24 Hours of Le Mans: Diesel-Electric Boogaloo

Heading into the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the most hotly anticipated battle was between Audi and Toyota to determine who would be the first hybrid car to win the famed endurance race. Unfortunately for Toyota, the battle never materialized. As the hybrid Audi R18s stormed off into the distance, both Toyotas collided with traffic resulting in abrupt ends to their challenge.

In the other classes, attrition and luck seemed to the biggest factors behind the GTE category outcomes. The AF Corse Ferrari 458 was the last of many cars to lead the race in GTE but it’s the last car to lead the race is the most important. While Corvette couldn’t keep it together in GTE Pro, the Larbre Competition operated Corvette C6 was able to pick up the win in GTE Am. In LMP2, the rookie entrant Starworks Motorsport backed up their in their maiden 12 Hours of Sebring with a class win in Le Mans.

With Toyota failing to get a race run prior to Le Mans, the four-car Audi effort was expected to take the top step of the podium. The battle between the two Audi R18 e-tron Quattro hybrids and the two R18 Ultra diesels never really materialized. The only Audi that didn’t experience any trouble was the #4 R18 Ultra but it was still three laps behind the race winning #1 R18 e-tron of Andre Lotterer, Marcel Fassler and Benoit Truluyer.

It wasn’t an easy win for the #1 Audi. Despite controlling the race after starting from the pole, Fassler had a spin and brush with the wall that forced repair work that allowed the #2 back into the picture. It wasn’t until the very end of the race that they were able to shake the #2 R18 e-tron. A late spin by Allan McNish to avoid a slow Ferrari 458 in the Porsche curves caused the #2 to nose into the barrier. The resulting repair work put the #2 one lap behind the race leading #1 car and effectively ended the challenge by the trio of McNish, Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello. The heretofore unmentioned #3 R18 Ultra was out of contention quickly thanks to an early shunt into the tyres at the first Mulsanne chicane. It repeated the trick inside the final three hours but continued back to the picks both times.

For the #1 driver trio of Lotterer, Fassler and Truluyer, it’s back-to-back overall wins. They were the unofficial Audi junior team in 2010 and 2011 as they lacked the experience of their teammates. In their three years together at the wheel of the R18, the trio has finished 2nd, 1st and 1st. As none of the drivers are older than 35, they definitely have some time to re-write the record books.

While the battle at the front never materialized outside the Audi camp, it is slightly ironic how Toyota’s fortunes mirror Audi’s 2011 results. Both Toyota hybrids retired from the race after being involved in collisions (though the #7’s retirement wasn’t officially due to contact). Last year, two of the three Audis retired after massive high-speed accidents. The remaining Audi driven by Lotterer, Fassler and Treluyer was able to keep a steady pace and out-duel the faster Peugeot 908s. Given the issues that the Audi e-trons ran into, the Toyotas might have had a shot if they hadn’t retired.

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It was a day to forget for the factory Toyota Racing team. They made a much hyped return to Le Mans with the goal of being the first hybrid car to win the race. To win, they would have to do battle with the diesel-electric hybrid cars of Audi. In practice and qualifying, the Toyotas were close enough to the pace that a podium was well within reach and a win was possible with a bit of luck.

However, luck wasn’t on Toyota’s side. At the start of the fifth hour of the race, Anthony Davidson’s #8 Toyota was sideswiped by the #81 GTE Am Ferrari 458 of AF Corse driven by Piergiuseppe Perazzini heading into the Mulsanne hairpin. The Toyota TS030 got airborne and did a flip before crashing into the tyre wall. The Ferrari spun and slammed into the wall even harder than the Toyota. The clean-up and repairs to the tyre wall and armco barrier resulted in an hour-long stint under the safety car. Davidson suffered two broken vertebrae in the incident but a Toyota statement following the accident said Davidson was walking and talking in the track medical centre. Later reports say that Davidson is expected to make a full recovery.

The #7 Toyota didn’t fare much better. Immediately after the safety car period ended in the 6th hour, Kaz Nakajima drove into the DeltaWing. The collision caused the immediate retirement of the #0 DeltaWing. The Toyota went to the picks for repairs but the race fell apart after the crash. The alternator had to replaced following the wreck. A couple of hours after alternator repairs, the engine failed and the car retired. It wasn’t a good day to be Toyota but the speed is there to challenge Audi should they return in 2013.

