The 2010 Le Mans 24 Hours will be remembered for a crushing Audi 1-2-3 that appeared improbable in the sessions building up to the 78th running of the historic race, but saw Dr. Wolfgang Ulrich's team take advantage to a catalogue of problems for their Peugeot rivals.
After having dominated the opening hours the four Peugeots (three works and a privateer example fielded by Hughes de Chaunac's ORECA squad began to hit trouble early on.
The pole sitting no.3 Peugeot of Pedro Lamy/Sebastien Bourdais/Simon Pagenaud was the first to strike trouble inside of three hours. Lamy looked to be bring the car back to the pits with a simple right-front puncture, but once in the pit the car as whisked backwards into its garage and after the briefest of checks the true extent of the damage was known – the suspension mounts had pulled out of the tub. One of the leading teams in the race did not get to see the evening, let alone night at Le Mans.
As the no.3 retired from the lead the no.1 car of Anthony Davidson/Marc Gene/Alex Wurz took the position. However, they too found trouble, late on Saturday. Luckily despite the no.1 being similar pushed back in the garage their was only a temporary stay with a broken alternator. However the delay, approximately 10 minutes was enough to knock them three laps off the lead.
That handed the lead to the Franck Montagny/Stephane Sarrazin/Nicolas Minassian no.2 overnight, the all-French squad pulling away from the chasing Audis. However, shortly after 7am local time the final peice in Peugeot's puzzle fell apart, Montagny's mount spouting flame from it's right exhaust as it turned onto the Mulsanne straight.
For the first time Audi took the lead with the Mike Rockerfeller/Romain Dumas/Timo Berhard no.9 car. However, Peugeot were not giving up, reloading their now only remaining bullet – in the shape of Anthony Davidson in the no.1 car – the spectacular results.
Davidson blew past two of the Audis on straight line speed alone and survived an incident with the LMGT2 leading no.64 Corvette that saw the car crash hard though the Porsche Curves as a result of making space for Davidson's ballistic 908.
It looked as if Davidson, then Wurz's blistering pace would be rewarded with at least second when the Austrian took advantage of a mistake by the no.8 Audi to take second place. However, as the car set about chasing down the leader to unlap itself for a climactic final few hours the car expired, in similar fashion to its sister car, the right exhaust smoking through the corners at Indianapolis and Arnage towards retirement in the pits.
Olivier Quesnel – head of Peugeot Sport – was in tears, comforted by Hughes de Chaunac. Defending Peugeot's (and France's) honour de Chaunac sent driver Loic Duval on a charge to try and foil the Audi domination, the Frenchman setting the race's fastest lap (a race lap record) as he tried to chase down Tom Kristensen in the no.7. However, just as it began to look as though Duval might accomplish his mission a familiar sight toured to a stop at Arnage – a Peugeot with smoke and flame coming from its right exhaust.
The were question marks over the Peugeot's tactics – had the need to push the cars beyond their comfort level been too much for the car's turbos? The reason why the drivers seemed to driving within themselves through qualifying and the early part of the race when they dominated so easily.
However, in a race that tests the reliability of machinery as much, if not more so, as driving ability and speed it was a crushing defeat for the Peugeot brand. The no.9 car leading home a photo finish to give it’s crew each their first Le Mans outright win.
But they were not the only LMP1 team to suffer setbacks. Even Audi had not run faultlessly, though their lone major delay was due to racing rather than anything mechanical, when Tom Kristensen found himself squeezed in the gravel by an ailing BMW, limping its way back to the pits. The no.7 car lost around 12 minutes in total at a time it was chasing down Peugeots, prompting Dr. Ulrich to lambast BMW Motorsport's Charlie Lamm at the entrance to the latter's garage.
Late drama and engine woes also struck the top petrol runner in the final hour. The two works Aston Martins had held the unofficial title, the no.007 car for much of race until gearbox problems struck at around the same time Montagny's race came to an end. Their teammate – the no.009 took up the mantle, with a comfortable margin over the next best placed petrol car. However, the Aston too, with Sam Hancock at the wheel, and the V12 engine became another smokey victim of Indianapolis and Arnage with only 50 minutes to go.
LMP2 was a story of two cars, both HPD ARX 01cs.
British Strakka Racing, in their first year with the chassis, dominated the class. They only lost the lead once, when gentlemen driver Nick Leventis spun harmlessly into the gravel at the Dunlop Chicane. That gave Le Mans debutants Highcroft Racing a taste of the lead. The Highcroft car, with reigning overall champion David Brabham alongside Marino Franchitti and Marco Werner, maintained second through most of the race, despite numerous punctures, as the two HPD cars endlessly pulled away from their competitors.
