Le Mans 24 Hours

The air was ripe with competitive tension – the kind of thing that usually enlivens the closing stages of the Le Mans 24 Hours. This year, though, the zest of the occasion had been tempered by events during the opening 10 minutes.

The race was little more than two laps old when prolific GT racer Allan Simonsen’s Aston Martin Vantage left the road at Tertre Rouge. The subsequent impact was fierce, its force unsurvivable. Aston Martin handled the tragedy with great dignity: news of the Dane’s passing was communicated within the hour and the event continued beneath a cloud.

The race was neutralised for quite some time after the incident, to allow for barrier repairs, and more than five hours of competition would eventually be lost behind 11 safety cars, not least because of the fickle, constantly changing climate.

Loïc Duval qualified on pole in the Audi R18 e-tron quattro he shared with Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish, but it was the sister car of André Lotterer, Benoît Tréluyer and Marcel Fässler that set the pace – despite the early impudence of Toyota driver Nicolas Lapierre, who was able to separate the three works Audis in slippery, mixed conditions. On a dry road, though, the Audi was on a separate planet – and Toyota’s extended fuel range (bigger tanks theoretically gave its petrol hybrids a two-lap advantage over the Audi diesels) conferred no benefit. And in any case, the constant interruptions scrambled everybody’s notional race strategies.

The Lotterer/Tréluyer/Fässler Audi led for the first six hours, but then lost 11 laps having a failed alternator changed. With that, the crew’s hopes of a third straight win were dashed and Kristensen/McNish/Duval inherited a lead that would be theirs for keeps. “It was a matter of driving a clean race and not making any extra stops,” said McNish, and their rhythm was upset only by a late, slow puncture when Kristensen was at the wheel.

The final stages were a wrench, though.

The Anthony Davidson/Stéphane Sarrazin/Sébastien Buemi Toyota had not been able to mount a direct challenge, but had run utterly without blemish and lay just one lap in arrears, close enough to be within pouncing range should problems strike. And with frequent rain showers affecting parts of the circuit during the final 90 minutes, the anxiety was palpable. Kristensen didn’t put a foot wrong, though, and took the chequered flag to secure his ninth Le Mans win, McNish’s third and Duval’s first. “I was nervous,” McNish said, “even though I have big faith in Tom. It’s very difficult to describe what it’s like, because five per cent throttle can make the difference between staying on the track and flying into the wall.

In some respects I was happy that Tom was driving, because in those circumstances you need a calm Dane and he was a very calm Dane today. That last hour wasn’t a lot of fun…”

Buemi unlapped himself towards the end, but then dropped back once more to avoid having to cover any more distance than necessary. He duly finished a safe second, one lap clear of the Oliver Jarvis/Lucas di Grassi/Marc Gené Audi, which had been delayed by a couple of minor incidents (including a biff from an LMP2 car). The Lapierre/Alex Wurz/Kazuki Nakajima Toyota stopped briefly on the Mulsanne Straight during the third hour, with low fuel pressure, but fired up again when the system was reset and ran well until Lapierre was caught out by a late downpour at the Porsche Curves. The car speared off the road and plunged deep into a tyre wall, but after scrambling clear the Frenchman realised the car might still be driveable. He hobbled back to the pits and Toyota patched it up in time to take fourth, three laps clear of the third, recovering Audi. Danny Watts, Jonny Kane and Nick Leventis made up the all-British crew in Strakka Racing’s sixth-placed HPD, which finished as best of the LMP1 privateers after the Rebellion Lola-Toyotas ran into assorted technical troubles and guardrails.

Time was that the secondary prototype division would comprise just a few flaky, locally built entries, but things have changed and LMP2 had greater support than any other category in 2013.

Oak Racing’s Morgan-Nissans were the pre-race favourites and duly delivered a class one-two, albeit not in the expected order.

The Olivier Pla/Alex Brundle/David Heinemeier Hansson car was generally swiftest, but had some atrocious luck with safety cars. Le Mans runs a multiple system, with three separate vehicles controlling the pace. If you happen to be in the pits when the race is neutralised, you aren’t allowed to leave to join the queue ahead but must wait until the next safety car passes. Pla and colleagues lost out almost every time and went on to finish eighth, a lap behind team-mates Bertrand Baguette, Martin Plowman and Ricardo Gonzalez. The latter weren’t just fortunate with safety cars, either. Towards the end, Baguette spun on the Mulsanne while avoiding Ludovic Badey’s freshly crashed TDS Oreca. The Belgian lost little time, however, and victory was safe.

The G-Drive Oreca-Nissan of Mike Conway, John Martin and Roman Rusinov was best of the rest on the road – and might have split the Oak duo had it not lost a couple of laps having its illuminated race number panels repaired during the night. The car was later excluded, however, when it was found to have too large a fuel tank. That elevated the Greaves Motorsport Zytek-Nissan of Michael Krumm, Jann Mardenborough and Lucas Ordoñez to third in class.

There would have been some kind of poetic symmetry if Aston Martin had been able to win one of the two GTE classes, but it wasn’t to be.

The first safety car divided the GTE Pro field and handed a big advantage to two Astons (Rob Bell/Bruno Senna/Frédéric Makowiecki and Darren Turner/Stefan Mücke/Peter Dumbreck) plus one works Porsche 911 (Marc Lieb/Richard Lietz/Romain Dumas). The contest remained close until the end, but Makowiecki crashed the lead Aston with five hours to go and the late rain tipped the balance in Porsche’s favour. Mücke gambled on slicks when the moment wasn’t yet right and had to make an additional stop, although Lietz jeopardised his team’s chances when he missed a pit call to come in for wets. The safety car was dispatched at the same time, however, and he was able to tiptoe around without conceding any ground. Jörg Bergmeister, Patrick Pilet and Timo Bernhard completed a factory Porsche one-two, with Turner, Dumbreck and Mücke taking third.

Porsche also captured the GTE Am class, with Jean-Karl Vernay, Christophe Bourret and Raymond Narac controlling things throughout the race’s second half. They finished 26th overall, 10 places and nine laps behind their GTE Pro-winning cousins.

The post-race conference was an emotional cauldron and Kristensen spoke warmly about his fallen compatriot. “I’m very proud to drive for the best team in the world,” he said. “We realised a dream today, but this weekend we lost somebody who shared the same dreams, somebody who was a nice, humble guy. My father died in March, so I said I’d win Le Mans with my boys this year. I’m proud to be team-mates with these two but hope one day we can win another so I can dedicate it to my dad, because this one’s for Allan Simonsen.” Simon Arron