Defending champions Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer overcame driving mistakes Sunday to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans and give Audi its 11th title.
Audi took possession of second place for most victories at the world’s most famous endurance race, five shy of Porsche’s record. Its main rival, Toyota, took the lead in the fifth hour but fell out of contention after its two cars retired.
The winning trio in the Audi No. 1 completed 378 laps in 24 hours, leading the Audi No. 2 driven by Rinaldo Capello, Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish by one lap.
“We were even better prepared than last year,” Treluyer said. “We knew we were capable of winning. But to do it again is just magical.”
Marco Bonanomi, Oliver Jarvis and Mike Rockenfeller finished third in Audi No. 4, three laps back. Nicolas Prost drove Lola No. 12 to fourth place, one lap clear of Loic Duval’s Audi No. 3.
The two leading Audis swapped the lead in the 14th hour when Fassler briefly surrendered top spot to McNish after spinning his Audi No. 1 at the Porsche curves, where the car clipped the wall but only sustained light damage.
Fatigue combined with aggressive tactics led to driver mistakes that could have been costly for both Audis.
Fassler skidded into the gravel in the 18th hour and needed to change the rear bodywork on his car. Treluyer then spun Audi No. 1 just before entering the pit lane in the 21st hour.
McNish was leading in the 22nd hour when he crashed into a wall at the Porsche curves, damaging the nose of his Audi No. 2 and forcing the deployment of the safety car for the third time.
But Toyota was not nearly as fortunate in avoiding major damage to its cars as the German manufacturer.
At the end of the fifth hour, Ferrari No. 81 bumped into Toyota No. 8, driven by Anthony Davidson, who was running third. The Toyota became airborne before slamming into the tire barrier, forcing the safety car to come outfor the first time.
The race was held up for 75 minutes to clean up the track and remove wrecks of both cars at the Mulsanne corner.
Davidson suffered fractures to two vertebrae but was in stable condition.
“Well that was a big one! Lying in a French hospital with a broken back,” Davidson posted in on Twitter account. “wasn’t what I had in mind at this stage in the race.”
Before the safety car came on, Nicolas Lapierre in his Toyota No. 7 passed Treluyer’s Audi No. 1 that had been leading from the start. But Audi No. 1 took advantage of pit stops to recapture the lead while the safety car was on the track.
“We were setting a good pace and I think that leading the 24 Hours of Le Mans shows the work done by the team since the beginning of the project,” Lapierre said. “We will continue to push to gain the maximum experience from this race.”
Toyota had its only remaining car damaged when the race resumed. Kazuki Nakajima’s Toyota No. 7 attempted a risky pass and collided with the Nissan DeltaWing in the seventh hour. Nakajima damaged the rear of his car and his crew wasted a lot of time attempting to repair it before finally throwing in the towel in the 11th hour.
“It was a real disappointment to end the race early,” Nakajima said. “Our dream was to see the checkered flag.”
Audi also had a scare in the fifth hour when Romain Dumas’ Audi No. 3 went wide at the Forza chicane and crashed into a tire barrier. However, Dumas was able to drive back to the pits for repairs.
Audi entered four cars at Le Mans, the two diesel-powered Nos. 3 and 4 and the diesel-hybrid Nos. 1 and 2.
This was the first time a car using hybrid technology won at Le Mans.
“We’re the first to win with a diesel-hybrid car,” said Wolfgang Ullrich, the head of Audi Sport. “I think it’s very special because that’s something that will pave the way for the future.”
Hybrid technology consists of kinetic energy recovery systems (KERS), which store the energy generated under braking and release it when the car accelerates out of a corner.
Audi had made the best of the rolling start to take the top three spots when Allan McNish’s Audi No. 2 overtook Stephane Sarrazin’s Toyota No. 8 in the opening lap to take third.
But Audi No. 3, in second place, suffered a puncture and Audi No. 2 had a rear suspension problem. Both went to the pits, allowing the Toyota cars to make up ground.
Audi has now won eight of the last nine races at Le Mans. Only Peugeot was able to disrupt the dominance of the German manufacturer in 2009.
Toyota returned to the world’s most famous endurance race, 13 years after its last participation. The Japanese manufacturer only started its testing program in January but made quick progress to become Audi’s main challenger at Le Mans.
“Motorsport can be a rollercoaster of emotions and we experienced great joy to see Nicolas taking the lead of Le Mans, only for the shock of Anthony’s accident,” Toyota team president Yoshiaki Kinoshita said. “It was a huge relief to hear he is OK.”
Giancarlo Fisichella, Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander completed 336 laps to finish 17th overall in Ferrari No. 51 but first in the GTE class, three laps clear of Ferrari No. 59 driven by Dominik Farnbacher, Frederic Makowiecki and Jaime Melo.
A total of 56 cars started the 80th edition of the race, but only 35 managed to finish.