2015 Le Mans 24 Hours

Le Mans might be only a paragraph in British papers, but in France the race is front-page news, the battle between Audi and Porsche hyped up in daily headlines.

Porsche et Audi: La Bagarre and La Bataille Fratricide fanned the flames of a contest that has smouldered all season. The stage was set for the big fight, the battle of the mighty VW Group siblings.

Tweeters and bloggers worldwide responded to the hashtag ‘#audi welcomes challenges’. The team from Ingolstadt had some challenges at Le Mans 2015, and of course the biggest of those came from the men from Stuttgart. At the end of a thrilling race, the Porsche team donned some new shirts to celebrate a great victory. On the back of these was printed ‘Challenge Accepted’.

In the end an accumulation of problems denied Audi victory for the first time in five years, while the Porsche driven by Formula 1 driver Nico Hülkenberg, Briton Nick Tandy and Kiwi Earl Bamber ran virtually trouble-free for 24 hours. “We knew this might be Silverstone and Spa twice over,” said Audi boss Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, “and so it was, but each of our cars had crucial problems, which is unusual for us.”

Porsche stole the early bragging rights, locking out the front row and grabbing pre-race headlines. So fast was the Porsche over a single lap that Audi would need to muster all its customary efficiency and strategic skills to triumph yet again in what would be the toughest battle for many years.

 

As expected the Porsches led away, but they couldn’t shake off the Audis despite their superior power and top speed. First blow for the Ingolstadt squad came after less than three hours, when Loïc Duval crashed while trying to pass a group of backmarkers that slowed suddenly in a confusion over flags at the end of a ‘slow zone’ and left him nowhere to go. The car was badly crunched but the Audi crew had it back in the race with a breathtakingly efficient pitstop for a new nose and plenty of tank tape.

“We had a really strong start,” said a deflated Oliver Jarvis, “but then Loïc got hit and I thought it was over. We fought back and pushed as much as we could, but then we had other issues. Sadly it just wasn’t our day.”

Le Mans 2015 was a straight fight between Porsche and Audi. The Toyotas were way off the pace, slower than last year when they so nearly won. The radical new Nissan simply had neither pace nor reliability, lapping anonymously way behind the leading pack. Lap for lap, there was little between the two Titans and, as ever at Le Mans, it came down to reliability and a little luck. Through the heat of Sunday it was nip and tuck, but there were chinks in the Audi armour as Porsche piled on the pressure into the night. At half distance it was the Hülkenberg/Tandy/Bamber Porsche in front, over a minute ahead of the Benoît Tréluyer/Marcel Fässler/André Lotterer Audi, but still it was anybody’s race.

Close to midnight Audi’s pace had dropped off by about two seconds a lap, while that of the Porsches quickened by a similar amount. The mood in the Audi camp darkened with the night. In the heat of the day on Saturday Audi had the upper hand but now, in the cool air, it was Porsche who came to the fore. Early on Sunday the rear deck of the Tréluyer/Fässler/Lotterer Audi became detached and laps were lost while repairs were made and parts replaced.

Once the big battle had fizzled out Hülkenberg & Co won by a lap in their Porsche 919 from the sister car of Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard. Completing the podium were Tréluyer/Fässler/Lotterer in the fastest and most reliable of the Audis.

So, a current Grand Prix driver wins Le Mans. It’s a long time since we last were able to write those words – 25 years, in fact, when Johnny Herbert and Bertrand Gachot were part of Mazda’s winning crew. Hülkenberg’s feat is good news for the WEC, and bodes well for a series that is gaining in strength year by year. For Nico, signing that Porsche contract was a smart move that allows him to keep one eye on his future beyond F1 – and full marks to Force India for letting him go.

“Incredible,” said Tandy, a justifiably proud graduate of the Porsche Supercup series. “We went to the Spa 6 Hours to prepare for Le Mans, to learn as much as we could, to get some experience and time in the car. Now here we are, we’ve won Le Mans. It’s just the most amazing day and the team has done such a fantastic job.”

Audi Sport boss Dr Wolfgang Ullrich went to the Porsche garage as the final laps were reeled off and was one of the first to congratulate his rivals. He knows better than anyone how hard it is to win this thing. “All of our cars had crucial incidents. When you’re up against a strong rival like Porsche you can’t afford to have the problems we had, but in sport you have to accept defeats as well.”

Something a little feistier came from Prof Ulrich Hackenberg, Audi’s head of technical development who watched from the team garage. “Both our brands, with their different concepts, were faster than the Toyotas and that’s exactly what we’d like to show at Le Mans and in the WEC.”

So in the battle of the brands it was Porsche 1, Audi 0 on the night while Stuttgart leads Ingolstadt by 17 to 13 overall. Next match is the Nürburgring on August 30. Rob Widdows

Rob rides shotgun
Lapping Le Mans with the Grand Master: Tom Kristensen

He jabs the starter, the Audi R8 LMS fills with noise, jerks forward, everything vibrates and suddenly we are rocketing ahead.

“Tom,” I say, “how quick are we going to go?”

My question is answered as we come sideways out of the Ford chicane, on the rumble strip, opposite lock. “Cold tyres,” he remarks. The suddenness of the speed past the pits is almost shocking.

“Trust me,” he says, banging through the gears on the way to the Dunlop bridge. “Don’t worry, I do,” I want to say. But I am too busy trying to adjust to a different planet as we flash across the apices on the way to the Mulsanne. Through Tertre Rouge, barrier very close, trees going by in a blurry kaleidoscope.

“Sixth,” he says, “285[kph]. There’s no more.”

The noise, the brakes, the precision, the sheer visceral thrill of being flung round this wonderful track by such a truly great driver is thrilling. So damn different from anything normal humans do in a car.

Before Mulsanne corner he warms the tyres, left-right-left, small decisive flicks of the wrist. Then bang, down gears, wham, back on the noise, down we go, dark under the trees, into and out of Indianapolis, one fluid movement. Out of Arnage, sun in my eyes, can’t remember how far to the next corner. We’re into it, gone in a slam of the brakes and a bang, bang over the kerbs. Far too soon we’re back at the Porsche Curves.

“Very quick here,” he says, smiling. “Get it wrong, it’s too late to save it. You don’t want traffic here.”

This was not a lap of the Gods. This was a lap with a God. They are not like us. Just occasionally my eyes were wide shut. Sensational minutes. Thank you, Tom.