The big story ahead of the 82nd edition 24 Hours of Le Mans was the first appearance of the Porsche factory team with a car capable of winning the race outright since 1998 when the German manufacturer clinched its record breaking 16th victory. The brand new Porsche 919 Hybrid (two cars) was pitched against the equally new but slightly more conservative Audi R18 e-tron quattro (three cars) and the lightning quick Toyota TS040 Hybrid (two cars), which had convincingly won the opening two rounds of the FIA World Endurance Championship. Following an unprecedented number of changes, the rest of the entry consisted of another 48 cars including the experimental Nissan ZEOD RC fielded under the 'Garage 56' program. Shortly before the race, Nissan confirmed this would be precursor of a full LMP1 effort for 2015. Among the support races this year was one for the ever popular Group C cars, which was headlined by two Sauber-Mercedes C11s and was won by Shaun Lynn in his newly acquired C11.
Braving the changeable conditions during the race, our photographer has returned with this 180-shot gallery
A qualifying carnage
The grid for the race was set during three qualifying sessions run on Wednesday and Thursday, which followed a single free practice session on Wednesday afternoon. With grid order of little consequence in a 24-hour race, these sessions served mainly to establish a setup to suit all three drivers. Nevertheless, the limits of the track were explored on more than one occasion resulting is several major accidents, requiring new cars to be built up. The scariest of these was Loic Duval's off in a camera blind-spot at the Porsche Curves, which saw his Audi fly over the barrier into the fences and back onto the track. He was very lucky to get out of the very sturdy R18 without serious injury. He was however declared unfit to start the race, which prompted Audi to call up reserve driver Marc Gene, whose place in the Jota LMP2 Zytek was filled at the last minute by youngster Oliver Turvey. Of more serious consequence was Bret Curtis' off with the Weathertech Porsche in the final qualifying session, which left the team scrambling for a new car. There was no time to qualify a new driver, which left Jeroen Bleekemolen and Cooper MacNeil to race as a pair. The car was also moved from the GTE Am to the even more competitive GTE Pro category. Not being able to source a new car or repair their Aston Martin was the Craft-Bamboo Racing team, who were forced to withdraw altogether. At the end of the four sessions, the bragging rights were for Toyota, who lived up to the expectations.
Toyota made their intentions immediately clear and grabbed a commanding lead immediately after the start. Sadly, the very first retirement was the Nissan ZEOD RC, which a few hours earlier had made history in the warm-up by running a complete lap on electric power. Then, a torrential shower during the second hour turned the track into an ice rank. A multi-car accident on the Mulsanne Straight caught out the #3 Audi and the #8 Toyota, which both spun. Heavily damaged, the Toyota could return to the pits for repairs, losing eight laps. A second hit from a Ferrari meant the race over for the Audi. Not affected by delays, the #7 Toyota held onto a comfortable lead, while the Porsches and Audis vied for the remaining podium changes. The tables were turned, however when the Toyota lost all power, which was later revealed to have been caused by the failure of small component in the wiring loom. Despite both requiring a new turbo, the two Audis were now promoted to the lead along with the #20 Porsche. Sadly, with less than two hours to go the dream return of Porsche ended in tears. This left Audi to score a surprise one-two victory ahead of the delayed Toyota, which placed third. For driver pairing Bernard Treluyer, Marcel Fassler and Andre Lotterer, this was their third victory in four years. In LMP2, the Jota Zytek took top honours, with stand-in driver Turvey joined on the top spot by Simon Dolan and Harry Tincknell. The GTE Pro class was dominated by the AF Corse team, while the Young Driver Aston Martin team scored an emotional GTE Am win, one year after losing driver Allan Simonsen.
Clinching their 13th victory in 15 attempts, Audi have undoubtedly mastered winning Le Mans. Their choice to go conservative and field three cars paid off. It is hard to imagine Toyota will not return with three cars as well next year as that could very well have made the difference this year. Competitive throughout the weekend, this edition of Le Mans can also be added to the Japanese manufacturer's now frustratingly long list of ones that got away. Porsche will undoubtedly be even stronger next year and with Nissan joining in 2015, the fight for the outright victory will once again be one to watch. In the end 32 of the 54 cars that started crossed and a special mention must go to MacNeil and Bleekemolen, who managed to complete the race with the latter spending nearly 14 hours behind the wheel.