Why this year’s rain-soaked Le Mans felt different
It wasn’t just because of the rain that would absolutely soak part of the 8.5-mile course and leave the rest of the track dry. It wasn’t because of the huge, 62-car field, a size that had forced race organizers to turn away entries.
It wasn’t even because Ferrari was competing for the overall win, for the first time in 50 years, back in the “Ford vs. Ferrari” era. And it wasn’t just because Ferrari won, in an incredibly popular victory.
The 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans felt different because it was different.
That difference began way back on January 24, 2020, before a packed and moderately skeptical crowd at the Daytona International Speedway conference room, where IMSA, the ACO, and the WEC announced that they had reached an agreement: There would be a new Prototype sports car that would compete without changes in the top class of IMSA as well as the WEC, and that would include the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” muttered one team representative.
For years, you needed two entirely separate Prototype cars to run in IMSA, and in the WEC and Le Mans, effectively locking IMSA teams out of Le Mans. This agreement would fix that. By Le Mans in 2022, American teams would just need to put their cars on a boat or an airplane and ship them to Le Mans for a chance to run for the overall win, something that hadn’t happened for decades.
COVID intervened, and the introduction of the new car would be delayed until 2023. In IMSA it would be called the GTP car, overseas they would continue to refer to it as the Hypercar.
When the green flag fell last Saturday at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, three Cadillacs and three Porsches, cars that had debuted at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January, were on the grid. Next year they will be joined by a pair of Lamborghinis, and possibly even Acuras, if IMSA can talk the company into competing at Le Mans, with Acura having debuted their car at Daytona but decided to remain stateside.
The Cadillacs and Porsches were joined by a pair of Ferraris that were new for 2023, the first time the company had competed at the top level at Le Mans in decades. They would line up next to a pair of Toyota Hypercars, which had won the race five years straight, and a pair of cars from U.S. entrepreneur Jim Glickenhaus that had been racing at Le Mans. Peugeot also joined the field, along with cars from Alpine and other manufacturers, all built or converted to the new common specifications.
What some doubters had said would never happen, happened. IMSA President John Doonan, who helped pen the agreement that was ratified in August of 2021, was giddy. “Just super pumped,” he told Hagerty from Le Mans, midway through the event. “The media coverage has been so incredibly positive. Really, really happy with how things are going.”
By the time the checkered flag fell Sunday afternoon Le Mans time, multiple manufacturers, including Cadillac, had taken turns at the front of the field, its first time back at Le Mans since a rather halfhearted effort had ended in 2002.
In the end, Ferrari would break Toyota’s streak, though the manufacturer was a close runner-up, with Cadillac third and fourth. It was arguably the most exciting Le Mans since 2000, when BMW, Nissan, and Mercedes ended their participation, and Audi began its long run of domination, succeeded eventually by Toyota.
2023 marks a new era in sports-car racing in general, Le Mans in particular. It was Ferrari’s first outright win in 58 years, and IMSA officials will be lobbying the brand to get the team to race at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in coming years.
Other Le Mans notables
Corvette Racing, in its final full-factory effort before turning the brand over to privateer customer teams next year, won in convincing style after an early suspension problem put the single-car team two laps down. The TV coverage gave a tremendous amount of time to 51-year-old Ben Keating, a gentleman, non-professional driver who owns 28 auto dealerships in Texas, and races for fun.
Keating may be the most accomplished gentleman driver in years. He won his class last year and won the GT class a couple of years before, only to have the victory taken away while he was standing at the Houston airport baggage claim after Le Mans technical inspectors found that his privateer Ford GT’s gas tank contained “about one Coke can too much fuel,” as Keating said at the time.
Team owner Roger Penske, who has trophies from multiple major races but the 24 Hours of Le Mans, entered three Porsches at Le Mans hoping to add one more victory to his resume. But the Porsches suffered both mechanical gremlins and on-track incidents, with ninth the best that one of the Porsches could do in the 62-car field. IndyCar rival Chip Ganassi did collect a trophy from Le Mans, though, as he operates the Cadillac team that finished on the podium.
NASCAR sent a much-modified Chevrolet Camaro Cup car to compete in the exhibition-only, one-car Garage 56 class, much to the delight of the crowd. “Fans love the car,” Doonan said. Drivers were seven-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson, Formula 1 champ Jensen Button, and sports car ace Mike Rockenfeller. The car was almost as quick as the GT cars, running as high as 25th overall, before a lengthy driveline repair sent the car back to 39th in the field. Overall, Doonan said, it was a major success, with some of what the Hendrick Motorsports-led effort possibly ending up in NASCAR as more and more emphasis is placed on road course and street racing.
It was announced earlier that the lone WEC race in the states, which would draw the majority of the Hypercars to America, would no longer be part of the Super Sebring weekend, but would instead run at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin. It’s a blow to Sebring, but they’ll do fine with the traditional Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring next March as a standalone.