Audi Triumph Amid Tragedy at the Le Mans 24 Hours

Audi Sport Team Joest took a third successive victory at the 2013 Le Mans 24 Hours on Sunday afternoon, leading from the start to take the chequered flag amidst rain, drama and tragedy at the Circuit de Sarthe. At just past 3pm the #2 R18 e-tron Quattro of Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Loic Duval passed the start/finish line for the final time after 348 laps of racing.

Podium 2013

But an event that would otherwise be remembered for its record number of safety cars, rare low attrition rate and fantastic nerve-rending battles will instead be remembered as the year that Allan Simonsen, driver of the #95 Aston Martin Racing V8 Vantage, sadly lost his life after succumbing to injuries sustained in an early accident.

The race started in surprising style as a greasy track played into the hands of the as yet unimpressive Toyota Racing team. While Andre Lotterer blasted off the line straight past Allan McNish, both the #7 and #8 began to scythe their way up the field to wild cheers from the fans who had never expected to see a proper race. But after less than 15 minutes racing the safety cars came out for Simonsen’s stricken Aston Martin, and from then on a cloud hung over Le Mans.

When the action finally got underway again the track had dried and a standard Audi domination seemed to be on the cards. Down in GTE Pro we had expected AF Corse to be challenging for the win but their performance was underwhelming, so it was lucky that the latest round of BoPs had ensured that Porsche would take their place. We started seeing the buds of a fruitful battle with the #97 Aston Martin’s Darren Turner being chased by Marc Lieb’s #92 911 RSR and Rob Bell’s #99 sister V8 Vantage.

Back in P1 Toyota were returning to their usual form, putting in a mix of fair and slow lap times and suffering from strange intermittent problems that had Sebastien Buemi briefly stopping on the Mulsanne. Light drizzles wafted across various parts of the track, catching some unawares at the Mulsanne and Dunlop chicanes. The Oak Racing Morgan-Nissans took up their positions at the head of the LMP2 field at the hands of Brundle and Gonzalez.

Next came safety cars 2 and 3 as first a punctured Alpine and then a spinning Lotus left debris all over the Mulsanne. Once we were racing again and the drivers had all been told to be more careful in the tricky slippiness the race began to settle down, all three Audis setting purple sector times and stretching their lead. The lights began to flicker on in the grandstands and the sky turned inky as night fell at the Circuit de Sarthe.

And it was in the dark that the understandably subdued atmosphere came alive once again at the expense of Audi’s usual infallibility; you can’t expect the 11 time winners to fail without eliciting a good dose of schadenfreunde. Benoit Treluyer’s leading #1 was the first to show problems, having trouble pulling away from a pit stop, before Oli Jarvis in the #3 pulled up at the Dunlop Chicane with a severely delaminated rear tire.

While Jarvis limped back to the pit rather faster than his whirling rubber should have allowed the #1’s issues reared their ugly head again. Pulling back into the pits just two laps after his scheduled stop Treluyer’s car was jacked up and pushed back into the garage. 45 minutes later it reemerged sheepishly at the hands of Marcel Fassler, leaving behind it a garage choc full of flustered Audi mechanics and the box for a brand new alternator.

This completely changed the dynamic of the race. Suddenly the hopes of the entire Audi crew were dropped on the head of newcomer Loic Duval who was very aware that behind him were the two unexpectedly competitive Toyotas of Alex Wurz and Stephane Sarrazin. Duval responded brilliantly; despite all the pressure he drove well to extend the car’s lead.

Audi 2 Flyby

In GTE Am the Porsches were having a good run with the #88 Proton Competition leading an AF Corse Ferrari and an IMSA Performance Matmut, with the photographers’ favourite Patrick Dempsey hanging on not far behind. There was also revelation in P2 as Playstation graduate Jann Mardenborough smashed his way onto the top flight sports car scene with fastest laps galore, working his #42 Greaves Zytek from amongst the P2 also rans all the way up to third. The G-Drive Oreca-Nissan was running in first but the Oaks were still lapping strongly.

