The Audi #2 of Benoit Treluyer, Andre Lotterer and Marcel Fassler took their third – and Audi’s thirteenth – Le Mans victory on Sunday after a pulsating and dramatic 24 Hour race in which each of the leading teams encountered problems. What seemed like a straight-forward walk in the park for Toyota, turned into one of the most intriguing and spectacular editions of the race for years.
The race started with the #7 Toyota of Alexander Wurz leading the #14 Porsche of Neel Jani out of the final chicane. Behind the leading two who remained processional for the duration of the opening lap – the #7 Toyota for the duration of the first six hours – a ferocious battle was lining up, first between the #8 Toyota and the #2 and #3 Audi’s respectively. After the first “yellow zone” – caused by Nicolas Lapierre spinning the #7 at the second chicane and bringing debris onto the track – both Audi’s closed up on the Frenchman and ambushed him. Once passed however, the three cars were never separated by more than two seconds, due to the fact that while the Audi’s had more downforce, the Toyota had a vastly superior straight line speed.
Before all of this, the #14 Porsche of Jani had slowed with a fuel pressure issue, rendering it useless for 15 minutes while it was repaired in the pits. The other Porsche (#20) of Timo Bernhard found itself embroiled in another Audi attack, this time the #1 of Tom Kristensen. Again swapping positions lap after lap, the #1 Audi finally made the move stick and began to pull away until Kristensen pulled the Audi in for an early pitstop after Lapierre’s spin.
The first safety car came out in the second hour after a heavy rain storm engulfed the La Sarthe circuit. Initially exclusive to only a section of the track, conditions soon got worse, ensuring that all cars would be walking on egg shells at the very least. Down the Mulsanne Straight the #7 Toyota aquaplaned and spun into the right hand side barrier, suffering heavy damage to the front end. Nico Lapierre managed to restart the car and limp back to the pits; where it was worked on for 40 minutes; losing 8 laps in the process. Also involved in the incident was the #3 Audi driven at the time by Marco Bonanomi. Bonanomi slowed for a GT car in front of him and, unsighted by the GTE Am car of Sam Bird behind, was smashed into by the Ferrari, sending the Audi into the left hand side barrier with significant damage. The Italian, who was running third at the time, tried everything he could to restart the car but to no avail. Obviously distraught, the Italian climbed forlornly out of his stricken machine; race over.
The next hour brought with it another rain shower and this time it brought everyone into the pits for wet tyres. The #7 Toyota and the #2 Audi came in to change rubber which put the #20 Porsche into the overall lead. Timo Bernhard at the wheel surprised everyone by extending the lead – the Porsche seemingly working a lot better in slippery conditions – until the fourth hour. When the rain stopped and the circuit dried out, everyone was back in again to change back to slicks. The #20 Porsche retained its lead over the #7 Toyota and #2 Audi but was being carved into at a sharp rate of knots. First it came down to 20 seconds; then by the end of the fourth hour, it was down to just thirteen seconds.
Another round of scheduled pitstops in the fifth hour saw the lead change and the #7 Toyota retook control of the race. The #20 Porsche maintained second place until a suspected puncture lost it time and position, and had to crawl back to the pits. Bernhard then briefly fell to fourth place while the #1 Audi was still circulating before its stop before moving back into third, albeit a lap behind the leader. The #7 Toyota meanwhile had extended its gap to over 50 seconds at the front.
While the lead was temporarily cut to just under 25 seconds, it was extended and almost doubled thanks to the second safety car of the race. This time, it was for the stricken LMP2 of Alex Imperatori who crashed between the fast Porsche curves and the Ford chicane. The Swiss driver emerged unscathed from the wreck.
From the eighth hour onwards the #7 Toyota continued to pull away substantially from the #2 Audi – who decided to quadruple stint its tyres in an attempt to close the gap and the #1 Audi. The two Audi’s were managing the gap to the lead Toyota and reduced the margin to 2 minutes and 1 lap respectively as Toyota changed tyres and drivers – Sarrazin replacing Wurz – until the #1 Audi began to slow with an apparent turbo issue on the Mulsanne Straight. It hobbled back to the pits – cutting out and resetting intermittently – and lost third place to the #20 Porsche of Brendon Hartley.
But soon after, in the 13th hour disaster struck for the lead car. The #7 Toyota slowed with a mysterious electrical issue and Nakajima stopped out on track at Arnage facing the wrong way. The Frenchman managed to get the car restarted and was able to crawl back to the garage upon which it was officially retired. The favourite was out and the #2 Audi took the lead.
Now with a big lead, the #2 Audi could afford to take it easy in this part of the race, but it too began to slow – again with a turbo issue. At the end of the 16th hour, Benoit Treluyer brought the car back to the pits: the Audi sitting there forlornly waiting for its sister #1 to pass. And it did eventually, a lap later. “Mr Le Mans” Tom Kristensen was back in the lead of the 24 Hours; though it too would encounter the same issue 4 hours later.
Meanwhile, the #20 Porsche quietly moved back into second place in the race, albeit being lapped in the 18th hour by the lead Audi. The positions stayed the same for the next 3 hours with the #12 Rebellion of Nick Heidfeld, Nicholas Prost and Andrea Beche running very strongly in 5th position.
Into the 21st hour it looked like the #1 Audi would miraculously take victory – especially after having had virtually no track time after Loïc Duval’s massive crash in practice on Wednesday – but alas it was crippled once more by a turbo issue. It briefly stopped and again had to reset. Kristensen brought the stricken Audi back to the pits for a second time as the #20 Porsche of Bernhard retook the lead. While at times it looked as though the #20 Porsche had the pace to pull away from the chasing #2 Audi of Andre Lotterer, the German in second place was closing rapidly. He closed to within three seconds before pitting to fuel and change tyres. The gap was extended slightly to forty nine seconds before disaster struck the lead car once more.
With almost exactly two hours left in the race, Mark Webber – who had just entered the car after switching with Bernhard – slowed dramatically coming onto the Mulsanne Straight. The Australian reported having a misfire and high oil temperatures as he hobbled (with just Hybrid power) his 919 Porsche back to the pits. The team – upon receiving Webber back to the garage – wheeled the car in and opted to stop working on it; meaning the erstwhile leader of the 24 Hours was out: for good.
The #2 Audi thus found itself back in the lead of the race, leading from the sister #1 Audi to make it a remarkable one-two. The #8 Toyota – after nearly being written off in the early deluge – was back in third place while the #14 Porsche of Marc Lieb was fourth some way behind. The Rebellion #12 of Nick Heidfeld continued to run in fifth.
The positions remained more or less the same until the end; the end of an absorbing, enthralling endurance race where seemingly none of the LMP1 runners wanted to lead. The final hour brought us our final LMP1 retirement, this time the #14 Porsche which pulled out with a gearbox issue and bringing an end to an encouraging but ultimately disappointing Le Mans 24 Hours debut for the returning German past winners. The #2 Audi gently stroked it home for a third Le Mans victory in four years for Benoit Treluyer, Andre Lotterer and Marcel Fassler. The #1 Audi pulled off a miracle recovery drive to finish second, one lap behind and the #8 Toyota of Anthony Davidson, Nicolas Lapierre and Sebastien Buemi rounded off a bitterly disappointing race for the Japanese marque. Behind them, the #12 Rebellion proved incredibly reliable for once, finishing a credible fourth ahead of the immensely impressive LMP2 class winner Zytek – Nissan of Oliver Turvey.