A new dawn
The 79th edition of the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans featured an unusually large number of completely new or heavily revised machines. This was the result of big changes to the regulations particularly in the prototype classes. In an effort to slow the cars down, the engine sizes for the top LMP1 class were lowered considerably, and the LMP2 class saw the introduction of a chassis and engine cost-cap. Main protagonists Audi and Peugeot both brought new-for-2011 cars and the revisions also encouraged manufacturers like Toyota and Nissan to return to the legendary twice-round-the-clock race as engine suppliers. For the first time the GTE (ex-GT2) class was split into a 'Pro' and 'Am' devision, to provide aspiring gentleman drivers an easier entry into the race.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans was also part of a championship (Intercontinental Le Mans Cup or ILMC) for the first time since the early 1990s. During the annual press conference on the Thursday before the race even more exciting news for 2012 was announced; the ILMC will be replaced by an official World Endurance Championship, featuring Le Mans and six additional races.
But enough about next year, the 2011 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans had all the ingredients to become a classic and it did not disappoint. Our full report and a spectacular 410-shot gallery
(our biggest ever) combine all the highlights of the event.
As always the race week started off in downtown Le Mans for the 'pesage' or scruteneering of the cars and drivers. The two-day event provided the fans and gathered journalists a good opportunity to get a first look at the cars in their full Le Mans trim. With the official Test reinstated this year and most teams also competing in the Spa 1000 km race a few weeks earlier, there really was not much technical news to gather on the 'Place des Jacobins' during this edition of the pesage. What did attract plenty of attention were the striking liveries of the two Flying Lizard Porsche 997 GT3 RSRs, created specifically for this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans by American artist Troy Lee. The two paint schemes paid tribute to the 30 drivers that had driven Porsches to outright victories in the past. Each of their names and national flags were featured on the cars. The Belgian Prospeed Porsche also sported a new livery courtesy of one of their sponsors. The Peugeot drivers also grabbed the attention by arriving at the Place des Jacobins on their racing bicycles after a 130 km (80 miles) ride from the city of Chartres.
Practice & Qualifying
Action on the track finally got underway on Wednesday with a four-hour free practice session, followed by one two-hour qualifying session at the end of the evening and two more on Thursday evening. All eyes were of course on the continuing rivalry between Audi and Peugeot and on raw pace the two manufacturers were closer than ever before. At the end of six hours of qualifying the six works cars were separated by less than six tenths of seconds. Fastest of all proved to be Benoit Treluyer in the #2 R18 TDI, securing Audi's first pole position since Peugeot returned to Le Mans in 2007. The rest of the LMP1 cars were well back with last year's Peugeot in Oreca's hands over four seconds slower and the fastest of the petrol cars, the Toyota powered Rebellion Lola, was a further three seconds down. A big crash for the last year's winning Strakka Team late on Wednesday evening put a premature end to the pole fight in LMP2. They were quickest in that session but after the complete rebuilt of their HPD ARX-01d, the team concentrated on race setup on Thursday and ended the session early. Amazingly their time was only eclipsed by the Nissan engined Oreca 03 fielded by the works-supported Signatech team.
GTE Pro was always going to be the most hotly disputed classes with BMW, Corvette, Ferrari and Porsche all in with a shot. BMW drew first blood by posting the first and third time in class, split only by the AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia. The Corvettes were fourth and sixth fastest. In total nine cars managed to break the magical four-minute barrier. The single AF Corse Ferrari F430 managed to fight off three Porsches to claim pole in the GTE Am category. In addition to the Strakka HPD several other cars crashed heavily in the four sessions but fortunately all of them could be repaired in time, so the race would start with a full grid of 56 cars.
Le Mans Legend
One of the highlights of the packed Le Mans weekend is always the 'Legend' race for historic cars held on Saturday morning. This year the one-hour event was open to sports cars of the 1950s and 1960s. The hallowed Le Mans ground traditionally attracts a top notch entry, which this time included several class winners and the outright winners from 1955, a Jaguar D-Type, and the outright winner from 1959, an Aston Martin DBR1. Also on the entry list was Sir Stirling Moss with his recently acquired Porsche 718 RS61. He completed one lap but then came to the conclusion that he could no longer drive at competitive speeds and brought the car back in. He announced his retirement from racing shortly after, ending a career that had spawned over six decades. He does intend to carry on as a team manager, entering his own cars for other drivers in various events.
The race itself saw a great start by Roger Wills in his Bizzarrini 5300 GT but in the end it was Carlos Monteverde who fought off Cobras and Listers to repeat his 2009 victory in his bright yellow Ferrari 250 LM.
Another Le Mans legend celebrated was the 1991 winning Mazda 787B that in the previous months was completely restored by Mazdaspeed. It was demonstrated on Thursday by American actor Patrick Dempsey and again on Saturday by winning driver Johnny Herbert. He even climbed on the podium to replicate his 1991 victory celebrations. The car also led the 'Grande Parade des Pilotes' through town on Friday evening.
The week-long build-up culminated in the race start at 3 pm sharp on Saturday afternoon. The Audi's immediately took control of the race and after half an hour the three German coupes held a small lead over the three Peugeots. For Aston Martin Racing a very embarrassing nightmare unfolded as both their AMR-Ones hit trouble on the third lap and eventually they completed a combined six laps. Despite further development, the unconventional machines still proved to be off the pace and unreliable. In GTE Pro the tables were turned slightly as the #51 AF Corse grabbed an early lead and the Corvettes showed stronger pace than in qualifying.
