RECAP: Wright Motorsports and 1st Phorm Podium Run Disappears in Late Petit Le Mans Smoke
BRASELTON, Ga., (October 17, 2023) – Wright Motorsports and the No. 16 1st Phorm Porsche 911 GT3 R had an incredible run in Saturday’s 26th Motul Petit Le Mans taken from them in the heartbreaking final laps of the 10-hour endurance race due to a competitor’s mistake. With just minutes remaining, the Wright Motorsports entry of Ryan Hardwick, Jan Heylen, and Zacharie Robichon was fighting for the GTD class lead position when a competitor not involved in the class battle made hard contact with the 16 car. The resulting heavy damage to the rear of the car started a fire forcing Heylen to pull off course, ending the race with the checkered flag within sight.
“It was a heartbreaking end to the race for our 1st Phorm squad,” said Team Owner John Wright. “The work by the crew in the pits and on track by the drivers brought them to the front of the field, and we were more than ready to race for the lead in those final laps. What happened was completely out of our control, and a sad way to end the season. I’m still so proud of the effort they all put in all weekend long. We were there, in the end, to fight for the top position in the final laps.”
Qualifying threw a bag of mixed conditions at the competitors on Friday morning as it was not fully wet, but not fully dry either. The strategy down pit lane varied as each team tried to decide whether a wet or dry setup would give them the better advantage. The No. 16 1st Phorm Porsche opted for a dry setup, which in the end did not play out as the best option. Robichon qualified the car 14th but moved up a spot after another competitor changed its driver lineup and was relegated to the back of the starting grid. The Canadian gained a spot on the opening lap before the field saw the first of many cautions. Robichon broke into the top ten in just 15 minutes of racing, taking advantage of drive-through penalties further up the field.
The past class champion pitted during another full course caution from eighth, and a stellar stop by the crew brought the No. 16 back into the hunt two spots ahead in sixth. The team swapped out Robichon to Ryan Hardwick, who received a full dose of heavy-traffic racing in his opening stint. He avoided a big multi-car wreck in turn 10 at the 90-minute mark, climbing back up from 13th. By lap 106, he broke back into the top ten, handing the Porsche over to Heylen with three hours and 116 laps complete.
Heylen joined the race under caution and took the green flag from eleventh place. The Belgian closed out his stint in fourth position. Following the stop, Robichon joined the race in fifth place, and in yet another restart, swept past the No. 12 of Parker Thompson to take fourth position. He closed in on the No. 96 BMW of Patrick Gallagher, waiting for the BMW driver to burn off his tires and make a mistake. Robichon saw his opportunity and took it, moving the team into third place.
The Wright Motorsports crew showed their skill and finesse in pit lane during caution number seven, rocketing the Porsche, now with Jan Heylen behind the wheel, out in the GTD class lead. Heylen held his position throughout the entirety of his stint, creating a three-second lead over the field before pitting under another caution. Robichon took another turn driving, starting off his stint by leading the field to green. Lap after lap, he worked with the strategists in pit lane to hit his assigned fuel numbers, but the strategy shifted when a competitor’s car went off course.
Hoping to take advantage of a pit stop before the race went full-course caution, the No. 16 dove into pit lane for a speedy stop. Hopes to capitalize on a sprint into pit lane before a caution were dashed when the race stayed green and Robichon rejoined in ninth place. The 1st Phorm car cycled back to the lead as the rest of the GTD field pitted during their scheduled stops, remaining in the top five as the race continued.
The off-cycle strategy played into the team’s hands when it pitted under another full course caution. Needing less fuel than the rest of the GTD field, an incredible stop for the team, where the car only took on two left-side tires brought Robichon out in fifth place. The former WeatherTech GTD champion continued to fight to keep the 1st Phorm machine in the top five. Robichon concluded his driving duties for the day with just under two hours remaining. Heylen stepped back in to conclude the race.
It’s no surprise to motorsport fans that the Porsche 911 excels in cooler temperatures, and Petit Le Mans was no different. Heylen was able to race competitively in the top three while also conserving fuel, positioning the car to fight for the lead in the final hour. With an hour to go, the team gave the longtime Porsche ace the go-ahead to no longer conserve fuel and fight the No. 78 for the class lead. All was looking well for the Wright Porsche until the dominos began to fall with 12 minutes to go.
The first domino came when the No. 18 prototype stopped on track, bringing out a full course caution. On the restart, as the GTD field maneuvered their way through turns 10 A/B of the 12-corner Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, a GTD Pro car drove off course, and rejoined, slamming into the 16 Porsche, pushing it into another GTD entry. Though Heylen continued down the front straight, by the time he entered the opening turns, it was clear all hopes of securing a podium, let alone finishing the race were gone. The No. 16 sustained heavy damage, catching fire. Heylen pulled the car off course and quickly put out the fire, saving the machine that had raced from 13th to fight or the lead with just a handful of laps remaining.
What a dramatic end to a chaotic race! While it’s definitely not the ending that we expected to see, the most important thing is that Jan is ok and unharmed. It was his cool, calm, and quick thinking that not only saved himself but also saved our car from burning to the ground.
I’m so proud of our entire Wright Motorsports team. We battled back from a tough starting position to lead the race for several hours, and we were in position to win it all with five minutes remaining. I’m honored to go to battle with this team, and just wish we could have come out on top because that’s the result that I believe we deserved. But, as they say… that’s racing.
I want to thank John and Kara Wright for their leadership and commitment to excellence with their program. They continue to make such a positive impact on the sport as a whole, and I’m lucky to be part of their team. I also want to thank Bobby V, Pat and our entire team of mechanics and crew guys. I believe the Wright Motorsports guys are the best in the business on pit lane and without them, none of our race wins or podiums would be possible.
Lastly, I want to thank my teammates Jan and Zach for all their hard work and tremendous driving this season. It was a difficult year for all of us, but those guys always put in 100% and gave it their all no matter what we are up against. I’m just so proud to have my name on the same car as those two guys.
Thanks for another great year. I still BELIEVE.
I want to start by saying thanks to the whole Wright Motorsports team, the crew, John, and Bobby for always having my back and setting us up for success. Thank you as well to Ryan Hardwick, 1st Phorm, and all the other partners for their commitment to the team, and their support, because without them we wouldn’t be able to do what we love to do.Petit Le Mans, what a race! What’s not to love about this event? Apart from the last six minutes of the race, I loved every second of it.It was nice to be running up front again, the on-track battles, the strategy, fighting our way to the front, unfortunately, luck wasn’t on our side in the closing minutes.I can’t wait to come back and try again!
What could have been! Petit le Mans lived up to its reputation as one of the most fun races this year. We fought all the way to the end and unfortunately just ended up on the wrong side of an incident on the restart. We had the car the team and the speed this week. But it wasn’t meant to be.