Was Ferrari given the victory? That is why the Le Mans 24h winner received no penalty

Ferrari wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But after the race, the race management is criticized by many motorsport fans. The stewards are even accused of cheating or influencing the race result. Is that right?

The controversial situation occurred at 1:53 p.m., 2 hours and 7 minutes before the end of the race. Nicklas Nielsen in the #50 Ferrari, which later won the race, left his pit and wanted to turn left into the fast lane. But an LMP2 vehicle was already there: the Cool Racing Oreca #37 (Fluxa/Jakobsen/Miyata).

Unsafe release or not? This is what the stewards said

The approaching LMP2 car slammed on the brakes, Nielsen also recognised the danger at the last moment and did not move onto the fast lane. But at that moment the Oreca had already braked. Nielsen then slammed on the brakes before leaving the pit lane and gave way to the Cool Racing car.

The stewards investigated the incident and decided that Nielsen did not deserve a penalty for the incident. In their eyes, it was not an unsafe release, even though they themselves noted that Nielsen had driven off against the instructions of his pit crew.

Their reasoning: Although Nielsen drove to the left, he never entered the fast lane in the pit lane. “Car #50 never entered the fast lane and was never a threat to car #37,” the stewards explained their penalty.

According to the stewards’ argument, #37 slowed down as a precaution, although there was no real danger for him. The video recordings do not allow us to fully assess whether the Ferrari had actually already crossed the line that separates the fast lane from the rest of the pit lane. However, the video footage shows that the #37 car had one car width of space to pass the Ferrari and therefore did not necessarily have to slow down.

Le Mans regulations unclear: What is an ‘unsafe release’ anyway?

The sporting regulations used at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and quoted by the stewards are not particularly informative when it comes to the definition of an “unsafe release”. In one place it is defined that the “car controller” (the lollipop man) is responsible for releasing the vehicle. In another it is defined that cars in the fast lane have priority. No further details are given.

Nielsen certainly fulfilled the latter requirement, as he slowed down and let the other car pass, which the stewards highlighted in their justification. For the stewards, it was apparently not enough for the #37 to react preventively to a possible obstruction and thereby lose time to constitute an ‘unsafe release’.

Incidentally, this was not the first such incident in the race for Nielsen: On Saturday, he received a penalty during his first pit stop for cutting off a Cadillac on the pit exit. He was therefore given a 10-second penalty for the next pit stop.

The stewards’ reasoning is consistent with Sunday’s acquittal: “The stewards decided that car #50 was released from its working area (pit box) in an unsafe manner by failing to yield right of way to car #3 (the Cadillac).” On Sunday, he did so.

Would a penalty have cost Ferrari the Le Mans victory?

But regardless of whether it is worthy of punishment or not, the stewards handed out 10-second penalties for such offences this weekend. The #50 Ferrari with Nielsen ultimately won the race with a 14-second lead over the #7 Toyota, of which he lost around six seconds due to a particularly cautious and fuel-saving driving style on the last lap.

Even after his next pit stop, Nielsen was more than ten seconds behind and would not have lost any additional position in the event of a 10-second penalty. The bottom line is that the winner would probably not have changed even if the Ferrari had been penalized.

Ferrari door endangers victory

The Ferrari victory was ultimately threatened by another action: race control noticed that the Ferrari’s door was open on one side and a little later clearly instructed the team that he would have to pit if he could not close the door. Nielsen was unable to do so and made a pit stop, which forced him to save fuel on the following stint in order to complete the race with just one more pit stop.

Here, too, there is a reference case in the WEC: At the 6-hour race in Spa this year, Neel Jani suffered from the same problem in the Proton Porsche. After three laps, he managed to close the door himself. In Le Mans, Ferrari was informed about the open door on lap 283 and asked to pit on lap 284. Nielsen followed this instruction on the same lap.

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