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For 51 weeks of the year Le Mans is a fairly normal French town. Its efficient and modern tram system and uncongested streets do not give the impression of a place which annually becomes a place of motor sporting pilgrimage for over 250,000 people, yet the Circuit de la Sarthe just outside the town provides one of the most historic and exciting race spectacles in the world.
The marathon begins at 3 o’clock on Saturday afternoon and continues through the night until the same time on Sunday, however most fans arrive on the Friday to soak up the atmosphere and attend the drivers’ parade which celebrates the races’ heritage on the streets of Le Mans town. On this so-called ‘Mad Friday’ the event takes on a festival-like character as the bars of the town are heaving with visitors, also fancy-dress has become an increasingly common sight around the campsites and with no cars going around the track at this time you could be forgiven for sometimes assuming you were at a comic book convention.
Madness aside, there is an unshakeable competitive spirit at Le Mans every year. The automobile manufacturing giants Audi and Peugeot have been duelling for over a decade at the forefront of the field, each pouring massive amounts of resources into this race to prove to the world that their cars are supreme in this test of both speed and fortitude. Although Audi and Peugeot have made the headlines again this year the 56 car starting grid was full of smaller teams competing in one of the four categories of LMP1 (Le Mans Prototype), LMP2, GTEPro and GTEAm.
The qualifying session that took place on the Thursday before race weekend was unable to separate the 6 works Audis and Peugeots by any more than half a second. A big question mark hung over the Aston Martin Racing team who are historically very competitive at Le Mans but this year came to the race with a completely radical and unproven machine which was well off the pace around the 8.5 mile circuit. Making a debut in the GT car classes were the Ferrari 458s and Lotus’ Evora which were to race alongside the staple Le Mans entries of the Porsche 911s and Chevrolet Corvettes. The diversity of entrants which makes the Le Mans 24 Hours such an attraction was demonstrated by the entry in the GT Amateur class of the Robertson Racing Ford GT which was run by husband and wife team David and Andrea Robertson who would in fact celebrate their wedding anniversary whilst racing on the Sunday.
As day broke on Saturday morning fans made their way from the campsites to the trackside to witness the start, some had clearly gone with the tactic of getting as much sleep as possible to survive as much of the 24 hours as they could, however the lycra-clad wrestlers who had erected their own bar by the roadside near the Porsche Curves obviously were following a different plan. Morning practice again highlighted how close the race was going to be as the Audi R18s and Peugeot 908s were almost identical in terms of lap times. The first competitive action of the day was in the form of the Le Mans Legends classic car race which was won by Carlos Monteverde in his joyously beautiful yellow Ferrari 250 LM and then came the Ferrari Challenge race which involved 50 of the Italian marques creating sonorous reverberations as they sprinted around the track for about an hour.
As 3 o’clock approached, the impatient crowd were delighted to see the field of the Le Mans 24 Hours entrants somewhat menacingly coast around the track behind the Audi A5 safety car which was audibly straining to keep an acceptable pace for the 200MpH machines which it was leading around on the formation lap. As the start finish line was crossed the cars bolted and the 79th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours was underway.
The run up to Turn 1 was chaotic with cars running 3 and 4 abreast. Allan McNish in the R18 which started 5th on the grid had said before the race how he would overtake if the opportunity presented itself, however out on the track it was clear that the Scot was going to make his own luck and proceeded to plunge past the #8 Peugeot and was into 4th after the Dunlop Bridge. It was apparent how much faster the diesel works Audis and Peugeots were even after the first lap as they stretched a huge lead out in front of the 7th place Peugeot 908 HDI FAP (the car that Peugeot entered at Le Mans last year) which was being run by the Oreca-Matmut team.
The pole-sitting BMW Motorsport M3 in the GTEPro class was swiftly overtaken by the #51 Ferrari 458 driven by Giancarlo Fisichella but was forced into playing defensive against an onslaught by the #73 Corvette and the BMW. In LMP2 the #26 Signatech car led comfortably from the start for half an hour but was forced into the pits with a puncture.
