The track is quiet, the engines are switched off, the excitement fades - the crowds disperse and we are left with a result that seemed most unlikely at the start of the 2014 Le Mans 24 Hours. With the drastically different technology in the top LMP1 class this year, racing enthusiasts had varied opinions about how it would all play out - and it certainly unfolded as a unique drama during race week.
By the finish Audi had captured both first and second at the 2014 Le Mans 24 Hours, with a three lap advantage over the best of the rest, the biggest winning margin since 2007. This was definitely not on the script, so what happened and why? Where did Toyota, the overwhelming favourites before action began on track, go? Why did they fail to convert all the promise shown earlier in the year into success at the Big Race? What became of Porsche and how had Audi traded adversity for glory?
Audi Starts with Disaster
Wednesday's qualifying practice sessions on track turned into something of a disaster for Audi. Driver Loic Duval was turning the timing screens purple sector by sector, indicating the fastest time of the day. Suddenly there was a Red Flag and all the action ceased -a message on screen confirmed that Duval and the #1 Audi were the cause of the stoppage. This was no minor incident, though the safety features on the Audi held up well as did the track fencing, doing its job of retarding the errant vehicle. Duval was given the OK after visiting hospital, but his participation in the rest of the races was at an end. In a precautionary move, Audi replaced the Frenchman with the experienced Marc Gene.
Faced with a major problem, Audi did what they do best - overnight a new tub was transformed into a proper race car. Early Thursday afternoon they presented the re-fettled R18 e-tron quattro to the ACO Technical squad for approval to get back racing.
It might be thought that the hard working crew of #1 had suffered enough, but this is La Sarthe after all. An hour or two into the Thursday session Lucas Di Grassi spun at the Indianapolis section, giving the guys another round of rebuilding. It could have been worse, as the Brazilian tangled with the Pegasus Morgan at the entry to the pitlane, severly damaging the French LM P2 entry, but both cars would be repaired in time for the race.
Toyota Starts on the Pole
Qualifying never really caught fire, too many Red Flags and local Yellows to allow any serious contest to develop. As predicted, it was a Toyota on pole, Kazuki Nakajima posting a 3:21.789 in the #7 TS040 - Hybrid.
Next up was Romain Dumas in the #14 Porsche 919 Hybrid with 3:22.146 followed by the second Toyota fractions behind.
The first Audi was trailing in 5th, Oliver Jarvis in the #3 car, posting a 3:23.271. He stood around a second quicker than the #2 Audi who were in front of the #1 entry by a similar margin. The gap of 1.5 seconds to the front was about what was expected, however there was a quiet air of confidence in the Audi camp, what did they know that we did not?
In my previous piece setting the scene for this year's race, I tried to outline the rationale behind the complex (and expensive) new regulations. Listening to some of the folk in the Paddock, who actually do know what they are talking about, there were some interesting observations about some unlikely developments...
One of the surprise benefits of trying to run these cars is in the area of software management. Previously the software packages controlling the electronics were sourced from independent suppliers - when the problems arose, as they always do, there was little inclination to accept responsibility, it was always the other company's fault. Now the software is written in house and this is having a direct influence on the performance and reliability of road cars, making even more complicated control systems possible.
After the customary hours of ballyhoo on the grid,the Tricolor was shook and the race finally got under way. The weather forecast was for a largely sunny race that would test the reliability of the energy recovery systems, overheating being one of the major issues with this kind of equipment. Perhaps this is what gave Audi their confidence? Their conservative strategy of using the minimum 2 MegaJoules of recovered energy rather than the 6 MJ that both Porsche and Toyota opted for could lead to a significant difference in overheating and longevity during this long stretch of racing.
Repairs Begin Soon After the Start
Toyota #7 sprang into the lead and pulled away from the pursuing Audis and Porsches, it was obviously designated as the hare. We are used to total mechanical reliability throughout the whole race from the leaders at Le Mans, so it was something of a surprise to see Porsche #14 into the pits during the first hour for repairs to the fuel system which had almost failed out on track.
