Success doesn't come easy for teams tackling their first 24 Hours of Le Mans, but Scott Tucker and Level 5 Motorsports celebrated at the end of the world's most prestigious endurance race on the podium, in front of a near-record crowd of 250,000 spectators.
Team owner Scott Tucker and co-drivers Christophe Bouchut and Joao Barbosa drove their No. 33 Microsoft Office 2010-sponsored Lola-Honda Coupe to a third-place finish in the highly competitive LMP2 category. More impressive was the fact that their trouble-free race was rewarded with a 10th-place result in the overall classification.
“It was a monumental effort from the team this week,” Tucker said. “We're very proud of the accomplishment and the result that we've gotten. It was the toughest race we've ever been in and some of the toughest competition, and we're really proud to have brought an American team over here and do that.”
Considering some setbacks earlier in the week, the podium finish certainly feels like a victory for the David Stone-led team, which was the only American prototype squad in the diverse 56-car field. After battling a fuel leak on Wednesday, which cost them over five hours of track time, Tucker, Bouchut and Barbosa gained limited laps during Thursday's final two qualifying sessions in the run up to the 24-hour endurance classic.
Despite starting dead last on the LMP2 grid, solid opening stints by Bouchut, Tucker and Barbosa propelled the car into the top-five in class early on. And when the competition began running into trouble, Level 5's Lola-Honda Coupe kept ticking. By the early morning, the No. 33 car was up to third and less than four laps behind the leader.
While the team faced two minor setbacks – a spin by Barbosa into the gravel trap during Hour 14 and a quick trip to the garage for a realignment and rear deck change with three hours to go – neither of the incidents dropped the car out of contention for the win.
After 24 hours of hard-fought racing, Bouchut took the checkered flag. The Microsoft Office 2010-sponsored entry completed an impressive 319 laps, or 2,702 miles, in its Le Mans debut.
“Everything went very well,” said Bouchut, who celebrated his fourth podium finish at Le Mans. “We had no problems at all. The car was very reliable and everybody on the team did great work. We were losing a bit of time on the track, but that was mainly due to the regulations and nothing against the car or engine. It was a great result for the whole team, especially in its first visit to Le Mans.”
Level 5 not only gave Lola its 25th podium at Le Mans, but was also the highest-placed Honda-powered prototype in LMP2. The result also marked a significant milestone in Tucker's driving career, as he adds a Le Mans podium to his pair of class victories in the Twelve Hours of Sebring, a win at the Petit Le Mans and a third-place overall finish in the 2010 Rolex 24 at Daytona. Tucker has now claimed podium finishes in all four of the major sports car endurance races in the world.
“This feels really good,” Tucker said. “It's something we've worked very hard for. We're just privileged and fortunate to have been able to earn those with this team. Standing on the podium was a great experience and I hope this is just the start of more good things to come this year.”
For Barbosa, who also celebrated his first podium at Le Mans, the result marked the Portuguese driver's best finish with Level 5 after a fourth-place result at the Sebring 12 Hours and the team's unfortunate mechanical-related accident at the 1000km of Spa.
“It feels much better when we finish like this,” Barbosa said. “We had a really tough race but it's just an unbelievable result for the first time the team has been here. I'm really proud of all the guys and all of the work they've done. They've come a long way for sure. Third place is something we should all be proud of.”
With Le Mans having awarded double points, Level 5 gained considerable ground in the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup LMP2 Teams' Championship, having climbed to second in the standings. Only 18 points now separate them from the leading Signatech Nissan entry.
“I can't say enough about this Level 5 team,” said Level 5 Team Manager David Stone. “Everyone's worked very hard to get here. It's been a long and tiring week here, but a great one in the end. For us, the third-place finish sure feels like a victory to everybody here. Many people try this for a lifetime and never make it to the podium. And we did it in our first try.
“The preparation of the cars was just flawless,” Stone continued. “We had no mechanical issues. The guys had great pit stops. There were no technical violations. Everything went well. We still have some work to do on the car to bring it to the performance level of some of our competition. Some of that has to do with the regulations. We're working hard with our partners at Lola and Honda to try and bring things into our favor.”
With their Le Mans debut now in the books, the focus shifts to the next round of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, the Six Hours of Imola, scheduled for July 1-3. The classic Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari circuit in Italy plays host to the fourth race of the seven-round global sports car championship.