It was a 24 Hours of Le Mans to remember, a battle of the titans where quarter was neither asked for or given, and the lead was up for grabs from the opening lap to the chequered flag.
It will be a fond memory for the victors, particularly Andre Lotterer, Benoît Tréluyer and Marcel Fässler who piloted the winning No. 2 Audi R18 TDI through the challenges of the 24 hours.
Tréluyer had qualified the No. 2 on pole position on Thursday night, the first time that Audi had succeeded in out-qualifying archrival Peugeot at Le Mans. The team’s No. 1 car, with Romain Dumas, Mike Rockenfeller and Timo Bernhard started next to them on the front row, followed by two Peugeot 908s, the third Audi and then the final works Peugeot. Remarkably, all six cars qualified within roughly half a second.
The two lead Audis showed their pace quickly at the start, jumping into an immediate lead, while Allan McNish in the team’s No. 3 car worked his way past in a matter of a few laps, giving Audi motorsport director Wolfgang Ullrich an Audi 1-2-3 lead in the early going already.
However, the first disaster struck shortly: as McNish made a pass on Bernhard just after the Dunlop Bridge for the overall race lead, he made contact with the LM GTE Pro Ferrari 458 of Anthony Beltoise, sending the Scot’s Audi R18 into the barriers. The heavy impact practically destroyed the car, leaving only the monocoque and cockpit impact. McNish walked away from the car, but Audi was now down to two cars to Peugeot’s four, including the semi-works Oreca Peugeot 908 HDi FAP.
The strength was in our strategy.
Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich
“The car is very strong,” said Ullrich. “It is good to know we have created something completely safe. It’s not a test I wanted to do, as we did it two times, it is not for the car but the drivers.”
Race strategy of shorter stints
Ullrich and the Audi Sport team had adopted a race strategy of short-fueling the cars and running shorter stints – 10 laps rather than the 11 by Peugeot. This allowed them to run slightly faster thanks to the reduced weight, and also reduce the tire wear, enabling the team to run four or five stints on a single set of tires.
This strategy indeed proved to work well, and the team was able to run consistently faster than the Peugeots. The Audis had to stop more often, but thanks to quicker refueling and fewer tire changes, the team actually spent less time in the pits than their competitors.
“Today’s victory was a team victory,” said Tréluyer. “We just drove the cars!”
All this was running smoothly into the night, and Audi held a 1-2 lead in the early hours of the morning, with Lotterer in the No. 2 Audi and Rockenfeller in the No. 1 car. But more drama was still to come for the Audi squad: as Rockenfeller attempted to lap the Ferrari 458 of the American billionaire Rob Kauffman between the Mulsanne and Indianapolis, the two made contact, and the second Audi spun into the Armco barriers. The shower of parts flying off the car was shocking, and there was only the cockpit and powertrain left of the car. As with McNish, Rockenfeller was able to climb out of the car, without any serious injuries.
A fight to the finish
That left the singular Audi piloted by Lotterer, chased by the pack of four Peugeots. As the night turned into morning, Lotterer hand the reins back to Tréluyer, who eventually gave them back to Lotterer.
On the Peugeot side of the battle, Sébastien Bourdais, Pedro Lamy and Simon Pagenaud in the No. 9 Peugeot 908 took the lead in attacking the remaining Audi. With the teams’ differing strategies and the natural variation in traffic conditions, the battle ebbed and flowed throughout the morning.
Bourdais and Montagny – Lamy got little seat time today – would each hold the lead at times, only to have to concede it back to Lotterer and Tréluyer as the Audi drivers would make up with raw speed what they lost in additional pit stops.
“We ran soft (tires) during the night, and we were able to fight back and get closer,” Bourdais explained. “All night with the softs wouldn’t have been bad race. We weren’t able to work on the mediums, though.”
It was only at lunchtime, with less than three hours left on the clock, that the race began to look like it was Audi’s to lose. It became apparent that the Peugeot's had neither the outright speed nor the race strategy to catch up with the singular Audi.
