At one of the most dramatic 24-hour races in Le Mans history, in front of 250,000 spectators and millions of TV viewers, the 79th running of the famous French endurance race will be remembered for the spectacular crashes of two Audis, the 12sec victory of the remaining Audi against Peugeot opposition, and Corvette sweeping the GT classes.
Allan McNish and Mike Rockenfeller were very fortunate to sustain no injuries in horrifying accidents in the first third of the race. McNish in the #3 Audi R18 TDI had taken the lead shortly before the end of the first hour but he collided with a GT car in the "La Chappelle" section.
The R18 TDI spun off the track, bounced across the gravel trap and hit the barrier in a heavy impact before rolling over. The R18's one-piece carbon fiber monocoque withstood the crash, allowing McNish to climb out of the wreckage uninjured and return to the race track after a precautionary medical check at the hospital.
Mike Rockenfeller had an even bigger crash when shortly before 11pm, while running in second, he also collided with a GT car on the left rear wheel, except this time he was running at a speed of about 300km/h (180mph). The R18 TDI turned left and, at 270km/h, hit the guard rail on the entrance to the "Indianapolis" turn. The carbon monocoque again withstood the impact as the front crash absorber and other passive safety devices fulfilled their purpose. Subsequently, Rockenfeller was able to climb out of the wreckage but spent the night in the hospital as a precuation.
"The safety standards at Audi are simply incredible and saved my life," said Mike Rockenfeller. "I've never had such an accident in my career and hope I'll never have such an experience again."
Allan McNish commented in a similar vein: "I want to thank the Audi designers for having developed a car that you can climb out of unharmed after such severe accidents."
After Audi had lost two of its cars in the first third of the race, all hopes were pinned on car #2 that had secured pole position in qualifying. For 16 hours Fassler, Lotterer and Treluyer were in a battle against the three factory-backed Peugeots that fought hard for victory.
On Sunday morning the four quickest vehicles were still within a few seconds of each other at the front of the field. The lead kept changing on account of different pit strategies for tires and fuel. However, Fassler, Lotterer and Treluyer continued to exploit the performance of their new V6 diesel engine that, even after downsizing, was the fastest in the field. With a time of 3m 25.289s on the 229th race lap, Andre Lotterer managed to beat the fastest time set in qualifying.
Across the entire race distance, #2 did not have a single unscheduled pit stop. A problem with the fuel tank caused a slight headache because the full 65-liter capacity could not be used. Consequently, Andre Lotterer had to achieve a sufficient lead for an additional fuel stop in the final phase - in extremely difficult conditions, with rain at times, but Lotterer mastered the challenge.
After the final stop, the German started his last stint with a seven-second advantage over the second-placed Peugeot. At the end, he crossed the finish line after 24 hours with a lead of just 13.420 seconds.
For the three Audi drivers, who had finished the runners-up last year, this was their first Le Mans victory - and the tenth for Audi.
For Team Peugeot Total, victory was the only acceptable result. After completing meticulous preparations for the race and shown the potential of the 908 during a closely-fought qualifying session, the team brought its three cars onto the grid early on Saturday afternoon.
Throughout the 24 hours of the race, the Peugeot 908s demonstrated the performance level and reliability of their cars. Twenty-four hours at an incredible pace, without any let up for mechanics or the drivers. "We came here to win and we have finished second. My first feeling has to be one of disappointment," acknowledged Olivier Quesnel from Peugeot. "However, the team can be proud of having prepared three totally reliable cars and produced a faultless performance from a technical point of view. I would like to congratulate our rival on their win today. We both fought for the win in a genuinely sporting manner, with a lot of mutual respect."
On the podium at the 12 Hours of Sebring and with a one-two win at the 1000km of Spa-Francorchamps, the Peugeot 908 had been developed with the objective of winning again at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
By placing its three cars in 2nd, 3rd and 4th positions, Team Peugeot Total demonstrated the reliability of its new machine. Due to the optimized fuel consumption of the V8 HDi FAP, the Peugeot Sport engineers enabled the 908 to complete 12-lap stints. In the middle of the night, the drivers were able to put together four-stint shifts behind the wheel with the same set of Michelin tires. "In terms of reliability, we met our objective", commented Bruno Famin, Peugeot Sport's Technical Director. "The race was decided on performance. We suffered from a slight lack of performance, especially with the hard compound tires. That was enough for our rivals to gain the upper hand."
