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2012 24 Hours of Le Mans
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Setting the scene
First organised in 1923, the 24 Hours of Le Mans was run for the 80th time this year. Accordingly the ultimate test of performance and endurance is steeped in tradition but is also looking at the future and the latest technologies. The 2012 edition was due to become a historic edition as for the first time hybrid cars were in contention for the outright victory. Until Peugeot's surprise withdrawal announcement on January 19th, it looked set to become a three-horse race. This left newcomer Toyota as Audi's only works challenger and with two against four cars and with Le Mans being the Toyotas' competition debut, the odds were not on the Japanese manufacturer's side. For teams and manufacturers looking even farther ahead, the event organisers ACO have in recent years reserved the 56th and final slot on the grid for 'Cars Demonstrating New Technology'. In 2012 that slot was taken up for the first time, by the highly unconventional Nissan DeltaWing, which over the week quickly became a crowd favourite. Another change this year was that 24 Hours of Le Mans was part of a world championship for the first time in two decades; it was the third round of FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC).
Among the things that did not change was our presence at the Circuit de la Sarthe to capture the race in full detail. The result is this action-packed 350-shot gallery and the following brief report.

Practice and qualifying
Following rain-soaked scrutineering and autograph sessions, the track action started under clear skies with a four-hour practice session on Wednesday afternoon. At the head of the field, the Audis set the pace with the two conventional R18 Ultras slightly outpaced by the pair of hybrid-powered R18 e-tron quattros. The Toyotas were hot on their heels although worryingly one was delayed due to an engine failure. Free practice was followed by three two-hour qualifying sessions; one late on Wednesday evening and the others on Thursday evening. Rain again proved no factor and during the final session André Lotterer pulled a spectacular 3:23.787 out of the bag to put his #1 R18 e-tron quattro on pole. The two Toyotas do manage to split the remaining to set the third and fifth fastest times, so they certainly had the pace but the question remained for how long. Nissan-engined Oreca 03s dominated the LMP2 timing sheets, with the only interloper in the top six being the Judd V8 equipped Morgan in second. Fastest LMP2 of all was newcomer ADR-Delta with John Martin at the wheel. In GTE Pro one of the top contenders, the #51 AF Corse Ferrari, was out of contention following a big shunt at the Porsche Curves by Giancarlo Fisichella. A completely new car had to be built up, which amazingly was ready in time to complete some laps late on Thursday. Pole in this class was nevertheless for a Ferrari with Fred Makowiecki putting in a spectacular 3:55.393 with his Luxury Racing Ferrari. Porsche's honour was defended in GTE Am with Flying Lizard's #79 recording the fastest lap at 3:57.594.

Regulations for 2014 and beyond
One of the traditional appointments on the Le Mans roster is the press conference on Thursday morning. This year's edition was particularly highly anticipated as new LMP1 regulations were due to be announced. These include a fundamental shift with fuel efficiency becoming the main objective, making the technology employed even more relevant to the manufacturers' road cars. In addition to dimension and minimum weight stipulations, the only major restriction will be the amount of fuel consumed per lap. Additionally all official works entries will have to be hybrid cars, with only privateer LMP1 teams allowed to field conventionally engined machinery. All LMP1 cars will also have to be coupes.
Another point on the agenda was awarding the Spirit of Le Mans trophy. This year's honouree was Gérard Larousse for his past association with the 24 Hours of Le Mans and his contribution to motor racing in general. As a driver he won Le Mans outright with Matra in 1973 and again in 1974. In his subsequent role as team-manager for the Renault-Alpine squad he added another victory to his tally in 1978. On Saturday, Larousse was back behind the wheel of one of the Matras along with his former team-mates Henri Pescarolo and Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Graham's grand-son Josh Hill in sister cars to mark the 40th anniversary of Matra's first of three victories in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Group C support race
In light of the new fuel-efficiency based regulations, it was fitting that the first cars back on out track on Thursday were historic Group C racers, which were originally raced with similar restrictions. The only difference was that the total amount fuel available for the race was limited. For this year's Group C support race there were no such restrictions, which allowed Bob Berridge to explore the full 900 bhp available from the twin-turbo V8 in his Sauber-Mercedes C11. Although, he was not able to complete a faultless lap in qualifying, he did record a top speed of 340 km/h to claim the title of fastest man of the weekend. Pole position was for Gareth Evans in a slightly earlier Sauber-Mercedes C9, ahead of Roger Wills in a Lancia LC2. The race on Saturday morning was held on a soaked track and a big shunt down the Mulsanne straight on the opening lap meant that most of it was run behind the safety car. When the mess was eventually cleaned up, Berridge and Wills broke free of the rest but even the wet conditions could not make up for the 150 bhp power difference between the two fabulous machines, although Wills did clock the fastest lap. Also worth mentioning is Paul Stubber with the unique Veskanda, which remains the fastest sports racer ever built in Australia. One of the original Group C stars, Derek Bell, was also part of the field but he finished an inconspicuous 13th overall after a careful race in one of Kremer's Porsche 962s.

