Audi Weather Prototype Storm to Take Late Le Mans Win

The #2 Audi Sport R18 e-tron Quattro of Benoit Treluyer, Marcel Fassler and Andre Lotterer took a late victory today in one of the most amazing races ever seen at the Le Mans 24 Hours. Coming through weather, danger and stiff competition, the new-for-2014 car sealed a hard fought and unexpected win for the returning endurance champions.

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It was barely an hour and a half into the race that the French weather decided it needed to have a say in the 82nd running of the great race. A reported drizzle at Tertre Rouge quickly turned into first a downpour and then a monsoon, and the clouds didn’t care who they struck. Within moments of the Mulsanne River forming the grainy footage flashed onto the screens; a hobbled Toyota, a broken Ferrari and a shattered Audi.

Marco Bonanomi thumped his fists against the steering wheel of his #3 Audi to no avail and Sam Bird had similarly few options in his 458, but an eighteen point turn found Nicolas Lapierre gliding his now front-stunted #8 to the pits.

When the Safety Cars cleared there emerged a Porsche in the lead of the Le Mans 24 Hours. A second rainstorm brought some more havoc, affecting a number of GT and LMP2 cars, but the classes began to descend into their respective battles nonetheless.

Corvettes tried to outmuscle Ferraris, Astons growled behind Porsches, places swapped and swapped again as factories vied for the early honours. At the front Stephane Sarrazin was drawing out a lead from Andre Lotterer’s #2 Audi, it was all going to plan.

The Ligiers were quietly outperforming all expectation at the head of the LMP2 class, with two of the brand new coupes challenging for the class lead and fighting among themselves despite never having raced before. The Alpine A450b in striking blue and orange seemed to be the only car that could challenge them, with the silver-rated French driver Paul-loup Chatin punching well above his weight.

It was almost a shame, therefore, that Jann Mardenborough was lighting up the timing screens and putting in what would become the drive of the race. The kid from Cardiff who had graduated from his sofa to the track via a Playstation was unstoppable; barely a lap went by without there being a blue ‘personal best’ next to his name.

Back up at the front it was still the #7 Toyota in the lead and pulling away from the #2 Audi, but some intermittent power problems started to drop ‘Mr. Le Mans’ Tom Kristensen back into the clutches of the #20 Porsche. When the #1 was finally backed into the garage with a dodgy fuel injector, the 919 Hybrid moved up into a podium slot.

Meanwhile the sister #14 was heading in the other direction, slow on the Mulsanne Straight and the cause of gasps and winces around the track as flying prototypes and tourers narrowly avoided it. Back to the garage by electrical power alone, the engineers quickly set to work.

The race softened as we reached the halfway mark. The GTE Pro battle continued to flow one way then the other with driver changes having little effect on the even match that the class seemed to have.

A couple of minor issues for the Corvettes put them out of the class lead battle but Darren Turner and Giancarlo Fisichella took up the slack, pitting their national pride against each other in a battle that was infinitely more thrilling than the one happening between the same countries in Brazil.

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In the GTE Am class it was a much more dominant affair with both Aston Martins streaking off into the distance and away from a scrappy field of Ferraris and Porsches. The two looked to be on for a one-two until a power steering pipe blew off the #98 Vantage V8 of Lamy, Dalla Lana and Nygaard, dropping them out of contention.

And then the racing gods gave the race a kick which set off an avalanche, starting with a catastrophic failure of the electronics in the race leading #7 Toyota. The fans went from heavy-lidded to standing and shouting in a matter of seconds as the strangely inconclusive nighttime camera work slowly revealed that the favourite had just stopped of its own accord.

A flabbergasted Toyota team stood mute in the garage while Kazuki Nakajima tried to fix the issue, but when something as complicated as an LMP1-H fries its wiring no single man can hope to coax it back to life.

Benoit Treluyer probably couldn’t believe his luck as he passed a stationary blue and white hybrid prototype, and neither could Brendon Hartley or Lucas di Grassi as they moved their #20 Porsche and #1 Audi up into second and third respectively.

