No one saw this coming: Audi claimed all three podium positions at the 24 Hours of Le Mans on Sunday--after all four LMP1-class Peugeots retired from the race.
This year’s Audi R15-Plus turbodiesel prototype was no match for Peugeot’s 908 HDi on pace, but it outlasted its French rival to give Audi its ninth victory in the 24 Hours. Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Mike Rockenfeller ended up winning the race for the German manufacturer as a result of their R15 experiencing fewer problems than those of their Audi teammates.
Bernhard took the checkered flag a lap ahead of the second-place Audi of Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer, while the third R15 driven by Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Rinaldo Capello finished three laps behind the winners. The last remaining Peugeot retired in the 23rd hour.
Peugeot remained at the top of the timesheets until 7 a.m. on Sunday morning, 14 hours into the race. Franck Montagny was leading aboard the 908 that he shared with Stephane Sarrazin and Nicolas Minassain when a dramatic engine failure caused near instant retirement.
Engine failures also accounted for the Peugeot driven by Anthony Davidson, Alexander Wurz and Marc Gene--which was closing on second place after losing time with an alternator failure earlier in the race--and also the semi-works Oreca-run entry. The first of the four 908s in the race retired early when a suspension wishbone pulled out of the tub of the pole-winning car shared by Pedro Lamy, Simon Pagenaud and Sébastien Bourdais.
Bernhard, Dumas and Rockenfeller had a trouble-free race interrupted only by an unscheduled stop to replace a wing mirror after hitting a photographer in the pit lane. That put them ahead of Fassler, Lotterer and Treluyer, who lost time with two nose-cone changes after minor offs.
The Kristensen/McNish/Capello car led the Audi charge early on, but a clash with one of the BMW M3 GT2 cars resulted in the loss of three laps from which there was no way back.
Audi Sport boss Wolfgang Ullrich described this year’s Le Mans as the “toughest yet” for the company.
“Peugeot gave us a lot of work to do,” he said, “but we pulled back our performance deficiencies and got quicker and quicker through the race.”
The best gasoline-powered car behind the diesels was Oreca’s own AIM-engined open-top contender in fourth place after the best-placed Aston Martin Racing Lola coupe went out with engine failure with 50 minutes remaining. The car driven by Soheil Ayari, Andy Meyrick and Didier Andre had a clean run interrupted only by a clash with another prototype and an unscheduled stop to replace the starter motor.
LMP2 honors went to the fifth-place HPD ARX-01c fielded by the Strakka team. Driven by Danny Watts, Jonny Kane and Nick Leventis, the Strakka entry had the legs of the identical Highcroft Racing HPD machine, which dropped to eighth in class at the finish after engine problems relegated it to the ranks of the walking wounded.
Porsche returned to the GT2 winner’s circle at Le Mans after an absence of three seasons. The Felbermayr-Proton Porsche 911 GT3-RSR raced by factory drivers Marc Lieb, Richard Lietz and Wolf Henzler took class honors at the end of a race in which it was barely a contender for most of its duration. Chevrolet’s Corvette C6.R and Ferrari’s F430 GT looked set to fight for the win, but problems put that expectation to rest.
The Corvette driven by Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Emmanuel Collard scrapped with the Risi Competizione Ferrari for much of the first half of the race. The Risi car, which was bidding for a seventh-straight class victory in the big sports-car enduros, went out with gearbox failure, while both Chevys succumbed to engine failure.
Meanwhile, the last GT1 winner before the class disappears from Le Mans next year went to a car that has sought victory in the higher GT category for a decade. The Saleen S7R, which first raced at Le Mans in 2000, claimed the win in the hands of the French Larbre Competition team.