Audi saw off a spirited Toyota challenge to add another 24 Hours of Le Mans victory to their successes with Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Loic Duval victorious in a race overshadowed by the death of Danish driver Allan Simonsen after a crash in the opening laps of the race.
As new of the tragedy filtered through the field the race continued, though with an understandably sombre mood pervading over the Circuit de la Sarthe.
In the opening laps of the race Toyota surprised the Audi, the two cars moving up from fourth and fifth on the to second and third, Nicolas Lapierre moving the #7 into second, chasing down Andre Lotterer who had assumed the lead in the #1 car, jumping past Allan McNish in the polesitting #2 R18 e-tron quattro at the initial start.
In the slippery conditions that cloaked much of the race – the moisture on the track constantly topped up by fleeting showers that only ever lasted long enough to cause a handful of incidents each and occasionally prompt strategic punts as teams opted for intermediate or even wet tyres.
In the slippery conditions the Toyotas seemed to have the upper hand over the Audi squads. They were also able to run longer stints, the Audis generally completing stints of just under an hour, the Toyotas capable to stretching each run beyond the 60 minute mark. The Audis, however, had the performance advantage in the drier conditions, allowing them to keep ahead of the Toyotas.
With that margin in hand Audi looked headed for another dominant year, as cars #2 and #3 overhauled the Toyotas to installed the trio of R18 in the top three places.
That would change in the course of a few laps around the century mark.
In the #3 Oliver Jarvis suffered a right rear puncture after contact with a slower car a few corners earlier. Leaning on the holed tyre under braking for the Dunlop Chicane the car was pitched into a spin. Fortunately, the car neatly shedding its right-rear tyre on site allowing the Briton one of the easier three wheeled laps of Le Mans’ history back to the pits with little or no other damage to the car. His delay was minor, the team only losing a lap and dropping to fourth behind the two TS030 Hybrids. However, they remained ahead of the #1 team.
Lotterer, then Benoit Treluyer had kept the car in the lead – only giving up the lead in the handful of laps when the gap between they and the #8 Toyota allowed the lead to change hands for the laps between their relative pitstops. Almost simultaneous with Jarvis’ issues in the #3 Treluyer brought the #1 to the pits to begin a 43 minute stay in the garage as the team replaced the alternator in the car.
The time lost dropped the defending Le Mans winners, and WEC champions, from the top 20. However, the driving trio (completed by Marcel Fassler) were near faultless through the remainder of the race climbing back in fifth place overall by the end of the race. While the arrears accrued put the Toyota’s out of their reach Jarvis, Marc Gene and Lucas di Grassi inched up to the two Toyotas, finally able to jump ahead of the #7 car in the closing hours.
Their taking of the final step on the podium was confirmed when Lapierre became the first to go off in the race’s penultimate shower when he submarined the front of the #7 into the tyre wall at the start of the Porsche Curves. Despite exiting the car and walking away Lapierre was allowed to drive back to the pits, the team repairing the car quick enough to keep fourth place.
Though the records will show Audi as a dominant force, Toyota only leading four laps and the #2 crew leading every lap from the moment Treluyer pitted an ailing #1 until Kristensen passed beneath the checkered flag, The #8 team of Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Stephane Sarrazin were never more than a lap behind, well within striking distance should the problems that had struck the other Audis should delay the third car.
A penultimate hour stop for wet tyres for the #2 car could have swung the race to Toyota, but the weather remained just wet enough to not force a final, unscheduled, stop upon the team.
Strakka Racing claimed vital points for the WEC LMP1 teams’ title, taking advantage of problems for both Rebellion Racing cars including a heavy off for the #13 car on the exit of the second Mulsanne Chicane that brought about one of the races lengthy safety cars that helped the race set unwanted record for both the number of times the race fell behind the safety car, and the duration of the race conducted in neutral conditions.
Despite scares at either end of the race OAK Racing ended with a first and second in LMP2 with the #35 and #24 entries respectively.
The #24 Morgan-Nissan of Oliver Pla, Alex Brundle and David Heinemeier Hansson has the advantage in the class early on, but a spin into the tyres in the Porsche Curves dropped them from the lead, leaving the way open to the #35 team.
