Le Mans 24 Hours

In a sparkling new era of fuel efficiency and high technology, how fitting that Le Mans should be the scene of a 24 Hours that harked back to how it used to be. We’ve taken astounding levels of reliability for granted in recent years, as top-line drivers select sprint mode for the great enduro, despite the length, duration and grind that awaits them. But this time, each of the ‘big three’ proved fallible in a good old-fashioned race of attrition that gripped more than 260,000 people from 3pm to 3pm.

“If you lose five laps it’s almost impossible to get them back,” said Marcel Fässler, reflecting on an unlikely third Le Mans win in four years with partners André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer, “but everyone had problems today.”

To the outside world, Audi’s 13th win since its first – 15 years ago – might sound repetitive, as if the same old story played out. But that’s not how it was. This was the classic motor race we’d been promised, as Porsche made its top-class return to the race it used to ‘own’, Toyota turned up in the unfamiliar role of favourite and Audi found itself on the back foot.

The team from Ingolstadt was, of course, unfazed because it had prevailed in such scenarios before, in 2008 and 2010 when Peugeot had it licked for pace. “Our plan was to put a lot of pressure on Toyota,” said Fässler, “to stay as close to them as possible in case there was a chance.”

The ploy ensured a fascinatingly tense chase as the Alex Wurz/Stéphane Sarrazin/Kazuki Nakajima TS040 Hybrid led into the night, shadowed by the spectre of the no2 Audi ready and waiting to catch any slip. And it came at 5am, when an electrical failure left Nakajima stranded at Arnage and Toyota’s quest once again in ruins. Shades of 1994, ’98 and ’99.

The other car of Anthony Davidson, Nicolas Lapierre and Sébastien Buemi had already lost any realistic tilt at victory when it became a casualty of a flash rainstorm in the second hour. Lapierre clattered into the Mulsanne barriers, as Sam Bird’s Ferrari smacked into the ‘youngsters’ Audi of Marco Bonanomi. The GT and the R18 were out, but the Toyota limped back to the pits for repairs. “After that, we didn’t have any technical problems, unlike everyone else,” Lapierre said. The car lost nine laps, actually fewer than it might have done thanks to a safety car period, and had recovered to third at the flag. What might have been…

So that was Toyota sidelined, but no one at Audi would have expected two turbo failures to rock their own familiar routine. “We’ve won many races here and elsewhere with the same turbo, and it’s never failed before,” said sports boss Wolfgang Ullrich. “It was a surprise.”

Fässler was at the wheel at 7am on Sunday when he found himself being wheeled into the garage. Remarkably, the team fitted a new turbo in 23 minutes, but now surely any chance of victory had gone?

The no1 car led by Tom Kristensen had already been through the mill. Co-driver Loïc Duval’s dreadful practice accident at the Porsche Curves had forced the Frenchman to step down for the weekend, miraculously without serious injury. He was replaced by reserve Marc Gené as the team put in an all-nighter to build a car around a new monocoque. The R18 was delayed by a fuel injector problem in the race, but still that man Kristensen was there to pick up the pieces when no2 hit trouble.

This would have been Tom’s 10th Le Mans win – just remarkable. But at 11am there he was, stationary on the Mulsanne. After various resets, the car was consigned to the garage for its own turbo change. This time it took just 17 minutes, but with little more than three and a half hours to go the Dane knew the chance to hit double figures was gone. Will he get another?

Porsche had already led in the wake of the flash downpours early in the race and now Timo Bernhard was back on top. We’d just watched one fairy tale slip away, but was another about to take its place?

In truth, the new 919 Hybrid didn’t have the pace to hold back a charging Lotterer, who closed in without mercy. Bernhard handed over to Mark Webber for the closing stages, but the former Red Bull Formula 1 ace couldn’t work any magic, either. An engine-related problem robbed the team of a dream podium, while late gearbox problems thwarted its sister’s bid for fourth.

Porsche’s disappointment contrasted with privateer Rebellion’s delight, as its brand-new R-One ran untroubled just seven weeks after turning a wheel for the first time. That fourth place was richly deserved for the proud trio of Nick Heidfeld, Nicolas Prost and Mathias Beche.

In LMP2, a lovely British success story played out – although sadly not for Alex Brundle and Jann Mardenborough, who led for so long in their new G-Drive OAK Racing Ligier on the famous marque’s impressive return to Le Mans.

Instead, Simon Dolan’s Jota Sport Zytek put in a late charge after early delays, as promising rookie Harry Tincknell pushed the car into contention. Oliver Turvey finished the job in the final hour as they rose to fifth overall. Turvey had been expecting to drive for another team, until it pulled out a week before the race. But when Duval crashed on Wednesday, Audi drafted in reserve Gené who’d been due to race for Jota… and Oliver got the call. “It’s all a bit unreal,” said the dazed Cambridge graduate.

The Bruno Senna/Aston Martin vs Gianmaria Bruni/Ferrari battle was the highlight of the GTE Pro class, until the British car faded with power steering bothers. But Aston did at least claim the well-supported GTE Am category – and this one was hugely emotional.

A year ago, popular Dane Allan Simonsen had died at Tertre Rouge on lap three. The pall of such tragedy will never quite fade, particularly for his team-mate and friend Kristian Poulsen, whose brave decision to return to Le Mans with another all-Danish line-up, completed by David Heinemeier Hansson and Nicki Thiim, had only one intention. They duly paid the perfect tribute by scoring a dominant class victory. Damien Smith

Lynn takes Group C spoils
Puncture thwarts one Sauber-Mercedes, but another lay in waiting...

A blown tyre thwarted Bob Berridge in his bid to repeat his 2012 Le Mans Group C victory, but a Sauber-Mercedes still led home Aston Martin, Nissan, Porsche and Jaguar in the traditional historic support race on Saturday morning.

Berridge’s C11 lapped at a speed that would have placed him 21st on the grid for the headline race later in the day, but a front-left puncture opened the door for Shaun Lynn to take the spoils in his C11.

Lynn finished more than half a minute up the road from the Aston Martin AMR1 of Tom Kimber-Smith, who had committed to an admirable workout ahead of his drive in the 24 Hours with the Greaves Zytek LMP2 team. “I take my hat off to those who drove these back in the day,” Kimber-Smith said. “It’s very heavy and so much harder than a modern car.”

Katsu Kubota put in a storming comeback in a Nissan R90CK after taking over from a circumspect Joaquin Folch, who showed understandable restraint in an unfamiliar car on the ‘daddy’ of all circuits. Kubota passed both Richard Eyre’s Bud Light-liveried Jaguar XJR-16 and Christophe d’Ansembourg’s glorious Jägermeister Porsche 962 on the last lap to take the final podium spot. Derek Bell was a sad absentee. The five-time Le Mans winner was due to share Mark Sumpter’s 962, only for engine troubles to scupper their plans.