There was a brief safety car break to clear up the stricken ADR-Delta of Tor Graves before we went racing again, the GTE Am battle morphing into a Porsche on Porsche contest, the #77 leading the #88. The paparazzi were out in force again; McDreamy was challenging for a win at Le Mans. Dempsey’s teammate Joe Foster got so annoyed with the media scrum that he pushed them out of the way as he swapped with the TV star. Good stuff.

Then another safety car was out, a theme was starting to develop. This time it was Tracy Krohn in his eponymous green 458, not wanting to break with his week’s tradition of bad luck and driving errors by stranding the car at Corvette corner on the final lap of his stint. His co-driver Nic Jonsson, suited, booted and ready to jump in the car, looked rueful.

We entered the witching hour surrounded by empty coffee cups and TV shots of sleeping pit crew. The GTE Pro competitors weren’t sleeping though with Rob Bell and Darren Turner having swapped positions around an ever strong Marc Lieb, the whole pack having bunched up in the early hours. But the budding Pro battle was cut short once again by yet another safety car, this time for a nasty looking smash for the Status GP of Tony Burgess out of Corvette Corner. Large parts of the car splintered off, taking the impact well and proving the safety of the Lola chassis; Burgess emerged unscathed.

It was late and slippery; prime time for inexperienced drivers to make mistakes on cold tires, and sure enough barely minutes after the three safety cars had been put to bed they were called upon once more, now for a big smash at the end of the Forest Esses for Howard Blank in the #54 AF Corse. A long period of waiting ensued as the armco had to be replaced, giving fans and teams a good opportunity to catch a half hour nap. It was the seventh safety car so far.

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The fight for the race was nervous as we entered the morning, Duval leading Lapierre and Buemi with Jarvis not too far behind. Lap times were roughly the same, a second taken here and a second lost later. It wasn’t so in GTE Pro though; a drying track had inspired Aston Martin to put slicks on Turner’s third running #97 which looked at first to be premature. However when Turner started going five seconds quicker in the middle sector people started to take note, and Aston’s choice was vindicated.

More rookie drivers started to run out of talent as the sun threatened to rise, and none more so than Romain Brandela of DKR Engineering. First he spun at the Dunlop Chicane, then he took out the #88 Porsche which was at the time leading GTE Am, and then he caused the #55 AF Corse to take to the grass in avoidance. Carnage in three corners, a good example of the necessary risks associated with rookie drivers at Le Mans.

Mucke’s Aston dropped off the lead Pro lap when the new day’s rays started filtering through the upper grandstands and the fight for first became a two horse race; Richard Lietz holding off Bruno Senna. Similarly in P2 the JOTA dropped off the pace via the gravel at Tertre Rouge and resulting damage, allowing the #42 Greaves of Michael Krumm up into third. They pitted, fixed it and sent Mardenborough back, but the ex-gamer clearly doesn’t do mornings as early driving errors had fans with hands in front of eyes.

Meanwhile in the Ams Patrick Long was having a happy time of his Porsche 911 GT3 RSR, casually lapping a full five seconds faster than the rest of the field and bringing the Dempsey Del Piero Proton Porsche within range of the leading IMSA Matmut/AF Corse match. We never found out if he would’ve caught them though, as Bill Auberlen’s #98 Aston developed a puncture that destroyed the rear of his car down the Mulsanne, dropping a long trail of oil and giving the safety cars another excursion round Le Sarthe.

The safety cars came in, the safety cars went out; Le Mans can be a stuck record sometimes. This time it was the leading P1 privateer #13 Rebellion at the hands of Andrea Bellichi, just getting the rear unstuck out of the second Mulsanne chicane, snapping back and hitting the barrier nose first at an oblique angle. Despite some broken ribs Bellichi managed to coax his very wobbly Lola back to the pits minus a good portion of front and side bodywork; Rebellion did manage to fix it in the end but it was too late to remain competitive.

Girls podium 2013

We had been racing under green flags for barely another hour before disaster struck Aston Martin yet again; in any other race it would’ve been tragedy, but in racing everything’s relevant. Fred Makowiecki, who had so impressed with sizzling lap times and dazzling overtakes through the race so far, crashed headlong into the armco coming out of the Forza chicane. It was an eerily similar event to Simonsen’s fatal accident; lose the back, snap left and Mako was on rails towards the metal.

