If you were to recall one single livery that comes to your mind when you think of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, what livery would that be? When you pose this question to most motorsport fans, the answer you get is simple. Nearly every single person will say Gulf. That iconic blue and orange livery and those lovely looking Porsche 917s of the days of yore those really are hard to forget. Years have gone by since those days, and the 2017 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans was Gulf's 50th year at the event. They marked the occasion by fielding two Gulf-liveried machines at the big race. One of them was the Gulf-liveried Tockwith Motorsport Ligier JS P217 that was competing in the LMP2 class. The other was the Gulf Racing UK Porsche 911 RSR running in the event's GTE Am category. It was an interesting situation Gulf had chosen to support two teams on the grid that could really use their help. Both teams were small outfits, with large hearts and big dreams. Exactly the sort of outfits to win the hearts of racing fans around the world.
Tockwith Motorsport's Le Mans debut was eventful and positive
Let's begin with the Tockwith Motorsport team. The team had received an invitation to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans by virtue of the fact that they had won the LMP3 class of the 2016/2017 Asian Le Mans Series. They didn't really have experience running an LMP2 machine, but they decided to prepare for the 24-hour race by first competing in the 6 Hours of Spa. It was a very tough outing for the team, and it showed them early on that it was the Orecas that had an advantage over the Ligiers. But test day at Le Mans saw them slot in 25th fastest of the 60 cars that were at the event. They grappled with an electronic fly-by-wire issue during qualifying practice 1, and recovered from it to do even better in the subsequent sessions. They ended qualifying 27th overall, and 21st in the LMP2 category, which was not a bad way to begin their first-ever Le Mans as a team. It helped that in addition to drivers Nigel Moore and 17-year-old Philip Hanson, they had Karun Chandhok who was going to compete in Le Mans for the fifth time. That extra bit of experience was certainly going to help them.
A very hot quintuple stint during the hottest part of the day and a long graveyard shift meant Karun was very busy through the 2017 edition of Le Mans
While issues might have plagued both the Tockwith Motorsport LMP2 machine and the Gulf Racing UK GTE Am 911 RSR during qualifying, the race itself was largely trouble-free. Both machines climbed up the order, with not too much cause for worry. At Le Mans, that's unusual!
The Gulf Racing UK team, meanwhile, was competing over in the GTE Am category of the event. The team had finished fifth in the category on their debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans last year. And this year, they were hoping to do even better. But there had been change aplenty within the team, with a good number of their personnel having been replaced. But that wasn't to deter Owen Daley, the team's commercial director, and assistant team principal, and their crew. Perhaps the advantage that they had was that Ben Barker was one quick driver. Mike Wainwright had proved that he had what it took to compete in and hold his own in the GTE Am field, while Nick Foster was a driver with a decent amount of experience. Things were looking manageable, then.
Karun Chandhok did very well in the No.34 car in the LMP2 class, helping the team with the experience he's gained at the previous four editions of Le Mans he competed in
That was until the second qualifying session took place and Barker found himself in the Gulf Racing UK Porsche 911 RSR, heading straight into the tyre barrier. The team would later diagnose it as a water cooling issue that had led to a situation in which the car was no longer responding to Barker's inputs. They did, however, manage to work overnight and fix the car in time for the race. But it meant that they were starting the race down in 59th position, which of a grid of 60 cars, wasn't ideal. But they kept their chin up and said that they were just going to go about their business and do as well as they possibly could.
The mood in the Tockwith Motorsport camp was a little more subdued. This was partly down to the fact that they had already suffered reliability issues, but also partly down to the fact that those dratted Orecas really were so much faster than the Ligiers. When we spoke to Karun Chandhok ahead of the race and asked him where he hoped to finish, he'd looked a little worried and said that all he hoped was that they did in fact finish. But he was also optimistic. Karun said that if things worked perfectly for them with no technical issues, every safety car situation or yellow zone working to their advantage they could aim to battle with the top Ligiers. Perhaps they might make it to a top 8 finish in the LMP2 class. It was going to be a tough 24 Hours.
The No.86 911 RSR and the Gulf Racing UK team might not have matched their fifth-place-in-class finish of last year. But 10th in class was not bad given the circumstances
When the green flag fell, the driver who went out first was Nigel Moore, who put in a solid performance and managed to move the No.34 Gulf-liveried Tockwith Motorsport machine from 21st in class to 14th in class. Then it was Karun's turn to get behind the wheel. The team sent him out for five long stints in the car, which worked out to 3 hours of driving time. Chandhok managed to retain 14th position in class for the Tockwith outfit, but the heat was getting to him. After all, this was the hottest Le Mans since 2005, and the first Le Mans in years with no rain. And Chandhok was driving during the hottest time of the day too. "There's no aircon in our car, and for two of the five stints the drinks bottle wasn't working. I haven't felt this dehydrated since the Malaysian GP in F1," he said to us after the race. The team's rookie driver, Philip Hanson, also the youngest driver on the grid at Le Mans this year, managed to hold his own when it came to his stint. Eventually, he handed the car over to Nigel Moore, who soldiered on, putting in lap after lap, getting the car to 12th place overall.
Then Karun was enlisted to do the graveyard shift, racing all through the late night hours and wee hours of the morning, having to deal with Le Mans in the dark. He put in well over three hours of racing, having completed a total of 12 stints when he got out of the car. The team was by then in ninth place in the LMP2 category. After that, it was once again Hanson's turn behind the wheel, a task he accomplished very well indeed. There was some cause for worry, a brake issue losing the Tockwith Motorsport outfit some time, but with Nigel Moore behind the wheel for the dash to the finish line, the team were still running within the top 10 in the LMP2 class. When the racing was over, which is when the chequered flag was waved at the Circuit de la Sarthe, the Gulf-liveried Tockwith Motorsport LMP2 Ligier finished 12th overall and 10th in class. On the team's Le Mans debut, that certainly is an impressive way to end one of the most challenging races in the world.
It was a terrific debut for the Gulf-liveried Tockwith Motorsport outfit, with drivers Nigel Moore, Philip Hanson and Karun Chandhok taking their Ligier LMP2 machine to 10th place in class and 12th place overall. Finishing their first Le Mans was a feat in itself!
Meanwhile, over at the Gulf Racing UK camp, things had gone better than expected. All three drivers - Barker, Foster and Wainwright - had worked well together, and they'd managed to do what is rare at Le Mans - keep their nose out of trouble entirely. What we weren't expecting was for them to manage to make up as many places as they did, helped along the way by the retirement of other cars. But having started 59th, the No.86 Porsche 911 had made its way up the order and ended the race 39th. It was a true testament to the team spirit within the Gulf Racing UK camp. Because, even when the situation turned out to be very, very difficult, the tiny little team had soldiered on, and made it through to the very end.
A race like Le Mans has the ability to separate the pretenders from the true fighters, and it has the ability to make giants fall, and the underdogs rise to the occasion. But it is important to realise that what a victory may be to a big team with big resources, just crossing the finish line is to the smaller outfits. And it's this that needs to be appreciated in the case of both Gulf-liveried cars. The fact that they finished in the top 10 in each case earns them a well-deserved round of applause! Le Mans wouldn't be quite so satisfying without that blue and orange livery, after all.