The LMP1 Aston Martins defied all expectations regarding how early they would retire during the race as, to the great disappointment of their fans, both cars were in the pits within the opening half hour with the same engine problem. McNish, after a long time spent hounding Frank Montagny who was sitting in third in the leading Peugeot, finally overtook him on the Mulsanne Straight; however his luck swiftly ran out when trying to lap the Luxury Racing #58 Ferrari which did not see McNish in his mirrors, followed the normal racing line and made contact with the #3 Audi.
The crash looked catastrophic, decades ago such an incident would have resulted in a fatality for sure, however the main safety shell of the Audi R18 stayed intact as it had been designed to do and Allan McNish was able to step out of the car unaided. Unfortunately this meant that the Le Mans hero Tom Kristensen would not get a chance to get out on track, much to the disappointment of the massive Danish contingent who loyally make the journey to La Sarthe every year to show their support. The rest of the crowd were about to be disappointed too as an hour-long safety car deployment was to ensue to allow the marshals time to fix the crash barriers which McNish had destroyed.
The safety car came in just after 5 o’clock and the LMP1 battle at the front of the field raged on at the same intensity as it had been before the crash. The #2 Audi and #7 Peugeot traded the lead whilst they both took their required pit stops but by 8 o’clock Fassler led for Audi chased by the F1-experienced Antony Davidson driving for Peugeot. Meanwhile in the other classes, the Corvette Racing Chevy had seen off the rivalry of the #51 Ferrari and #56 BMW to take the lead in GTEPro and in LMP2 the race was being led by a clear margin by the #48 Oreca Nissan.
It is important to note that LMP1 was not a two horse race between Audi and Peugeot – the honour of being the fastest petrol powered team was hotly contested and was held at the time by the newly reformed Pescarolo Racing team who were competing in their much loved green livery. At the back of the field GTEAm was just as competitive as the battles at the front: the AMR Aston Martin Vantage in its Gulf racing colours raced hard against the Labre Competition Corvette and the #81 Flying Lizard Porsche 911. The Lotus Evoras entered by the Jet Alliance team appeared to be reliable but unfortunately too slow to be competitive and thus lapped at the back of the field.
At the 7-hour mark Andre Lotterer in the #2 Audi had pulled out a 30 second lead over the Frenchman Marc Gene and Audi looked strong. However the opportunity to stretch this lead out any further was removed when another massive crash quite remarkably involving another GT Ferrari and the #1 Audi driven by Mike Rockenfeller slammed into the barriers at the Indianapolis corner. The crash really was as horrendous as the one which had ended Allan McNish’s race – the car was barely visible as it came to a rest just over the other side of the barriers down the Mulsanne Straight but yet again the cockpit had remained intact and unbelievably, considering the scale of the destruction, Rockenfeller removed himself from the car and walked away. Night time had well and truly set in at this point in which a long safety car period followed and thus the beer-tents bulged with impatient fans.
The safety car was, in an odd way, despite losing yet another car from their ranks, advantageous to Audi as the splitting of the field among three different safety cars had meant that Treluyer in the #2 Audi had a 2 minute lead over Stephane Sarrazin in the chasing Peugeot 908. The race restarted just after 1AM and the Peugeots were left to give chase to the sole surviving R18 which was being perused like a hunted dog.
The lead switched hands many times through the night as pit stops and a safety car for a crash involving the #16 Rebellion Racing Lola somewhat scrambled any kind of coherent running order. As the sun rose above La Sarthe, the Peugeots, which impressively were running in a convoy-like formation, emerged in front of the #2 Audi but owed a pit stop and driver change. Even in the hazy morning air the drivers at the front of LMP1 showed no sign of slowing as they both set fastest lap times at around 7 o’clock – it was clear that they would be driving flat out until the race finished at 3.
The expansive time and distance of the race was beginning to claim a few more victims as concentration lapsed and fatigue set in. Abdul Al-Faisal, a Saudi prince who was behind the wheel of the #88 Felbemeyer Porsche, crashed out from the GTEPro categeory. Dramatically the GTEPro leader, Jan Magnusson, made contact between his #74 Corvette and the #63 Felbemeyer Porsche, ending both of their races – this meant that the #51 Ferrari 458 run by AF Corse took the lead in that group. LMP2 was a much easier affair to follow, the Greaves Zytek car had stretched out two minutes in front of the chasing pack and in GTEAm the Labre Corvette was leading from the American Flying Lizard Porsche.
