Those who love motor racing knows that Le Mans isn’t a competition like all the others: the 24 hour race that is run along famous 13.629 km of Sarthe, is a prefect amalgam between technologic and competitive challenge in the track played on speed and reliability, and the great event which involves spectators on stands, in the villages and camping ground of the circuit. Even if you go along the streets of the city in the week before the event, the place has a cosy feel to it like a holiday atmosphere, with fans from all over the world who are sitting at the small tables of restaurants or on the benches of decked out parks, dressed as it was required by the colours of their favourite drivers or the country of origin. Not even missed the shows along the circuit, this year there have been six concerts passing from the Pop-rock of famous UB40 British group to the Sunday sung mass proposed by 70 singers of Just Gospel.
Even for the managers of the circuit the atmosphere of Le Mans is different from the one of any other event to which they are called to take part: coming from all over the Europe and Overseas to guarantee the covering of 134 positions along the circuit, they find themselves to belong often to heterogeneous groups of different languages and cultures. Among the most famous the group of position 106 (between the bend of Arnage and the bends of Porsche, an ill-famed place made by Enjolras’ fatal accident), where Austrians, Hungarians, Czechs., Germans, Belgians. English, Scottish and Americans cooperate, perfectly organized, and united by passion for this great event.
The novelty of this year is the reduction of the free practice session to four hours only and the inclusion of a third session of qualifying tests to be run by night: however this formula hasn’t convinced local spectators, who have scarcely appreciated the two-hour interval among sessions, leaving the stands partially empty.
Finally, we have to point out the sad absence from Pescarolo team, notwithstanding the desperate attempts to get their cars to race at least on their home circuit: a very sad moment to the fans of local team, who, however, wanted to show their affection by waving typical green flags and displaying banners on which it was written : "Le Mans without ‘Pesca’ isn’t Le Mans".
Week-end on the circuit set off officially on Wednesday at 4 pm, with the only session of free practice, started on a track, as dry as dirty one; to prove it there were the first timing results of Peugeots, round 3:30, against last year Pole of 3:22:888. The Audi cars were immediately slower than the French cars, with only Kristensen in a position to get up for a while to the sixth position, while instead of what happened with Peugeot-Pescarolo entered last year, performances of the car handled by Oreca were at once alike the ones of the official cars. The session was also interrupted when on Porsche bends Grosjean banged the rear axle of his Ford Gt against the guardrails, moreover imitated by the Frey on Karting bend: as for the engineers of Matech team the work didn’t fail! Big troubles also for Rebellion team with the car number 12 where a suspension connection with the chassis broke: the necessary repair cost a large part of the free practices and especially the whole first qualifying session.
As hours went by the track were rubberizing, making the race faster and faster and allowing Montagny to set 3:20:037 best time, in the last few minutes, by warning the Audi rivals who, on the contrary, didn’t succeed in going down under the barrier of 1:23. P2s were the total dominium of two Auroras, with Lola RmI Honda playing gooseberry, even if over 1 second left behind, while all the others were remarkably outdistanced; in GT1 Aston Martin made soon itself understood as it was in a position to take the lead over the rivals, also favoured by Ford Gt cars troubles, while Corvettes of Alphand had been spending four hours to look for the best setup in view of qualifications. Finally let’s turn our attention to GT2, with official Corvettes, which were soon very fast, only worried by usual Porsche Felbermayr and the Ferrari of Risi team driven by Bruni-Melo-Kaffer. We have to point out that at the end of the session the gearbox of Spyker had to be replaced.
The first qualifying session, which took place on Wednesday from 23.00 to 24.00, saw the presence of all 56 entered cars, as a consequence of weather conditions that forecasted probable storms on the next day. As already during free practice, Peugeot supremacy was soon highlighted by the struggle for Pole, however restricted to three official cars, given that Lapierre, after setting a temporary fast lap, was stopped along the track by a problem of the petrol suction lift, acting as spectator for remaining three quarters past an hour.
After expiring the first half an hour, when Audi cars went crazy to reach the rivals’ times, with continuous change of set-ups, three Peugeots finally entered the track, but were immediately obliged to go to pits by the red flag owing to Felbermayr off-track on Mulsanne. At the reopening of dances, with 15 minutes less at their disposal, the Lions of France started by pulverizing the competition time: first Sarrazin with a good 3:20:325, therefore with Wurz who stole the position on him with 3:20:317 little before Russo, in his Ferrari AF crashed into Porsche bend, destroying his car irremediably and asking a new interruption of the session for rescuers’ intervention. Luckily the driver, taken to hospital as a precaution, got out of it with a slight mental confusion but the conditions of his Ferrari made it impossible his taking part in the 24 Hours. After 25 minutes’ break Bourdais went to track and after a prefect lap finished in 3:19:711 scored a provisional Pole Position, with three seconds’ lead over the fastest lap of last year.
