By: Tom Haapanen and Tony DiZinno, Sports Car Correspondents
- Audi, Peugeot continue to trade the race lead
- Deluge of retirements plague GTE classes
Sprinting, from start to finish
For the first 20 hours of this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, the powerhouse works Audi and Peugeot teams have been trading the lead back and forth, the rival team always staying on the same lap, in an unprecedented contest that has had the feel of a sprint race throughout.
Benoît Tréluyer stayed in the No. 2 Audi R18 past the 11 AM mark, doing five stints in a row – and on a single set of Michelin tires. By the end of the fifth stint he was visibly lacking grip, but doing two more stints on a single set of rubber than the Peugeot 908s is an impressive achievement for both Tréluyer and the Audi.
“The car is pretty good, it was difficult this morning,” the Frenchman recounted. “Just working on the car. I was in a sandwich, the hardest wakeup call I ever got!”
Tréluyer was trying stretch his advantage over second-placed Sebastien Bourdais to 1:20 in order to be able to make the complete fuel-and-tires pit stop without losing the lead, but was unable to lap the fourth-placed Peugeot of Anthony Davidson. Still, Bourdais was unable to keep with the pace of the Davidson-Tréluyer battle, and the gap was up to about 1:10 when he pulled in for a driver and tire change after 50 laps and nearly three hours.
I have no idea how to keep it together from here.
As Andre Lotterer took the No. 2 out of the pits, he saw Bourdais streaking by, 9.3 seconds ahead at Tertre-Rouge. But dark clouds – literally – were on the horizon, and on top of that ACO had called in the Audi team manager in for a warning for ignoring white lines.
“When I was behind the Peugeot, I got off line, I lost downforce,” Tréluyer explained. “When I lost downforce, I was getting outside the line. It really depends on the Peugeot in front of me.”
Lotterer was making up ground quickly, too, with the new set of tires. With the No. 2 Audi needing only a single additional tire change before the 3 PM finish, the team appears to be in the driver’s seat. But there are still three and a half hours remaining, and a Le Mans anything can – and often does – happen.
GTE classes decimated by retirements
Following the Corvette No. 74’s demise, AF Corse resumed the lead in the GTE Pro class. In the opposite of LMP, where the leading Audi had made more pit stops than the Peugeot, the AF Corse No. 51 Ferrari had made two fewer stops than the No. 73 Corvette.
The sister Corvette is still in a good position to secure a good result and at least salvage something on the day; but this being Le Mans, anything can still happen.
Indeed between laps 115 and 211, Le Mans began claiming its victims. The race went from a battle for position to survival following attrition. Last year 28 cars finished and with four hours to go, that number was 30.
The No. 1 Audi’s accident set forth the tone of cars dropping like flies around the circuit. Seventeen further cars have made it back to parc fermé either on a flatbed, in pieces, or in both. All but three of those 17 additional retirements fell out from the GTE Pro or GTE Am classes.
American teams were hit harder, later, with Corvette’s No. 74 and the No. 81 Flying Lizard Porsche falling out of the race on exactly the same lap, lap 211.
There’s a chance that Robertson Racing could make it onto the GTE Am class podium. Running fourth, the Doran Ford GT-R trails three European entrants: two from Larbre Competition (a Corvette and Porsche) and one from JMB Racing (Ferrari). If one was to join the list of retirements or have some sort of issues that would send them to the garage, the true privateers could capture a podium finish.