Audi Sport Team Joest and its drivers Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer won the 79th 24 Hours of Le Mans. After 24 hours of battles, accidents and pure racing the Audi R18 TDI number 2 finished the 2011 race just under 14 seconds ahead of the first of four Peugeots.
The 2011 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans got underway at 15:00 on Saturday with 56 cars taking the start. That number of cars was quickly reduced as the two Aston Martin Racing cars managed to get stuck in the gravel trap (#007) and behind the barrier (#009).
The #009 was retired on the spot, the #007 returned to the pit but after not even doing a handful of extra laps it was also retired early.
Ten laps into the race the leaders came in for their pit stops and when most teams had completed their first pit stop the Audi’s were first, second and third with Timo Bernhard in the #1 Audi R18 TDI leading the numbers #2 and #3.
?But then even before the end of the first hour Allan McNish made contact with the Luxury Racing Ferrari of Anthony Beltoise. McNish’s Audi R18 went off into the gravel, fortunately not rolling but slamming into the barrier and destroying the car. McNish got out of the car and after a visit to the hospital he was declared fit and returned to Le Mans. The Luxury Racing Ferrari escaped relatively unscathed and rejoined the race.
?As a result the safety car was sent out and it would stay out from 3:50 pm until just after 5:00 pm. The battle between Audi and Peugeot heated up, but soon after the leading Audi #1 would lose time after suffering front bodywork damage. Audi decided not to pull in the car immediately but waited until the next pit stop to change the bodywork and to send the car back out again.
The fourth LMP1 car to retire from the race was the Quifel-ASM Team Zytek 09SC. While Miguel Amaral was on his outlap the engine blew at Tertre Rouge. A bitter disappointment for the Portuguese team. Peugeot had a scary moment when Simon Pagenaud went straight at Arnage after a tank slapper, but he rejoined quickly.
What was next was a battle between Peugeot and Audi with a constantly changing lead – as per pit stops. Just before nine o’clock the #2 Audi R18 was in the lead, one minute ahead of the #7 Peugeot and another minute over the two other Peugeots. Five LMP1 cars – all diesel – were still on the lead lap.
Peugeot’s Marc Gené then hit troubles. The Spaniard reported that the door on the #7 Peugeot 908 kept opening, but the team decided to opt against closing it with duct tape. André Lotterer moved back into the lead after the pit stops.
The Audi drivers complained about the GTE traffic and called it dangerous. That racing is dangerous was shown when Mike Rockenfeller went off just after taking the second position in the race. Whilst passing one of the GTE Ferrari’s #1 Audi veered to the left and impacted the barriers on both sides of the track. Other than the safety cell nothing remained of the Audi R18 TDI #1, but Rockenfeller climbed out of the car and managed to get over the barrier, before being transfered to hospital.
The resulting safety car procedure lasted from 10:40 until 01:03. Whilst under safety car the #5 Hope Racing Oreca Swiss Hy Tech-Hybrid spun, whilst the #24 OAK Racing Pescarolo was retired after a fire at Tertre Rouge.
Team Oreca Matmut’s Peugeot went off into the gravel trap at the PlayStation chicane at 2:18, but it rejoined and returned to the track with quite some damage to the front of the Peugeot 908. Fifteen minutes later it returned to the track. Treluyer maintained the lead in the race, for Peugeot the hunt for the #2 Audi had started and from that moment on the lead changed several times between the #2 Audi and the #9 Peugeot as the cars pitted.
That fight was briefly interrupted when Jean-Christophe Boullion crashed the #13 Rebellion Racing Lola-Toyota at the Porsche Curves just before 5 am. The car was wrecked, but Boullion was fine, other than a bruised foot.
Less than half an hour later the race went back to green – but soon after it would be a rac without the Hope Racing Hybrid after the team retired it.
?Peugeot and Audi restarted their battle, but at 6 o’clock in the morning another safety car, this time for two stranded Luxury Racing Ferrari’s and a crash from the #48 Oreca 03 Nissan meant the cars would be behind the safety car for another 20 minutes.
After the restart the lap times started to improve and soon Lotterer and the Peugeot drivers were lapping quicker than 3:30, with Lotterer setting a 3:26.298 just before seven o’clock in the morning, not much later Bourdais set the exact same time.
Lotterer reacted and at 7:09 am the #2 Audi put in the fastest lap of the race, a 3:25.289. Half a second quicker than in qualifying.
But 20 minutes later a safety car was sent out again after two the Felbermayr-Proton Porsche of Felbermayr Snr and Corvette of Jan Magnussen collided at the exit of the Porsche curves.
From the moment the green flag was shown the heat was back on and it was far from clear who would win this race. In the next hours the positions kept changing, the #8 Peugeot was given a one-minute stop and go for a pit lane infringement.
The #7 backed out of the fight after hitting the wall at Indianapolis at 9:45, but the other Peugeots were still very much into the fight and more than once the Audi and Peugeot used more than just the track to fight each other, not always in the most friendly way.
Just after 11:00 am the rain arrived at the Circuit de la Sarthe, interesting as there were still a few hours left and the race was definitely on. Davidson decided not to let Treluyer pass and nearly took off the nose of the Audi.
In the rain the gap between the #9 and #2 decreased and despite having had more pit stops Lotterer, who had taken over from Treluyer, closed the gap. By 11:30 the gap had gone down to just 0.250 seconds. As Bourdais pitted Lotterer moved into the lead again and the #8 and #7 Peugeots did everything they could to make the live of the #2 drivers as hard as possible.
With more rain coming down the track became increasingly difficult to drive. Kronos Racing and Oreca Peugeot went off, the Oreca car losing its rear bodywork in a spectacular way. Audi and Peugeot kept going, stinting drivers and tyres for over 4 times, despite the wather.
Just after 1 pm the Peugeot and Audi seemed to hit, the battle getting less pretty and driving standards and respect apparently disappearing. After a couple of near-misses it became clear that Peugeot needed a miracle to win the race.
After a final pit stop for Peugeot and a splash and dash the gap was just under 8 seconds with just half an hour left. Peugeot tried whatever it could but Lotter wasn’t to be caught. A stunning and exciting Le Mans 24 Hours came to an end just after 3 pm when Lotterer crossed the line and won the race, something that seemed far away after the two big shunts.