The mighty Audi juggernaut continued to have its way at the 2012 24 hours of Le Mans, claiming victory for the 11th time in the past 13 years at the world greatest endurance race. But this latest conquest featured a new twist. It was the first time in the event's 80-year history that the winning car was fitted with a hybrid powertrain. In this case, that vehicle -- one of two new Audi R18 e-tron Quattro Hybrids that ended up stealing the show with a convincing 1-2 finish -- matched electric motors connected to each front wheel with a mid-mounted V6 turbodiesel driving the rears.

The sweep was led by the Number 1 entry driven by Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer, the same power trio that also took Audi to victory in last year's 24 Hour contest and led most of the 2012 event rolling up 3,201 miles in the process. One lap in arrears was the Number 2 R18 e-tron Quattro Hybrid of Dindo Capello, Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish. The electrifying e-tron duo had traded point position during the last quarter of the race, until a pit stop in the 22nd hour to repair damage incurred as the result of contact with a slower vehicle -- and subsequently the retaining wall -- allowed the Fässler/Lotterer/Tréluyer car to move back into the lead for good. Ironically, it was a similar racing incident during hour 18 that permitted the Capello/Kristensen/McNish entry to enjoy its brief time in front. The factory's two other Audi Sport Joest Racing entries -- conventional rear-drive R18 Ultra variants that used the automaker's exceptionally-reliable TDI turbodiesel V6 engines -- completed the day-long epic by grabbing 3rd and 5th overall positions in the primo LMP1 (Le Mans Prototype 1) category.

Audi's weekend started out on an equally promising note, as the winning R18 e-tron Quattro Hybrid also had qualified on the pole. It was closely followed by one of its conventional R18 Ultra team cars and the first of two impressively quick but largely untested rear-drive Toyota TS030 Hybrid LMP1 entries that were also bidding to make history for the Japanese automaker. While a huge crash and a less-dramatic engine failure put an early end to the hopes of both Toyota hybrids, the Audi e-tron Quattro Hybrid chargers were clearly the dominant players throughout. The top-placed conventional R18 Ultra piloted by Le Mans rookie Marco Bonanomi, Oliver Jarvis and Mike Rockenfeller completed Audi's podium sweep - its fourth at the French classic -- by taking the checkered flag three laps down.

"This was a race of the kind you can arguably experience only at Le Mans," said Head of Audi Motorsport Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich. "You should never rejoice too early at Le Mans, which was obvious again especially on Sunday noon. The whole world was already talking about a one-two-three-four victory and all of a sudden two of our cars had accidents almost simultaneously. That the squad repeatedly managed to repair the cars so quickly after the slips clearly speaks for Audi Sport Team Joest that can simply be banked on at Le Mans. On the whole, I can only take my hat off to the entire squad of Audi Sport that worked extremely hard for a year to make this triumph possible. It was a very big challenge to develop a hybrid car in such a short time that is quick and able to hold up for 24 hours. The fact that, as in 2001 with the TFSI engine and in 2006 with the TDI, we managed to be successful right on the first run simply proves the level of technological expertise that is available at Audi. This is a great day for Audi Sport, for Audi and for the e-tron Quattro."

It was great day for several other teams as well, starting with the LMP2 category winning Honda Performance Development ARX-03b entered by regular ALMS (American Le Mans Series) competitor Starworks Racing and driven by Ryan Dalziel, Tom Kimber-Smith and Enzo Potolicchio that finished one lap ahead of the Thiriet by TDS Racing Oreca 03 Nissan piloted by Mathias Beche, Pierre Thiriet and Christophe Tinseau. On the production-based side of things, the AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia GT2 of Giancarlo Fisichella, Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander gave Ferrari its first Le Mans class win since 2003 by grabbing top spot in the hard-fought GTE Pro category while the GTE Am honors went to the Larbre Competition Corvette C6 ZR1 with Pedro Lamy, Patrick Bornhauser and Julien Canal behind the wheel.

As always, Le Mans also lived up to its reputation for being a cruel and unforgiving mistress. In addition to the early demise of the Toyota hybrid LMP1 entries, the radical Nissan DeltaWing experimental vehicle entered by Hycroft Racing has its promising competition debut summarily halted after just 75 laps as the result of being punted into the barrier on the outside of the Porsche Curves by the Toyota Hybrid that ultimately succumbed to engine problems. At the time, this super-light, super-efficient exhibition-only entry powered by a diminutive 1.6-liter turbo four engine was performing as predicted, running on a mid-LMP2 pace and using barely half of the fuel required by the larger LMP1 machines.

 

 

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