For anybody who follows motorsport the Le Mans 24 Hours is one of its legendary races, a Blue Riband date on the motorsport calendar. Every year nearly 300,000 people from all over the world descend on the city, tripling its population just to sit and watch the last great European road race. Danes, French, British, Australians, Indians, Italians, Americans, they’ll turn up in their hundreds of thousands as they have for every race since the first in 1923 While the Mille Miglia and Targa Florio might have been consigned to racing’s past, the Le Mans 24 Hours is the last living link to the ‘Golden Age’ of racing, the age of Nuvolari, Moss, Fangio, Chinetti, Hill and all the other Le Mans legends. Le Mans isn’t just another date on racing’s calendar, it’s an event in itself, a happening in its own right.
Legendary teams like Jaguar, Ford, Ferrari, Mercedes and Bentley have raced and won there and, of those legends, greatest of all are Porsche. While British drivers have won more races at Le Mans than any other nationality, Porsche have more race wins than any other team. Great drivers like five-time winner Derek Bell and six-time winner Jacky Ickx have won driving Porsches. Porsche have produced equally legendary cars like the 935, 956, 962 and the fearsome 917 with its frightening power and deafening noise. In the absence of a full factory team, Porsches have regularly picked up wins in the smaller classes with privately-entered 911’s, mostly in the GT3 class.
Well, after many years and their last win in 1998, the Porsche factory team are back. They’ve produced a brand-new car with a brand-new full factory team to make their comeback in 2014. The new car certainly looks fantastic and sounds just as good. But looks and noise don’t put you on the Le Mans podium. Driving skill and, above all, reliability are what it takes to do that. Le Mans isn’t about thrashing your car relentlessly for 24 hours and then walking off with a trophy. It never has been. If you want to finish first, first you have to finish. Nowhere is that more true than at the famed Circuit de la Sarthe.
To be blunt, I’d be surprised if the new Porsche even finishes the 2014 race and I’ll frankly be astonished if it wins. It’s not that Porsche are a poor team, far from it. It’s not as though a brand-new team has never won Le Mans first time out, it wouldn’t be the first time. But there are some massive obstacles in the way of the current Porsche team actually accomplishing that.
For a start, there’s Le Mans experience or, rather, the Porsche team’s lack thereof. A Porsche last won at Le Mans in 1998 and the previous factory team has long since been dissolved. There’ll doubtless be a few people there in 201 who were there in 1998, but most of them will have either retired or moved on to other teams when the factory programme ended.
Then there’s the circuit. The Circuit de la Sarthe is made up mainly of public roads closed only for Test Weekend, practice, qualifying and racing. The ‘Vingt-quatre Heures du Mans’ is one of the last major races still run on public roads and the circuit layout has altered a fair bit since 1998. The only track time Porsche will have before the 2014 race will be at the Test Weekend at the beginning of June before Race Week and practice and qualifying in race week itself. So Porsche will be a brand-new team facing the world’s toughest endurance race with almost no track time and test data. And they’ll be doing that with a brand-new car as well.
Then there’s the opposition. Both Toyota and Audi will field their full factory teams at Le Mans. They’ll bring top-flight drivers, top-flight mechanics, engineers and pit crew, cars that have actually raced at Le Mans instead of having just been at the Test Weekend. Most important of all, Audi and Toyota bring a wealth of experience. And don’t think for a second that either Toyota or Audi will be the slightest bit intimidated by Porsche’s history at Le Mans. They won’t. A marque’s history is exactly that. However illustrious that history may be, it’s still old news. It’s still in the past. When the race starts at 3pm on Saturday, June 14 neither Audi nor Toyota will be living in the past and, if they want a chance of finishing their first Le Mans let alone winning it, the new Porsche factory team won’t have their eyes on past glories either.
I’m as glad to see Porsche return as anybody, although it would be even better if Jaguar and Mercedes could return as well, but I’m not blinded by Porsche’s past glories or their huge brand name. Le Mans plays no favourites, cuts nobody any slack. Whatever the marque’s previous history, if the new Porsche factory team want to be listed among the legends then they’ll have to earn it like anybody else.