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Le Mans, 14 - 15 June 2014

Germany 2 - Japan 1, no not the FIFA World Cup, but the podium for the 82nd running of the 24 Heures du Mans, when Audi triumphed for the 13th time at La Sarthe, bringing two of its three cars home in the top two positions, whilst Toyota, who had won the two opening rounds of the FIA World Endurance Championship, had to be content with 3rd overall. However, it was not an easy victory for Audi, and particularly their mechanics, as after the # 1 car was destroyed in a horrific high speed accident in the Porsche Curves in the Wednesday evening practice session, whilst being driven by Loic Duval, it was necessary to rebuild (what was left of) the car into a new tub. Amazingly, and fortunately, the driver escaped serious injury, but was ruled out of participating in the race by the medical commission, thus Marc Gene was drafted in from the LMP2 Jota Sport team, to replace him, and his place in the # 38 Zytek Z11SN-Nissan was taken by Oliver Turvey. Another practice accident victim was the # 71 AF Corse entered Ferrari 458 GT2, which crashed heavily whilst being driven by James Calado, who was also ruled out of the race by the medical commission, and who was replaced by Pierre Kaffer.

Their woes continued in the race, as the # 3 car of Albuquerque / Bonanomi / Jarvis was a victim of the first of two brief but intense rainstorms of the race, crashing out after just 25 laps, whilst both their other cars needed turbos replacing, and the 2nd place car of Kristensen / Di Grassi / Gene also suffered a puncture and needed its fuel injectors replacing. Their main rivals in the form of Porsche and Toyota also had their share of problems, which allowed Audi to claw back the time lost in unscheduled stops, and head back to the front of the field before the end of the race. Another victim of the first bout of rain was the # 8 Toyota of Davidson / Lapierre / Buemi, which crashed in,  what appears from the video footage, the same accident as the # 3 Audi and the class pole sitting # 81 Ferrari 458 GT2. It isn’t clear who made contact first, but the Audi was being passed on the left by the Ferrari, and the Toyota was on the other side of the Audi, with poor visibility due to the intense rain and spray, with all ending up in the barriers and debris littering the track. The Toyota was eventually able to get back to the pits for repairs, minus its front body section, and with deranged rear bodywork, losing a lot of time in the process, but the repair efforts were aided time-wise, as the safety car was out for around an hour, then a short time later a second even more intense, but equally brief, rainstorm swept through, bringing out the safety cars once again. Fortunately, after these two storms, the remainder of the race was run in dry conditions.

Turning the clock back to the practice and qualifying sessions on the Wednesday and Thursday evenings, the three main protagonists for overall victory, Audi, Porsche and Toyota, were all vying for the coveted pole position, which although not terribly important in a race of 24 hours duration, gives a psychological advantage. In the test day two weeks before the race, it was Toyota that topped the time charts, so obviously they were hoping to maintain these positions in the qualifying sessions. At the end of the Wednesday, shortened due to the clear-up after the Audi accident, then another involving an Aston Martin, it was the # 20 Porsche 919 Hybrid of Bernhard / Webber / Hartley that topped the time sheets, ahead on the sister # 14 car of Dumas / Jani / Lieb, followed by the pair of Toyotas and the remaining pair of Audis. By the end of the Thursday qualifying session, it was a Toyota that sat on pole position, the # 7 example of Wurz / Sarrazin / Nakajima, with the # 14 Porsche of Dumas / Jani / Lieb alongside it, then the # 8 Toyota of Davidson / Lapierre / Buemi and the # 20 Porsche of Bernhard / Webber / Hartley, trailed by the Audi trio in the order # 3 of Albuquerque / Bonanomi / Jarvis, # 2 of Fassler / Lotterer / Treluyer and the # 1 of Kristensen / Di Grassi / Gene. Thus Audi were the slowest, but as the old saying goes “To finish first, you first have to finish”.

In the other classes, the LMP2 pole position was won by the # 46 Thiriet by TDS Racing Ligier JS P2 of Thiriet / Badet / Gommendy, the LMGTE Pro class pole went to the # 51 AF Corse Ferrari 458 GT2 of Bruni / Fisichella / Vilander, and the LMGTE Am class pole sitter was the # 81 AF Corse Ferrari 458 GT2 of Wyatt / Rugolo / Bird, which was also quicker than all the LMGTE Pro runners apart from the sister # 51 car.

