Stephen Errity, Le Mans correspondent
Toyota had retired long ago, but Audi still threatened to be its own worst enemy in the final hours of the 2012 Le Mans 24 Hours. The #1 R18 TDI driven by last year's winners Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler crossed the line serenely a lap ahead of its closest challenger, but the result could have been different had Allan McNish not crashed at the Porsche Curves while lapping a GT car in the closing stages. The #2 crew of McNish, eight-time winner Tom Kristensen and veteran Dindo Capello had been handed a late chance to take this year's win when Fassler suffered a brief off-track moment through the Porsche curves, but a combination of McNish's incident and a inconveniently timed safety car conspired to keep them in the position they had occupied for much of the event. The robust Audi was repairable and McNish recovered it to the pits without losing too much time, maintaining second place for the team.
There was also a late-race slip-up for Marc Gene in the #3 R18 TDI, who had almost a carbon copy of his co-driver Romain Dumas' earlier accident at Mulsanne corner, necessitating some more emergency repairs in the Audi and pushing them down to fifth, behind the Oliver Jarvis/Marco Bonanomi/That meant Audi's 1-2-3-4 clean sweep would be upset by the highest-finishing privateer: the #12 Rebellion Racing Lola coupe of Nicolas Prost, Neel Jani and Nick Heidfeld. The trio had run with metronomic reliability in either fourth or fifth place overall for almost the entire race, and the only disappointment for team boss Bart Hayden and his crew is that the sister #13 car did not enjoy the same reliability and missed out on crossing the line behind the lead car due to a prolonged pitstop for a clutch change.
Possibly the happiest team in the pitlane at the end of the race were the British JRM squad of David Brabham, Karun Chandhok and Peter Dumbreck, who finished sixth overall and in P1 after an up and down race that saw them bounce back from a series of mechanical and setup challenges – and beat their more experienced, pole-position-winning rivals Strakka Racing, also running a HPD.
After JRM came another HPD chassis that was also the first of the LM P2 cars: the American Starworks Motorsport team that has already scored one remarkable triumph this year with an overall podium at Sebring. Climbing from fifth during the night to the class lead by daybreak, the small newcomer to international sportscar racing ran a controlled but determined race throughout. The efforts of British pro drivers Ryan Dalziel and Tom Kimber-Smith anchored the victory, but team investor Enzo Potolicchio also acquitted himself well, driving for much longer than planned during the night when Kimber-Smith was sidelined with severe hay fever.
As expected, the Oreca-Nissan chassis combination featured strongly on the P2 podium, with the TDS By Thiriet Racing entry of Mathias Beche, Pierre Thiriet and Christophe Tinseau adding a Le Mans podium to Beche and Thiriet's European Le Mans Series win from earlier this season. Third in class went to Luis Perez-Companc's AF Corse-run Pecom team, in the Oreca-Nissan he shared with co-drivers and Le Mans veterans Pierre Kaffer and Soheil Ayari.
Away from the final results sheet, the story of the race for many observers was Toyota's debut performance. Starting out consistent, the TS030 pilots wound up the pressure gradually before launching a determined attack on Audi a couple of hours into the race. But almost as soon as Sebastien Buemi had grabbed the lead in dramatic fashion, the team suffered a setback of the worst kind as Anthony Davidson's sister car went somersaulting through the air and landed heavily after contact with a GT-class Ferrari that was being lapped. The Englishman suffered broken vertebrae but doctors have said he should be able to return to competition within three months.