task at hand.
A few smiles and pictures, sure, but everyone knows it’s all business from this time until Sunday afternoon.
And They’re Off
Once the jets fly over and the Tricolour flies, the battle begins on track. The 91 and 92 Porsche RSRs waste no time getting out further in front, and have no intent of letting the Ford GTs and Ferraris behind them catch up.
Two hours in, the 68 Ford GT moves up to second place, but that won’t hold up for long, and after three hours, the 92 Pink Pig makes its move on the 91 to take the GTE Pro lead. Not far back, the 88 and 77 Dempsey Proton Racing 911 RSRs lead the GTE Am class.
Into The Night
Another few more hours would go on, and there would be a few more position swaps, but the GTE Pro and Am classes would both be led by 911s as the night approached.
Sunset is late at Le Mans this time of year, and the darkness doesn’t last long either. Attrition and exhaustion can sneak up on you in the dark, and Le Mans showed no mercy to the American Porsche GT team, forcing the 94 to retire after suspension and chassis damage, after just eight hours.
Night Battles On
With Porsches 92, 91, and 93 in the top three spots in GTE Pro after eight hours, things are looking great... until the 93 has to make a long stop to change an alternator, dropping it way back in the running order. Pit stops for the other cars would continue, and night stints would keep the Porsches out in front in both classes.
Le Mans at night is a special thing. The sounds, the lights, and the cars rushing past create an atmosphere like no other. It’s also one of the most complicated scenes for a driver, as the variety of cars coming from ahead and behind wreak havoc on your reflexes.
Here Comes The Sun
Once the sun rises over the Circuit de la Sarthe, the teams and cars are beaten, but not completely broken. Constant changes in your racing line to either get around or make room for traffic get you off your game, and the 88 Dempsey Proton Racing 911 RSR fell victim to such a moment.
The 92 and 91 Porsches would continue to lead the GTE Pro class, and the 77 Dempsey Proton Racing 911 RSR would also stay ahead of the GTE Am pack. This GTE Am team is no stranger to Le Mans, owned by racer and TV doctor Patrick Dempsey.
They’ve competed at Le Mans since 2013, having reached the podium once with Dempsey at the wheel in 2015. This year, the team wanted a win, and they looked to be in good shape with just a few hours to go.
The Final Stretch
With only a couple hours remaining, the 92 and 91 Porsches looked to be in great shape to take the top two steps on the GTE Pro podium, and the 77 Dempsey Proton crew was well on pace to take their first GTE Am class win too.
The 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans was a race decorated with yellow flags and safety car instances, and probably took some of the fun out of the race itself, but any year at Le Mans is a fight against time just as much as one against the field.
Throw The Checkered Flag
At 3 p.m. the final lap was underway, and after Toyota took the overall win, there were three Porsche GT cars taking podium spots in their respective classes. The 92 “Pink Pig” Porsche 911 RSR piloted by Michael Christensen, Laurens Venthoor, and Kevin Estré would win the GTE Pro class. The 91 Rothman’s liveried 911 driven by Gianmaria Bruni, Richard Lietz, and Frédéric Makowiecki taking second in GTE Pro.
In GTE Am, the 77 Dempsey Proton Racing 911 handled by Matt Campbell, Christian Ried, and Julien Andlauer (at 18, the youngest class winner in Le Mans history) would win their class for the first time.
Of the 10 cars Porsche sent to Le Mans, in the GTE Pro class they finished first, second and eleventh. In GTE Am, they finished first, fourth, sixth, seventh and tenth. Only two of Porsche’s cars had to retire from the race.
That’s a rather successful race weekend for any team or car. And to me, it proves that even if they aren’t running a top prototype anymore, Porsche still does this better than maybe anyone.