The 2014 24 Hours of Le Mans twisted and turned, with each of the factory teams leading during the race and each looking likely winners at different stages of the race. However, at the end it was Audi who added another chapter to their dominance of the race.
Though, in time, the history books will reflect the fact that Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler took their third Le Mans win together at the head of a 1-2 for the Audi Sport Team Joest run R18 e-tron quattro the manufacturer was far from the dominant force in the race.
That mantle belonged to – if anyone – the Toyota Racing crew of Alexander Wurz, Stephane Sarrazin and Kazuki Nakajima.
Wurz moved the #7 car from the pole into the lead, the sister car briefly giving Toyota – the pre-race favourites for the victory – first and second before Nicolas Lapierre was demoted back to third by Lotterer in the #2 surging up the order in his opening stint. Though those handful of laps in the top two places was to be the high water mark for Toyota in that respect their #7 remained out front for much of the first 14 hours.
The only time they gave up the lead in that time was for two short periods in the opening hours when differing pit stop strategies under two safety car periods caused by sudden torrential downpours and their associated accidents. On both occasions it was the #20 Porsche Team 919 Hybrid that took the lead, the team putting themselves in the lead as they opted to stay out during the second safety car period while the Toyota squad pitted.
In total the #7 team led 203 of the first 219 laps, with Kazuki Nakajima heading towards dawn on Sunday morning with a half lap lead over the #2 Audi.
However, in the dark of night the Toyota’s run at Le Mans would come to an end out of Arnage when a fault in the wiring loom brought the #7 to a permanent halt, leaving the lead to the Audi.
On other occasions that event may have been the helping hand the Audi trio needed to romp to victory, but at Le Mans in 2014 nothing was that straight forward. At a event that – as have many endurance races in recent time – has become an elongated sprint race where on track pace and perfect reliability are essential pre-requisites for victory 2014 was won by the team that had the fewest problems.
After inheriting the lead from the Toyota the #2 enjoyed the lead into the first daylight of Sunday morning before Marcel Fassler was pushed back into the garage, the team needing to replace the turbocharger in the car. A 20 minute stay in the pits swung a two lap lead into two laps worth of arrears as the #1 car, in the hands of Marc Gene.
So troubled in the sessions in the week leading up to the race the #1 had not enjoyed a trouble-free race run, losing time in the early hour of the morning – chiefly to a stop to replace a fuel injector.
Rebuilt, then repaired after accidents and with Gene called up after Loic Duval was ruled out of the race after his practice crash victory for the car would have been a somewhat fitting finish for a Le Mans that was on its way to becoming a race of attrition.
But it was not to be.
The first sign of problems was when Tom Kristensen – searching for a tenth Le Mans victory – stopped the car exiting the first of the Mulsanne Straight chicanes, but danger seemed to have passed when the Dane took the car past the pits to begin another lap that was completed without anymore outward signs of trouble. However, after completing a routine looking pitstop just a few laps later he failed to get up to speed through the downhill esses after the Dunlop Chicane. He returned to the pits, the Audi team having to replace the turbocharger on a second car while the race continued outside of their pit garage.
The Audi travails passed the lead back to the #20 Porsche, the car driven by Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley and Mark Webber having an unspectacular, but largely trouble free run to find the Audi and Toyota ways parted ahead of it. The Porsche was not the fastest car in LMP1, the #20 team struggling with the handling of their machine, losing chunks of their lead to a chasing Lotterer.
As it had been for the Audis, and the Toyota before them the lead proved something of a poisoned chalice. Bernhard was forced to end his stint early after a slow puncture began compounding the handling issues, Webber rushed into action and into the race in second place. With the Aussie at the wheel the provided continued, though the drivetrain problem that forced him to limp back to the pits was to be terminal.
Only half an hour the #14 919 Hybrid was pushed into the garage with a similar issue, though that machine had already been much delayed during the race. Marc Lieb returned the car to the track for the ceremonial final lap, following the formation flying Audis as they finished the race line astern on track, but with three laps between them.
