“What’s more important; winning the World Championship or Le Mans?”
I honestly didn’t know my personal answer to that question until I was on the Eurostar on my way to Le Mans the Saturday before the race. With plenty of time to myself, it was hard for me not to dream about standing on the top step of the podium looking out over the sea of fans below. It was that feeling of excitement, nervousness and knowing that no other single race could have that much impact on your career that gave me a clear answer. There really is no other race in the world like Le Mans.
Arriving at the track, the whole Audi Sport Team Joest squad and I were under no illusion of what it would take to be victorious in the 83rd running of Le Mans. That’s not to say that we weren’t arriving full of confidence, because after our wins in the opening two rounds of the FIA World Endurance Championship in the R18 e-tron quattro we knew we had a car capable of fighting for victory. To win at Le Mans, you need to not only be quick but also to stay out of trouble for the full 24 hours, because of the strong competition.
Unfortunately for me, that dream of standing on the top step of the podium disappeared shortly before the end of the third hour. It felt like déjà vu from 2014. I was closely monitoring the live feed and also the onboard of all three Audi race cars when I suddenly saw ours strike the barrier causing substantial damage.
I immediately thought our race was over and that for the second consecutive year I wouldn’t even get to drive our R18. But incredibly the team was able to repair the car and get us back on track in only four minutes. Having worked with Audi Sport Team Joest for many years, I am fully aware of just how good they are but I think anyone who saw Loïc Duval’s accident on TV will agree this was something very impressive.
As a driver in this situation it’s a strange feeling because you know that ultimately your chance of winning the race is effectively over, but you never stop believing. You hold on to the hope that with a trouble-free race for the next 21 hours and the chance of your rivals also hitting trouble, there’s still a chance. For me that’s the magic of Le Mans. To have come back from that and be able to stand on the podium would have felt like a victory in itself. Unfortunately further time spent in the garage to replace a rear engine cover that was coming loose and a very costly safety car period meant that we missed the podium by just 50 seconds.
I think Loïc’s accident raises some issues with the WEC’S current use of ‘slow zones’.
In this particular instance the green flag had been waved and the track declared clear over the radio but unfortunately there was still a flashing yellow board entering Indianapolis which caused cars to slow to 80kph just ahead of my French team-mate, giving him no room. The rules are clear: the flags take precedent. In the car we have an FIA warning system that tells us when there is a yellow flag slow zone, and when the track goes green. I believe that the implementation of slow zones, flashing boards and the FIA in-car warning system is a step forward but now we need to make sure that it is implemented in a consistent manner.
That said, did the crash cost us victory? Partly, but not solely. All three Audis suffered uncharacteristic problems causing us to spend too much time in the pits and so were unable to put the leading Porsche under enough pressure on Sunday.
As the chequered flag flew, it left me with the strangest of feelings. There is so much build up and expectation around the race and the adrenaline has got you through the night on little to no sleep. As this starts to wear off and tiredness takes over, the full impact of the disappointment hits home – especially knowing there is a whole year before another chance at victory. So Audi did not add to its impressive tally of 13 Le Mans wins since 2000. Congratulations must go to Porsche on a very impressive and well-deserved victory. Especially to fellow Brit Nick Tandy. Enjoy it, guys, because we will come back next year even more determined to reclaim victory! But until then we have the remainder of the year to focus on recapturing the World Championship crown.