Of Tortoises and Hares at Le Mans 24H

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Of Tortoises and Hares at Le Mans 24H

By: Tom Haapanen and Tony DiZinno, Sports Car Correspondents

Story Highlights

  • Audi opts for high speed and more pit stops
  • Vilander takes over GTE lead as Magnussen’s Corvette stranded


Audi’s high-speed race strategy


In Aesop’s classic fable, the Tortoise and the Hare, the tortoise is overconfident and loses to the tortoise after taking a nap halfway through the race. At this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Audi team is attempting to rewrite this tale.

Already faster than the rival Peugeots in qualifying, team principal Wolfgang Ullrich and technical director Ralf Jüttner planned a strategy of raw speed to beat the Peugeots. The gap in qualifying was tiny, though – half a second covered all six works Audis and Peugeots.

#26 Signatech Nissan Oreca 03-Nissan: Franck Mailleux, Lucas Ordonez, Soheil Ayari
#26 Signatech Nissan Oreca 03-Nissan: Franck Mailleux, Lucas Ordonez, Soheil Ayari

Photo by: Rainier Ehrhardt

The strategy Audi Sport selected had the team short-fill the cars on each pit stop: that would require additional pit stops, but the reduced fuel fill would shorten the stops. And the lighter fuel load would reduce the weight, adding to the Audi R18’s speed advantage – and also reduce tire wear, thus reducing the number of costly (in time) tire changes.

And indeed it appears that the team’s somewhat counter-intuitive strategy has paid off. At 7 AM local time, after 16 hours of running, the remaining No. 2 Audi had made 17 stops, compared to the 16 by its nearest Peugeot challenger – but remarkably less time in the pits, by nearly 10%, about 20 minutes to 33.

The speed is there, too: the driver teaming of Benoît Tréluyer, Marcel Fässler and Andre Lotterer have generally been substantially faster than the leading Peugeots, and Lotterer has set the fastest lap a number of times during the race so far – even with near-full tanks.

With Lotterer having stopped and handed over the car to Tréluyer during the latest safety-car period, and all the works Peugeots having stopped as well, the four cars running nose to tail in near-formation: the No. 2 Audi at the front, followed by Simon Pagenaud in the No. 9 Peugeot, and then the pairing of Alexander Wurz (No. 7 Peugeot) and Stéphane Sarrazin (No. 8 Peugeot, albeit a lap behind).

Like so many battles earlier in this year’s race, there is little to choose from between the rivals: not once during the race so far has any overall leader had a consistent one-lap margin. It has been an 18-hour sprint, and we can now look forward to a concluding 6-hour sprint race.

The Pescarolo-Judd, currently piloted by Christophe Tinseau, is nine laps off the pace, but three laps ahead of the ex-works Oreca Peugeot 908 HDi FAP.

In LM P2 the battle for the class lead is no longer quite as tight as that for the overall lead. Olivier Lombard is leading the class in his Greaves Motorsport Zytek-Nissan, 17 laps behind the overall leaders but two laps in front of the nearest P2 challenger, ahead of the Signatech Oreca-Nissan.

GTE-leading Corvette retires in Hour 17

Corvette’s No. 74 car led the GTE Pro class by a healthy margin until the 16 hour, 30 minute mark in class when things went horribly awry for the Americans. AF Corse’s No. 51 Ferrari held its own with Giancarlo Fisichella, Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander to remain on the lead lap in class but more than a minute and a half behind the Corvette.

Jan Magnussen, however, was beached at the Ford Chicane, stuck in and entrenched in the gravel pit in the No. 74 car. Another Felbermayr Porsche was also off course, the No. 63 car driven by Horst Felbermayr Sr., and the fracas resulted in a safety car period. Magnussen was uninjured from the shunt.

Things were also discomforting for the sister No. 73 Corvette with Olivier Beretta fighting carbon monoxide poisoning, after inhaling fumes he had taken in the earlier safety car periods. He was rumored to be out of the race but has since returned, feeling better and healthy to drive.

#51 AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia: Giancarlo Fisichella, Gianmaria Bruni, Toni Vilander
#51 AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia: Giancarlo Fisichella, Gianmaria Bruni, Toni Vilander

Photo by: Rainier Ehrhardt

It’s awful luck for Corvette who was faced with a similar nightmare situation at morning last year, and with the usual No. 4 car in ALMS competition. Last year it was a passing maneuver through Porsche Curves when the Peugeot of Anthony Davidson overtook Emmanuel Collard, and now this collision coming out of Porsche Curves heading to Ford Chicane has removed the dominant car from contention. This was a bigger hit than last year and Corvette crew chief Dan Binks confirmed the team’s No. 74 car has now been retired.

A tweet from Oliver Gavin said it all: “LM24 can b very tough sometimes... Jan had contact with Porsche coming out of Porsche curves, we r out. Tough on the team, we had control.”

Prior to the leading Corvette falling out of contention, Flying Lizard moved up to fourth place in the Pro class with its No. 80 Porsche (Jörg Bergmeister, Patrick Long, Lucas Luhr) ahead of the two BMWs.

The BMWs might figure back into the equation, said Joey Hand in the No. 56 car. Hand is seeking the sports car “Triple Crown” if he can add a class win at Le Mans to victories at the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring this year. The BMW had a misfire and had a variety of things changed in the eighth hour.

“You see how quickly things can change here, I mean the leaders just got taken out,” Hand said.

AF Corse’s No. 71 car has lost one of its drivers, Rob Kauffman having been retired from competition following the incident with the No. 1 Audi during the night. That car, with Michael Waltrip and Rui Aguas still at the wheel, has been in-and-out of the garage with various mechanical issues.

The sister Lizard was engaged in an intriguing bout in GTE Am with Larbre Competition’s two cars, the Corvette and Porsche. Even that went up in flames as well, as past 8:20 a.m. the Lizards team manager Eric Ingraham reported the GTE Am Porsche has lost all drive and would retire as well. A shame for the solid trio of Darren Law, Le Mans debutante Spencer Pumpelly and team principal Seth Neiman.

Krohn Racing and Gulf AMR Middle East make up the Am class’s retirements; accident damage for the Aston and an engine failure which occurred without much warning, Michele Rugolo said, on the Krohn Ferrari F430 GT. Additional retirees in GTE Pro are the No. 64 Lotus, No. 79 Jota Aston Martin, and No. 89 Farnbacher Ferrari.

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Series LEMANS
Tags audi, corvette, ferrari, le mans, nissan, peugeot

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