Audi has taken another stunning victory at the Le Mans 24 Hours. The R18 TDI of first-time winners Marcel Fassler, André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer crossed the line a mere 13.854 seconds ahead of the second-placed Peugeot 908 of Simon Pagenaud, Sébastien Bourdais and Pedro Lamy. The Peugeot of Franck Montagny, Stéphane Sarrazin and Nicolas Minassian took the final step on the podium.
“The three drivers did a fantastic job,” said Audi Sport boss Wolfgang Ullrich after the race. “We were left with our three least experienced drivers [after the two other Audis had accidents] and we gave them the hardest job of all to do: to go really quickly, but not to take any risks. I am very happy with the result and I must congratulate Peugeot because they pushed us to our limits.”
The 79th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours will go down as one of the great battles at La Sarthe in recent years as Audi were left with just one car only seven hours into the race. Neither Audi nor Peugeot looked to have an advantage during the event and it was only in the final three hours that Audi managed to eek out a 25 second gap to the Peugeot of Pagenaud, Bourdais and Lamy.
“The limit of the car is the speed that we’re going to have to go at for the entire 24 hours,” said Peugeot 908 driver Pedro Lamy before the start of this year’s race. He couldn’t have been more accurate and the speed of the Audis and Peugeots was absolutely blistering throughout the 24 hours. Peugeot may not have been able to lap quite as fast as the German cars, but they could crucially do 12 laps before pitting for fuel. The Audis were ever so slightly less economical and had to dive into the pits every 11.
With all three cars from each manufacturer within just over half a second of each other in qualifying we knew we were in for a nail-biting race. However, nothing could prepare us for what happened when Allan McNish tried to scythe his way into the lead after brilliantly moving up from fifth on the grid. Just after the first stops, and with less than an hour of the race run, the Scot came up behind the sister Audi of Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Mike Rockenfeller at the Dunlop Bridge. He dived down the inside on the exit after Bernhard made a mistake and cleared the car, taking the lead. However, just in front of Bernhard’s Audi there was a pack of slower GTE cars, one of which was the Ferrari 458 Italia of Anthony Beltoise, François Jakubowski and Pierre Thiriet. Beltoise didn’t see McNish fly past the number 1 Audi and shut the door, sending McNish flying into the gravel.
Mercifully the new shark fin – which is now mandatory on all LMP cars – did its job and the car didn’t roll, but the speed at which he was going meant that the car flew towards the barrier on the outside of the track and heavily crashed into it. The car flipped over on the Armco and came to rest upside down, just inside the barrier. There was nothing left of the R18 bar the tub and an eerie silence fell over La Sarthe as the crowd waited for McNish to get out. The marshals arrived in a matter of moments, overturned the R18 TDI and thankfully the Scot emerged dazed, but OK. Such was the force of the impact that debris had flown off the car and peppered various photographers perched on the inside of the catch fencing. Amazingly the only injuries were a broken ankle and a broken phone. “I want to find the guy in charge of chassis construction at Audi and give him a big hug as it withstood the impact amazingly,” McNish said once he was released from care.
“It was a massive shock for everyone”, admitted McNish’s team-mate Dindo Capello following the crash. “So many things happened so quickly and our fingers are crossed for him.” Was the Scot being too aggressive? Should Beltoise have seen him and not closed the door? This one will have to go down as a racing incident as McNish may have been cutting through the field quite aggressively, but he was well over to the inside of the turn to give Beltoise as much chance to see him as possible. The Ferrari? McNish was on it so quickly and unexpectedly that there was little chance that Beltoise could have seen him. Indeed the Ferrari driver admitted afterwards that he had no idea the McNish Audi was there.
After over an hour of safety cars while the marshals fixed the barriers, the race was underway again. The battle at the front resumed and the lead seesawed between the Audis and Peugeots. By now we knew that the Peugeots could go a lap longer and the question everyone was asking themselves was whether or not Audi had the speed to make those extra stops. All questions stopped suddenly at 10.40pm. Mike Rockenfeller in the number 1 Audi had just started his fourth stint in the car and came up behind the AF Corse Ferrari of Robert Kauffman, Rui Aguas and Michael Waltrip at the kink after Mulsanne. He started flashing his lights and Kauffman moved over to the left of the road. However, as Rockenfeller came up beside the Ferrari, the car inexplicably edged over to the right and clipped the Audi.
Rockenfeller’s car speared straight into the barriers at high speed and came to a halt sometime later, with only the tub of the car remaining intact. It was another terrifying accident, and it was another huge relief when ‘Rocky’ emerged from the car. He was kept in hospital overnight as a precaution, but is OK according to Audi. Kauffman was reportedly pulled from the Ferrari by the ACO after the incident, but it made little difference to the 458 Italia’s result as it subsequently retired with engine problems.
A lengthy safety car period followed as, once again, the marshals had to tend to more broken Armco. It was another long delay and now Audi was down to just one car – the Marcel Fassler, André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer machine.