Third was the #8 Toyota a further two laps off the lead after a fine recovery drive by the team of Anthony Davidson, Sebastien Buemi and Nicolas Lapierre.
The team’s designs on victory were ripped from them during the first of the two sudden downpours. A visibility sunk to nothing on the Mulsanne Lapierre aquaplaned wildly, swiping the barriers nose first as several cars skittled into each other in the murk.
Along with a number of LMGTE cars the major casualty of the incident was the #3 Audi, the rear of the Marco Bonanomi car destroyed by the succession of impacts.
The early rains also had their part to play in LMP2.
In a separate incident that that involving the Toyota and Nissan the then class leading KCMG Oreca-Nissan slid though the first chicane, hitting the front end of the car against the tyre wall.
Alexandre Imperatori had charged through the order in the opening stint of the race, moving up to second in the order before leapfrogging Harry Tincknell’s Jota Zytek through the first round of pitstops. The team were able to repair the car only for Richard Bradley to be spat off the track exiting the Porsche Curves later in the race bringing their race to an end.
The second of the rain storms also impacted upon the LMP2 class as both Karun Chandhok and Michael Muneman both experienced near identical episode of aquaplaning at the start of the Mulsanne Straight. Both the Murphy Prototypes Oreca and the Greaves Motorsport Zytek ended up hitting the same part of the barrier, and each other.
Both cars did return to the pits, Munemann’s Zytek trailing the front end of Chandhok’s car for some of the lap back, but time was called on the Greaves effort without returning to the track. The Murphy Prototypes car would be returned to the race, but would fall out during the night.
At the front of the class the battle for the class lead had developed into a fight between the Race Performance and Signatech Alpine teams with the former leading the majority of laps in their Judd engined Oreca. Into the battle worked the OAK Racing Ligier-Nissan, the trio of Alex Brundle, Jann Mardenborough and Mark Shulzhitskiy establishing themselves in the lead early in the seventh hour of the race.
They – like the Toyota team in LMP1 – built themselves a comfortable lead over a pack lead by Thiriet by TDS Racing, similarly fielding one of the brand new Ligier JSP2 chassis, and the Alpine squad. During that time they swapped overall positions with the #12 Rebellion Racing R-One.
The only privateer LMP1 team had been reduced to just a single car early in the race when engine problems forced the retirement of the #13 and the #12 battled minor mechanicals niggles throughout the race. When the LMP1 would visit the pits the OAK Racing team would move above them in the overall standings, before the greater pace of the Toyota engined LMP1 would push it back ahead.
OAK Racing lap’s lead in class cushioned the blow when the Nissan engine in the rear of the coupe developed an issue, the drivers having to struggle with a car down on power. However, they were unable to match the pace of those chasing them down and would fall from the lead to third in rapid succession behind the Thiriet entry and the Jota Sport car, largely absent from the lead group through the night after a pitstop of minor bodywork repairs.
The Thiriet by TDS Racing team’s challenge for the class victory was derailed by first suspension failure then a sequence of smaller issues – punctures, clutch issues, electrical gremlins. They were only 30 seconds behind the Jota Sport car going into the final laps, but while Oliver Turvey started his final lap, the TDS Racing run car was caught in the tradition of the slow final lap behind the leaders leaving the Jota Sport team to take victory with the team of Simon Dolan, Tincknell and Turvey. Turvey had only joined the team days before the race, drafted in to replace Marc Gene when he was called up to the work Audi team.
The Signatech Alpine team took third in class with the OAK Racing team – so dominant for so much of the race – could only finish fifth in class after their engine issues.
Once the KCMG car had aquaplaned into trouble the LMP2 class continued almost entirely without the full season WEC teams.
The G-Drive Racing Morgan was taken out of the race around midnight after contact with a LMGTE car and the #37 SMP Racing Oreca was an early retirement. Thanks to their collective issues the sister SMP entry, #27, was able to maximum WEC points despite finishing the last of the LMP2 runners completing 303 laps to Jota Sport’s 356.