However, the Highcroft challenge came to an end on Sunday morning with an engine cooling problem, the Strakka car (Leventis with Jonny Kane and Danny Watts) free to take the class win and an incredible fifth overall in a race that saw more retirements than finishers, as well as an overall distance record, the lead Audi completing 397 laps.
Behind the dominant HPD the no.35 OAK Racing car continued the team's astonishing record of finishing on the podium at every Le Mans visit.
LMGT1 was a disappointment.
The smallest class of the four at the race, dominated by cars from the GT1 World Championship, saw only three cars finish and the Larbre Competition Saleen – the only car not built to the new series' regulations – the winner. It had outlasted all three Ford GTs. Spa winner Marc VDS suffering an enormous accident in the early hours, while the Matech cars lasted a little longer, the no.61 all-female car ending in flames at the end of the Mulsanne Straight with Natacha Gachnany prying herself from the car. The no.60 car – Romain Grosjean/Thomas Mutsch/Jonathan Hirschi – had led the class for much of the race before it was involved in an accident in the dark.
The car was stopped, stranded (aptly) at the Ford Chicane, and was collected by Jean-Francois Yvon in the no.24 OAK Racing car. The impact lifted the big GT car airborne, destroying the rear end, and tore the entire front-left corner from Yvon's Pescarolo prototype.
Unlike their Belgian marque-mates the Swiss team repaired the car, only for their race to ended by engine failure, discovered when the car refused to start after a routine pitstop
Perhaps the best thing to come from LMGT1 (expected to be the last outing for the class at La Sarthe) was the JLOC Lamborghini. A running joke after two previous entries saw the car only complete a single lap the all Japanese line-up ran until 9am, when the ACO's rules about minimum distance saw them ruled out.
The story of LMGT2 was fitting for the amount of attention the class received, but perhaps for different reasons. For the first two-thirds of the race it was all about Corvette Racing. Stepping down from LMGT1 the works squad showed a dominant pace they lack in their ALMS exploits – the no.63 and no.64 running 1-2 with only occasional interference. Jaime Melo in the no.82 Risi Competizione Ferrari – winners of the last two Le Mans LMGT2 crowns – put up the longest lasting and most successful attack, Melo and Oliver Gavin in the no.64 car swapping the lead back and forth in the way that has made LMGT2 perhaps the most popular class in both the European and American Le Mans Series.
However, the Ferrari pitted, then retired with gearbox problems, Gavin suggesting that the aggressive driving, riding the tracks more severe kerbs, may at last be in part to blame. It looked as though the race would be nothing more than a Corvette confirmation, but it all fell apart within an hour.
First the no.63 dropped out of second place with a mechanical failure before Emmanuel Collard found himself confronted by Anthony Davidson on a change that not even another class leader was going to delay. Corvette themselves admit there was no contact, but the car still ended in barriers with heavy rear damage.
Undoubtedly distraught (though not nearly as tearful as the French) Doug Fehan's squad rebuilt the car, as set it back out on track, still in fifth place in class, before engine failure finished what Davidson's diesel had started.
Corvette's loss was Team Felbermayr-Proton's gain, the star studded Wolf Henzler/Marc Lieb/Richard Lietz Porsche handed class honours ahead of another runner-up finish for Hankook Team Farnbacher to add to their second place overall at the Nurburgring 24 Hours last month.
2010 24 Hours of Le Mans Class Podiums
No.9 – Audi Sport North America – Mike Rockenfeller/Romain Dumas/Timo Bernhard – 397L
No.8 – Audi Sport Team Joest – Andre Lotterer/Marcel Fassler/Benoit Treluyer – +1L
No.7 – Audi Sport Team Joest – Allan McNish/Tom Kristensen/Dindo Capello – +3L
No.42 – Strakka Racing – Nick Leventis/Jonny Kane/Danny Watts – 367L
No.35 – OAK Racing – Mattieu Lahaye/Guillaume Moreau/Jan Charouz – +6L
No.25 – RML – Mike Newton/Andy Wallace/Tommy Erdos – +9L
No.50 – Larbre Competition – Roland Berville/Julien Canal/Gabriele Gardel – 331L
No.72 – Luc Alphand Aventures – Stephane Gregoire/Jerome Policand/David Hart +4L
No.52 – Young Driver AMR – Peter Kox/Christoffer Nygaard/Tomas Enge – +20L
No.77 – Team Felbermayr-Proton – Wolf Henzler/Richard Lietz/Marc Lieb – 338L
No.89 – Hankook Team Farnbacher – Allan Simonsen/Dominik Farnbacher/Leh Keen – +2L
No.97 – BMS Scuderia Italia – Marco Holzer/Richard Westbrook/Timo Scheider – +11L