Audis went on their troubled race with Capello and McNish that, without ceremony, acknowledged that the French racing cars were unreachable as for qualifying conditions, while once again, the best petrol prototypes were Aston Martin cars, seven seconds outdistanced from the top. If in P1 Peugeots dominated, in P2 Arcuras took the lead with Watts who was first with 3:36:168 before Brabham in the twin-car entered by Highcroft; first one of the rivals there was Ginetta, five seconds and a half outdistanced. Among GT1 there was the great time set by the Aston Martin DBR9 which preceded over 2 seconds the rivals, while in GT2 there was the beginning of the so long expected challenge between Ferrari Risi and official Corvette, while Felbermayr Porsche was left behind.
On Thursday morning Le Mans woke up in a drizzly weather that became more intense in the first part of the afternoon: the weather conditions which caused many damages in half a Europe didn’t even save Sarthe! Fortunately at 19:00, when the cars were preparing to go out from the stands for the second qualifying session, a shy sun appeared among clouds, assuring the protagonists of the race more acceptable track conditions, even if blunders didn’t fail. The palm of misfortune was once again borne by Rebellion, with Boullion who suffered from a new broken connection with the suspension who made him crash into the wall level with Porsche corners, finishing his day of practice earlier. Drayson team drivers were also scarcely lucky because after replacing the engine at the end of the first day due to the low oil level revealed by telemetry, have seen their car stopped at the exit from stands. Emotions didn’t finish here, with many episodes luckily solved without great consequences for the protagonists: among these Rodriguez’ about-faces in his Audi Kolles and the Lola RMI’s one on Tertre Rouge, the puncture of Aston Martin Signature and the collision between Pescarolo Oak 24 and Salini on Ford chicane.
Notwithstanding the track which was at the very beginning run slow, the race of the 55 cars and a middle intense wind allowed some P2 and GT to improve timing results of the first day: Brabham with Arcura was the protagonist of a perfect lap thanks to which it set the provisional best time in P2 with 3:34:537, as well as Shell impressed spectators favourably at the wheel of his very new Norma, designed in view of 2011, who after the first day purposely passed in search of the right handling, gave himself the satisfaction of running behind a certain number of prototypes. It was also excellent the time set by Leinders who after forgetting the problems occurred on Wednesday, went up to three tenths only from Enge’s best time in GT1.
The last qualifying session started on Thursday at 22:00, leaving the crews still two hours to launch the final attack upon Pole on a dry track conditions. Once again, as already happened in the previous session, the most important improvements didn’t involve P1, first with only Audi driven by McNish and then Rockenfeller, able to improve them clearly by keeping a two-second-a half’s gap from the head. At the end it was just the German driver to set best time for the four-ring make, i.e. 1:21:981. However, once again the true show was given by Bourdais, who drove three laps in a row on the rate of 3:20, beating many partial records, a worrying warning to all competitors.
Watts’ performance was super, one of the fastest drivers in this category, who set 3:33:069 time, breaking literally the evening time trial of Brabham, giving Strakka the best time in P2: as it happened on Wednesday free practice, Honda superiority was ratified by Erdos’ third time with Lola RM1, even if outdistanced by six seconds and a half. While in GT1 everything was left unchanged, in GT2 Corvette cars managed to take away the best time from Ferrari Risi, failing few tenths, while remained Ferrari Af scored the fourth best time ahead of Porsche Felbermayr.
The last act of the two-day practice finished shortly after the end of tests, when marshals ACO realized that two bolts were missing from the rear wing of Ferrari Risi and, applying regulations, cancelled all recorded times and relegated it to the last position.
After a typical spring Friday which offered the spectators, gathered in the centre of Le Mans, a Parade of drivers under the sun, Saturday morning warm up took place once again on a wet track As envisaged on that condition the best time was set by Audi driven by Capello-McNish-Kristensen, that had one second’s lead over the first one of Peugeots, proving the quality of the R15plus on wet track condition: unfortunately for the Germans, during the race the rain didn’t peep in on the circuit.
