Le Mans 24 Hours

The image of a Toyota prototype flipping through the air and slamming hard into a tyre barrier will be the lasting image of the 80th Le Mans 24 hours. That Anthony Davidson escaped with ‘only’ two cracked vertebrae was remarkable given the accident’s violence. once again the focus will fall on amateur drivers and their ability to race on the grande dame of all tracks. In an accident reminiscent of Mike Rockenfeller’s last year, Davidson was sideswiped when Italian Piergiuseppe Perazzini failed to spot the Toyota TS030 hybrid as it sliced down the inside of his ferrari 458 italia at the fast kink on the approach to mulsanne Corner.

As Perazzini crawled away from his wrecked car, Davidson worked his way out of his cramped cockpit, but then slumped back in shock and pain. after a long wait, there was relief all around when news filtered back that his injuries were not as serious as they might have been. He was tweeting from his hospital bed long before the race was run.

At the time of the accident, at 8pm on Saturday, the race between Toyota and the Audi e-tron quattro hybrids had come alive. The Audis had led from the start, but now the Japanese cars – making their race debuts, of course – were gaining ground despite running for a lap less during their stints.

Nicolas Lapierre closed in on Benoit Treluyer and sensationally took the lead with two wheels on the grass. The pair duelled and swapped positions during a lap that recalled for real what Steve McQueen faked on the cinema screen.

But it all ended abruptly as the TV pictures switched to Mulsanne Corner and Davidson’s horrific smash.

After an hour and a quarter behind the safety car, Kazuki Nakajima attempted to take up where team-mate Lapierre left off and fight for the lead, but instead elbowed the experimental ‘garage 56’ Delta Wing entry into a concrete wall out of the porsche Curves. Satoshi Motoyama worked valiantly to repair the innovative Nissan-powered racer, but eventually had to admit defeat after toiling for an hour and a half by the side of the track. Still, the point of the Delta Wing had been made and the project gained huge respect for the promise it showed during Le mans week.

Toyota’s challenge was also over. After repairs, Nakajima pitted again for a new alternator. The car returned to the track late on Saturday night, only for the engine to fail. Even without the accidents, a debut victory was always a long shot for the new car, whatever its pace. At least it looks as though Audi has a fight on its hands for the rest of the inaugural FIA World Endurance Championship – and on this evidence next year’s Le Mans could be an all-time classic. One regret? Peugeot. If only the 908s could be part of the story, too.

At dusk on Saturday night, some wondered whether this race would now be the anti-climax so many had feared. But they hadn’t counted on Audi’s admirable policy of allowing its drivers to race. And race hard, too.

Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello – celebrating his 48th birthday as Saturday turned to Sunday – had been delayed early on by a handling imbalance. During the night, though, the veterans got stuck in and worked their way back to second place, behind the sister R18 e-tron quattro. When Marcel Fassler suffered a couple of on-track incidents, they were ready to benefit.

On Sunday at 9am, Fassler’s attempt to reclaim the lead from Kristensen ended with a gravel excursion, but the decisive error would come just after noon – and it was McNish who made it. The Scot removed the nose of his R18 against a Porsche curves barrier as he tried to lap a GT car, and the advantage swung back to Treluyer, Fassler and André Lotterer. The trio would score their second consecutive victory at the ‘big one’. The non-hybrid ultra of young Briton Oliver Jarvis, Marco Bonanomi and Mike Rockenfeller suffered early delays, but then enjoyed the most trouble-free run of all the Audis to complete a four-rings 1-2-3, ahead of Rebellion’s Lola which, as expected, claimed ‘best of the rest’ honours. Neel Jani, Nick Heidfeld and Nicolas Prost delivered the perfect tribute to those at Lola who are looking for new jobs following the constructor’s fall into administration.

The secondary LMP2 class was claimed by Le Mans newcomer Starworks Motorsport, as Britons Ryan Dalziel and Tom Kimber-Smith led the american team to seventh overall.

Aston Martin took on Corvette and Ferrari in a thrilling GTE class, the Prodrive-run Vantage taking the fight to the American muscle car in the early stages. Darren Turner, Stefan Mücke and Adrian Fernandez would take a respectable third in class, while the wheel fell off the chevy challenge – literally – as Richard Westbrook took over the lead car in the 11th hour. Class honours fell to AF Corse’s Ferrari 458 Italia driven by Giancarlo Fisichella, Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander.

Damien Smith