There were scary moments, there were funny moments, there was the 24 hours. An amazing race with amazing drivers. It was the day that counted, it was perform or go home, it was race day at Le Mans. Nothing is final until Sunday afternoon at 3:00 PM in Le Mans, France when the car crosses the finish line. Not my picture, forgot where I got it from, but it is a good shot.
It was three in the afternoon at Circuit de La Sarthe when the flag waved beginning the 79th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Having top six cars within six tenths of each other this was going to be the race of a life time. Right at the start the Audi's and Peugeot's were jockeying for position. It looked more like the start of a touring car race rather than the start of a 24 hour endurance race. Audi kept the top two spots off the start, a few laps later the #3 that had started in fourth made its way to third in the hands of Allan McNish.
At the bottom of the first hour Allan McNish made a risky move down the inside of the #1 Audi, but couldn't see the #58 GT Ferrari that was in front of the sister car. The right front of the Ferrari touched the left rear of the #3 Audi which then broke the suspension and sent the car careening into the outside retaining barrier, with much of the car disintegrating. The car came to a rest on the top of the car. With the images commentators held their breath, Audi mechanics held their breath, and there were anxious looks all down the pits. Moments later, the marshalls arrived and righted the car, only to find McNish awake, alert and preparing to unbuckle himself and climb out of the car. The Scott walked to the other side of the wall under his own power. Dr. Ullrich was visibly relieved along with the rest of the Audi garages. This would lead to the first safety car period of the race for an hour while the armco had to be rebuilt after the crash.
Audi was then left with the #2 and #1 cars. As the hours went on, and cars were serviced, it became apparent that Audi were only running 11 laps, while Peugeot was clearly able to 12. However, even though the Audi's would slip back a couple of spots due to pit rotation, but would be right back where they were when Peugeot would pit.
In P2 the Oreca Matmut car seemed to have it all together and was doing very well. The Greaves car was also showing some fantastic pace too.
Further back in the field the GT cars were having their own battle with the top four cars. Corvette's Doug Fehan wasn't kidding on Wednesday afternoon when he gave a small sound bit to Radio Le Mans saying that Corvette was ready to rock and roll. All week long during practice and qualifying the Corvettes averaged 3:59's and 4:00's lap times. BMW had jumped out to an early lead and had the pace on the straights, the 55 car was out in front for a good while with the 56 in tow until the car had a puncture and had to pit. Then it was BMW, Ferrari, and Corvette.
The action didn't stop there, in GTE-AM the cars were swapping the lead just about as fast as they earned it. It was actually very interesting to watch on the time sheets for most of the race. The 60 Aston Martin was out front for awhile, but would spin and then lose the lead. This lead to a rotation of three Porsches and Labre Corvette, Labre also ran a Porsche, changing positions during pit rotations.
As the sun fell, the track got cooler and the track got slicker. Some cars would spin, but for most, it was business as usual and continue to run into the night. Audi was still holding off Peugeot, and both teams were still running about the same pace.
Into the night they went. The Audi's were easy to distinguish with their what seemed like 2 billion candle power headlights that must have illuminated half of the back straight. Ok, that isn't true, but they were definitely very bright. During the week the GT car driver were complaining that the lights were almost too bright and were just a giant blob of light which made it hard to distinguish the distance of the closing car. Things were going well at this point, everything and everyone was in a rhythm but this was all about to change.
About 7 hours and 40 minutes in, Audi would lose another R18. This time it was the #1 being piloted by Mike Rockenfeller. The images from the crash were truly horrifying. Pieces of the R18 were strewn about for several hundred meters at one of the fastest places on the circuit, the run down to Indianapolis. The area possibly the darkest on the circuit was able to be observed through a CCTV camera. Hardly anything was visible until there was the overhead shot from a helicopter that revealed nothing was left except the crash capsule.
The Audi pits waited for news on Rockenfeller. Almost ten minutes after the crash, it was then reported by Dr. Ullrich that Rockenfeller had in fact climbed out of the car and over the guardrail before marshals and work crews had gotten to the scene. It was later announced that he actually walked away from the accident and had a flesh wound on his left arm, and while at the circuit medical center, was alert and talking to people there.
This accident caused the second safety car which lasted for a little over 2 hours due to the armco being completely demolished. I will mention there was a team, can't remember who, that put their gentleman driver in the car and had him do his required drive time during the safety car. Possibly the smartest strategy for keeping the car safe.
Audi was then down to one car, the #2 Audi. Many people were asking the question about why didn't they withdrawal from the event? Well, I don't think quit is in the German vocabulary... Apparently only faster is. Shortly after the race resumed there was another caution period for the number 13 Rebellion Racing Lola Toyota powered machine (a mouth full to say) crashed in the Porsche Curves, again the driver was out of the car shortly after the accident. The driver said it was his error. After clearing it the race quickly resumed.
If you make it through the night, you have fought half the battle. Drivers continued to turn laps, and Audi pulled in the 1 car to do a full service and driver change. Marcel Fassler got out, and Andre Lotterer got in. There were rumors going around the pits that Audi had been using medium tires at night, which is unusual given the operating temperatures the tires have to be at, and that the ambient temperature at Le Mans during the night this year, was roughly in the 30 degree Fahrenheit range. No, you didn't miss read that. But we soon found out the rumors were likely true. Lotterer had apparently been given orders that I could only imagine were said something like this: "Go fast, but you must last." And go fast Audi did in those morning hours leaving the Peugeots behind bit by bit. Peugeot pitted for tires and fuel because the softs were getting to hot and they needed a new compound. Lotterer threw down the fastest lap of the race, a 3:26.298. Shortly responded to by Sebastian Bourdais with the exact same time down to the thousandth. Lotterer seemed to be doing well in the car running below 3:30 lap times.
It was apparent that the lone Audi car had the pace, something most people weren't sure it had, but it also shouldn't still be out front at this point. How could Audi be doing this? Smart pit strategy, and less time spent in the pits than Peugeot. It really is as simple as that. Video from MT89Motorsport2 via youtube, in German!
Then the lap that changed the race: 3:25.289. A lap that was half a second faster than the pole time. Audi had made a statement through this: We may not get the mileage you do, but we will beat you on out right pace. Shortly after this the #74 Corvette and the #63 Felbamyr Porsche had a serious incident that led to Felbamyr Sr. being taken off on a stretcher. Corvette's hopes now fell to the 73 that was in second now behind the AF Corse Ferrari. Both BMW's had fallen back due to a misfire problem.
Not long after this Lotterer was pulled from the car after only two stints and Treluyer was put in. Treluyer would do five fuel stints on the same set of tires.
Then It was up to Lotterer to close and do the final leg, another five stints in the car on one set of tires. Lotterer had to deal with being blocked, beat and pretty much abused by the #7 Peugeot, a car that was already a lap down. Video from 780motorpsorts via youtube.
The Race to the Finish
I think the best way to illustrate this is just to let the video play from 780motorsports.
With that Lotterer brought home the car, and gave Audi a well deserved, and emotional win 13.854 seconds ahead of the #9 Peugeot of Simon Pagenaud. Despite the odds, the car that shouldn't have won when you look at the numbers on paper, pulled it off and won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the one every racer dreams of and wants for his or her own.
For right now I am only going to post the first place finishers from each class. It was truly a fantastic performance from all finishers.
P1- #2 Audi
P2- #41 Greaves Motorsport
GTE-Pro- #73 Corvette Racing
GTE-Am- #50 Labre Competition