As usual the starting ceremony, with at first the cars on the start-grid, fish-bone lined up on the central straight, to remind the starts which had been following one after another from the beginning till 1970; to enrich this stage some more, as a demonstration it was also organized the traditional Le Mans race start with the drivers in a run to get into the cars: for information only in the presence of 238,500 spectators the quickest driver was baron Paul Drayson!
The start was rather quiet with the cars keeping their relevant positions, with the exception of McNish who overtook his team mate, and then trying to attack also Peugeot driven by Lapierre on the Hounadieres, however it suffered from a minor top speed.
During the first lap old Lola Autocon, the P1 Cinderella, stopped on Arnage, imitated on third lap by Jaguar RSR GT2, whose debut at Le Mans was troubled by endless problems of electronics. On lap five Ginetta driven by Mansell crashed into the barrier along the straight leading to Indianapolis, due to the increasingly flattening of a tyre: the lion of England suffered immediately from a shock t his legs that made it necessary to call for the rescuers’ intervention with consequent entry of Safety cars (at le Mans given the length of the track, three Safety cars must enter on track). In this stage Audi cars were mainly destined to lose: they were finished behind the second safety car and at the race restart they found themselves 56 seconds outdistanced from Peugeot three cars. On lap 12 the dance led the drivers refuelling (on lap 9 Lapierre had already stopped), with all the best drivers who came back in a couple of rounds. Peugeot trio looked like a steamroller, all the more because after one hour and a half race and 21 laps, Montagny took the lead, before Lamy and Gen, all closed in three seconds; Lapierre had more difficulty and followed with 16 seconds, while McNish was leading Audi group outdistanced by 1:08. Not even failing the unexpected events, the about-faces of Pirri, Ayari and Porsche IMSA, two off-roads of Radical and punctures of BMW “Art” and Lamborghini. After two hours Leinders crashed with violence before Tertre Rouge, due to a tyre explosion and even managing to go back to pits, was obliged to retire because of heavy damages. To tell the true it was partly a racing team fault, that didn’t yet made the first change of tyres! After only five laps and here the first unexpected race event arrived, with Peugeot driven by Lamy who slowly returned to pits with the broken connection with the front right suspension: the French kept count of the first withdrawals. At the end of the third hour Norma car was sent off-road by the Spyker of Dumbreck, that little before had crashed at Indianapolis, even if, given the presence of an Audi during its lapping, it was difficult to ascertain the car causing the accident.
At the end of the fourth hour there was a disagreeable episode at the Audi stands, with a careless cameraman who was busy at filming Dumas’car refuelling, didn’t notice Rockenfeller’s arrival, which ran over him causing a fracture to his shoulder. Meanwhile, in the race lead Davidson overtook Sarrazin, gaining the first position.
The fifth hour of race started with Kristensen who tried to avoid the BMW with Priaulx who was slowly running on Porsche bends, and finished in the gravel: the Danish driver managed to return to the track with damages to the only rear wing, immediately replaced at pits where Capello took the wheel of the car, but their delay was by then four laps from the lead.
While Lola Racing Box was obliged to retire for the petrol pump problems, on lap 85 the girls of Matech team had to say goodbye to their hopes on podium (and perhaps on success given the end of the race) with the engine of their Ford Gt that expired on Hunadieres, almost poisoning poor Ganchand: meanwhile they were consoling themselves with the other car leadership in GT1 with one lap’s lead over the Corvettes of Alphand team.
At the beginning of the seventh hour there was the Safety car entering due to the off-track of the Aston Martin GT2, preceded by a collision between Leventis and Rodriguez on Dunlop bend, with the first who went into sand; however the lead taken till then allowed Strakka team to hold the first place in the category. On the contrary, Rodriguez went on queuing up the safety car, but he finished inexplicably with an about-face damaging the frontal side of his Audi.
Meantime the night was falling down on the circuit, bringing another unexpected event: Gene returned to pits with a problem to the alternator obliging the technicians to work hard which allowed the Spanish driver to go back to the track with a gap of only four laps. At one third of the race the French had only two 908 HDi before Audi cars!
Meanwhile, also the fine struggle between Melo and Corvettes in GT2 ended, with the Ferrari Risi obliged to go back to pits because of gearshift problems (officially it retired at one a.m.): as for the Americans the way seemed to fall in, with Porsche Felbermayr only on their same lap.
