Unpredictable since the start of the practice sessions, the weather made life difficult again for the drivers and teams at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. On Saturday afternoon, a heavy shower half an hour before the start forced the teams to switch to wet-weather tyres for the opening laps.
Having started behind the safety car – the first time this has happened in 84 years – the race only really got underway after about fifty minutes. Very quickly, the two Alpine A460s grabbed the top two positions in the LMP2 class. After an hour, the Signatech-Alpine no. 36 held the lead, just ahead of the Baxi DC Racing no. 35.
With the track drying out quickly and more showers forecast, the team had several strategic options available to them as regards tyre choice. Unfortunately, the one chosen proved ill-advised and the Alpine A460s had to come into the pits again. The two cars were therefore down in 12th and 15th places respectively after two hours of racing.
At that point, the weather forecast indicated that there would be no further showers. Behind the wheel since the start, Nicolas Lapierre and Nelson Panciatici wasted no time in making up ground. They handed over to Gustavo Menezes and Ho-Pin Tung respectively, and then to Stéphane Richelmi and David Cheng, who all made valuable contributions.
At 9pm, with a quarter of the race gone, Gustavo Menezes held second position in the no. 36, whilst Ho-Pin Tung had fought back into the top 10 in the no. 35.
The team really laid the foundations for the win overnight, not hesitating to alter its race strategy in response to on-track incidents. For example, when the safety car was introduced, Philippe Sinault's team took advantage of the lull to bring the no. 36 into the pits for a full check-up, knowing little time would be lost.
After grabbing the category lead, Nicolas Lapierre handed over driving duties to Gustavo Menezes. On his first appearance at the famous Le Mans race, the Californian produced an impressive performance during the three hours he spent behind the wheel. He took the Signatech-Alpine car clear of their closest rivals as he built up a healthy lead! When he handed over to Nicolas Lapierre at around 4am on Sunday morning, the performance was applauded by the fans gathered in the garage.
A few moments later, Ho-Pin Tung enjoyed the same welcome after having also completed a quadruple stint marked by speed and consistency. After taking the car up to sixth position, the Chinese driver was replaced by Nelson Panciatici at the wheel.
Continuing at the same relentless pace, the Frenchman gained another two places as the sun came up on Sunday morning. However, the no. 35 car's race ground to a halt at 7.05am, after crashing off the track, seemingly due to a mechanical problem. After hitting the wall at the Forza chicane, Nelson had no choice but to retire.
Once they got over the disappointment, the team shifted their attention to the no. 36 car, which held a one-lap lead at that stage. Maintaining a consistent pace despite the heavy traffic, Stéphane Richelmi consolidated the work of his team-mates by driving for the majority of the morning.
Nicolas Lapierre then had the responsibility and honour of crossing the finishing line. After another three impeccable stints, the members of the Signatech-Alpine team were able to celebrate joyfully this historic achievement, a first-ever win at Le Mans.
For Alpine, this win adds another line to its already impressive competitive record. Everyone involved with French motorsport remembers, with great pride, the overall win of the A442B driven by Didier Pironi and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud in 1978. This LMP2 victory is Alpine's seventh category win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and its second-best overall result at the world-famous race.
Thanks to the double points at this 24-hour race, the Lapierre/Menezes/Richelmi crew is now the clear leader of the FIA Endurance LMP2 Trophy. Signatech-Alpine is now also the sole leader in the teams' standings.
Michael van der Sande, Managing Director of Alpine: "Today's LMP2 win at the 24H of Le Mans shows the extraordinary strength and commitment of the racing partnership between Signatech and Alpine, set up by Philippe Sinault and Bernard Ollivier four years ago. It shows what trust and mutual respect can lead to.
On behalf of all of us at Alpine, congratulations to the whole Signatec-Alpine team. Ahead of the launch of the new Alpine road car in 2017, we could not have wished for a better way of fueling the passion of Alpine fans world-wide.
Alpine is back, on the track and soon on the road as well!"
Bernard Ollivier, Alpine Deputy Managing Director: "We have always said that our aim was to win the LMP2 category at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. To achieve this, we formed a winning partnership with the Signatech-Alpine team, made up of six complementary drivers, two very quick Alpine A460s and an experienced technical team. We were on the pace from the first practice sessions, and were in contention for pole position. During the race, the drivers competed with real panache and managed to make up positions as the race unfolded. Panache is an essential value for Alpine and I think we showed it once again this weekend. What could be better than this superb win to support the renaissance of Alpine in 2016 with the unveiling of the new production model? Congratulations to Nicolas [Lapierre], Gustavo [Menezes] and Stéphane [Richelmi] for this great performance, the effects of which will be felt all around the world. Like everyone in the team, the only thing I regret is that one of our cars didn't make it to the finish. We feel sorry for Nelson [Panciatici], who was in the process of making a great fightback, and his team-mates David [Cheng] and Ho-Pin [Tung]. They will have other opportunities to show their worth at the forthcoming rounds of the FIA WEC."
