A British race preparation outfit and a team founded by a world-famous movie star joined forces to fight Porsche for victory at Le Mans
Matt Burt
22 June 2017

Porsche was on the ropes, Toyota was in disarray and with less than two hours remaining in the Le Mans 24 Hours on Sunday 18 June, the most surprising result in the race’s 94-year history looked to be tantalisingly possible.

Despite competing in the second-tier LMP2 category and giving away a significant performance advantage to the top LMP1 prototypes, the Jackie Chan DC Racing entry driven by Ho-Pin Tung, Oliver Jarvis and Thomas Laurent was leading the race. 

Chasing the underdog was the number two Porsche 919 Hybrid. The other multi-million-pound LMP1 hybrids from Porsche and Toyota had already hit serious trouble, leaving the Oreca-Gibson – an off-the-peg chassis and engine combination costing around £500,000 – at the front.

True, the remaining Porsche was using its additional ability – including about 400bhp of extra power, better fuel economy that enabled it to go longer between pitstops and more effective aerodynamics – to take about 10sec per lap out of the petrol-only Oreca’s lead with each passing lap.

But catching the Oreca before the end of the race was going to be a close-run thing: even the German giant’s own race strategists were extrapolating that their car might only be on the tail of the leader on the race’s final lap. This, it seemed to the hundreds of thousands watching on television and at trackside, was going to be a nail-biting finish.

Inside the Jackie Chan DC Racing pit garage, however, a different side of the story was brewing. Sam Hignett, team principal and director of JOTA Sport, the Kent-based preparation team that runs the Chinese Jackie Chan DC Racing entry, was keeping everyone focused on the main objective: victory in the LMP2 category.

Early in the Oreca’s history-making spell in the lead, Hignett and the JOTA Sport squad knew what the world, and Porsche, did not: the leading car would need a time-consuming rear bodywork change during its next visit to the pits for fuel and tyres. The rear lights had failed and if an eagle-eyed Le Mans official spied the problem, the team could be penalised, something that would jeopardise the precious lead over LMP2 rivals.

It was deemed wise to remedy the issue at a routine stop, even if the extra 30-40sec effectively sacrificed any hope of outright victory. 

“We were aware that Porsche was going to get ahead during that next hour, but it was quite fun listening to everybody trying to work out when they were going to pass us,” says Hignett. “The big boss of Toyota came up to me after the race and said one of the greatest moments was seeing the Porsche having to really hustle to try to catch us, because Porsche didn’t know about our longer scheduled pitstop, so they really had to get on with it. We were the only people who knew about the longer stop at that stage. It was a great fantasy for a moment, but the reality was otherwise.”

Earlier that morning, Hignett had experienced a “feeling of disbelief” when Porsche’s number one car – which had a 13-lap lead – ground to a halt with less than four hours remaining. With the number two 919 Hybrid still recovering from serious delays suffered earlier in the race and Toyota’s three LMP1 cars already out of contention, the Jackie Chan DC Racing car was best placed to take over the lead.

“I was sitting with our engineers watching the screens at the time and when we saw the Porsche slowing, it didn’t really dawn on us what that meant,” he says. “But when André Lotterer got out of the 919 Hybrid, I remember just looking at the engineers. We didn’t need to say anything. It was very funny – nobody talked about it, but we all knew. It was a good moment.

“We had a chat over the radio involving all the team and said to the guys ‘Where we are in the race is amazing, but our focus has to remain on winning LMP2’. With leading the race, we became the most popular team in the pitlane, which is something that we have never experienced before.”

As a long-time LMP2 entrant, JOTA Sport is used to operating away from the fierce glare of publicity that’s endured by the big factory LMP1 teams. Suddenly, though, Jackie Chan DC Racing was the toast of the pitlane, and that brought with it unfamiliar pressure.

“I now understand the difficulties that Porsche, Toyota and those guys have with the press,” says Hignett. “We were swamped with people. There was an extraordinary amount of pressure on the crew when they had TV crews around them all of a sudden. 

“Full credit to the mechanics and the engineers: they took it in their stride, even though they were shattered by that point of the race. We hadn’t had the best run-in to the race, so the guys had had to work through the night on Friday as well, so the last time some of the crew had seen their beds was Thursday. It was really tough.”

Knowing about the impending bodywork change during the next pitstop released some of that pressure on Jota Sport, and when the Porsche 919 Hybrid swept past the Oreca-Gibson and into the lead with one hour to go, an air of relative normality returned and the team knuckled down to bring home the LMP2 spoils – and a remarkable second place overall. 

