24 Hours of Le Mans LMP2 class winner Robin Frijns “thought the race was over” for Team WRT’s No. 31 crew after an air jack failure and contact with a GTE car appeared to thwart their chances of victory in the final three hours.
Frijns, Ferdinand Habsburg and Charles Milesi ended up prevailing despite their leading Oreca 07 Gibson encountering a series of late dramas that thrust the sister No. 41 WRT Oreca driven by Robert Kubica, Louis Deletraz and Yifei Ye in a position to win.
The fortunes reversed again when Ye stopped at the beginning of the last lap, enabling Frijns to inherit a lead that he would go on to convert in a thrilling final-lap battle with JOTA driver Tom Blomqvist that was decided by 0.7 seconds.
The No. 31 WRT Oreca held the advantage over its teammate entry heading into Sunday afternoon, only for the air jacks that prop the car up during tire changes to fail.
This forced the Belgian squad to deploy a pneumatic ’emergency lift’ device to push the car up enough to perform tire changes, although only front and rear tires were replaced at each stop to limit the time loss.
When that emergency measure started, Frijns took a new set of Goodyears on the front but was left running on rear tires that were four stints old, resulting in an imbalance.
“They couldn’t change the rears because I was already losing a minute in the pit stop because of the air jack,” Frijns told Sportscar365.
“And obviously the car was completely on the nose because of the new front tires. I drove like that for seven or eight laps and came in to change the rears.
“Then it got even worse, so we lost another 20-25 seconds at the pit stop because we changed the rears without any air jacks.”
More drama was to come for Frijns, who had contact with a GTE-Am Porsche 911 RSR-19 turning into Tertre Rouge. The contact caused damage to the Oreca’s left-rear and added another dimension to the car’s handling issues.
“I felt straight away that the construction of the tire broke,” Frijns explained.
“I could not load the tire on right-side corners. I was sliding around massively. I felt like I lost downforce. I just lost all the pace because something broke on the car.
“I drove an entire stint with a broken left-rear tire. It was the construction: I know how it feels because I’ve had it two or three times in the DTM on the [old] Hankook sidewalls.
“I had that feeling in the car, and that’s how I knew it wasn’t a puncture. So I did a whole stint without losing a lot of time. We changed rears again.
“Meanwhile the fronts were getting old while I had new rears. I was thinking that the car was going to be understeering like a pig, but in two laps I had no rears again. That wasn’t [due to] the tire. That was just downforce.
“Because all of the right-hand corners, I had no downforce and the left-hand was getting tricky as well, very snappy. Like the diffuser or something broke.”
With the No. 31 Oreca clearly struggling, Frijns believed that he and his co-drivers were about to squander their chance of winning after a commanding run through the night.
“At that point, I thought the race was over,” he recalled. “I was very desperate in the car; in a way, I was getting down. And then Blomqvist was flying compared to the pace I had.”
However, a lifeline came when the leading No. 41 car stopped just after the Dunlop Bridge due to a “technical issue” issue that WRT has yet to fully diagnose.
“When I crossed the finish line to start my last lap, the radio was going ballistic saying, ‘the sister car has stopped!” said Frijns.
“I was just securing my P2, but then suddenly you need to secure P1.”
Frijns “Could See” Wild Finish Coming
Frijns noted that he had observed the two Toyota GR010 Hybrids exiting the pits at the same time with three laps to go, which meant he could anticipate how the LMP2 race would end.
On the final lap, Blomqvist tore into the Dutchman’s lead and was on his tail after exiting the Porsche Curves for the final time. At the Ford Chicane, traffic backed up by the Toyotas’ staged finish caused a wild end to the LMP2 battle.
“I knew exactly what was going to happen: they wanted to have their photo finish,” said Frijns.
“All the guys they overtook didn’t want to overtake back because they didn’t want to do an extra lap. I could see it coming.
“I was there behind them for three or four seconds, struggling for pace and struggling to find every tenth I could find.
“And I saw, heading into the last sector, Blomqvist was already 1.2 seconds behind and people were slowing down. What do you do?
“The P2 out of the last corner slowed down, so I turned right and kissed the car on the right. He didn’t expect it and I’m definitely not blaming him for it.
“The rear was sliding away a bit, and then the next thing I see is the checkered flag man in front of me, so I turned hard left again.”
Frijns narrowly avoided the on-track attendant waving the checkered flag. He later suggested that changes to the race-end procedure should be considered if cars are still battling behind a staged finish.
“I fully support the idea that the checkered flag guy is on the finish line because it’s tradition and it looks good for pictures,” he said.
“I’m not saying it needs to be banned next year. But they need to consider if someone is still fighting for P1 or podium positions behind, to speed up or let them go or whatever.
“But don’t drive 80 km/h over the finish line when you have people fighting behind you.”