The #1 Audi e-tron Quattro has taken victory at this year’s running of the Le Mans 24 Hours. The car held the lead for the majority of the race, fighting off opposition from both within the Audi camp and from the remarkably strong Toyota team.
It has to be stressed what a great performance Toyota put in. This was their first race for the new TS030 Hybrid, and its performance meant that Audi had very real competition right up until the terrible accident for Anthony Davidson and the subsequent terribly unnecessary accident for the sister car later on.
The hard pace early on had not seen a matching rate of attrition. But it was the night that did the damage, as it always does. Eyes are tired. Bodies are weak. Focus is lacking. By 1am just six cars had dropped out and their garage doors shut, but come daybreak just five hours later the number of retirees had more than doubled to 20.
Now Le Mans wasn’t just picking on the weak: it was picking on everyone, with a pretty even number removed from each of the four classes. The #7 Toyota TS030 had finally made it out of the garage, only to return to its box and have the front removed. Within minutes the emotion of the mechanics told the story – it was over for Toyota at Le Mans in 2012.
The biggest shock was the trouble for Corvette: #74 had picked up the baton and led as night fell, but lost a wheel at the Dunlop Esses – that meant a slow crawl round a long track to recover to the pits, and the car haemorrhaged places. Back out and circulating soon after the damage was repaired, the car was further set back by a second off for Richard Westbrook, into the tyres at the Forza Chicane.
That handed the lead to the marauding Ferraris: the #51 AF Corse 458 of Giancarlo Fisichella took the lead in GTE, followed by the pole-setting #59 Luxury Racing car. Fisichella then decided to level things up by having an off of his own. Did no one want to lead the GTE class?
Pescarolo were having a torrid race, despite splitting their effort between the new 03 and their uprated Dome S102.5 – the former was out within 20 laps and the latter struggled in and out of the pits during the last half of the race before emerging for a final lap to the cheers of the crowds. Henri is nothing if not popular. Despite taking the flag, the Dome wasn’t classified as it hadn’t completed a sufficient number of laps. This fate also befell the #74 Corvette crew: a phlegmatic Tommy Milner was still smiling in the pits, and you know the Corvette team will bounce back. They like a challenge.
LMP2 was hard fought for the entire race, with the Starworks HPD ARX-03b hitting the front just around half distance right near the front of the overall standings, but with a gaggle of Orecas squabbling over the remaining podium places for 12 hours.
Porsche in particular seemed to suffer in the colder temperatures overnight, with the pace of both the Imsa and Prospeed Am cars dropping off in the early hours of the morning. Worse was to come for Abdulaziz Al Faisal in the #75 Prospeed car: a failure put the car into the barriers and out of the race just before dawn.
Both Felbermayr 911s also suffered punctures – and come the morning both could be seen abandoned in the retirement home that was the Parc Fermé area, next to the growing number of other casualties – and several other Porsches.
The #51 Ferrari came back from its off to lead the GTE-Pro class through the morning and all the way to the flag.
Behind them, the #59 Luxury 458 was looking behind as much as forward…
…as the #97 Aston Martin Vantage V8 was putting in a storming drive in its efforts to get back on terms in GTE-Pro. The Aston would finish just a lap off the 458 at the flag.
JRM continued to have travails with their HPD LMP1 during the night, but came back fighting after each problem and continued to hold station near the front of the privateer LMP1 pack, inexorably moving up from just outside the top ten to finish a fantastic sixth overall once the second of the Rebellion Lolas hit trouble.
An ecstatic team welcomed David Brabham over the line. The HPD had got faster and faster throughout the race as they hit the sweet spot of the car, and it was visibly quicker and more stable towards the end of the 24 hours. It was an incredible result following the short, sharp programme leading to Le Mans.
Rebellion finished as the top privateer LMP1 entrant: their Lola-Toyota B12/60 had put in an excellent performance throughout the race and thoroughly deserved their fourth place finish.
Audi still did their best to make things difficult for themselves once the main opposition had self-destructed: the #1 and #2 e-trons traded the lead throughout the morning, showing that at least during this period there were still no team orders in force.
The #4 R18 Ultra had come back into contention with the demise of the Toyota challenge – their steady approach played them into a podium position.
McNish in #2 and Gené in #3 then both crashed their R18s in the final phase of the race just to make things interesting and give Rebellion a whiff of a podium – but it was just a dream. The Audi crew went to work and both cars were out without losing more than a handful of time.
Come three o’clock a quartet of Audi R18 swept over the line, the pair of e-tron Quattros leading the Ultras. Maybe the idea of a different outcome was optimism was than reality, but once again this Audi victory was still the result of a real race – and Audi are again deserving winners. Next year Toyota should be further advanced into their programme, and there are rumours of further factory entries stepping up to what is still the world’s ultimate endurance race.
Le Mans 24 Hours 2012
1: LMP1 #1 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18 e-tron Quattro (Fässler/Lotterer/Tréluyer) 378 laps
2: LMP1 #2 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18 e-tron Quattro (Capello/Kristensen/McNish) +1 lap
3: LMP1 #4 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18 Ultra (Bonanomi/Jarvis/Rockenfeller) 3:25.433s +3 laps
4: LMP1 #12 Rebellion Lola-Toyota (Prost/Jani/Heidfeld) +11 laps
5: LMP1 #3 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18 Ultra (Dumas/Duval/Gené) +12 laps
6: LMP1 #22 HPD ARX-03a (Brabham/Chandhok/Dumbreck) +21 laps
7: LMP2 #44 Starworks HPD ARX-03b (Potolicchio/Dalziel/Kimber-Smith) +24 laps
8: LMP2 #46 Thiriet By TDS Racing (Beche/Thiriet/Tinseau) +25 laps
9: LMP2 #49 Pecom Racing (Perez Companc/Ayari/Kaffer) +26 laps
10: LMP2 #26 Signatech Nissan (Panciatici/Ragues/Rusinov) +27 laps
17: GTE-Pro #51 AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia (Fisichella/Bruni/Vilander) +42 laps
20: GTE-Am #50 Larbre Corvette C6.R (Bornhauser/Canal/Lamy) +49 laps