Just before midnight 50 of the 56 starters were still running. The six retirements included the two Audis and also both Aston Martins, which expired only three laps into the race. When it became apparent that 007 and 009 were well off the pace in testing, the word from Aston Martin quickly changed to ‘we’re treating Le Mans as a test session’. This was all very well considering how little time the company has had to prepare the all-new, inline six LMP1 car, but little testing was done. “It has been a frustrating week,” confirmed 009 pilot Adrian Fernández. “I’ve only done eight laps all week. It’s a good team, but the engine isn’t very good at the moment. We just haven’t been able to do any running.” Both cars suffered the same problem – a broken water pump driveshaft. Even if the cars had remained intact, they would have made little headway as they were both over 20 seconds off pole and running eight per cent down on power due to the weak inline six.
Following the safety period to clear up the remains of Rockenfeller’s crash the battle at the front continued with renewed vigour. Peugeot still had all three of its works cars in the race and sensed a chance of victory. Several hours passed as the single Audi and Peugeots swapped places over the pitstops with the advantage swaying one way and then the other.
This was shaping up to be an absolutely classic Le Mans 24 Hours as two slightly different strategies went head to head. The 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th hours of the race passed and Audi still held the lead. Peugeot then jumped ahead, but come the 15th and 16th hours, the German car was back in front. Another safety car period to clear up Jan Magnussen’s crash in the GTE Pro class-leading Corvette and Peugeot led once again. The format continued and as the race drew to a close the tension around the circuit mounted.
It looked like the battle would continue in the final three hours much as it had done for the past 21. But, the action wasn’t over at La Sarthe. With just under two hours and 45 minutes left rain arrived and cars started leaving the Tarmac all over the circuit. It wasn’t heavy enough for full wets, but Lotterer wasn’t enjoying the conditions and started to lose time to the second-placed Peugeot with Pagenaud on board. The rain turned out to be no more than a shower though and the race resumed in the same shape as it was before, with the Audi holding a narrow advantage.
Despite all the shaken hands on the grid between the Peugeot and Audi teams, there was no love lost on the track in the final stages as Marc Gene – who was running fourth, four laps down on the leader – drove Lotterer’s Audi off the road. There were cries from the Audi fans, but Peugeot’s reply was simply “well, there weren’t any blue flags…”
The Audi maintained the lead though, despite a dramatic last stop for a dash of fuel and four new tyres. The car emerged only seven seconds in front of the second-placed Peugeot that had also pitted for its final fuel stop. The delight of the entire Audi crew and the three drivers was clear as the car finally took the victory 34 minutes later.
The LMP1 petrol honours went to the Lola B10/60 Coupé-Toyota of Nicolas Prost, Neel Jani and Jeroen Bleekemolen in the end while the LMP2 category was won by the Zytek Z11SN-Nissan of Karim Ojjeh, Tom Kimber-Smith and 20-year-old Olivier Lombard. The Oreca 03-Nissan with Franck Mailleux, Soheil Ayari and Lucas Ordoñez on board took second, while third in class was taken by Christophe Bouchut, Scott Tucker and João Barbosa in the Lola Coupé-HPD.
Special mention must go to Ordoñez who, having won the PlayStation Academy in 2008, piloted the Oreca admirably. Even though he only started racing cars professionally after winning the Gran Turismo/PlayStation competition he kept out of trouble and lapped very well. He justifiably called his first Le Mans 24 Hours “incredible”.
The GTE Pro class was as hotly contested as always and up until 8am it looked like the Corvette C6 ZRI of Oliver Gavin, Jan Mugnussen and Richard Westbrook was set for victory. However, as mentioned earlier, Magnussen lost control of the car when he was passing the slower GTE Am Porsche of Christian Ried. The BMW M3 GT of Augusto Farfus, Jörg Muller and Dirk Werner looked quick in qualifying and in the race, but suffered various problems that dropped them down the order. In a class of high attrition it was the Chevrolet Corvette C6 ZR1 of Olivier Beretta, Tom Milner and Antonio Garcia that finally emerged victorious ahead of the Ferrari 458 Italia of Giancarlo Fisichella, Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander and the BMW M3 GT of Andy Priaulx, Dirk Müller and Joey Hand.
The GTE Am category was won by the Labre Competition Corvette C6 ZR1 of Patrick Barnhauser, Julien Canal and Gabriele Gardel. The class received some bad press from LMP drivers after quite a few near misses as the faster cars lapped them. In the end, it was a case of staying out of trouble – only four cars were running at the end of the 24 hours. Sadly the CRS Racing Ferrari with amateur drivers Roger Wills, Shaun Lynn and Pierre Ehret at the wheel didn’t finish. Seven hours into the race Lynn lost control of the car at the Ford Chicane. Despite the best efforts of the CRS crew who were shouting directions from behind the barriers, Lynn was unable to restart the car having hit the barrier.
Even though part of this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours was marred by two horrific Audi crashes and several disputes between slower GTE Am crews and the LMP machines, the race will be remembered as an extremely close battle that raged for all 24 hours. Allan McNish openly admits that Le Mans is a 24-hour sprint nowadays and it was certainly that in 2011. It’s a testament to both Peugeot and Audi that all their racers ran with such good reliability considering that both cars are so new. Very big congratulations to Marcel Fassler, André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer. The trio handled the pressure of being the only Audi in the race with 17 hours to go extremely well and fully deserve the hard fought victory.