Thirteen wins in 16 tries doesn't happen by accident
Audi has now won its 13th 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 16 tries. To some that’s a yawner but to those of us that follow endurance racing and realize the effort it takes to compete, to race and to even finish, this is a remarkable result.
The three-car Audi R18 e-tron quattro hybrid squad did not show up as favorites at The Sarthe circuit this year. That honor went to Toyota, whose TS040 Hybrid won the first two races of the season (at Silverstone and Spa) and were on pole for this contest. This Germany-based group were attempting to become the first Japanese manufacturer since Mazda to win at Le Mans (in 1991) - and once again, they failed.
Toyota’s descent into retirement for their No. 7 car came with the failure of a wiring loom. The No. 7 had been leading handily before its electrical problems came up, stranding the prototype trackside. The No. 8 Toyota TS040 was part of a three-car pileup during a quick-moving rain squall early in the going; after driver Nicolas Lapierre limped the car back to the pits, half a racetrack away from the incident, the Toyota Motorsport team went to work reviving the fallen car. That exercise required a good 50 minutes to complete and brought the car eight laps down. It eventually finished third, five laps back of the winners.
Audi, too, was involved in the rain-caused accident and lost the No. 3 R18 e-tron quattro as it was irreparable and unable to make it back to the pits. Any trackside repairs at Le Mans must be performed by the driver. It was not possible for Marco Bonanomi to get back to the pits or fix the car himself after being drilled by a Ferrari GT car, the third machine involved in this imbroglio.
That left two Audi hybrids to fight it out with the Toyota hybrids, albeit with one Toyota struggling to gain precious World Endurance Championship points (doubled for this race) during the balance of the race.
There was a third group involved in the Le Mans LM P1 classification for hybrids and that was Porsche, which mounted a good attack, being quick in practice and consistent during the race. Still, the new 919 Hybrid was unable to match the pace of either Audi or Toyota in its first Le Mans event since 1998. It was a good try but not good enough, even though the No.20 Porsche did lead early in the going. Porsche’s No. 14 finished 11th, 31 laps behind the winning Audi; the No. 20 is credited with 39th of 55 starters, completing 346 laps to the winning Audi’s 379 tours of the nearly 8.5-mile circuit.
Winning at Le Mans is always trumps winning a championship - kind of like winning the Indianapolis 500 or the Monaco Grand Prix or the Daytona 500. While Toyota retains its hold on the World Endurance Championship (WEC) points standings with its third-place result in Le Mans and they did get to stand on the podium, it wasn’t the win Toyota has been working for and training for these past two-plus seasons.
No, the top two steps on the podium show German flags from Audi, with the No. 2 leading the No. 1 to the checkers by three laps (!), while the No. 8 Toyota had to settle for the final podium slot. That the No. 1 was even in the mix is testament to Audi’s depth of engineering and mechanical talent, as they built a completely new car following Loic Duval’s Wednesday accident; the car driven by Lucas di Grassi, Tom Kristensen (a nine-time winner of this race) and substitute Marc Gene (after Duval wasn’t cleared to drive) qualified seventh for the race, trailing the No. 3 in fifth and the No. 2 in sixth. Both Porsche hybrids and both Toyota hybrids out-qualified Audi.
An endurance race isn’t always to the quick, as Le Mans has proven once again. While still quite far behind in the points, achieving that title (as Audi did last year) is not out of the question, according to director of LMP Chris Reinke. “There are five more World Championship rounds to go; we’re far from giving up and continue to expect having good chances,” he said.
After this race, Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, Audi’s head of motorsport put the achievement in perspective: “In my personal ranking of emotions, it takes one of the top spots. The whole week was a period of many highs and lows for us. And during the 24 hours every [hybrid] car was running in front - at least once,” he said. The first two thirds of the competition saw Audi’s rivals at the front; the No. 2 worked its way to lead when it counted.
“This can only be achieved with a very special team performance,” Dr Ullrich concluded. “The combination of an efficient concept and a team of strong drivers, who extract the best from it - that was the key to success.”
I’m sure the party at Audi’s hospitality unit in the Le Mans paddock is still going strong, well after midnight now.