Perfect 10 as Audi clinches victory at a thrilling Le Mans 24 Hours
Audi survived two huge crashes and a thrilling battle with rivals Peugeot to claim their 10th victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
In a compelling final hour, only a handful of seconds separated the winning Audi of Andre Lotterer and second-placed Simon Pagenaud in the Team Peugeot Total car at the chequered flag, marking one of the closest finishes in Le Mans history.
Lotterer shared the victory with fellow Audi Sport Team Joest co-drivers Marcel Fassler and Benoit Treluyer in the #2 Audi R18 TDI, the only one of three works Audis left running after two huge accidents earlier in the race.
The #9 Peugeot 908 HDi of Pagenaud, Sebastian Bourdais and Pedro Lamy crossed the finish line 13.854s behind the Audi, with three more Peugeots following while the best of the petrol engine cars was the Lola-Toyota of Rebellion Racing.
In a race packed with incidents, the two that stood out involved the #3 Audi of Tom Kristensen, Rinaldo Capello and Allan McNish and the #1 Audi of Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Mike Rockenfeller.
Capello, a three-time Le Mans winner, hinted that this would be his last 24 Hours, but he and Kristensen did not get a chance to race because of the crash that destroyed their car and sent McNish to the hospital.
With less than an hour gone, McNish attempted a move on team-mate Bernhard as the pair reached the end of the start/finish straight. Unfortunately for McNish, the #58 GT Pro Ferrari of Anthony Beltoise was exiting the pitlane and heading up the hill towards the Dunlop Bridge.
McNish was squeezed and Beltoise could no nothing to stop his car touching the Audi which veered sharply to the left and sped into the barriers. McNish was able to get out but the car was beyond repair.
That brought the safety car out for more than an hour but Rockenfeller's shunt after eight hours brought the race under yellow for even longer. A truly terrifying incident, it highlighted the problems of extremely fast prototypes competing against the slower GT cars and amateur drivers.
Rockenfeller had caught the #71 Ferrari of Robert Kauffman after the Mulsanne Straight and as he passed he suddenly veered to the left and crashed head-on into the Armco, sending debris flying into the air and on the track. Whether there was any contact between the two is unclear but Rockenfeller did run out of road because of Kauffman's moves.
That he and McNish escaped without serious injuries is testament to the build quality of the Audis as well as to higher safety standards. Rockenfeller was kept in hospital overnight as a precaution.
Even without those incidents it had become clear that the battle between Audi and Peugeot would be a close one and so it proved. When racing resumed just after midnight after two hours behind the safety car, Treluyer was leading Franck Montagny in the #8 Peugeot with Bourdais in third.
Audi were quicker overall but Peugeot could catch them on the straights and also in the pitstops – their fuel efficiency was better. So, lead changes were frequent throughout the night and one highlight came on Sunday when Anthony Davidson and Fassler twice swapped the lead in as many laps.
It eventually turned into a showdown between the #2 Audi and #9 Peugeot on Sunday with some rain adding to an-already tense situation.
Treluyer put in an almighty stint on Sunday morning, running 40 minutes shy of the maximum four hours a driver can do in one go. He handed over to Lotterer and it soon became clear that the German would race to the finish. All he had to do was keep it on the tarmac.
But when he came for his final fuel stop, the mechanics changed the tyres as well. With Pagenaud also in the pits, it looked as though Audi had made an error but luckily for them Lotterer exited first, 20s ahead.
Pagenaud chased hard and at one point the gap was less than four seconds but Lotterer responded to hold on for a stunning victory and a remarkable achievement for Audi.