About 50 minutes into the race, Allan McNish, in the #3 Audi, tried to grab the lead in the Dunlop Esses but touched a GTE Pro car that clearly had not expected the somewhat optimistic move. The R18 veered into the gravel at a phenomenal pace and hit the barrier very hard. Miraculously neither McNish or any of the photographers were injured in what could have been a very nasty accident. As a result the safety car was out for over an hour as the barrier was repaired.
Once racing resumed, a very tense tactical battle unfolded between Audi and Peugeot. The two surviving German cars were capable of completing four stints of 11 laps with one set of tyres while the French proved slightly more frugal but only managed to keep their tyres in shape for three stints of 12 laps. To further balance things out, the Audis also to put in slightly faster lap times. At around 11 o'clock, the German team had its second fright when Mike Rockenfeller went off at the 300 km/h 'kink' on the run up to Indianapolis. He had also had a close encounter with a slower GTE car and first hit the barriers on both sides of the track. Fortunately he was unhurt and managed to climb out of the car. It did take the safety crews over two hours to clear the track and repair the Armco barriers. With two of the Peugeots slightly delayed, it panned out to be a two-car race between the pole-sitting #2 Audi and the #9 Peugeot. Behind the top runners the Oreca Peugeot, the Rebellion Lolas and Henri Pescarolo's Pescarolo vied for the 'best of the rest' spot.
In the LMP2 class many teams hit trouble and eventually it was a very consistent run from the Greaves Motorsport Zytek 11SN Nissan that secured the class win. It was a particularly sweet win for driver Karim Ojjeh, who already had the P2 victory in hand back in 2007 until he spun and hit the wall. Last year's winners Strakka were on a strong run until Danny Watts hit one of the big kerbs very hard at night. The 15g impact damaged the oil system and forced him to park the car. Pre-race favourites and pole sitters Signatech had a far from trouble-free race, starting with a puncture early on but they soldiered on to claim second ahead of the HPD engined Level 5 Lola. Of the nine GTE Am cars that started only four managed to make it to the finish. Most of them were involved in an accident, including the Gulf liveried Aston Martin V8 Vantage. Its accident not only damaged the car but also injured driver Mike Wainwright (fractured ribs and a cracked pelvis). Despite several other big accidents, this was, as far as we know, the only driver to sustain an injury in the race. Of the four surviving cars the first two, a Corvette and a Porsche, were Larbre entries, which was a great repeat of last year's GT1 class victory for the Jack Leconte run team. Finishing third was the Robertson Doran-Ford, which featured Le Mans' first husband and wife driving squad.
In the incredibly close GTE Pro category an early pit stop, just ahead of the first safety car period, gave one of the works Corvettes the advantage in the opening stages of the race. The first of the top runners to develop problems were the two BMWs. Both cars had teething electrical problems, resulting in misfires. One of the M3s eventually retired but the other soldiered on to claim third in class, which was a mighty improvement over last year's disastrous race. Perhaps showing their age, the Porsches failed to keep up with the top runners and finished in fourth through six positions. An impressive seventh was for the new Lotus Evora, which previously had not proven to be this reliable yet. Meanwhile Jan Magnussen in the leading Corvette had a freak accident while trying to lap a GTE Am Porsche in the very quick 'Karting' corner. He veered right before he had fully passed the 997 and the collision that followed put both cars out of the race. That left the other Corvette and the #51 AF Corse to battle it out and as dawn broke the two were nose to tail. Eventually the Corvette proved slightly faster but the two did finish on the same lap and in an impressive 11th and 13th overall.
Just as in the GTE Pro class, the overall leaders were also still nose to tail when the sun began to rise over the horizon on Sunday morning. All of Audi's hopes were on the shoulders of Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer but the least experienced of the German team's drivers coped remarkably well. They made no mistakes despite being forced to run at ten-tenths at all times. On two occasions, the drivers even managed to squeeze a fifth stint out of the tyres and by the final pit-stop Lottered held a big enough lead to fit fresh tyres. Simon Pagenaud in the chasing Peugeot did not have that luxury, and although emerging from the pit lane only seven seconds later, he had no real chance of threatening the leading R18 TDI. The finish was nevertheless so close that the race director decided to postpone the traditional last-lap salute of the marshals to after the race. So instead of turning into the 'parc ferme' immediately, the cars were allowed to run a lap of honour. In the end Lotterer finished just 13 seconds ahead of Pagenaud in one of the closest victories in Le Mans history. The two other works Peugeots and the earlier 908 run by Oreca finished in third through fifth. There was late drama for Pescarolo Team when Emmanuel Collard crashed at the entry of the Porsche curves with around two hours to go. This left sixth and victory in the 'petrol class' to the sole surviving Rebellion Lola.
According to the official figures a startling 249,500 spectators attended the race. They were certainly not disappointed as in the two major classes the fight went right down to the wire. Despite running a mostly flawless race, the Peugeot squad must have left Le Mans bitterly disappointed after missing out on victory by just 13 seconds. That equates to just 0.04 seconds per lap! With the arrival of ever more manufacturers and the prospect of a World Championship in 2012, endurance racing in general and the 24 Hours of Le Mans in particular has certainly emerged from the recent economic crisis stronger than ever. All of the aforementioned and much more can be found in our exclusive 410-shot gallery