Audi has taken a clean sweep in the LMP1 class of the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race following one of the toughest and most attritional events in living memory.
While the German car giant’s R15 could not match Peugeot’s machines for pace, it was the clear winner in reliability as all three of its French rival’s cars retired from the race when ahead of the Audis. The factory-supported Peugeot of Oreca also retired when challenging for a podium with less than an hour left.
Audi boss Dr Wolfgang Ullrich said: “In sport when someone wins, someone else loses, but when the loser comes and congratulates the winner it is very sporting. That is what we did last year and that’s what Peugeot has done this year.
“It has been a fantastic battle. We’ve invited the Peugeot guys to a party tonight and we hope they will come.”
Audi’s new generation
The unexpected inheritor of the victory in motorsport’s toughest endurance challenge was not the veteran Allan McNish and co-pilots Rinaldo Capello and Tom Kristensen, who completed the Audi podium in third place.
Instead the less-experienced Mike Rockenfeller, Romain Dumas and Timo Bernhard took the win, with equally fresh faces Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treloyer and Marcel Fassler second.
The result led McNish to talk about a new generation of Audi drivers: “We always knew these guys were capable of winning. They’ve been going really quickly in the ALMS with Audi for years now so you shouldn’t be surprised to see this new generation of guys coming up and challenging to win this race.”
On the retirement of the last remaining Peugeot, he said: “The race came down to reliability, we’ve all won it, so I know the highs and lows. I feel very sorry for Oreca but also somewhat relieved, as it takes pressure off our car.”
The McNish car saw its hopes of victory end when an impact with touring car star Andy Priaulx’s GT2-class BMW cost it three laps for repairs. Initially the incident provoked anger in the Audi camp, but in the post-race afterglow Kristensen, who had been driving it at the time, was more forgiving.
He said: “It’s not fair for him to be criticised because he is a very good driver. Everyone knows who he is and what he has achieved. I have the deepest respect for him and I think that it is time for everyone to forgive and move on.”
The AIM Team Oreca Matmut LMP entry driven by Andy Meyrick came fourth behind Audi. He said of his race: “To finish as the top petrol car was unbelievable, especially since it’s my first time here. I was lucky because I had two really good team-mates, and the team – they managed me and gave me the opportunity to perform.
“I’ve never seen a race like this one. How many engines went in the final hour? It was crazy.”
The collapse of Peugeot
The race was an unmitigated disaster for the Peugeot entrants who, having started with the top three qualifying positions, failed to get a single car home.
The first to let go was the #3 entry that had qualified on pole, and which was driven by Sebastien Bourdais, Pedro Lamy and Simon Pagenaud. That fell after three hours, to be followed by the #2 car of Nicolas Minassian, Stéphane Sarrazin and Franck Montagny that was knocked out by an engine failure early on Sunday morning.
That left the #1 car alone in its bid to hold off the Audi challenge from four laps down, having needed an extensive spell in the pits with alternator problems.
Anthony Davidson, in a desperate charge to try to take the lead, was involved in a non-contact racing incident that sent the #64 Corvette driven by Emmanuel Collard, then GT2 class leader, into the wall at the Porsche Curves, ending its race.
The incident left him with a claim to be the most unpopular man in motor racing, with a brewing backlash over his actions. Davidson defended himself to the hilt with a brutally uncompromising statement, saying: “Everyone’s blaming me, but it wasn’t me at all – it was completely his fault. I was down the inside and there was no contact.
“I’ll take as many risks as I need to win the damn thing. They told me to push and I did. I drove every lap like a quali lap, even coming into the pitlane – I didn’t come here to finish third.”
He said he hadn’t know the Corvette had been leading its class, adding that leaders ought to avoid risks: “I was on a mission out there. The GT cars can make your life difficult, they don’t like you to pass them in the Porsche Curves – I know that because I was the same when I was in a GT car here.
“But they don’t need to, we’re so much faster and it’s so easy to do, just stay on the outside. I’m sorry for them, but I didn’t even know he’d gone off because we didn’t touch.”
But his defence, rather than cooling the fires of indignation that he lit on the track, has only served to make them burn more strongly.
And the #1 car eventually dropped out of the race with two hours remaining, after a long duel with Audi which saw Alex Wurz cut the gap to less than one lap, ended in engine failure.
