Porsche wins Le Mans

Le Mans

Those of you who tweet will be familiar with Audi’s hashtag #welcomechallenges. Well, the team from Ingolstadt sure 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’.

A titanic battle between Audi and Porsche had been expected, but in the end an accumulation of problems denied Audi victory for the first time in five years while the #19 Bamber/Hülkenberg/Tandy Porsche ran virtually trouble-free for 24 hours. So Porsche took its 17th victory at La Sarthe.

Porsche had stolen the pole, locked out the front row and grabbed the headlines, but as we know this matters not a jot when there are still 24 hours to go. So fast was the 919 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. The French newspapers referred to a ‘bataille fratricide‘, referring to the squads being from the same family, the mighty VW Group.

My full report will appear in the magazine at the end of the month but, in brief, here is how the dominoes either stood, or fell.

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 less than three hours in when Loïc Duval crashed while trying to pass a group of backmarkers which slowed suddenly in a confusion over flags at the end of a ‘slow zone’ period 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 our columnist Oliver Jarvis,” but then Loïc got hit in the slow zone confusion and I thought it was over. We fought back, 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 strangely 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 Bamber/Hülkenberg/Tandy Porsche in front, over a minute ahead of the Fässler/Lotterer/Tréluyer Audi, but still it was anybody’s race.

Class podiums

LMP1
1 Bamber/Hülkenberg/Tandy
Porsche 395 laps
2 Bernhard/Hartley/Webber Porsche 394 laps
3 Fässler/Lotterer/Tréluyer Audi 393 laps

LMP2
1 Bradley/Howson/Lapierre
Oreca 358 laps
2 Dolan/Evans/Turvey Gibson 358 laps
3 Bird/Canal/Rusinov Ligier 358 laps

GTE Pro
1 Gavin/Milner/Taylor
Chevrolet 337 laps
2 Beretta/Calado/Rigon Ferrari 332 laps
3 Bruni/Fisichella/Vilander Ferrari 330 laps

GTE Am
1 Basov/Bertolini/Shaitar
Ferrari 332 laps
2 Dempsey/Long/Seefried Porsche 331 laps
3 Bell/Segal/Sweedler Ferrari 330 laps

At around midnight Audi’s pace had dropped off by around 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 which came to the fore. Early on Sunday the rear bodywork on the Fässler/Lotterer/Tréluyer Audi became detached and laps were lost while repairs were made and parts replaced.

In the end the big battle fizzled out and the #19 won by a lap from the sister car of Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley and Mark Webber. Completing the podium were Fässler, Lotterer and Tréluyer in the fastest and most reliable of the Audi R18 e-tron Quattros.

So, a current grand prix driver wins Le Mans. It’s a long time since we last were able to write those words. This is good news for the WEC, and bodes well for a series that is gaining in strength year by year. For Nico Hülkenberg, signing that Porsche contract was a smart move, 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.” Now Hülkenberg, after just two races, goes back to his day job at Force India. Back down to earth with a bump for a man who has yet to get his hands on a winning car in Formula 1. “I said it would be nice to be in a car capable of winning a race,” he smiled, “and now we have won Le Mans. Incredible.”

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 most how hard it is to win this thing. The score is now Porsche 17, Audi 13.

Meanwhile, in the other races within this extraordinary event, there were some equally close and exciting battles. As you can see in the table above, the Brits did well.

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