Audi wins again at Le Mans as Toyota wins respect
Audi have won the 80th Le Mans 24 Hours, claiming their 11th victory in 13 years and taking a clean sweep of the podium.
Andre Lotterer took the chequered flag in the #1 Audi R18 e-tron quattro to win his and his co-drivers', Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler, second successive Le Mans. Their diesel hybrid car finished the race one lap ahead of the #2 car of Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen and Rinaldo Capello with the traditional diesel R18 Ultra of Mike Rockenfeller, Oliver Jarvis and Marco Bonanomi third.
Unlike last year which ended with one of the closest finsihes in Le Mans history, the 2012 edition was a typical endurance race, a war of attrition where reliability and accidents played their parts as much as outright speed. As we're in the middle of Euro 2012 it seems appropriate to say that the Le Mans 24 Hours was also a race of two halves.
That Audi took all the honours is fact but behind the headlines they were made to work hard for that victory, firstly by Toyota, who at one point, snatched the lead from their rivals only to fall by the wayside because of crashes, and then from the German marque's self-inflicted problems when incidents forced unscheduled pitstops.
Driving the #2 R18 e-tron quattro, McNish crashed in the Porsche Curves when lying second in the 22nd hour. Losing bodywork he had to pit where he lost a lap to the leading Audi #1 of Benoit Treluyer. It could have been more but the incident brought the safety car out which slowed the field.
The Scot's error came just minutes after Marc Gene in the #3 Audi R18 Ultra had crashed on the Mulsanne Straight in a replica of a shunt his co-driver Romain Dumas suffered 17 hours earlier. With more serious damage to his car, Gene dropped down the order but Audi managed to keep their top three places because of the considerable lead they had built up over the remaining petrol-powered leading LMP1 class cars.
The incidents left Treluyer comfortably ahead of his intra-team rivals with two and a half hours to go, and the #1 R18 e-tron quattro kept hold of the lead until the chequered flag.
For McNish, Kristensen and Capello, who was hoping to become the oldest Le Mans winner on his 48th birthday, it was another case of what-might-have-been. Between them, they have 13 Le Mans victories, but the last of those came together back in 2008.
McNish had taken the lead in the 21st hour, taking advantage of Treluyer spinning on the pitlane entry after the French driver had built up a small lead as the two cars vied over strategies.
Treluyer's error meant that a 15-second lead turned into a 47-second deficit after the pitstop and he was left chasing his team-mate until the Scot's crash at the Porsche Curves. What could have been a relatively straightforward race to the finish after the Toyota retirements became more problematic as Audi's unintenional policy of self-destruction looked to make their task all the more difficult.
The 80th running of Le Mans had witnessed a strong challenge from Toyota and the race debut of the TS030 HYBRID. The petrol hybrid cars had qualified third and fifth on the grid and it soon became clear that they were not going to let Audi have it all their own way.
Right from the off, the two TS030 HYBRID cars were on the race pace and kept Audi honest and by the end of the third hour, they were lying second and third behind the polewinning R18 of Fassler et al.
The Japanese marque's attack was led by Sebastien Buemi in the #8 TS030, who produced a fantastic stint to overtake the #7 Toyota and move into second by the end of the fourth hour. During his stint, the Swiss driver was regularly lapping under 3m30s and cut the deficit to the #1 Audi from around two minutes to just 10 seconds.
However, Toyota's task was made all the difficult soon after when Anthony Davidson suffered a huge crash at the end of the Mulsanne Straight.
The Briton was attempting to pass the slower GTE Am class Ferrari 458 Italia of Pierguiseppe Perazzini just before the Mulsanne Corner when the Ferrari appeared to move across and the two collided. Davidson's Toyota was sent into a barrel roll and although landing the right way up, it crashed heavily into the tyre barriers. The Ferrari also hit the tyres and landed on its roof.
Davidson looked to be ok and managed to get out of the car but then quickly needed medical assistance. He was taken to hospital for checks where he revealed via Twitter the seriousness of his injuries: "Well, that was a big one! Lying in a French hospital with a broken back wasn't what I had in mind at this stage in the race... "
Julia Wurz, wife of Davidon's team-mate, Alex, visited the former Peugeot driver in hospital on Sunday, and tweeted he was "in good spirits and in good hands".
That accident meant the whole of the next hour was spent under safety car conditions and it was when the green flag was shown again an hour later that the Japanese marque's ultimate destiny was set.
Within a minute of the race restarting, Kazuki Nakajima had damaged the remaining #7 Toyota when he collided with the Highcroft Racing Nissan DeltaWing at the Porsche Curves.
The DeltaWing was sent crashing into the wall when Nakajima attempted to pass, causing damage to both rear sides, firstly from the collision and second when it hit the wall. Driver Satoshi Motoyama tried to repair the car well enough to get it back to the pits but had to admit defeat after 90 minutes, putting the innovative car out of the race.
Nakajima pitted the Toyota for a new rear section but was back in the pits a lap later as it became clear the damage was greater than first thought and the #7 lost many places before it rejoined the race.
The petrol-powered hybrid car couldn't repeat its earlier speed and was eventually retired by Alex Wurz after 11 hours and 134 laps, leaving the Audi team with a potential clean sweep of the podium in store.
After the Toyotas exits, the chance of podium glory fell to the petrol-powered car in LMP1. This unofficial categoy was led by the Rebellion Racing Lolas of Neel Jani and Jeroen Bleekemolen who were in fourth and fifth and ready to take advantage of any further diesel problems.
Jani and co-drivers Nicolas Prost and former F1 driver Nick Heidfeld were able to maintain the challenge and even managed to claim fourth ahead of the final Audi because of Gene's crash.