It wasn’t as if the number 38 car was enjoying a completely trouble-free run, either. The three drivers had been nursing a dragging clutch since the eighth hour. Allied to this, they had lost time with a starting issue (traced to a faulty aircon unit draining the battery) in the early stages of the race and a further delay had occurred when Laurent went off at Indianapolis Corner on Saturday, damaging the Oreca’s front bodywork.

Besides all that, this was a race where many had predicted that the second-tier prototypes would struggle. This was the first Le Mans 24 Hours for the latest breed of LMP2s, all powered by the 4.2-litre V8 Gibson engine. None of the competitors in the 25-strong class at Le Mans had used their new cars in anger for longer than six hours.

“Prior to the race, everybody was having a bet on how few LMP2s would finish,” says Hignett. “Some expected less than half of them cars to make it. It wasn’t the case at all, and most of those that didn’t make it were taken out in accidents. This is a new generation of LMP2 cars and for us to dominate Le Mans like that is a great testament to our team’s technical staff and everything they’ve done.”

Jota was confident that the pace of its two cars would stand it in good stead during the race, but for the number 38 entry to spend such little time in the pits – and no time at all having more significant repairs in the garage – was a brilliant performance that for Hignett feels almost as good as a victory.

“LMP2 is like a mid-grid Formula 1 championship in terms of driver ability, so there is very little in it, but if we can achieve the minimum pitstop time and have no cars visit the garage during the race – that’s really something for us to be proud of,” he says.

“We were confident we would be on the pace. There were three or four other cars on the grid that were as good as us on pace sometimes, but as an average – and Le Mans is all about averages - across our three drivers, we were confident that we had most of our LMP2 rivals covered off. It really was just a question of reliability and then, as always at Le Mans, you need a huge dose of luck with accidents and the other things that can befall you.”

Luck may have played its part, but it would be uncharitable to say that was the only factor at play. Everyone involved with Jackie Chan DC Racing hit their marks during the race.

Jota has a history of performing strongly at Le Mans, having finished fifth overall in 2014, but last Sunday’s achievement is likely to remain stamped in the record books for some time. It marked the first time a car from the second-tier LMP2 class has led the famous race, and the first time a car shod with Dunlop tyres had led for 20 years. Tung became the first Chinese competitor to stand on the Le Mans podium, and Jackie Chan DC Racing was the first Chinese entrant to do likewise. 

The second entry, driven by team co-founder David Cheng, Tristan Gommendy and Alex Brundle, finished fourth on the road and third in the LMP2 category. However, the car in second place, the number 13 Rebellion entry, was subsequently disqualified for a technical infringement, leaving the Jackie Chan DC Racing cars second and third overall, and first and second in LMP2.

It’s a remarkable achievement for the team co-founded by Hollywood action hero Chan, not least because it only joined forces with Jota Sport at the start of this season.

For Hignett and Jota Sport, there has been no time to bask in the Le Mans result. The Le Mans trophies have been airfreighted to China for a two-week promotional tour also involving some of the drivers. The day after Le Mans, his engineering team sent him an email requesting permission to do some additional testing to bolster its LMP2 push in the World Endurance Championship. 

“We took some valuable lessons away from Le Mans. We’re on top of our game in LMP2 but we need to do our very best to get that championship trophy too,” he says.

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Comments
3

23 June 2017
Great excitement this year with the 'will it, won't it' LMP2 win and the even more exciting finale to GTE-Pro. I think this was the final nail in the LMP1 coffin, though. The P1 podium was embarrassing with only two teams there and muted applause. Toyota seem more committed to LMP1 than Porsche, before the race anyway, and I'm not sure the Germans will be there next year.

The GT class was the most entertaining, visually and aurally, and whilst the P2s were clearly quick and very loud they all use the same engine so can become wearing after a while. I think a different direction with the rules than the one proposed is needed. Honda, Cadillac and Mazda race elsewhere to prototype rules, more top flight manufacturers need to brought in as I can't get super excited about independent teams with mostly unknown drivers.

The campsites were noticeably quieter this year, perhaps a result of the smaller P1 field and huge influx of P2 entries? But us campsite experts thought the success of the exciting GT classes should be expanded to something like the late 90s with these cars on steroids...CLK/F1/GT One etc....


23 June 2017
exciting race (only watched on TV not attended sadly). Current LMP1 hybrid class sureley dead - Porsche withdraw due to budget and pointless for Toyota to carry on on its own. Toyota have several models they could build to Gte spec though - New Supra, Lexus LC\RC - lets hope they continue to race but in GT

23 June 2017
LMP1 could look quite different next year as there are said to be six or more privateer cars (including Ginetta and Ligier chassis) being developed for the race. They won't be nearly as fast as the manufacturer hybrids, but would have taken a clean sweep if they'd been there this year.

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