After two shocking accidents a lone Audi held off all three works Peugeots to win the 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans in one of the most memorable of the endurance race's 79 editions – for both the right and wrong reasons.
The no.2 Audi R18 of Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler crossed the line only thirteen second clear of the nearest Peugeot in on the closest finishes in the storied race's history. It was a margin so narrow that organisers the Automobile Club de l'Ouest eschewed the traditional ceremonial last lap in favour of a final tour completed at full racing speed. Some traditions remained as the brave flagman still ventured out onto the track to greet Lotterer, bringing the Audi home.
With such a tiny margin between the leaders after 24 hours of racing, picking that crucial moment – the moment favour tipped in Audi's favour is near impossible. Benoit Treluyer's (and his Michelin tyres') unmatched quintuple stint aboard the Audi, is certainly a candidate for the decision that may have won the race.
In the late morning the Frenchman opted for a fifth stint in the cockpit – pushing the regulations for maximum stint length – going some way to snap the game of pitstop leapfrog that had characterised the race between the metronomic diesels.
Though he still emerged from the pitlane in second place, Sebastien Bourdais flashing past up the hill to the Dunlop Chicane in the no.9 Peugeot , the decision not to take on tyres saved around half a minute and gave him a comfortable lead when Bourdais came in for his own stop.
Still, the lead was almost lost by another Audi pit call in the final hour of the race. With Lotterer in the car both he and Simon Pagenaud in the no.9 had to make one more pitstop to reach the end of the race. However, Lotterer, reportedly with a puncture was forced to change tyres – a time consuming endeavour under ACO regulations – cutting his lead down to just seven second with less than forty minutes remaining. However, now with fresh rubber to rely on, and a lead to build on, the opportunity Peugeot were handed came to nothing, Lotterer able to pull away.
Peugeot were not without their mistakes. The no.7 car of Alex Wurz, Anthony Davidson and Marc Gene had been the leader of the three Peugeots for much of the race, however – in Wurz's hands – a hour nineteen off at Indianapolis damaged the front suspension on the 908, necessitating a visit to the garage for repairs that would leave the trio off the podium.
As expected the race was dominated by the diesel powered cars – none of their petrol fuelled counterparts able to match their performance despite the ACO's best attempts at balancing performance. Such was the diesel's advantage that the Team ORECA Matmut year old Peugeot 908 HDI FAP was able to finish fifth, despite two incidents, including an off at the first Mulsanne chicane that delayed the car for 14 minutes in the pits.
The French privateers were only able to take fifth because of the late demise of Henri Pescarolo's team on their 24 Hours return Emmanuel Collard spinning at the entrance to the Porsche Curves on a greasy track, wrecking the chassis bringing Henri's Le Mans to a sadly premature (and very emotional) end with just hours to go.
Collard's accident handed the best petrol title to Rebellion Racing, who had quietly run well with the no.12 Neel Jani, Nicolas Prost, Jeroen Bleekemolen entry, finishing a full ten laps clear of the Kronos Racing Lola-Aston Martin. The pair of works AMR-One lasted only six laps between the, Darren Turner and Adrian Fernandez suffering near simultaneous, identical water pump failures.
The revamping of the GT classes at Le Mans – as in the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup – did little to change the style of racing in, arguably, the most competitive class of all.
Corvette Racing looked to have been dealt the winning hand early on. After an early pitstop – a strategy call by the team to set their fuel calculations – the team were able to run during the first safety car intervention without stopping, leaving a comfortable cushion between the no.74 Corvette of Oliver Gavin, Jan Magnussen and Richard Westbrook and the nearest challenger.
While Corvette look almost destined to take the win they should have taken in 2010 second place was the front line in four way manufacturer tussle. Ferrari, with AF Corse, the pair of BMW Motorsport M3s that had shown their pace in qualifying and the second Corvette all fought over second. The fleet of Porsches only made fleeting appearances towards the top of the class. Team Felbermayr-Proton's second car got all the way up to second with Nick Tandy driving before Olivier Beretta in the second Corvette deposed it.
Prospeed Competition, Flying Lizard Motorsports, Felbermayr-Proton. All made visits to the higher places in the GTEPro class, but all were delayed. Partly by tyre durability problems that effected all the Porsches, stopped by a myriad of technical problems, punctures, and accidents like that which knocked the erstwhile second placed Felbermayr-Proton car out of the race.
