This year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans looked to be an awesome one. Narrower tires. Hybrid prototypes galore. Five-time consecutive winner Audi was back with the R18 e-tron quattro. Challenger and last year’s second-place Toyota wanted the trophy. Most importantly, Porsche was returning to Le Mans after a 16-year absence:
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In recent years, Le Mans has been dominated by Audi, and this year was no exception. When I say dominated, I mean an Audi has won every year since 2000 except ’03 (Bentley) and ’09 (Peugeot). That’s 13 wins in 15 years, just three wins short of Porsche’s record of 16 total Le Mans wins. The difference is, Porsche accumulated those wins over the course of almost 30 years, between 1970 and 1998.
Porsche knew the jig was up, and, not to relinquish their favored child-status in Volkswagen A.G. to Audi (in terms of prestige and provenance), they suited up to challenge Audi (and Toyota).
For those of you who have yet to be indoctrinated, here’s a brief summary. Each June, the world’s most prestigious super- and sports-car makers descend on Le Mans, a small city almost in the middle of France, for a 24-hour race that pushes the competing cars to their limits. The 24 Heures du Mans, or the 24 Hours of Le Mans, has been held every year since 1923 on the Circuit de la Sarthe. The history behind Le Mans is so legendary it’s basically impossible to describe the gravity of the race.
Last year’s second-place finisher Toyota (I know, I know, but at least my Prius has some claim to fame) made a great video that describes Le Mans better and more vividly than I can:
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The race makes or breaks a car company’s fortunes. Perhaps you’ve heard of this little car company called Bentley? Well, a group of wealthy Brits, the Bentley Boys, are almost personally responsible for the reputation Bentley has commandeered since its victories in 1924 (when the company was just 5 years old), 1927, 1928, 1929, and 1930. Le Mans made Bentley. It also made Carroll Shelby, McLaren Automotive, Ford (at least as a racing powerhouse), and arguably Ferrari, in its 1949 Le Mans debut.
Back to this year’s event. Audi had a rough start to the weekend. On Wednesday (of last week, by the time you’re reading this), the No. 1 R18, from the “Welcome Back, Porsche” video above, crashed in a spectacular, terrifying and airborne fashion. There’s a video of the aftermath at this link. The driver, Loic Duval, escaped with nary a scratch, but he was replaced for the event on Saturday-Sunday.
Audi, like maniacs, managed to completely rebuild the car in time for the race.
Going into the race on Saturday, both the Toyota and Porsche cars had an advantage over the Audi R18. The R18 had a lower top speed and less downforce than both cars. It had a smaller fuel tank than the Toyota. Porsche’s 919 Hybrid is brand-new this year, using a dual hybrid system that not only uses regenerative braking but also an exhaust-pipe thermal energy recovering system. Porsche also got to boast about having former Formula 1 Infiniti Red Bull driver Mark Webber on the team.
Even so, a Porsche win would have been mind-blowing. They weren’t expected to get first by any means. The setting may have been the same, but Porsche was no longer competing against Mercedes-Benz, BMW or other now-retired Le Mans teams. This time, they were competing against the well-oiled machine that is the Audi camp.
In terms of technical specs, Audi should have lost. But, this is Le Mans. Le Mans never goes according to plan.
After just two hours of the race, as rain was coming down, and Marco Bonanomi, driving he No. 3 Audi R18, and Nicolas Lapierre in the No. 8 Toyota crashed on the Mulsanne Straight (where LMP1 cars reach speeds of over 200 MPH). After colliding with Lapierre, Bonanomi was smashed into by the Sam Bird-piloted GTE Am AF Corse Ferrari. Cue safety car. Video of the crash below:
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Audi #3 was out, leaving just two Audi R18s, No. 1 and No. 2, and the first-place No. 7 Toyota. The Timo-Bernhard Porsche, No. 20, moved into third because of the crash. The No. 8 Toyota was back up and running in about 45 minutes.
Team Audi*, despite having an inferior car, was changing tires less frequently and managed to keep up with Toyota. Around 5:00AM, the first-place No. 7 Toyota, which had been leading for almost 14 hours, caught fire and was forced to retire. Audi No. 2 moved into first, with the No. 20 Porsche 919 Hybrid and, in third, the No. 1 Audi.
By Hour 21, both the Audis’ turbochargers were acting up, and they slowed considerably (from setting the fastest lap times). The No. 20 Porsche 919, now driven by Mark Webber, moved into first. He quickly returned first to Audi (both back with replaced turbos) after an unknown mechanical problem with just two hours to go. (The Porsches had earlier struggled with the pit lane speed limiter coming on whilst on the track for the No. 14 car and brake issues for the No. 20 car.) Porsche No. 20 was out of the race, with No. 14 out until the last lap of the race.
The 2014 Le Mans 24 Hours LMP1 race ended with Audi No. 2 in first after 379 laps, No. 1 in second, and the No. 8 Toyota in third place.
Winning LMP2, and taking fifth overall, was the No. 38 Zytek-Nissan. The No. 51 Ferrari won GTE Pro, and Aston Martin No. 95 took home a win in GTE Am.
Honorable mention to the Nissan ZEOD RC (Zero Emissions On Demand Racing Car), a modified DeltaWing, retired after just five laps.
If you’re interested in more Le Mans, you can watch the “Truth In 24″ I and II Audi-sponsored documentaries, or the Steve McQueen movie from 1971:
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Until next year!
*Although different teams run each car, I am simply referring to the Audi R18 e-tron quattro squadron (now duo).
Photo: Nic Redhead and David Merrett via Flickr