The race
After receiving a soaking during the Friday-evening driver parade, the drivers were also treated to a very wet warm-up session. With the exception of a few drops right at the start, this would prove to be the last rain of the weekend. So under near perfect conditions, the field was sent on its way by Toyota Vice-President Takeshi Uchiyamada. This added encouragement could not prevent the Audis from slightly pulling away from the Toyotas in the opening stages. After a few hours the first dent in the German panzer came when #3 Audi R18 Ultra driver Romain Dumas slid wide in the first chicane on fluids from a Porsche he was about to pass. He hit the barrier and after personally ripping off most of the front bodywork, he managed to limp back to the pits. This seemed to be the cue for the Toyotas to pick up the pace and soon both TS030s were closing in on leader Treluyer in his e-tron quattro. This culminated in a spectacular fight, which after two attempts saw Nicolas Lapierre grab the lead. For Toyota the joy was very short lived as literally at the very same time Anthony Davidson had a massive shunt in the sister car after a GTE car turned in on him at the end of the Mulsanne straight. The initial impact ripped off his left rear tyre, which sent the car airborne before coming back to the ground and hitting the barrier at a very high rate of knots. Davidson initially climbed out of the car only to lie down again on his car with heavy pain in his back. After being taken to hospital, he was found to have two broken vertebrae but he is fortunately due to make a full recovery. After a lengthy safety car period to repair the barrier, the race was restarted. The sole surviving Toyota hit trouble, first taking out the DeltaWing in the Porsche Curves and subsequently with mechanical issues that eventually resulted in the car being retired. Before midnight, the race was virtually Audi's with the only remaining question, which of the four R18s would cross the line first.

In LMP2, the fight was much closer with a large number of cars in contention for the victory. The normal high attrition rate in this class was surprisingly not as much of a factor. After various lead changes, the Starworks entered HPD ARX-03b emerged from the night as the leader. A faultless run from all three driver earned the team, which is new to ACO-sanctioned endurance racing, its second big trophy of the year after also winning the LMP2 class at Sebring. It could have been three for three, as the team was also achingly close to victory in the Daytona 24 Hours. They were followed home by three Oreca 03 Nissans, each one lap further down the order. The most exciting fight in the opening hours of the race was between the #97 Aston Martin and #74 Corvette in the GTE Pro category. The two V8-engined machines were nose to tail for several hours before small technical issues dropped the two rivals down the order. The Aston Martin could eventually recover to claim third at the finish. While these two fought, the freshly built #51 AF Corse Ferrari gradually worked its way to the lead in the talented hands of Fisichella, Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander. They were unchallenged from lap 141, heading the Pro class for the final 196 laps of the race ahead of Luxury Racing's pole sitting 458 Italia. In GTE Am, the race was much closer and not decided until the dying minutes of the race. Eventually Pedro Lamy grabbed the lead in his Corvette to clinch Larbre's third class victory in a row. Second was for the IMSA Performance Porsche and third was a great reward for a consistent run from the Krohn Racing Ferrari.

Behind the works Audis and Toyotas, the pair of Rebellion Lolas had a very strong race. The #12 had a perfect race with not even a puncture slowing the car down, which was rewarded with a fourth place finish, ahead of the #3 Audi. This was the second best ever result at Le Mans for Lola at what may very well be the final appearance for the manufacturer, which went into administration back in May. Having a much tougher race were local favourite Pescarolo Team with mechanical issues affecting both their Pescarolo 03 and Dome S102.5. The former managed to complete only a handful of laps, while the latter was in the pit-box for the last third of the race only to come out to take the flag. With the exception of a brief electrical issue on the #4 R18 Ultra, there were no such problems for the Audi squad. Despite the luxury of having no competition, the R18 drivers were not told to slow down and safely cruise to the finish. This is a testament of the respect Audi have for the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 240,000 spectators that came to watch the race. After the problems of both the #3 and #4 cars, the two e-tron quattros were in the best position to fight for victory. The first to make a mistake was Marcel Fassler in the #1 car, brushing the wall at the Porsche Curves. The subsequent repairs required brought two machines right back together. Eventually the race was decided in the #1's favour after Allan McNish also had an accident in the Porsche Curves after having a close encounter with a slower Ferrari. The damage was repairable but it dropped the car off the lead lap. Last year's winners made no further mistake and deservedly clinched the first ever Le Mans victory for a hybrid car.

Final thoughts
This year's 24 Hours of Le Mans will go into the history books as the first ever major endurance race won by a hybrid car. It, however, does not rank high on the list of classic races. Toyota put up a brave fight and showed remarkable form on what was the car's very first race. The Japanese team should be very proud of their achievement and should be commended for their sporting behaviour, first apologising in person to the DeltaWing team for their race-ending collision and later coming out in large numbers to salute the winners as they crossed the line. Toyota's performance bodes well for the future but as Peugeot's shock withdrawal made so vividly clear, the top class really needs a third or even a fourth major manufacturer to step up. Hopefully the bold new regulations will do just that in 2014.

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Report by Wouter Melissen and images by Pieter Melissen and Wouter Melissen for Ultimatecarpage.com