But due to lesser speed Fred was uninjured as he hopped out of the car and vaulted the barrier. He leaned on it with his arms folded, head bowed and clearly dejected; the track went quiet as images were shown of his pit crew flattened by the late loss from the lead and a disfigured V8 Vantage lying flattened on the N138. Now they only had one real chance to win it for Simonsen, the #97 of Turner, Mucke and Dumbreck. Everybody agreed that we didn’t need any more heartbreak, we were sick of that barrier repair lorry by now.

Turner took it on himself to catch up with Lieb, and he managed it. After the two pitted for final tires and drivers the battle was handed over to Mucke and Lietz, and they set right to it, Mucke pulling right up behind Lietz and hassling him relentlessly, setting his car’s fastest time in the race after 22 hours and 40 minutes. Then the rain came down. Hard.

Fourth running Nicolas Lapierre went headlong into the tire wall at the Porsche Curves. The Boutsen Ginion went off at the first chicane. The Thiriet by TDS aquaplaned into the Mulsanne armco, almost taking out the LMP2 leading Oak. But Mucke and Lietz didn’t give up, they duelled in slow motion through Arnage, Porsche Curve, Corvette, Karting and approached the pits. Mucke went in, Lietz didn’t, the safety cars came out. After another half an hour the track had dried and the Aston had to pull in again for new slicks, their challenge over. There won’t be many celebrations in the Aston Martin camp tonight.

The race restarted with just half an hour to go, not long enough for even a minor downpour to change the result. As Tom Kristensen neared the finish line they didn’t assume the usual three abreast Audi formation; instead Tom was followed in by second placed Sebastien Buemi’s Toyota in respect of the tense and brilliant battle that had gone on nervously for 24 hours, and by Jamie Campbell-Walter’s Aston Martin #96, sister car of the #95. Third went to the #3 Audi of Marc Gene, Lucas Di Grassi and Oliver Jarvis.

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In LMP2 the Oaks held on from mid race all the way to the end, the lead swapping a couple of times but ultimately taken by the #35 of Bertrand Baguette, Ricardo Gonzalez and Martin Plowman. The #24 of Olivier Pla, David Heinemeier Hansson and Alex Brundle took second and the G-Drive Racing of Roman Rusinov, John Martin and Mike Conway took third.

GTE Pro ended as a 1-2 finish for Porsche who will be pleased to mark their return to their traditional stomping ground with a class victory, if not an overall one in a prototype. The #92 911 RSR of Mark Lieb, Richard Lietz and Romain Dumas took the victory followed by the #91 of Jorg Bergmeister, Patrick Pilet and Timo Bernhard, and third place was taken by the valiant but unlucky Aston Martin Racing V8 Vantage of Darren Turner, Stefan Mucke and Peter Dumbreck.

GTE Am was also a Porsche success story in the end with the fan favourite #76 IMSA Performance Matmut team of Raymond Narac, Christophe Bourret and Jean-Karl Vernay taking a well deserved win. Second was the #55 AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia of Piergiuseppe Perazzini, Lorenzo Case and Darryl O’Young while third position went to their teammates the #61 AF Corse of Jack Gerber, Matt Griffin and Marco Cioci.

In the end nothing could overcome the pace, experience and reliability of the #2 Audi. It was an exceptional drive from Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Loic Duval; the now 9-time winner, the Scottish terrier and the talent on his Audi debut. They led for almost 15 hours and never put a foot wrong, and they battled through rain, shine and incident to take the chequered flag by one lap’s margin.

But despite the fantastic race, really one of the hardest fought 24s for some time, the 2013 24 Hours of Le Mans will always be remembered as the year when the 9-time winner of the race cried on the podium, the Danish flag flew at half mast above the grandstand, and motor racing lost one of its stars. Congratulations to Audi, Tom, Allan and Loic, and rest in peace Allan Simonsen.