The race was “uphill” for Signature and Rebellion, whose cars went back to pits with evident problems, while in P2 Pescarolo Oak had finally gained the third position behind the unreachable Acura cars. A new entry of the Safety car at the beginning of the tenth hour, when team Matech saw their dreams of glory vanished with the car sent off-track by Yvon, at the wheel of the second Pescarolo Oak. Ford succeeded to return to pits, but the rear axle heavily damaged caused the final withdrawal after a couple of hours. Saleen Larbre took the lead, favoured by withdrawals and long pit stops of Corvettes. In GT2 Alesi suffered from a puncture and was obliged to go to pits losing one position. Meantime, Boullion was retiring, finished against a barrier on Ford chicane bend because of a problem of the lights of his Lola that was already playing up from some rounds.
At three a.m. there was a black moment for Oreca team, with two cars stopped for technical problems at pit-stop: the Oreca driven by André, after being run into on Porsche bends, had its rear bumper and axle shaft replaced, losing 20 minutes, while Peugeot had to ask for the axle shaft replacement owing to a transmission problem which caused it a 13 minutes’ delay, relegating it to the sixth position. French drivers had by now one only Peugeot before two Audis.
The remaining part of the night passed without any big events, if we consider the second Rebellion withdrawal for a transmission problem, just when a few hours before it had won the twin car. Shortly before sun rising Ginetta Quifel stopped at pits with clear problems of its transmission shaft, leaving the fourth position to Lola RM1. Meantime drivers left the night behind them and. while PIa ended by a trajectory on Arnage bend, Minassian was running with a lap’s lead over the two Audis.
At the beginning of the seventeenth hour Montagny replaced Minassian, entered the track and parked his Peugeot on Hunadieres with the engine burst into flames: Peugeot technicians could scarcely believe their eyes, seen that telemetry hadn’t found out any problem. Before all at this point the Audi followed by the only remained official Peugeot, with a gap of almost two laps. Also Primat went beck to pits, with technicians who were trying to solve a problem focused by telemetry which required some laps, leaving the sixth position to the other Aston Martin. Meanwhile the triumphal run of Corvettes in GT2 was first spoiled by Garcia’s withdrawal on Indianapolis with the broken engine, then by Collard’s disastrous off-track on Porsche bends, after the collision with Davidson during a lapping. After a repair lasted five laps, Gavin returned to the track but he had to stop immediately along the circuit with his engine broken. Meantime Alesi went up to the second place and left the wheel to Fisichella: after some laps the Roman driver failed in braking on Indianapolis, crashing the front side with violence into the guard rails. Once back to pits he lost 10 laps, finding himself on the fifth position. Meantime, in GT1 other drivers’ troubles brought Saleen to take the lead with 10 laps’ lead over Aston Martin: after an about-face the car was called back for a full check which lasted 5 laps, leaving it widely in the first place.
S arrived on lap 315 when Acura of Brabham was slowly going back to pits: technicians tried to send it back to track many times but every time it was forced to return to pits immediately. The second position in P2 was therefore inherited by Pescarolo Oak while Lola RmI was going up to the third place, positions that were kept till the finishing line. Meantime, Ragues won on Playstation and forced Signature to retire.
The race was at the end but Peugeot risked everything. Wurz substituted Davidson when three hours were missing to the end and with fast laps tried to catch the two Audis: while Rockenfeller was holding one lap’s lead, Lotterer failed braking on Arnage ending against the barriers, with the mechanics’ intervention who replaced the car nose. When back on the track he had only five second’s lead over the Austrian, who in a couple of laps overtook him on full Hunadieres, gaining the second position. Other 17 laps and Peugeot managed even to split, by leaving an open matter to the win, but after two laps the engine started burning the oil. It was the end of the run for official Peugeots. The hopes of the lions of France were now placed in Peugeot Oreca that meanwhile minimized the record on track with Duva, who ran with 3:19:074 at only five seconds from Capello on third Audi. But it was not the right year for Peugeot and on lap 376 even the last engine failed, leaving Audis with a good half and hour of race in the parade, with Dr Wolfgang Ulrich in tears for the joy, immersed in a surreal climate of peace which contrasted the storm fell down on Peugeot team. After 24 h: 01:23:694 Audi gained the fourth triple win of his history at Le Mans, with the crew made by Bernhard-Dumas-Rockenfeller that could afford of beating the record of a race over a distance which had been existing since 1971, when Marko and Van Lennep set it with a Porsche 917, running 5,410.713 km. Fasseler-Lotterer-Treluyer were second with one lap’s lead and third Capello-McNish-Kristensen with three laps’ lead.
In the other categories there was the win of Arcura Strakka in P2, Sallen Larbre in GT1 and Porsche Felbermayr 77 in GT2.