Steady light rain began to fall just before 1 PM, though, opening a possible gambit for the Peugeot team. While Lotterer, who had got back into the car by this time, stayed on slick tires and drove gingerly around the track, losing time to Bourdais hand over fist, Peugeot Sport chief switched the No. 8 Peugeot to intermediate tires.
In the event, the slicks still ended up being the best, or at the minimum the least bad, choice, and as the track dried again, Lotterer still held the lead, though Bourdais was now within sight.
“I drove it all, I gave it everything,” Lotterer recalled. “I pushed as hard as I could. It was a fantastic, tough, competitive race. We get on very well, and it’s incredible to have this success together.”
With options running out for catching Lotterer either on track or in the pits, Marc Gene in the No. 7 Peugeot appeared to raise the stakes to a higher level. Running near Lotterer on the track, though four laps behind, he moved over on Lotterer a number of times, forcing the Audi driver off the track and nearly into the barriers.
I was driving in happy hour. Anyone could have done that in this car.
Andre Lotterer, on his fastest lap
Lotterer survived this, too, though, and as the clock ticked down to 0:00:00 remaining, the tension in the Audi pit was palpable.
“It was an intense 24 hours from the beginning to the end,” Lotterer said. “It was tough, but I know in my head that I needed to keep it together and keep pushing.”
There were no premature celebrations, only tension as Werner, Ralf Jüttner, Reinhold Joest and Volkswagen Group CEO Martin Winterkorn watched Lotterer’s progress through the final lap.
The final margin of victory for the No. 2 Audi over the No. 9 Peugeot was mere 13.854 seconds after 24 hours of racing. There was a total of 350 laps, every one of those with both an Audi and a Peugeot on the lead lap.
The margin was fourth-smallest in the race’s 79-year history. Only in 1967, 1969 and 1933 were the victories even closer, and no one remembers a race where the two rivals were both on the lead lap for the entire race. A race for the ages, indeed.
Behind the first two followed the three other Peugeots: the No. 8 of Franck Montagny, Stéphane Sarrazin and Nicolas Minassian; the No. 9 of Gene, Alexandre Wurz and Anthony Davidson); and the semi-works No. 10 Oreca Peugeot with Olivier Panis, Lapierre and Loic Duval.
Rebellion, Greaves come out on top
The unofficial but hard-fought “petrol division” was claimed by Rebellion Racing after the Pescarolo Team Pescarolo Judd spun off the track in the final hour of the race, giving a solid first result to the 2011-spec Lola B10/60-Toyota package, piloted by Nicolas Prost, Neel Jani and Jeroen Bleekemolen.
The LM P2 class was well-represented on track, and did not suffer from excessive retirements: seven of 11 entries were classified at the end of the 24 hours. Greaves Motorsport put it together in the end: as other teams suffered from various mishaps and minor mechanical, the Greaves team of Karim Ojjeh, Tom Kimber-Smith and 20-year-old Olivier Lombard kept the team’s Zytek-Nissan on pace, on the road and out of trouble.
“The engine was good, chassis was very good, so we knew we had all the ingredients,” said Ojjeh. “We knew it was going to be tough, but we stayed on the track and we ran like clockwork.”
Signatech Nissan earned second in the category, many laps down from the Greaves entry, and handed Nissan a one, two finish in the competitive class.
As the only American Prototype team, Level 5 Motorsports had a fantastic race to battle into third for LMP2 after a costly spin during the night almost cost the team a podium finish. Scott Tucker, Christophe Bouchut and Joao Barbosa did their best to bring the Lola Coupe-Honda Performance Development across the line only one lap down from the Signatech Nissan.
The third-place result was the best for Level 5 in the seven-round Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, the new global championship for sports car racing in 2011. Interestingly Level 5, which fielded the only coupe in LM P2, was the only Michelin runner in class to finish of seven; the other six rode on Dunlops.
The 2012 edition promises an even more competitive field, with all LM P1 and LM P2 running to the ACO’s new 2011-2013 technical regulations, and the June endurance classic a part of the new World Endurance Championship.