The weather proved to have a major impact on the course of the race, a sudden deluge along the Mulsanne Straight caused the #3 Audi and the #8 Toyota to lose control in a melee involving a pair of GTs. The upshot was that the Audi was retired on the spot, whereas Nicolas Lapierre managed to drag the Toyota back to the pits. About an hour was lost getting #8 back on track, although outright victory was realistically out of reach, there was also the points for the FIA World Endurance Championship to consider, Le Mans being the jewel in the crown of the World Championship.
A Test of Efficiency
As night fell Toyota #7 maintained a steady gap to the #2 Audi of around two minutes - but they were not drawing away from the opposition as expected, the slightest problem on Toyota's part would give the lead over to the German team. This caused some head scratching in the ranks of observers in the Media Centre, what was going on? The most likely answer which emerged post-race was that both Porsche and Toyota had reduced the level of energy harvested to conserve the super-capacitors and batteries, their efficiency being tested by the duration of the race and the relatively high temperatures.
From #2's perspective, the crucial moment came around the ten hour mark when aerodynamic adjustments were made to the front of the car - suddenly they were quicker than the leader. The gap reduced from over two minutes to around one minute 30 seconds. In the following two or three hours, the #2 Audi would catch the #7 Toyota - or at least that is what Audi predicted, Toyota had different ideas. Of course all this assumed the customary bullet-proof reliability shown by the factory teams in the last five or six seasons, a great race to the finish was in prospect.
All the experts predictions seemed to be going out the window though - and as sunrise approached from the East there were reports of sparks showering from #7 Toyota as it stuttered towards Mulsanne Corner, it got no further than Arnage and became another victim on the list of retirements. There was some form of electrical failure in the mandatory ACO/FIA data logger, though the team were at pains to accept responsibility for the problem themselves. No matter, Audi #2 was now in a lead that had looked unlikely coming into race week.
An Unlikely Lead
Once again the Race Gods decided to intervene...within two hours of taking the lead, Marcel Fässler brought the #2 Audi R18 e-tron quattro into the pits as a turbo had failed and needed changing. A mechanical failure, how un-Audi! One bit of good fortune was the 30 minutes required to complete the task coincided with a Full Course Yellow and only five laps were lost and third place was still theirs. The #1 Audi had a laps advantage over the #20 Porsche, could this be Tom Kristensen's tenth victory at La Sarthe in #1 Audi?
In the #2 Audi André Lotterer jumped on board and proceeded to give a masterclass in high speed endurance driving. In a five stint session that lasted just over 3 hours 40 minutes, he pulverised the opposition - posting the race's fastest lap and two out of three fastest sector times, consistently two or three seconds a lap quicker than anyone else as he hunted down Mark Webber in #20 Porsche. The #1 Audi had also succumbed to turbo failure, and despite an amazing repair job that took just 17 minutes, the Porsche and #2 Audi had slipped by. TK was not going to reach double figures of wins at La Sarthe, at least not in 2014. The #20 Porsche suffered rollbar failure which led to its retirement and the #14 sister car also spent an age in the garage, just emerging at the finish to trundle round on a slow lap to claim a finish and FIA WEC points.
So it was really a case of last man standing, Audi are a bunch of true racers who are able to optimise the package they have and react quickly to adversity. It is a widely held opinion that the true measure of an organisation such as a race team is not whether they have problems but how they deal with them, Audi certainly passes that test. To illustrate the difficulty of running the new hybrid cars in race conditions, the total time spent in the pits of both the finishing Audis was around the one hour mark. You would have to go back to 1998 to find a similar amount of time lost by front runners, that year by the last Porsche to win Le Mans outright, the 911 GT1-98 which recorded over 70 minutes in the pits.
It is the third victory for the driver combination of André Lotterer, Benoît Trèluyer and Marcel Fässler who are the lead crew at this point in time for Audi. No victory at Le Mans could be described as easy but this race will rank as one of the most testing of their careers. Doctor Ullrich, Head of Motorsport for Audi, described the victory as one that was born of "Efficiency" and perhaps that describes the whole enterprise, Audi as a whole were more efficient at Le Mans than any of their rivals.
For the future, Toyota and Porsche will come back stronger, and Audi will also learn from their experience, the technology will have another year of development. To add to the mix, Nissan will be joining in as well. I can't wait!