New 3.8-litre 911 GT3 RSR triumphs at Le Mans 2007
Porsche introduced their new 3.8-litre 911 GT3 RSR (Type 997) for the 2007 season, replacing the 3.6-litre 996 GT3 RSR. In many ways, this new model was a better all-round race car, being more predictable and stable thanks to an increase in body stiffness of ten percent and an improvement in aero efficiency of seven percent. The race car had to satisfy the requirements of races sanctioned by the FIA GT, ACO and IMSA, and so various factors required by these different bodies had to be taken into account during the build and development of the new racer.
The 24-hour race at Le Mans in 2007
Rain was in the air for most of the Le Mans week, as the Thursday qualifying session was completely washed out due to torrential rain. With Thursday’s qualifying times ruled null and void, this meant that the times from the previous session on Wednesday determined the starting order for the race. This just reinforces how important it is to post good times in all sessions…just in case!
For the 2007 race, the number of invited entries was increased from 50 to 55, although just 54 cars sat on the starting grid on race day, all shod with slicks. Although the weather looked friendly enough before the start, some rather dark and threatening-looking clouds began to build towards the south in the afternoon heat. The grid form-up was exciting enough with loads of people everywhere. But such is the Le Mans 24 Hour race, and the build up as a result of all the charged atmosphere down on the grid, is all part of the experience. Right on cue, the marshals somehow managed to persuade the army of invaders to leave the grid in a more-or-less orderly fashion.
Shortly before the hour of 15h00, the first of the cars rolled away from their positions against the pit wall to complete a lap and then to form up on the grid in two straight lines, the cars one behind the other in each line. With about five minutes to go, the pace car led the group of 54 cars around the circuit on the formation lap, weaving and ducking as they warmed up their tyres, all itching to get going like a young dog on the end of a leash. As the armada crawled around the final corner onto the start/finish straight, the pace car peeled off into the paddock, the lights went green and nigh on 30,000 bhp erupted, turning a well-disciplined afternoon into a rather frantic dash for the first corner.
While the LMP1 and LMP2 cars disappeared off into the distance, the GT1 and GT2 classes settled down to contest a much closer fight. A rule change in 2007 required the GT1 and GT2 class cars to be fitted with a five percent smaller air restrictor than they had run in 2006, in order to decrease power. Twelve cars started in the GT2 class, making this a tightly contested class as these cars were closely matched and well-stocked with top quality drivers. For the 2007 race, Tertre Rouge had undergone a makeover, the track being moved inward to create a long flowing curve instead of the single point apex corner that it had been previously. This had the effect of shortening the lap distance by 21 metres.
Our feature car, the #76 IMSA Matmut Porsche GT3 RSR, was driven by Patrick Long, Raymond Narac and Richard Lietz in the GT2 class. This Porsche qualified second in class, just a half a second behind the class pole sitter, the #87 Scuderia Ecosse Ferrari F430 GT2. The #76 Porsche led the class at the end of the first hour as several of the top players in this class yo-yoed over the following hours, but the #97 Risi Ferrari F430 and #93 Autorlando Porsche GT3 RSR were always a threat.
Just past the two-hour mark, the clouds that had been steadily building, deposited their contents in one almighty deluge that left the track around the Esses awash, as the drainage system struggled to cope with the run-off. Shortly after the first storm, Mike Rockenfeller spun his #3 Audi at the exit of Tertre Rouge, hitting the barriers hard, backwards. During the hour that the crew took to repair the barriers, a part of the drivetrain broke in Oliver Gavin’s #64 Corvette while following the safety car, and he was forced to retire. This downpour, however, was just the forerunner of the massive storm that accompanied the cars through the final hours of the race on Sunday, as we will see later.
In the sixth hour, the #76 Porsche suffered a left-rear puncture. Patrick Long, who was at the wheel, drove the car back to the pits even slower than usual in order to ensure a minimum of damage to the car. This deliberate act was on the advice of another driver, who said it was best to return to the track slightly down on where you wanted to be, rather than not at all. Interestingly, Danish driver Lars Erik Nielsen of the Autorlando team commented on the Porsche’s behaviour, “Everything is good up to 100 km/h and it is fine over 200 km/h because the downforce is high, so it keeps you glued to the road. The problem is getting from 100 to 200 and then back down again. That’s the tricky bit!”
Following problems for the two leading Ferraris, the #97 and #87, the lead in the 18th hour passed to the #76 IMSA Matmut Porsche GT3 RSR. Consistently good laps ensured that the #76 Porsche was in a strong position to take the lead when the opportunity presented itself. Another strong rival was the #93 Autorlando Porsche which, just before 09h00 on Sunday morning, pitted with front right bodywork damage as a result of a punctured tyre. A 15-minute pit stop to repair the damage put paid to any chances of a victory for the Italian team.
With around three hours left to run, the skies began to darken, and the heavens opened once again. This brought out the safety car which held the cars at bay for more than an hour, releasing them just in time to finish the race. With just twelve minutes of the race left on the clock, there weren’t any close contests between competitors that could be realistically changed in the remaining time, and so those cars still on track simply ran the clock down. It was a case of staying on the tarmac and not doing anything stupid, just to reach the chequered flag. This resulted in the remaining 29 cars following each other around in a procession of cars until the flag came down to signal the end of the 75th Le Mans 24 Hours.
But, rather than being just a boring end to an eventful endurance race, the end of the race brought much jubilation for the fact that those cars still running had survived some of the wildest weather in recent years.
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