United Autosports and Team WRT were left ruing an incident at the first turn of the 24 Hours of Le Mans that had implications on the rest of the race for both LMP2 teams.
Will Owen’s No. 22 United Autosports Oreca 07 Gibson shot off-track and into the gravel after getting squeezed between the WRT Orecas of Ferdinand Habsburg on the left and class pole-sitter Rene Rast on the right.
The collision had knock-on effects for both previous LMP2 class-winning entries, with Rast’s No. 31 car incurring a one-minute penalty for causing a collision and the United car incurring damage.
Neither fully recovered from the Lap 1 drama as JOTA dominated with its No. 38 Oreca.
Owen felt that Rast’s actions just after the start were aggressive and that his United car, which ultimately finished tenth, had a right to be alongside the WRT machine heading into the first corner.
“From the green light I was almost alongside Rast,” the American driver said. “I had to start a little bit back because of the way the rows worked.
“But I had a decent start and was just staying there right next to him.
“I looked behind me and I saw in the mirror the blue car [of Habsburg] moving to the left. I saw him go there. I was aware of that and that he had a run.
“The blue car was closing in a little bit, but I was just managing the gap. Then suddenly Rast just completely turned left aggressively, like something you would never do in a straight line.
“That’s how you cause accidents, honestly. I couldn’t even react fast enough before I hit the blue car on my left and was just in the gravel.
“Of course, it took five or six minutes to get the car unstuck. That was quite a setback.”
WRT’s sporting director Thierry Tassin backed his driver Rast over the lap one incident.
“The cars on the second row were alongside Rene Rast where they should have been a row behind as the race director briefing says,” he suggested.
“The cars on the second row should stay on the second row until they cross the line. The 22 was in front of Rene Rast when they crossed the [start] line.
“Then Rene moved and touched, which he was penalized for. He got a one-minute stop-and-go penalty but at the same time that pushed [Habsburg in the] No. 41 off and it had a puncture and tail damage.
“41 lost a lap and 31, because of the one-minute stop-and-go, was on the back foot.”
Tassin explained that recovering from the early drive-through was a tall order despite strong pace from the mechanically undamaged car.
Its race ultimately came to an abrupt halt in hour 19 when Robin Frijns looped into the left-side barriers after touching a wheel in the gravel at Indianapolis.
“We were crazy unlucky with the slow zones,” Tassin said. “The 38 [JOTA] got through the slow zones and when we arrived, there was the incident: we had the slow zone.
“The gap was one minute 30 [seconds] and became two minutes. Then two minutes and 30 and we said, ‘c’mon it’s not possible’.
“Then we had a lot of problems. In the end, the crash, we were in trouble.”
Tassin added that “everything went well until the start of the race” for WRT, which opened its 2021 race win defense by taking pole with Frijns.
“We were lucky last year; we didn’t realize how lucky we were last year to win,” he said.
“I knew we were lucky and this year we’re unlucky.
“In French, you say it’s a domino effect. The start [incident] made everything more complicated. We were struggling with a lot of details. It just wasn’t our day.”
In the United camp, the team’s No. 22 car took a long time to rebound from the clash.
Its sister No. 23 Oreca picked up the baton and reached the top three courtesy of a strong first stint from Alex Lynn, until tire delaminations reversed those early gains.
Drive-through penalties for an unsafe release and overtaking in a slow zone contributed to more lost time, making sixth a welcome result in light of the delays.
The No. 22 Oreca, meanwhile, had a drive-through for speeding in a slow zone. Then, during the 20th hour, Phil Hanson parked up on the run out of Mulsanne without power after a large piece of rubber hit the emergency kill switch.
“It’s a tragedy that an entire year’s worth of hard work and preparation ends before we make it to the first corner,” Hanson said.
“I want to say that’s racing but it wasn’t sadly – this race will leave a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.
“We showed good pace despite a very damaged car which had a significant impact on the straights.
“I’m already looking ahead to Monza where we’ll be fighting very hard because we have absolutely nothing to lose.
“I think that’s it for us in terms of the championship mathematically.”