A few moments after Porsche took the wraps off its new-look 2015 Porsche 919 Hybrid LMP1 at Paul Ricard last March, team boss Andreas Seidl was wandering around one of the cars, seemingly lost in thought.
“Tough winter, Andreas?” I enquired. He rolled his eyes, gave a shrug. “Yes indeed, but I think it will be worth it.”
Fast forward three months, and after a brace of dramatic WEC defeats at Silverstone and Spa, Porsche was under increasing pressure to start delivering.
Meeting the challenge
At Le Mans they did just that, and then some.
Ten minutes or so after the podium ceremony, Seidl was walking alone at the back of the pits with trophy in hand and reeking of champagne. Glassy-eyed, he spoke candidly, yet still with an otherworldly fatigue; one that only Le Mans can bestow.
“It is difficult to find the words after all the hard work we have put in over the last few years,” he said. “We never expected to have a race here at Le Mans without any technical issues on three cars and to be trouble free. We have never achieved that before, but we knew that we were much better prepared than we were last year as a team, for sure.
“We knew from testing that something could happen at any time and as we saw at Spa all the manufacturers had problems,” he continued. “So to have a race like this without any problems shows we have evolved a lot as a team with the race strategy, engineers, drivers and mechanics. It was sensational.”
Performing at the right time
What a remarkable admission to state the cars had not run cleanly for 24 hours until that very weekend. But now they had done it, and 17 years after its last victory at La Sarthe Porsche reigned again.
Seidl was equally erudite on the astonishing performance his trio of Le Mans LMP debutants – Nico Hulkenberg, Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy - put in that weekend in June.
“I expected a high level from them, this is why they were selected,” he said matter of factly. “They all did test laps before (for selection), apart from Nico (Hulkenberg), so we knew we had the best, but that they could deliver this intensity here, we did not expect it to be that high – no.”
While Hulkenberg and Bamber were both superb at Le Mans, Nick Tandy’s early morning quadruple stint was as sublime performance of controlled aggression seen at Le Mans in recent times.
Some of us in the media centre watched with awe between 12.15 and 03.15 as the lap times played tricks on our eyes:
Lap 165 – 3m18.674s
Lap 166 – 3m20.992s
Lap 167 – 3m19.980s
Lap 168 – 3m20.764s
Lap 169 – 3m20.291s
Lap 170 – 3m20.681s
At approximately the same time as Tandy was embarking upon a series of laps just like the above example, Marcel Fassler in the No.7 Audi was unable to get within 1.5 seconds of Tandy’s pace.
It was revelatory stuff from the No.19 crew and despite a near miss in the morning after the briefest of touches (by Hulkenberg) pitched Roald Goethe’s Aston Martin in to a dreadful accident; it was as close to perfection a Le Mans you could possibly wish for.
How did they bridge the gap to Audi?
The still un-answered question was how they found the advantage they did, particularly in the cooler temperatures of midnight to 7am. Getting four stints from the tyres while maintaining the pace was one aspect, quick fuel stops another, and the incessant pace of all three drivers probably the defining, bonding attribute.
From Le Mans onward Porsche stretched away and wrapped up the manufacturers title with a round to spare.
When Mark Webber nervously crossed the line to take the chequered flag at Bahrain the set was complete. Porsche had reached the promise land, and most impressively of all they had done it after only two seasons of competition. It was a colossal collective team effort, one that will remain in the memory for years to come.
Audi did put up a spirited fight, but it wasn’t enough. The delicious prospect now lies in the Ingolstadt marques response in 2016. As the FIA WEC continues to grow, endurance racing at the top level has never been healthier, and Porsche has to take a good deal of the credit for that.