In a surprising finish that also marked the end of the current incarnation of Le Mans Prototypes, Audi managed to pull off a major upset by taking the top three overall finishing spots in this year's 24-hour endurance classic. The achievement was particularly impressive since the Audi R15 TDI models, even in their new, more aerodynamic "Plus" configurations were not as quick as the factory-backed Peugeot 908 HDi FAPs. While the French turbodiesels did grab the first four qualifying spots and led comfortably during the early going, in the end, it was Audi's superior efficiency and reliability that carried the day after the Peugeots fell victim to various mechanical -- and mostly engine-related -- glitches by the midpoint of the race.
Leading the charge that gave Audi its ninth overall Le Mans victory was the R15 TDI driven by young lions Mike Rockenfeller, Romain Dumas and Timo Bernhard, a power trio many feel will spearhead the German automaker's enduro racing efforts for years to come. In addition to leading a team car piloted by Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treloyer and Marcel Fassler across the finish line in second spot as well as Audi's most successful Le Mans driver group of seven-time winner Tom Kristensen, Alan McNish and Dindo Capello in third place, the Rockenfeller/Dumas/Bernhard entry also set a new race distance record of 397 laps/3,362.19 miles around the 8.48-mile Circuit de la Sarthe.
For 2010, more stringent air restrictor regulations on the turbodiesel engines that have come to dominate in the primo LP1 Category put a new level of stress on the powertrain programs, but Audi clearly came well prepared. "Squeezing higher output out of the engines without sacrificing reliability posed a great challenge which our team mastered in an outstanding manner," said Head of Audi Motorsport Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich after the race. "We did not use the full potential of the V10 TDI engine this year in order to be absolutely on the safe side. That's why it was clear to us even before the race that we wouldn't have the fastest car -- but a very reliable and efficient one."
"The development objective of the R15-plus was 20 percent higher efficiency. We managed to achieve this. We've been working very hard for this exploit over the past few months. This makes this success, which was enabled by a perfect team performance as well, even more rewarding." Last year, internal budgetary issues impacted the race team's efforts with its best finishing car only able to salvage third place behind two factory Peugeot 908 HDi FAPs.
Next year's Le Mans rules will make things even more interesting as hybrid powertrains will be both allowed and encouraged in both the LMP1 and LMP2 Prototype categories as well as the production based GT classes that will see the current GT1 and GT2 merged into a single group.