Twelve months ago the first 24 Hours of Le Mans victory for Andre Lotterer, Marcel Fassler and Benoit Treluyer had a feeling of victory by default, as their Audi teammates each suffered dramatic demise while leading.
This year that couldn't be further from the truth.
Of the four Audi R18 entered in the race the #1 ran as close to the perfect race as is possible over such a gruelling course at such a terrific pace as they achieved. The figures back up their dominance, the three drivers, once more with race engineer Leena Gade, led for 326 of the 374 laps of the Circuit de la Sarthe completed in the 24 hours.
“It's brilliant to have won yet again!” said Lotterer. “That's an incredibly nice feeling. It was a really strenuous race. A year ago, we were battling against Peugeot and this year against Toyota at the beginning of the race. Unfortunately, our rival retired. But we contested a very fierce race against car number '2' in our team as well. Audi Sport allowed all of us to give everything. It was real racing, and in your own team that's particularly interesting. Last year, we were running against Peugeot by ourselves after two major accidents. This year, the trust among the entire squad has grown even further.”
Only two moments by Marcel Fassler blotted the copybook of the winning team. Firstly the Swiss was lucky to escape with only the most minor of damage to the car after spinning in the Porsche Curves during the night. Later, once Sunday had dawned he was forced into the gravel trap at Mulsanne Corner to avoid a GT car, tapping the tyre wall with the rear of the car, damaging the rear wing. Thankfully the damage in the accident was slight enough that Fassler was able to complete his full stint before the Audi Sport Team Joest mechanics replaced the rear bodywork section in just over a minute.
The pattern was set for the race in its opening hours. From pole position Lotterer took the lead and begun pulling away, but inside the first 60 minutes both the R18 ultra in the race had already been delayed. Mike Rockenfeller brought the #4 into the pits for the team to check the rear suspension. Though the stop only lost the team – completed by drivers Oliver Jarvis and Marco Bononomi – two minutes it left them playing catch-up for the rest of the race.
Two hours later Tom Kristensen, driving the #2 e-tron quattro, pitted with a similar suspension concern that was remedied by removing rubber pick-up. Like the earlier stop of Rockenfeller it dropped them away from the #1 in the lead, helping them establish themselves as lead Audi.
Most in trouble of all the Audis in the early hours was the #3. Loic Duval has had to make an extra pitstop in the first hour after a puncture and at the end of the fifth hour Romain Dumas ran wide at the first of the Mulsanne Straight chicanes, nosing into the tyre barriers. After a slightly odd moment, Dumas physically ripping the damaged front bodywork from the Audi by the side of the track, he brought back the damaged car to the pits.
If all of these early problems were a nightmare for Audi they were doubtless a dream for Toyota. On their competitive debut the two car team had shown a pleasantly surprising turn of pace, Stephane Sarrazin starting the race third in midst of the Audis. There would have been further beaming smiles – both from the jointly ORECA and Toyota run team, and the representatives of the Automobile Club de L'Ouest – at the sight of Treluyer and Nicolas Lapierre in the #7 Toyota hybrid battling through Mulsanne Corner, Indianapolis and Arnage for the lead at the end of the fifth hour.
Lapierre, initially led after taking to grass on the way out of Mulsanne Corner, Treluyer taking in back, out-braking the Toyota driver into Arnage only for Lapierre to drag back past exiting the corner, slicing across the front of his fellow Frenchman to complete the move before the sweeps of the Porsche Curves.
It was to be a lofty peak for Toyota, but then came the fall. Almost simultaneously as Lapierre was taking the lead for Toyota, Anthony Davidson, trailing the leader on track by less than a minute, was crashing out at Mulsanne Corner after contact with the AF Corse LMGTE Am Ferrari driven by Piergiuseppe Perazzini. In a similar type accident to Rockenfeller's a year earlier Davidson was almost completely past the Ferrari before Perazzini moved across a tipped the Toyota into a spin that became a flip. Mercifully the TS030 Hybrid returned to earth right way up and before the tyre wall. Davidson was out of the race and would watch the end from hospital after being diagnosed with two fractured vertebrae. A full recovery is expected to take two to three months.
From a hospital bed Davidson reflected on the crash; “instantly [the contact with the Ferrari] spun the car, pivoted round to the left, then took off and turned upside down. At that point I felt I was in an aeroplane out of control. I knew how close the barriers were, and travelling at that speed I was going to be there in no time. That part of the crash was pretty petrifying. It crashed back down to the ground, I felt an almighty punch up my spine when the car hit back down on four wheels. I still had my eyes closed and my hands off the wheels, in the brace position. Half a second after that I had the forward impact into the barrier.”
