Audi and Chevrolet claim dramatic Le Mans victories
Fully living up to its advanced billing, this weekend's 79th running of the 24 hours of Le Mans proved to be an event filled with as many unexpected twists as turns as the famed 8.45-mile track itself. While both Audi and Chevrolet had previously tasted victory in their respective Le Mans Prototype and GT categories, their respective wins in this year's round-the-clock enduro are destined to stand as truly epic shootouts.
Rule changes by the race organizers shuffled the competitive deck for the 2011 contest in the interest of endowing the event with a greener overall character. In the case of the primo LMP1 Prototypes, it meant greater restrictions, including smaller engines and fuel tanks, as well as the change from an open cockpit design -- which continues in the "more affordable" LMP2 class -- to a closed coupe configuration. For Audi and its prime rival Peugeot, that meant a complete recasting of their existing cars resulting in the Audi R18 TDI powered by a 3.7-liter V6 turbodiesel and the Peugeot 908 Le Mans which carries a 3.7-liter V8 turbodiesel. While changes were largely limited to technical tweaks on the production-car-based side of the ledger, the governing ACO (Automobile Club de l'Ouest) did split things into GT Endurance Pro and Amateur categories for 2011, the latter restricting a vehicle's driver lineup to only one full-time professional wheelman.
As a presciently predictive stage-setter, qualifying saw the first six of the new-gen LMP1 cars bunched within 0.534 second of each other on the grid in an Audi/Audi, Peugeot/Peugeot, Audi/Peugeot matrix. While it appeared Audi held a razor-slim edge in this initial numbers game, the situation would soon change in a big way. Audi took the early lead, but less than an hour into the event, the No. 3 Audi Sport Team Joest entry with Alan McNish behind the wheel was involved in a horrendous crash while in the lead that totally destroyed the car but saw the two-time Le Mans winner emerge unscathed. By hour eight, an equally devastating incident during the night saw the No. 1 Audi R18 TDI driven by Mike Rockenfeller destroyed -- but again managing to keep its pilot from suffering any injuries.
Those retirements left it up to the de facto "junior" team of Marcel Fässler/André Lotterer/Benoît Tréluyer to carry the Audi colors alone. Fighting off intermittent rain and the relentless challenge of the trio of Peugeot Sport Total 908s, the quickest of which led the overall standings as late as Hour 19, the No. 2 Audi took the checkered flag after 354 laps a scant 13.854 seconds ahead of the No. 9 Peugeot driven by Sebastien Bourdais/Simon Pagenaud/Pedro Lamy. They were followed by the two other Peugeot team cars in the three and four spots. This win -- the first for an up-and-coming driver matchup that finished second here in 2010 -- marked Audi's 10th Le Mans victory. Claiming top honors in the LMP2 category was the Greaves Motorsport Zytek Nissan entry driven by Karim Ojjeh/Thomas Kimber-Smith/Oliver Lombard, which finished 9th overall.
Chevrolet managed an equally dramatic day at the races, celebrating its 100th anniversary as a manufacturer by taking both the Pro and Am categories of the GT Endurance Class with Corvette C6-Rs. On the Pro side, a fiercely contested battle that saw the demise of the Corvette Racing No 74 entry of Oliver Gavin/Jan Magnussen/Richard Westbrook retire after Magnussen crashed while leading during Hour 17 opened the door for the No 73 entry Compuware Corvette of Olivier Beretta/Tommy Milner/Antonio Garcia. After Milner moved ahead of the AF Corsa Ferrari F458 Italia with less than three hours remaining, he turned the car over to Garcia who held on to give Corvette Racing and long-time program manager Doug Fehan a seventh class win here (and first in GTE Pro) on the 10th anniversary of Corvette's first Le Mans victory. Its 314-lap run placed it 11th overall.
The GT Endurance Am struggle turned into an internecine battle between a pair of cars entered by French privateer team Larbre Competition. In the end, the Corvette C6-R of Patrick Bornhauser/Julien Canal/Gabriele Gardel pipped the operation's other entry, a Porsche 997 RSR driven by Horst Felbermayr Sr./Horst Felbermayr Jr./Christian Ried by a lap to claim 20th spot among the 27 finishers that remained from the original 56 cars that started the race.