Treluyer in the #2 Audi finally caught the leading #9 Peugeot driven by Simon Pagenaud at the 17 hour mark and an almighty battle ensued. The chase wasn’t made any easier for Treluyer as Stephane Sarrazin in the #8 Peugeot, who was a lap behind the front runners, made a nuisance of himself but eventually Treluyer squeezed into the lead at the start of the Mulsanne Straight and proceeded to edge out a gap between him and the French convoy.
Beniot Treluyer drove like a man possessed until he eventually had to relinquish the wheel of the #2 Audi at 11:30, by which time he had created a good enough lead for Andre Lotterer to emerge only seconds behind the Peugeot of Sebastian Bourdais after the pit stop. If it wasn’t heroic enough that Treluyer had singlehandedly driven for nearly four hours at consistently low lap times on one set of tyres, he said in an interview after he got out of the car that he had been woken up just before he was due to get in and had to jump straight into the car!
By midday on Sunday the LMP2 and GTEAm categories were pretty much decided as the British #41 Greaves Nissan went on to win comfortably and the Labre scored a 1-2 finish with their Corvette and 911. However the battle for victory in GTEPro was fierce as the #51 Ferrari 458 fought the #73 Labre racing Corvette.
As if the race between Audi and Peugeot was not difficult enough to predict the heavens opened and showered the track with not-unsubstantial amounts of rain. Tragically, the leading petrol car, the Pescarolo Judd driven by the experienced Emmanuel Collard, crashed with only a few hours to go at the Porsche Curves as he went into the corner carrying far too much speed.
Lotterer made a stop and opted for slick tyres, which at the time was a risky decision but proved to be the correct one as the rain stopped and the track dried. As Lotterer was teetering around the track on his slicks Pagenaud in the chasing Peugeot was driving with nothing to lose and had caught up massively with the leading Audi. To everyones’ anger the Peugeot driven by Marc Gene, which was several laps behind Lotterer, completely ran him off the road as he came round to pass on the Mulsanne Straight. Fortunately the race was not ruined there and then as Lotterer skilfully saved himself from ending up in the barriers and Marc Gene had earned himself the title of ‘villain of the day.’
Astoundingly with only half an hour to go there was only 7 seconds between #2 Audi of Andre Lotterer and the #7 Peugeot of Pagenaud. The commentary on Radio Le Mans would have caused a wave of regret in the many spectators who were leaving early to escape the traffic, it was a fitting end to an unbelievable race and the fourth closest Le Mans finish in history.
Despite plenty of GT car traffic and oil on the track from a slowing Oak Racing LMP2 car, Andre Lotterer was able to cling on to victory. He crossed the line in the Audi R18 which had completed 355 laps over the 24 hours, behind him was the #7 Peugeot a staggeringly close 13 seconds behind.
The #73 Corvette Racing Chevy managed to cross the line infront of the #51 Ferrari which meant that Corvettes won both the GTEPro and GTEAm classes. Robertson Racing fulfilled their dream of finishing at Le Mans as their Ford GT picked up a commendable third place in GTEAm.
It was one of the truly classic Le Mans races which will be remembered forever in the races long history. Wolfgang Ulrich, the head of the Audi Motorsport operation sportingly shook hands with the Peugeot teams which had given chase to the winning Audi all through the night and day. The winning drivers Benoit Treluyer, Timo Bernhard and Marcel Fassler found the energy to celebrate jubilantly on the winner’s podium whilst fans flooded the pits and start/finish straight to show their appreciation of an epic competition.
The Mulsanne Straight will return to its normal function of being a public road this week and the Le Mans Series will move on to the Nurburgring for another 24-hour marathon but the spirit of motor racing will remain at Le Mans ready to be picked up again next year for its 80th anniversary running.
Images Courtesy of Ash Watkins: http://ashwatkins.wordpress.com/