The crash caused a lengthy safety car period in order for the barrier to be repaired – most of the damage had actually been done by the Ferrari, but when the race restarted Toyota's downfall continued.
Following pitstops during the safety car period Kazuki Nakajima took the restart in the remaining Toyota, released from behind the safety car at Arnage. Fighting – under green flag conditions – with two Audis around slower traffic the Japanese barged the Nissan Deltawing off the track in the Porsche Curves. The accident resulted in the eventual retirement of the experimental machine – despite the best efforts of driver Satoshi Motoyama, and the Toyota would follow suit eventually, much delayed, with engine failure after ten hours.
The retirement of the second Toyota officially made it battle between the four Audis for the overall win – barring something cataclysmic for the Ingolstadt team. Fassler's night-time spin gave Allan McNish in the #2 the lead to begin a number of hours, the two Audi hybrids eventually swapping the lead owing to different pitstop schedules.
Only further mistakes by the chasing pack cemented the lead of the #1. Marc Gene suffered an almost identical accident to that of teammate Dumas in the #3, then just minutes later McNish crashed the #1 in the Porsche Curves while trying to find a way past a GT car. Though McNish continued in the race thanks to typically rapid repairs from Audi the accident knocked him from the lead lap, allowing Treluyer, then Lotterer to lead the remaining three hours of the race without threat.
“I caught a slower GT vehicle in the Porsche corners and expected the driver to stay on the right-hand side,” said McNish. “But he didn't. I haven't got a clue why. I spun and crashed into the guard rail with the right front. That damaged the front bodywork and the suspension – the necessary repair cost us two laps. That was a very, very big disappointment.”
Lotterer, who had started the car 24 hours earlier after setting the best lap in qualifying led a perfect Audi formation finish across the line. The #2 car of McNish, Kristensen and Dindo Capello kept second place to seal an equally perfect 1-2 for Audi's R18 hybrids. Mike Rockenfeller brought the #4 R18 Ultra home fourth, the car latterly delayed by a recurring gear selection problem had the car slow and/or stationary several times over the course of Sunday.
The only obstacle preventing an Audi 1-2-3-4 finish was the Rebellion Racing Lola-Toyota driven by Nick Heidfeld, Nicolas Prost and Neel Jani. Since the troubles for Rockenfeller and Duval in the opening hour the two Lola-Coupes had been interspersed with the R18 gaggle.
With a succession of fastest laps in the space of just over an hour Duval briefly moved the #3 car into fourth to give the four rings the top four spots, but the position was lost once more when Gene became the second man to plant the front of the car in the tyre wall at the PlayStation chicane.
Rebellion's progress to the position of top privateer had been inevitable almost since Strakka Racing were consigned to starting from the pitlane several laps down after an oil leak from the gearbox of the team's HPD chassis. Likewise the Pescarolo 03 started a lap in arrears from the pitlane – the team gambling and starting on wet tyres as rain began falling over the pits straight only to have to pit just a lap later as the rain blew over before so much as wetting the track.
The Pescarolo's race did not last much longer, retiring after 20 laps. Strakka Racing fared better, racing their way back into the top ten, before a recurrence of the problem from the start of the race forced them in the garage in fear of jeopardising a crucial finish in what was a double points paying race for the FIA World Endurance Championship. They finished eighth in class behind the similar HPD ARX-03a of JRM and the second Rebellion Racing entry.
Henri Pescarolo's other car in the race – the Dome S102.5 – also had a troubled time, with several technical problems that left them in the limbo of teams not classified. They completed 203 laps, 16 fewer than OAK Racing's Pescarolo-Judd #15 which was forced to retire with engine troubles.
2012 24 Hours of Le Mans LMP1 final top five standings:
1. #1 – Audi Sport Team Joest – Fassler/Lotterer/Treluyer – 378 laps
2. #2 – Audi Sport Team Joest – Capello/Kristensen/McNish – 377 laps
3. #4 – Audi Sport North America – Bononomi/Jarvis/Rockenfeller – 375 laps
4. #12 – Rebellion Racing – Prost/Jani/Heidfeld – 367 laps
5. #3 – Audi Sport Team Joest – Dumas/Duval/Gene – 366 laps