We’re already seven Grand Prix distances into the Le Mans 24 Hours: over 10 hours in. There have been unexpected leaders throughout the classes and some amazing racing – but also a couple of serious accidents from which drivers have fortunately walked away.
The start was relatively calm compared to previous years, with the Audi drivers taking it rather easier than in previous years where the run to Dunlop was like a touring car race. The cars streamed across the line almost line astern and headed through the the first turn of the first lap of the first hour.
Of course, that didn’t include Allan McNish, who had muscled his way up to third early on the first lap.
The message also hadn’t got through to the GTE cars. They were far more frantic, two and three wide in a big pack of over 20 GT cars crossing the line for the first time and winding their way up to Dunlop.
A couple of cars started from the pits, including the Strakka HPD – the fastest petrol LMP1 privateer in qualifying. They’d suffered an oil leak on the grid, so started a lap down and would spend the opening third of the race trying to get back on terms.
The #16 Pescarolo also started from the pit-lane: with spots of rain falling they gambled on wet tyres – it could have been a stroke of genius, but the shower soon cleared and the Pesca was forced to pit again.
Whilst the Audis and Toyotas circulated up front, behind them the two Lola Rebellions were pushing on, trying to keep up with the factory sextet – and doing a good job of it. They were helped b the #4 Audi R18 Ultra being wheeled back into the garage for a brief investigation of a suspected vibration. Rebellion seem to be taking a very sensible approach to this race: not lacking speed, but not taking risks.
David Brabham in the HPD had a storming opening stint: he was engaged in a fight with Sebastian Bourdais’ Dome and the Bertrand Baguette Oak Pescarolo.
At the front of the GTE field, the #97 Aston Martin Vantage and #74 Corvette broke away from the main pack and began to engage in their own private battle that lasted well into the first hour, with the lead in GTE-Pro passing back and forward between them right up until the first pit-stops.
Those first stops happened with 40 minutes, with most cars going for shorter first stints. At the top of the first hour, Audis #1 and #2 ran first and second – but with the two Toyotas chasing them down.
The #24 Oak Morgan led LMP2, AF Corse GTE-Pro and Flying Lizards GTE-AM. Stops over, Corvette and Aston resumed their fight, which would last two and a half hours until a spin for Darren Turner in the Vantage dropped the car and lost precious seconds to the #74.
Olivier Beretta in the AF Corse Ferrari had been trying to stay in contact with the Pro leading Aston and ‘Vette, but perhaps was pushing just that little bit too hard – a spin into the gravel at Dunlop cost him four places.
The English-speaking crowd at the track are mostly glued to their radios – Radio Le Mans’ pit reporters patrol the pit-lane during the race, keeping the enormous number of spectators up to date.
There’s a long, wide pit-lane at Le Mans, but even so it’s a wild place to be.
It’s crawling with officials, reporters, photographers and TV crews – and cars.
The latter are more important to keep an eye on. They hurt the most.
You have to keep a careful eye on what’s happening behind you if you turn to look up the pits – the hooter at the entrance to the pit-lane is a good warning that something large and wedge-shaped might be heading for you.
The teams themselves work closely with the garages on either side to try and avoid coming in at the same time if at all possible – that way they can spread out, American Football style, to await their incoming cars.
Around the track, when spectators needed a break from the racing there is the famous Le Mans funfair to visit, with the ferris wheel added to by more up to date and frankly scary looking entertainment.
Things seem relatively settled for a while, with the Toyotas keeping Audi more than honest. They were flying, and sensing that perhaps there were chinks in Audis armour… Nearing the end of the third hour, a second Audi was in the garage – this time the #2 e-tron Quattro, again with a short stop to check out a problem reported by the driver.
Come 6pm, the Toyotas and Audis were lapping at qualifying pace: and the Toyotas now in second and third overall. Closer and closer to the leading #1 R18…
The drama increased into the fourth and fifth hours: the #3 Audi smacked into the barriers after an overtake went very wrong. Romain Dumas was forced to crawl back to the pits with a wheel hanging off.
At 5pm, Toyota led Le Mans. Nicolas Lapierre in the #7 Toyota headed the field after catching and overtaking the #1 R18, but the joy for the team was quickly overshadowed by an enormous accident for Anthony Davidson in the #8 TS030.
Coming up on the #81 AF Corse Ferrari on the approach to Mulsanne corner, the two cars touched in the braking zone, sending the Toyota into a terrifying flip through the air and into the barrier, thankfully landing on its wheels. The Ferrari wasn’t so fortunate: it also then turned over and pushed the barriers back with the force of the impact. Thankfully both drivers emerged from their cars unaided, though the force of the impact perhaps explains why Davidson at first seemed to be considering trying to fix his smashed car. A subsequent hospital visit revealed he had a broken back…
A long safety car period was required to fix the barriers, meaning the three safety cars at the track were deployed. Strangely, they often had to run relay, with one car waiting on the grid as the one leading its portion of the pack pulled off to the pits.
The resulting order of stops meant that the #1 Audi retook the lead from the remaining Toyota, with the recovering #2 and #4 R18s closing up behind.
At 9.15pm the track went green again. The Deltawing was still happily circulating at this point, though after several unscheduled stops it was languishing in amongst the GTE battles. However, things took a very bad turn for the worse, and into the barrier.
Nakajima in the #7 Toyota sprinted for a gap that wasn’t really there in an effort to get at the Audis, and knocked both himself and the Deltawing out – the Deltawing permanently.
Despite the driver’s efforts, there was no way he could get the damaged car back to the pits.
All the attrition had been helping JRM: they made it as high as fifth place by 10pm, before suspension problems and a puncture dropped the car back. They would have to stage their own recovery drive.
So, come 11pm it was again an Audi one-two-three, but with the fastest of the pair of Rebellion Lolas just four laps behind. Toyota’s remaining car languished in the garage until near midnight…
The LMP2s have been involved their own tight battle for supremacy, and the lead car is an impressive seventh overall, with half a dozen cars within a lap of each other.
Corvette headed up GTE-Pro from the AF Corse Ferrari into the evening, but with the #51 458 staying right with the ‘Vette.
Now the sun is long gone: the dark has swallowed up the majority of the track and the cars disappear out of the floodlit section into the recesses of the far end of the circuit. Positions are changing all the time – even as this is uploading. Who will emerge as leaders come day break?
Le Mans 24 Hours 2012
Race positions after 10 hours
1: LMP1 #1 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18 e-tron Quattro (Fässler/Lotterer/Tréluyer) 172 laps
2: LMP1 #2 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18 e-tron Quattro (Capello/Kristensen/McNish) +1:47s
3: LMP1 #4 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18 Ultra (Bonanomi/Jarvis/Rockenfeller) 3:25.433s +1 lap
4: LMP1 #12 Rebellion Lola-Toyota (Prost/Jani/Heidfeld) +5 laps
5: LMP1 #13 Rebellion Lola-Toyota (Belicchi/Primat/Bleekemolen) +6 laps
7: LMP2 #44 Starworks HPD ARX-03b (Potolicchio/Dalziel/Kimber-Smith) +11 laps
8: LMP1 #22 HPD ARX-03a (Brabham/Chandhok/Dumbreck) +11 laps
23: GTE-Pro #74 Corvette C6.R (Gavin/Milner/Westbrook) +16 laps
33: GTE-AM #67 IMSA Matmut Porsche 911 RSR (Armindo/Narac/Pons) +20 laps