When Jean Todt got the 79th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans underway, the 249,500-strong crowd were treated to a race start worthy of a sprint, epitomized by the duel of Franck Montagny in the Peugeot 908 #8 and Allan McNish in the Audi #3.
At 15:51, McNish clashed with a backmarker, going off the track in a spectacular crash. The safety car was brought out for over an hour. At that point, Franck Montagny (#8), Alexander Wurz (#7) and Sebastien Bourdais (#9) were grouped together in the 3-5th places. The Peugeot 908 #8 lost several seconds during the safety car period when the mechanics spent time resolving a problem with the brake distribution system.
When the race resumed, Wurz decided to go on the attack and grabbed second position. Owing to the staggered pit stops of the frontrunners, the Austrian took the lead for the first time on lap 37.
Driven at a relentless pace by the five frontrunners, all on the same lap, the lead continued to change hands until 22:41, when Rockenfeller's Audi suffered a frightening accident after coming together with another car on the Indianapolis corner and crashing in the barriers. The safety car was brought out for 2.5 hours while the barriers damaged were repaired.
Sebastien Bourdais and Simon Pagenaud in the #9, Stephane Sarrazin in the #8 and Anthony Davidson in the #7 racked up the three- and four-stint shifts behind the wheel throughout the night. With soft tires fitted and sticking to a program of 12 laps per stint - compared with 10 or 11 for their rival - the Peugeot 908s proved to be very effective. The#9 became the spearhead of Team Peugeot, which kept constant pressure on the leader.
Sunrise saw a short, third safety car periods (following a crash). The battle between the potential winners reached its climax, with the 908 #7 and #9 grouped with Audi #2 until they all came into the pits at the same time. The #8 fell back after being handed a one-minute stop-and-go penalty.
At 09:44, Alexander Wurz got his braking wrong and ran into the tire wall at the Indianapolis corner. The two-time winner at Le Mans managed to get back to the pits, where the mechanics replace the car's front right half-axle in 9 minutes. The #7 came back out on track in 4th position, four laps adrift of the leaders.
As forecast, fine rain began to fall at around 11am. Thanks to making the right choice of tires, Peugeot Sport engineers help Simon Pagenaud to close to within 30'' of Andre Lotterer.
At 14:24, both cars dived into the pit lane together for a final stop. Pagenaud kept his Michelin tires, whereas Lotterer opted to put on a new set of tires. The two leaders came back out separated by less than ten seconds!
Taking full advantage of his fresh tires, Lotterer pulled away as the laps went by, and went on to clinch the win.
Peugeot's three 908s finished in second (#9), third (#8) and fourth (#7) positions. The Oreca-run Peugeot 908 HDi FAP rounded off the top five in one of the closest ever editions of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Boosted by the double points on offer for the ILMC standings, the 24 Hours of Le Mans enabled Peugeot to increase its lead in the Constructors' standings. The next round will be held in Imola (Italy), on July 1-3. Team Peugeot Total will be entering two cars for the race.
Final race positions:
- 1. Fassler/Lotterer/Lreluyer, Audi R18 LDI #2, 355 laps, 24H02'21''525
2. Bourdais/Lamy/Pagenaud, Peugeot 908 #9, + 13''854
3. Minassion/Montagny/Sarrazin, Peugeot 908 #8, +2L
4. Davidson/Gene/Wurz, Peugeot 908 #7, +4L
5. Duval/Lapierre/Panis, Peugeot 908 HDi FAP Oreca #10, +16L
6. Jani/Prost/Bleekemolen, Lola Loyota #12, +17L
7. Ickx/Martin/Leinders, Lola Aston Martin, +27L
Intercontinental Le Mans Cup Standings:
- 1. Peugeot, 103 points
2. Audi, 69 points
- 1. Audi Sport Team Joest, 50 points
2. Team Peugeot Total, 49 points
3. Team Oreca-Matmut, 34 points
4. Rebellion Racing, 26 points