Prepare for a Le Mans showdown

Le Mans

The Silverstone 6 Hours on Easter Sunday gave us our first taste of the mouth-watering battle we’ve all been anticipating in the premier class of sports car racing. Porsche vs Audi vs Toyota showcases the fantastic spectacle that modern-day long-distance racing offers – and it will, of course, peak at the race that means more than any other: Le Mans.

This month in Motor Sport we dig into the detail behind the comeback we’ve long awaited. Porsche remains the most successful car manufacturer in Le Mans history, but remarkably its once-unapproachable record of 16 wins at the 24 Hours is now within reach of the modern-era enduro kingpin. Audi, within just 15 years, has notched up a dozen victories – and shows no sign that its appetite is sated. The team from Ingolstadt always wants more.

It has achieved so much, but all of Audi’s successes have been won in the absence of Porsche, which has stayed away from the top category since its last overall win at Le Mans in 1998. Now it has returned to reclaim its kingdom.

It’s going to be fascinating, isn’t it? Especially as the two giants are both part of the same family, belonging as they do to the VW mothership. Then there are the new fuel efficiency rules that have led the manufacturers to opposing solutions on how to go faster for longer, on less. And there’s the reality that the old, familiar threat from Toyota might finally be ready to deliver on its promise – especially judging by its dominant form at Silverstone.

The Toyota TS040s scored a comprehensive 1-2 at the World Endurance Championship season opener, the finishing order decided only by a split-strategy call that arbitrarily favoured the car of Anthony Davidson, Nicolas Lapierre and Sébastian Buemi. On pace in the dry, the pair of Audis – which took the fight to the Toyotas during a thrilling first hour of cut-and-thrust action – looked to be a match for the TS040s.

The uncharacteristic own goals, by the team strategically and drivers Lucas di Grassi, André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer in the rain, took the sting out of the race. But we’d seen enough to know that Toyota’s dominant result wasn’t a fair reflection of form.

And Porsche? What a promising start. Running a set-up for Le Mans, a dose of realism was always required when considering the chances of the new 919 Hybrids – although impressive free practice pace certainly raised eyebrows. But getting one of the pair to the finish relatively unscathed was an achievement in itself, only made sweeter by its placing on the podium. Audi’s disaster was to the benefit of Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley and a delighted Mark Webber.

The Australian, by the way, cut a happy and relaxed figure in the paddock all weekend. I had a chat with him on Saturday afternoon, during which he admitted he’d hardly registered that the Chinese Grand Prix was happening, too. Shanghai seemed far away, and not simply in terms of miles.

Webber and co head to Spa this weekend, for the next six-hour WEC round. We’ll find out more about Porsche’s performance relative to Toyota, which will use the opportunity to introduce its Le Mans set-up, and the bruised Audi squad. Like Silverstone, Spa will offer a refreshing palate-cleanser ahead of the big one.

In this issue

Le Mans special
Lunch with Dr Wolfgang Ullrich
Up close with Graham Hill’s Lotus 49
Hesketh and Lister track tests
Porsche 935 JLP-4 retrospective

To complement our Porsche story in the magazine, Simon Taylor lunches with Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, the architect behind those Audi Le Mans successes. Ullrich is an understated man who cuts a steely figure at the racetrack. Away from the coalface, he can be warm and welcoming – which was the Wolfgang Simon was pleased to meet in Ingolstadt. Our man describes him as a “friendly uncle” – which is probably not the character di Grassi encountered when he stepped out of his wrecked R18 in the Silverstone pit…

As he often does, Simon eked out a few interesting nuggets from his subject during the course of their conversation over a bowl of pasta. The Austrian joined Audi to run its motor sport department at the end of 1993, but tells Simon that the job nearly ended before it began.

“On the Friday afternoon I left my previous job and travelled here, ready to start my new job on the Monday morning,” he says. “And on Sunday evening I had a call from Herbert Demel [the man who appointed him]. He had some bad news for me. There had been an Audi main board meeting on the Thursday, and because of the general recession in automotive markets they had approved the decision to withdraw totally from all involvement in motor sport.

“‘But,’ said Demel, ‘if you can persuade them in the next few days to change their minds, if you can come up with something worthwhile for less money and sell it to them, you will still have a job.’”

Clearly, Ullrich was persuasive. Audi’s Super Touring conquests followed, and then came all that sports car success. But imagine for a second if Wolfgang had failed his first mission and Audi had indeed turned its back on competition…

Aside from Le Mans, Nigel Roebuck and Mark Hughes use the June issue to reflect on the talking points raised by the Malaysian, Bahrain and Chinese GPs. Both have strong opinions on the loss of Stefano Domenicali at Ferrari, and Nigel has some typically wry observations on the recent conduct of Chairman di Montezemolo… while Mark offers a fascinating insight into the story behind Mercedes’ domination of this new era of F1.

Mark took a trip to Brixworth, between Bahrain and China, to talk to Andy Cowell and Paddy Lowe. There’s more to Merc’s advantage than the clever turbo/compressor layout described in the May issue. I’d urge you to read Mark’s article to find out more. You won’t find anything like it elsewhere.

The June issue is also blessed with some fantastic cars, all from different eras. Andrew Frankel spent a magical day at Donington Park sampling first the Hesketh 308 in which James Hunt won the 1974 International Trophy, then stepped into the most famous of the surviving Lister-Jaguar ‘Knobblies’. Both cars will go under the RM Auctions hammer at its forthcoming Monaco sale on May 10.

And there’s more. We also feature the lovely Gold Leaf Lotus 49 Bonhams hopes to sell at its big sale of the year at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Type 49s don’t come up often, so it’ll be fascinating to see how much it fetches on June 27.

 

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