Le Mans 24 Hours

The 2011 Le Mans 24 Hours was one of the most exciting races at La Sarthe for many years. The winning Audi R18 of Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer crossed the line a mere 13.854 seconds ahead of the second-placed car – the Peugeot 908 of Simon Pagenaud, Sébastien Bourdais and Pedro Lamy. 

This was the closest finish since the Ford-Porsche duel of 1969, but how closely matched were Audi and Peugeot? The advantage swayed between one and the other because while the Audis were faster over a lap, the Peugeots could go one lap longer between fuel stops. 

The German cars should have been able to stretch out a bigger lead early in the race. The new 908 is conceptually low-downforce in contrast to the R18, and Peugeot admitted it never really nailed the perfect set-up at Le Mans to maximise its performance. However, come nightfall and the switch to soft tyres, the Audi struggled and the Peugeots closed the gap. Once the track heated up, the Audi again pulled out a lead on the intermediates, but this was then reduced when it rained with three hours to go. Lotterer wasn’t happy at all in the mixed conditions and the Peugeots took large chunks out of his advantage. 

Another gain for the German manufacturer was its ability to run quadruple stints on a set of tyres – and even quintuple on two occasions. The Peugeot wasn’t so easy on its Michelins and the only driver out of the nine to manage a quadruple stint was Anthony Davidson.

“It was a completely crazy race,” said Ralf Jüttner, technical director at Audi Sport Team Joest. “To be duelling with several cars over 24 hours within gaps of seconds… I don’t think the world has ever seen anything like it before.” He’s not wrong, but it was circumstances that allowed Peugeot to finish so close rather than pure pace. 

Nevertheless, Audi’s 10th Le Mans victory was against the odds when you consider two of its three cars were eliminated by frightening accidents after collisions with Ferrari GT cars. 

With less than an hour of racing done Allan McNish dived into the lead after fellow Audi driver Timo Bernhard made a mistake at the Dunlop Bridge. Just in front of Bernhard was a gaggle of GT cars, and McNish dived down the inside of one at the right-hander into the Esses. Anthony Beltoise, not knowing the Audi was there, turned his 458 into the corner and clipped the back of McNish, sending the two-time Le Mans winner flying across the gravel trap towards the tyre barrier. McNish’s car flipped on to the tyres, but crucially not over them. As the Scot emerged from the wreck relatively unhurt, photographers standing behind the barrier could reflect on a narrow escape. They’d been peppered with debris, but a broken ankle and a broken phone were the only injuries. 

The crash was judged by most as a racing accident. McNish’s move was aggressive and Beltoise had no time to spot the R18 as it cut inside him.

But Mike Rockenfeller’s accident in the number one Audi at 10.40pm was far from blameless. At the Mulsanne kink ‘Rocky’ came up behind the AF Corse Ferrari of Robert Kauffman and went to pass it on the right. As he drew alongside at over 200mph Kauffman inexplicably drifted into the path of the Audi and clipped the back of it. The R18 speared left and hit the barrier almost at full tilt. By the time it came to a halt only the tub of the car remained, but after spending a night in hospital as a precaution, Rockenfeller was released unharmed. Remarkable. Kauffman was consequently withdrawn from the race by the ACO. 

If Kauffman’s day was bad, then Aston Martin’s weekend was terrible. “I’ve been around long enough, and I’ve had some bad days, but this ranks with the worst of them,” admitted David Richards, chairman of Prodrive and Aston Martin, after both new
inline-six AMR-Ones retired just three laps into the race. 

On Friday the team noticed some cracks in the aluminium water pump pulley so quickly machined new steel parts back at the Banbury HQ. These were driven to Le Mans overnight and fitted to the cars for the race. However, this only moved the problem further down the chain and the driveshaft for the water pump then broke. “It has been a frustrating week,” confirmed 009 pilot Adrian Fernández. “I’ve only done eight laps all week.”

Even without this problem the car was over 20 seconds off the pace in qualifying. The company has a lot of work to do before returning next year. Ed Foster