TF Sport driver Felipe Fraga said that he initially believed his No. 33 Aston Martin Vantage GTE would need to be retired from the 24 Hours of Le Mans after a huge debris-induced tire blowout, only for the team to fight back to finish second in the GTE-Am category.
Fraga, Dylan Pereira and Ben Keating took a podium behind race winners Nicklas Nielsen, Alessio Rovera and Francois Perrodo who shared the No. 83 Ferrari 488 GTE Evo.
TF Sport was aiming to bank its second consecutive Le Mans class victory after Jonny Adam, Charlie Eastwood and Salih Yoluc prevailed last year.
Fraga noted that the team needed to recover from “quite a few problems” in the first quarter of the race, while AF Corse managed to avoid major setbacks to claim the win.
One of the main incidents occurred after six and a half hours, when Fraga was running in the net lead. His Aston Martin ran straight on at the first Mulsanne chicane following a tire blowout and nosed into the tire barriers, resulting in rear-end damage to the car.
Fraga went off moments after Egidio Perfetti had a bigger accident in his Porsche 911 RSR-19 at the same spot. The combined impact of the incidents prompted a safety car.
“I think there was some debris from the track that made Egidio crash,” the Brazilian told Sportscar365.
“I was right behind him, and I saw sparks everywhere from his car. It was like in a video game when the police make those [stinger] barriers. It looked like that.
“He exploded, and what happened? Five seconds after, both of my rear tires also exploded.
“It was something on the track, for sure. It hit both of my rear tires. One did not blow up actually, it was just a puncture, but the other one was massive.
“We went from being one minute ahead, and one safety car ahead, to being two safety cars behind.”
Fraga managed to bring the Aston Martin back to the pits, fearing that the damage to the rear of the car was terminal. However, a repair stop for the team that amounted to double the length of a normal service enabled the No. 33 TF Sport entry to continue.
“After that I came to the box and was sure that we were going to quit the race,” he said.
“I thought it was something more than just the tires. But we came back. There was a safety car because Egidio crashed really hard and then we changed the tires and the rear diffuser.
“After that, the car was good again until the end, even though I hit the barriers pretty hard. We just kept driving.”
Fraga reckoned that while Nielsen, Rovera and Perrodo were collectively fast in the No. 83 Ferrari, his TF Sport crew produced “similar” pace through the second half.
He ultimately felt that the race boiled down to “little things” that gave the AF Corse trio the edge.
“We were leading by one minute and 30 seconds but [after the incident] went to P5, about two minutes and 50s behind the No. 83,” said Fraga, who had already needed to climb back from the mid-pack after contact with another Ferrari in the opening laps.
“At one point we got back together with them again behind the same safety car [nine hours in].
“But then in the race, they did three or four pit stops during slow zones and we didn’t, so it was just these little things that paid off for the win.
“It’s all about track position, pit stops and slow zones. If you do it well, even if you are not the fastest you can win the race. They did pretty well and were probably the fastest.
“They did a good strategy and I didn’t see any problems, but we had quite a few problems in the first six hours of the race.
“It hurts a lot to finish in second, but it’s so special to be here and P2 is not easy. Many cars didn’t even finish the race and we fought hard, so we’re happy.”