The Porsches began to show signs of wear with both repeatedly losing braking effectiveness under very heavy stops at Mulsanne and Arnage Corners. In the junior prototype class Mardenborough seemed to have been glued into his P2 leading Ligier, continuing to circulate at formidable pace. Neither the Alpine or the Thiriet Ligier got the message though, and they picked up the pace with an eye on the win.

Day broke as the GTE Pro battle refused to. Turner vs. Bruni, Muecke vs. Fisichella, Senna vs. Vilander; the fight was fair but frequent and full on until the old power steering ghouls emerged in the Aston. The #97 was wheeled into the garage, and the #51 AF Corse was left to soak up the atmosphere on its way to victory.

Audi sensed a win on the cards but their new e-tron Quattros had some curveballs to throw yet. First the #2 developed a turbo problem, drastically losing out on power and having to dive into the pits to fit a new one. As per the German endurance behemoths’ record, it was swapped and back out within 15 minutes.

This allowed the #1 into the lead, an enormous feat considering they’d rebuilt the car twice in the preceding few days. It was only sweet for a moment however as the previous year’s winners succumbed to the same turbo problems as their teammates. This time the swap was a little slower: 17 minutes to swap a turbo. After all, Audi don’t do ‘problems’.

And so we were left with three hours to go and a freshly installed Mark Webber leading the race in a Porsche. The flocks of fans arriving at the grandstands started to really believe that the returning Porsche dream could be real.

They reckoned without two things: the pace of Andre Lotterer and the heartbreaking nature of the Circuit de La Sarthe. The now three-time winner was fixated on the rear of the 919 and was relentless in his pace, so when he finally handed over to Benoit Treluyer we were looking forward to a game of endurance chess between two of the sport’s greats.

And then the TV screens flashed up an image of a slow-motion Porsche. The picture flashed inside the car, and there was a damp-eyed Australian staring forlornly out of a Red Bull helmet. The footage continued as a dirty R18 swept past and off into the distance.

The #1 followed a little later, and then the #8 Toyota which had been driven almost to destruction by Ant Davidson, Seb Buemi and Lapierre. When the Porsche engineers downed their tools on both the #20 and the #14, the 16-time winners’ ‘Mission 2014’ was over.

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The race didn’t finish there as late problems for the G-Drive left them down in fifth after leading the majority of the P2 race, a desperate disappointment for the three drivers who had been flawless throughout the race. This left British ELMS stalwarts JOTA Sport to take the P2 victory after a race spent quietly pumping in the laps and staying out of trouble; theirs was a real endurance victory for a proper racing team.

The Thiriet Ligier finished second in class, confirming a superb debut for the chassis which hadn’t run competitively before this race. The Signatech-Alpine #36 claimed third mainly thanks to some superb personal drives from Chatin, Nelson Panciatici and Oli Webb.

AF Corse continued their superb form with the #51 taking the GTE Pro win, outlasting the best GT teams in the world to take another win at La Sarthe by more than a lap. It was a great debut for the new-to-Le Mans Corvette C7.R, finishing second of the Pros and a further lap ahead of the #92 Porsche Team Manthey 911 RSR.

And it was an emotional victory for the Young Driver AMR Aston Martin crew, who 12 months ago had been mourning the loss of the hugely talented Allan Simonsen. They dominated the GTE Am class as they had promised to do in 2013, and this victory will provide the most fitting of tributes.

But after 24 Hours of promised stories, desperate moments and shock it was an eerily inevitable 13th win for the team with the four rings. In a nice final touch the two remaining R18s formed up ahead of the #14 Porsche - which had been brought out for one final lap - and crossed the line as a threesome.

It was a clear sign from Audi: ‘We are Le Mans, we earned our place here. If you want it, you’ll have to beat us, and we are the best.’ When everyone else falls by the wayside, Audi are there, winning. Are they immovable? Probably not. Will it take some magic to move them? Almost certainly. 2015 will be another step up as yet another marque takes up the challenge, but as they’ve proved over the last 24 hours, they’re the only ones to beat.

Jamie Snelling is a freelance motorsports journalist and 10-time Speed Chills veteran. Tweet him @SpeedChillsView