The crucial point in the GTEPro race was the coming together of Magnussen's leading Corvette and the GTEAm Proton Competition entry with Horst Felbermayr Sr. at the wheel. Magnussen, in the faster car, was forced offline to pass the Porsche, ran over the kerb and was spat into the side of the Porsche, sending both cars cannoning off the wall on the approach to the Ford Chicane. The damage to the Corvette prompted instant retirement, Magnussen not returning to the team's garage for a time despite the car coming to a halt just metres from the entrance to the pitlane.
Once more, as they had done twelve months ago when a mechanical problem and a charging Anthony Davidson put paid to their two cars, Corvette appeared to have dramatically snatch defeat from the jaws of a certain victory.
AF Corse were the immediate beneficiaries. The pre-race favourites – Giancarlo Fisichella, Toni Vilander and Gianmaria Bruni – were presented with the lead, but as the hours wound down their Ferrari 458 Italia began to encounter problems of its own. A pitstop extended by the team taking the engine cover off the rear of the car to examine the workings was the first warning sign, as electrical and clutch problems transformed every pitstop into a massive hurdle the team had to clear and the cumulative total of all their delays was enough to drop them to second in class by the end of the race.
Behind the other Corvette.
The no.73 car (Olivier Beretta, Tommy Milner and Antonio Garcia) had constantly been among those fighting around the class top three but reliability just as the leading Porsches, BMWs and Ferrari were flagging lifted them to the lead. Doug Fehan's team had taken victory from defeat, after apparent defeat from victory.
The Corvette joy was bolstered by the French Larbre Competition squad taking their ex-works example to the GTEAm title. The class was almost a benefit for the 2010 LMGT1 class champions, as they proved to be too good for the rest of the field. Not only did their Corvette win the class, but their Porsche finished second in class, both cars dominating the class throughout the 24 hours.
LMP2 was the scene of perhaps the biggest surprise.
Reigning champions Strakka Racing had recovered from their qualifying crash, but retired after half distance. Instead the pace was set by the pair of Nissan engined ORECA 03 chassis. The Signatech Nissan entry was dogged by punctures – a feature of Le Mans in 2011 seemingly more than any year before. That left the way open to the Team ORECA Matmut entry.
With Alexandre Premat, David Hallyday and Dominik Kraihamer sharing the driving duties Hughes de Chaunac's LMP2 representative was a constant in the battle for the lead. That was until Hallyday stacked the car comprehensively and though he (with the help of some marshals on what can only be described as 'tyre-turning duty') tried to get the car back from Arnage with a destroyed front end, overheating soon claimed the car, abandoned by the side of the road.
That gave the tiny Greaves Motorsport squad – who had been the other half of the lead battle with ORECA – an easy lead. The squad – Team Bruichladdich before 2011 – were one of the few reliable entries in the class, steadily building a lead. Such was their advantage that when Tom Kimber-Smith was another to spin on the damp track the team could afford to use some of the seven lap lead to bring the car into the garage for precautionary checks, emerging back into the lead when everything with the Zytek Nissan combination was declared sound. Untroubled Kimber-Smith, Karim Ojjeh and Olivier Lombard were left to stand atop the LMP2 podium.
Also enjoying a reliable, quiet, run to the finish were Level 5 Motorsports. The American team had been fighting their Honda powered Lola coupe all weekend, but almost silently stalked up the order with the minimum of problems.
However, it's impossible to look back on the 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans without confronting the elephant in the room, and the two horrific accidents that put the no.1 and no.3 Audis out of the race before Sunday had dawned over La Sarthe.
Mike Rockenfeller was the second to crash, overtaking Rob Kauffman in the AF Corse Ferrari he shared with Michael Waltrip and Rui Aguas. Kauffman may have moved across on the Audi, but only to take the natural line through the right hand kink ahead. However, whether Rockenfeller simply misjudged the gap he was aiming for, or Kauffman was dazzled by the LED lights of the R18, the contact spun Rockenfeller left into the wall, the impact with barriers sending a fountain of carbon fibre skyward before he span back across the track to end on the right hand side of the track. Rockenfeller, despite what was later described as a flesh wound to his arm was reportedly able to climb from the remains of the car himself.
Only hours earlier Allan McNish had suffered another terrifying accident at the Dunlop Esses after making contact with another GTE car. In McNish's case too contact as he tried to move past sent the car into the barriers, corkscrewing frighteningly on the verge of vaulting the barriers into the gathered marshals and photographers. That the main tub of the car landed back on the trackside of the barriers and that no-one was seriously injured by the shower of pieces and parts is something every race fan should be thankful for, even more so when the car the was righted and a visibly shaken McNish walked away.
Though the two crashes were only split seconds of a 24 hour race, and a fantastic 24 hour race at that, the destruction of two Audis will, this writer fears, be remembered long after the victory of one.