Their win, however, would be thrown into jeopardy by the same downpour that pushed Lapierre into the barriers. Bertrand Baguette rounded Arnage to find the road ahead of him awash, catching out several drivers. The Thiriet by TDS Racing of Ludovic Badey spun into the barriers on the inside of the track, ending the team’s race. Baguette threatened to follow into the Armco, but slid to halt before he made any contact. With the race brought under safety car control for the final time he was able to continue to take the class win with co-drivers Martin Plowman and Ricardo Gonzalez.
Behind the two pink and black Morgans Roman Rusinov, John Martin and Mike Conway completed the podium in the #26 G-Drive Racing ORECA-Nissan. They were the victors of a battle for third that evolved as the two OAK cars moved increasingly out of reach ahead. The team had led the class during the Saturday portion of the race, before having to pit for the first of two repairs to fix a side number panel that failed to light up as required. However, at the end of the race they held the position by only a minute over the #42 Zytek-Nissan Greaves Motorsport entry. Earlier in the Jota’s similar car, Lucas Luhr suffering suspension failure in the early hours of the morning that took the British team out of podium contention.
The downpour in the final hours of the race brought physical clouds to match the metaphorical ones that cloaked the race. At the specific request of Simonsen’s family the remaining Aston Martin Racing cars raced on, aiming to secure an emotional victory. For much of the race the team had the numerical advantage in the lead battle for LMGTE Pro. Two Astons and a single Porsche became separated from the rest of the class after being collected by different safety cars.
The three teams cycled took turns leading, the Porsche more efficient always stopping after the Astons. Sunday saw the weight of numbers, and the race , swing to Porsche. While leading the class Fred Makowiecki in the #99 Aston found one of the perilously wet painted road lines on the Mulsanne Straight on the exit of the first chicane. A loss, then a sudden regaining of grip pitched the car nose first into the barriers, putting the team out of the race on the spot, the emotion of the race clear to see as Makoweicki sat behind the barriers.
Their exit left the #97 of Peter Dumbreck, Darren Turner and Stefan Mucke the lone Aston in the class – the #98 having exited the race earlier after a smoky mechanical failure. However, they lay behind the #92 Porsche AG Team Manthey 911, the Aston’s constant companion through the race.
As the race ticked towards a final hour the battle came to a climax. Aston Martin and Turner gained a track advantage by not taking new tyres as the Porsche did on their corresponding stop. Also newly installed, replacing Marc Lieb, in the #92 Richard Lietz chased down the Aston, taking advantage of the fresher tyres but as Turner was replaced by Mucke in a freshly Michelin-ed V8 Vantage at the following stop.
Now enjoying the advantage Mucke cleaved away at the gap to the Porsche, latching onto the rear bumper just as they reached a Porsche Curves turned skating rink that reduced both Mucke and Lietz to a crawl that made both of the visiting the pits at the end of the lap the obvious choice.
There, however, Aston Martin’s lead challenge fell away. A seven minute stay in the pits dropped Mucke back to third, behind for Manthey Porsches, a standing cemented when he returned to the pits before the safety car unleashed the field for the final half hour of racing.
The three teams on the podium finished two laps ahead of the #73 Corvette, the American team never on a par with the European teams throughout race week, a finishing position ahead of the two AF Corse Ferraris almost flattering to their pace during the race.
The Ferrari team fared better in the LMGTE Am class, taking second and third places behind the team of Jean–Karl Vernay, Raymond Narac and Christophe Bourret driving the #76 IMSA Performance Matmut Porsche. They took the lead for the first time after the #55 AF Corse entry made pitstops on two consecutive laps at the start of the eleventh hour and never relinquished the lead to win by a full over the team of Pierguiseppe Perazzini, Darryl O’Young and Lorenzo Case in the #55.
The class winners were one of four Porsches to lead the class during the race. Their teammates in the #67 were the first of the rear engine cars to show the way before both the ‘regular’ Proton Competition and the Dempsey Del Piero–Proton entry each lead laps before time lost knocked them from the lead battle.
Among the problems for the Dempsey-mobile was a dizzying spin for the man himself – Patrick Dempsey – after he was forced wide on the entry to the sweeping first turn. There were similar issues for the sister car, which was caught out when an LMP2 car rejoined the track after the Dunlop chicane directly in their path, the Porsche collecting damage front (from tagging the errant prototype) and rear (from the directly behind him entering the corner) in the incident which cost the team more than 30 minutes.