Mansell, Aston and Drayson
The fate of the Beechdean Mansell entry was well-documented – a puncture at 200mph in the early minutes of the race saw Nigel Mansell involved in a heavy crash, hitting the barriers and concussing himself, although medical checks have now confirmed that he has suffered no lasting injury.
His son Leo, who has raced at Le Mans before in the GT2 class, said on Twitter: “Congrats to all the class winners at the 24hrs. Will be there one day.”
Aston Martin got its #007 car home in sixth place overall, or fifth in its LMP1 class, after the #009 entry driven by Darren Turner and Sam Hancock lost its engine in the last hour.
Turner said: “It’s difficult to accept when things like that happen in the last hour of a 24-hour race but what can you do? Until that point the car ran like clockwork and the team made sure every pit stop was perfect.
“We didn’t get the result we wanted but I did get fastest petrol lap so at least that’s something to smile about.”
Drayson Racing suffered a catalogue of problems in its bid to complete the full 24 hours of Le Mans in its first year in the LMP1 class. They included an early engine change followed by 17 separate problems that at one point necessitated a three-hour spell in the pits.
This meant that the team had not completed enough laps to be classified – but nevertheless it did complete the full 24-hour race distance, an important landmark for its Lola-Judd coupé.
Team owner Lord Drayson said: “It was an incredibly tough race, but the team fought and fought to keep going and when I saw the chequered flag I was crying and laughing and shouting at the same time, I was so elated and relieved. I am very proud of my team’s true grit and never-say-die attitude.”
Team manager Dale White added: “I could not be any prouder of a group of people than I am of the Drayson Racing crew. This team pulled together to help each other overcome a massive work schedule all week and then non-stop work on the car throughout the race.
“I don’t think I have ever been a part of an event that took more out of you mentally and physically than this race. Our crew never snapped; they never broke. They just kept addressing problems as they came in. You can’t teach that.
“My congratulations to Paul and Elspeth for taking the chequered flag and for giving me a chance to be a part of this operation.”
LMP2: Strakka win in style
On the top step of the LMP2 podium and fifth overall was the Silverstone-based Strakka Racing entry driving by the British trio of Danny Watts, Jonny Kane and Nick Leventis.
Its main objective had been to stay ahead of American team Highcroft Racing, featuring Marino Franchitti and David Brabham, which it was able to do definitively after Highcroft experienced cooling problems in the 20th hour. The team was classified 25th overall and ninth in class.
Watts said: “Highcroft pushed us very hard to about three-quarter distance, putting pressure on us, and we had to be on our toes the whole time. The strategy was perfect – we could triple-stint the Michelin tyres, which they couldn’t. That bought us a little bit of time in every pitstop.
“Above all, staying out of trouble was the main thing. They have got a very, very experienced driver line-up so we had to be sharp, consistent and not make any mistakes, and that’s exactly what we did.”
Brabham said of the Highcroft result: “It’s not the end of the world in the grand scheme of things but it was a tough race. We all had problems with the balance early on but it came good and we caught back up.
“It would have been a close race but I’m not sure we had enough to beat Strakka who had a faultless run. They were quicker but we definitely deserved a class podium and top-ten finish.”
The RML entry was third in class and eighth overall while Jonathan Kennard’s KSM entry finished 10th in class and 26th overall.
GT2: Westbrook third while Priaulx succumbs to problems
Porsche-powered Team Felbermayr-Proton was the top GT2 finisher while Britain’s Richard Westbrook in the Scuderia Italia Ferrari was third in class.
Andy Priaulx may well have attracted the most attention in the class, partly because of his clash with Kristensen and partly because he was driving the brightly-coloured BMW ‘art’ car, decorated by artist Jeff Koons.
BMW Motorsport Director Mario Theissen said: “The 17th BMW Art Car caused a real stir among fans and media. Everyone in the team enjoyed working with Jeff Koons and it was fascinating to see how his work of art was received in Le Mans.”
The car was beset with problems all race, and eventually retired after six hours. Priaulx said of his crash: “I had a puncture on my front left and I was doing about 60 kmh. I thought I’d go left to give Tom the inside line, so I did, but he had already committed to the outside line.”
Ryan Dalziel’s Rocketsports Jaguar retired after just four laps with engine problems, while Rob Bell and Tim Sugden’s JMW Motorsport machine lasted 71 laps. Oliver Gavin’s Corvette managed 255 and Peter Dumbreck’s Spyker was the final classified runner in 27th overall.
For full results, see the 2010 24 Hours of Le Mans Wikipedia entry here.