Philippe Sinault, Signatech-Alpine Team Principal: "For a lot of people, this win was more or less wrapped up even before the start and I think that put us under a bit of pressure. We had to remain grounded and treat this great twenty-four hour race with the respect it deserves. At the same time, we couldn't just play a waiting game, because experience shows that you can't win the LMP2 class with that kind of approach. Once again this year, the night separated the men from the boys. On our side, we tackled the difficulties of racing overnight by maximising the track time of Nicolas [Lapierre] when the conditions were at their trickiest. Our settings were also more adapted to the cooler temperatures you typically get at night. On their side, Gustavo [Menezes] and Stéphane [Richelmi] drove perfectly, without making even the slightest error. It was an incredible performance on their debut here! I'm proud to have won this race with the hardcore of a team that I helped form some twenty years ago. It's a fantastic win that we are going to savour and celebrate. It would have been a perfect weekend had the no. 35 car made it to the end. Nelson [Panciatici] was entirely blameless for the off. He was caught out by a mechanical issue, the cause of which we have yet to establish."
35 BAXI DC RACING ALPINE
Nelson Panciatici: "It's obviously frustrating to end the race like that. We don't really know what happened to the car, but I found myself without brakes coming into the Forza chicane. I ran across the gravel and into the wall. It's a shame because we were making up good ground and had the potential to hunt down a place on the podium. On a personal level, it was undoubtedly my best performance at Le Mans. I think I was one of the fastest on the track."
David Cheng: "We know that motorsport can be unpredictable and this is all the more the case at Le Mans. The car was working really well until this morning and we were setting a strong, consistent pace. Unfortunately, Nelson had a mechanical issue. These things happen. The positive side is the potential we have shown in such a strong field. I only have one thing on my mind: come back next year! And before that, we have the rest of the WEC season to prove our worth."
Ho-Pin Tung: "I really enjoyed driving the car, especially at night when we decided to switch from three to four stints with the same set of tyres. I had a good rhythm, even though it wasn't always easy to find a way through the traffic. I also had a few scares, such as when two cars clashed just in front of me on the karting corner! But I managed to get past them. As time went by, we moved up the standings. So it was frustrating to have to retire when we were in such a good position."
36 SIGNATECH- ALPINE
Nicolas Lapierre: "This is a very emotional win for me. Representing Alpine at Le Mans is really very special, but I'm also very happy to have joined Philippe's [Sinault] team since the start of the season. Our race had a few hiccups here and there, like our tyre strategy at the start of the race, which wasn't ideal for the opening laps. But we had the fastest car and were able to make up time lost off the track. In the end, I think this win is as much down to the qualities of the team and my team-mates as it is to my own performance. Gustavo and Stéphane did an incredible job; they adopted the mindset you need to do well at Le Mans."
Gustavo Menezes: "My knowledge of Le Mans was limited to the videos I had seen on the Internet, but it was one of my life's ambitions to race here. Winning on my first appearance is totally incredible. Everybody had to give their absolute maximum and keep a cool head in order to win here. The result is not down to luck, it has come through a lot of hard work. There's no better feeling than this. It's a dream come true. I drove for three long periods: a triple, a quadruple and then a triple stint. Between my time on track, I didn't sleep much as I wanted to make the most of the experience. The car was perfect, with very predictable handling and even tyre wear. That made our job that bit easier. At the finish, standing on the podium of this race is the best feeling in the world!"
Stéphane Richelmi: "For the last three weeks, the team has done a great job preparing for this 24 Hours of Le Mans. It's just incredible to be able to bring home this win for them and for Alpine. We undoubtedly started the race as favourites, but we tried not to think about it, in order to stay focused. Personally speaking, I have really enjoyed spending time with Nicolas and Gustavo in the chalet that we have been sharing in the evenings. I'm also very pleased to have now won at Monaco (Editor's note: GP2 in 2014) and at Le Mans. These are the races that count the most in my opinion. It gives me the desire and motivation to keep going and try to achieve further success with this fantastic team."
LMP2 standings – 24 Hours of Le Mans
1. Signatech-Alpine no. 36 – 357 laps
2. G-Drive Racing no. 26 +2:40.640
3. SMP Racing no. 37 +4 laps
4. Strakka Racing +6 laps
5. Eurasia Motorsport +9 laps