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Despite not making it to the finish, the DeltaWing had a reasonably good race going prior to being knocked out of the race. Despite some early mechanical issues related to the gearbox, the car was on pace to use half the fuel of the LMP1 cars. Its fastest lap was a 3:45.737 which was not too far off the LMP2 pace as was the case in qualifying. The car was able to complete six hours and over 1,000 km prior to retirement which would have been enough to complete a standard World Endurance Championship race.

After the accident, driver Satoshi Motoyama stayed with the car and took instruction from the crew as to how to repair the car to make the drive back to the pits. After 90 minutes, it was clear that the damage to the car was too severe to patch enough to get back to the pits and the car was retired.

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There was definitely no shortage of excitement in the two GTE categories. The class that no one seemed to want to win was the GTE Pro class. Numerous cars led the class at one point or another. The #97 Aston Martin V8 Vantage and the #74 Corvette led the way early. The #59 Luxury Racing Ferrari 458 led for a stretch before having a problem on its way into the pits and handed the lead to the #51 AF Corse Ferrari 458. All that happened inside the first two hours of the race.

The lead changed hands between the #51 Ferrari and the #74 Corvette as the sun set. However, the battle quickly ended when a botched pit stop caused the left-rear tyre to come off at the exit of the Dunlop Chicane. The damage caused by dragging the car around some eight miles on three wheels forced lengthy repairs and took the car out of contention. Punctures for the #59 Ferrari and the #97 Aston Martin dropped them off the AF Corse Ferrari’s tail. From there, the #51 car driven by Giancarlo Fisichella, Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander were able to coast to victory by three laps over the #59 Luxury Racing 458.

The win was especially sweet for AF Corse. As noted above, the #81 GTE Am car was written off in its accident with the #8 Toyota. On Wednesday, Fisichella wrecked the car during practice and it had to be rebuilt over the course of 10 hours by the AF Corse team. The team has entered the 24 Hours of Le Mans since 2007 without a win but won two FIA GT Championship titles and an FIA GT2 Championship titles. It was a well deserved win for a team that has definitely paid its dues.

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In the GTE Am category, there was no shortage of excitement either. The finish in class was the closest in the race. The final duel was between the #67 IMSA Performance Matmut Porsche 911 and the #50 Larbre Competition Corvette. The pair of teams had been doing battle for the better part of the whole race and it still came down to the final hour to determine a winner.

The #67 IMSA Porsche had been up front early but lost the lead to the polesitting #79 Flying Lizard Porsche 911 before the first safety car. However, team owner Seth Neiman crashed at Arnage which cost the team ten laps while repairing the car which dropped them from the lead to out of contention. That gave the lead to IMSA’s #67. In the early morning with 10 hours to go, the IMSA Porsche stopped to get new brake pads which put the #50 Larbre Corvette on point.

The Larbre Corvette and IMSA Porsche cars stayed within 30 seconds until the end of the race. A long final pit stop for the #67 to change drivers allowed Pedro Lamy in the Corvette to close in on and pass the IMSA car. However, the battle ended for good when the #67 911 suffered a puncture in the final half-hour and fell one lap behind. While the factory Corvette GTE Pro teams suffered a series of problems that prevented them from contending, Chevy wasn’t blanked as the year-old Corvette of Larbre Competition piloted by Pedro Lamy, Patrick Bornhauser and Julien Canal took the GTE Am class win.

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The LMP2 class was going to be hotly contested with 20 cars entering the race in the category. The win went to Le Mans rookies Starworks Motorsport in their Honda-powered HPD ARX-03b driven by Ryan Dalziel, Enzo Potolicchio and Tom Kimber-Smith. They enjoyed a one-lap gap over the second placed TDS Racing Oreca-Nissan. The win was big for Honda who only had two entrants in LMP2 against 13 cars powered by Nissan motors.

It wasn’t an easy day for Starworks. They started 9th among the LMP2 field but made their way up to third in class inside the first three hours. The #35 OAK Racing Morgan-Nissan led for the first eight hours of the race before making frequent pit stops. Inside the next couple of hours, the next two cars who inherited the lead lost it almost as quickly. The Murphy Prototypes Oreca-Nissan lost the lead to a puncture. The #24 OAK Racing Morgan-Nissan was forced to retire with an oil pump failure. This handed the lead to Starworks and they didn’t relinquish it.

For Starworks, Dalziel and Potolicchio, this has been a dream season. The team and two drivers finished second in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, which is a Grand-Am and won in their first ALMS / World Endurance Championship race at the 12 Hours of Sebring. Kimber-Smith wasn’t with the team prior to Le Mans but picked up his third Le Mans class win in his last four races and back-to-back LMP2 class victories.

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