The race was started by Ferrari F1, and twice World Champion Driver, Fernando Alonso, who waved the massive French Tricolore flag at 15.00 on a bright and sunny Saturday afternoon to get proceedings underway. As expected, the battle between Audi, Porsche and Toyota was intense, with a spectacle more like a sprint race than an endurance race, the Porsches being particularly spectacular through the Ford Chicane, lifting the front wheel high in the air over the kerb, before pounding up the start-finish straight. In the other classes battles were equally intense for position, whilst at around the half hour mark the first retirement was posted, this being the # 0 Nissan ZEOD RC, alternative technology car of Ordonez / Riep / Motoyama, which had transmission problems that couldn’t be resolved after completing only 5 laps. Another early retirement was the # 37 SMP Racing Oreca 03R-Nissan of Ladygin / Minassian / Mediani, which stopped with an oil leak after only 9 laps.

The previously mentioned rainstorms, eliminated the # 3 Audi and the # 81 Ferrari, and seriously delayed the # 8 Toyota, whilst there were plenty of others who suffered from spins and some tyre wall and barrier contact, but managed to keep going. The pole sitting # 7 Toyota maintained the lead through the storms, and through the first 14 hours of the race the lead swapped between this car and the # 20 Porsche, before an Audi headed the leader border, this being the # 2 car, which took the lead a fraction before 5.00am on Sunday morning. It was briefly headed by the sister # 1 car, but then that suffered a turbo failure, demoting it to 2nd place, while the pair of Porsches fell by the wayside, the # 14 car eventually making a final lap at the end to be classified, and the # 7 Toyota was eliminated by a fire just after 5.30am on Sunday morning, leaving the recovering # 8 Toyota to continue its eventual recovery to 3rd place overall. It was 5 laps down on the winning # 2 Audi of Fassler / Lotterer / Treluyer, which was the trios 3rd Le Mans 24 Hour Race victory and 4th podium finish, and at the same time bringing Audis total to 13 wins, the last five being consecutive. Although Tom Kristensen was unlucky not to get his 10th Le Mans win, he finished 2nd with Luca Di Grassi and Marc Gene, and increased his podium finish tally to 14.

The LMP2 class was led initially by the # 38 Jota Sport entered Zytek Z11 SN-Nissan of Dolan / Tincknell / Turvey, which made a great start and led for the first 6 laps, but managed to keep out of trouble, and although it didn’t retake the lead until the closing stages, it was there to pick up the pieces when those around failed. That is not denigrate a great class win, as it was a great performance from the whole team, and getting to the end of a 24 hour race is an achievement in itself, and what is heartbreak for some brings joy to others. 2nd in class was the pole sitting # 46 Thiriet by TDS Racing Ligier JS P2 of Thiriet / Badet / Gommandy, which like the class winner only led the class for a relatively few laps, in the latter stages. The final podium spot went to a car that had led the class at various stages through the race, the # 36 Signatech Alpine A450b-Nissan of Chatin / Panciatici / Webb.

In the LMGTE Pro class, the # 51 AF Corse Ferrari of Bruni / Fisichella / Vilander had what one might describe as a dream weekend, although the team had plenty to occupy them with their other cars. After claiming class pole position, they led the opening stages, and proved to be competitive throughout the race with a trouble free run. This class saw the most lead changes, with a total of 24, between the # 51 Ferrari, the # 73 and 74 Corvette2, the # 91 and 92 Porsches and the # 97 Aston Martin, but at the end of the race it was the # 51 Ferrari that was in the lead, and was also the car that had led most laps during the race. The # 73 Corvette of Magnussen / Garcia / Taylor took the runner-up spot a lap down, and the # 92 Porsche of Holzer / Makowiecki / Lietz, made it three different makes on the podium, as in the LMP2 class.

The LMGTE Am class witnessed Aston Martin’s first Am class victory, when the # 95 car of Poulsen / Heinemeier-Hansson / Thim took a 2 lap victory from the # 88 Proton Competition Porsche driven by Ried / Bachler / Al Qubaisi. AF Corse took their 2nd podium spot of the weekend, when their # 88 Ferrari 458 GT2 driven by Perez Companc / Cioci / Venturi finished 3rd.
The battle of the giants, i.e. Audi, Porsche and Toyota, drew vast crowds, the official figure was 263,300, and this showed in what was the only real down side to the weekend - the horrendous traffic jams! I have been to Le Mans I don’t know how many times, but I have never experienced the virtual gridlock that was prevalent from around lunchtime on Sunday until well after the end of the race - gripe over!

Keith Bluemel

06 / 2014.