As has been the case for some time, the Le Mans endurance race is seen worldwide as one of the most prestigious events on the motor sport calendar. Teams from all over the world compete for an entire 24 hour period in a race that not only tests driving skill and vehicle endurance but the ability to survive amongst a field of completely varied vehicles piloted by professional and amateur drivers.
For the 2012 race, CarAdvice flew to Le Mans to soak up the atmosphere and bring you a fresh Australian perspective on such a significant event. Le Mans, which is about a 90 minutes train ride (on a 300km/h TGV) from Paris, completely revamps itself each year in preparation for the race. More than 240,000 spectators showed up to the race and thousands camp out alongside the outskirts of 13.6 km racetrack to be part of the historic event.
The demand for accommodation is so high that hotels in Le Mans itself need to be booked more than a year in advance. As for us, we stayed in Angers, a similarly sized town a good 100km away from Le Mans, simply because all hotels within that radius were booked out.
This year’s race was the start of something new at Le Mans. Both Toyota and Audi entered hybrid-powered models to showcase their technology. For Toyota, the importance of it TS030s doing well was crucial, not only to cement the Japanese manufacturer’s expertise at being the leader in hybrid technology worldwide but to also demonstrate the team’s ability to create and manufacturer a pair of completely unique vehicles for a race as grueling as LeMans, in less than 12 months.
The Toyota TS030s are powered by a 3.4-litre naturally-aspirated V8 petrol engine coupled to a hybrid system with capacitor storage. Toyota’s re-entry to LeMans comes 13 years after the Japanese manufacturer pulled out to concentrate on other motorsport events, including its eight-season stint in Formula One. Some of the Toyota Le Mans team do in fact spawn from the brand’s Formula One roots, which further highlights the serious nature of the business.
For the first quarter of the race the Audis dominated, but around the sixth hour one of the TS030s took the lead from Audi’s leading R18 e-tron for around one minute right before a spectacular crash (video below) saw the number two TS030 car driven by Anthony Davidson make contact with a GT Endurance AM Ferrari 458. The TS030’s extreme aerodynamics resulted in it flying through the air and slamming into a tyre wall. It took more than 20 minutes to extract the driver (who broke two vertebrae) before almost one hour was spent repairing the wall.
This gave Audi a chance to reclaim the lead after a series of safety car inspired pit stops and the Germans never really gave an inch from there. But before that result became obvious, Audi’s expertise were well and truly on the line, as it had entered a pair of unnaturally quiet diesel-hybrid R18 e-tron quattros for the first time. The 3.7-litre V6 TDI diesel hybrid was Audi’s answer to the TS030s and the German’s insistence that it can bring about hybrid technology to its diesel powertrain in a race as gruelling as Le Mans. Having married diesel and electric power, it had the benefit of huge torque from both powertrains.
The Le Mans race includes four categories, LMP1, LMP2, GTE Pro and GTE Amateur, which brings together a series of extreme racing prototype machines driven by professional racing drivers (including ex-Formula 1 drivers) and cars like Ferrari 458s and Chevrolet Corvettes driven by both professional and what’s referred to as gentlemen drivers. Essentially teams comprised of amateur racers that have enough money to compete. The entry cost of one car for the series is around €800,000 euro ($1 million). More than 1,700 volunteers give up their weekend to help wave appropriate flags and man the track. A great portion of the Le Mans community and many from around France get heavily involved to ensure the event’s smooth operation.
The atmosphere is similar to a European Formula One race, except that spectators are far more settled in for the long haul. Alcohol is aplenty but we didn’t notice any anti-social behaviour during our extensive time at the track. Shuttles transported us around numerous spots and despite the huge turn out, there was plenty of space for everyone to get a good look at the cars screaming past. Team loyalty was aplenty and Audi seemed to have the crowed on its side, but even the smaller teams had their supporters. The Nissan Deltawing, which looks like something Batman would drive, also got its fair share of fans.
The festivities begin with an opening ceremony, which saw each one of the 56 competing cars being pushed out on the grid for all the spectators to see. The race started at 3pm local time and ended almost exactly 24 hours later. For those that are extremely into their motorsport, being able to remain awake for the entire 24 hour endurance race is a badge of honour, one which we didn’t earn as we succumbed to sleep deprivation late into the night.
Each car has three drivers and certain rules and regulations restrict how long a driver can remain out depending on track and daylight conditions. This means there are numerous pit stops throughout the race and given the 24-hour nature of the event, the urgency is not as critical as Formula One. That’s not to say pit stops are not lightning quick.
When the second Toyota LS030 made contact with the Nissan Deltawing it resulted in a series of events that required extensive repairs for the Toyota (and the end of the DeltaWing). We were more than amazed at the ability of the high profile teams to be able to nearly rebuild a seriously damaged car in less than 30 minutes.
Audi’s engineers replaced broken suspension arms and the entire front module of an R-18 Ultra in less than 20 minutes, twice. In the spirit of Le Mans, cars carry repair kits for the driver’s use whilst on track as the ability to get the car back to the pit without external help means the teams can repair and send it out again without disqualification.
After numerous pit stops and much repair work, the second Toyota TS030s engine gave in and the car retired, to the disappointment of the Toyota camp. This left the two hybrid Audis in a near unchallengeable position as they continued to dominate the second half the race. One of the non-hybrid diesel R18 Ultras suffered a serious single vehicle accident that gave one of the LMP2 cars a run in for fourth position.
This year’s Le Mans 24 hour endurance race was all about hybrids and although Toyota’s bad luck and mechanical issues saw it retire early, the team’s pace was right up there with Audi and had it had a better run, it’s very likely that one TS030 would’ve ended with a podium finish.
Audi’s dominance is also worth mentioning as the German brand has now won the event 11 times, second only to Porsche which holds a sixteen win race record (Porsche is returning to Le Mans next year, so it will be interesting to see how the two family brands combat each other). Perhaps the disappointing aspect of this year’s Le Mans was the lack of local manufacturer Peugeot, which won the event in 2009 with an 908 HDI diesel.
If you’re a motorsport fanatic or even if you’re just a regular car enthusiast, the Le Mans 24-hour endurance race is one of those must attend events, a pilgrimage of sorts that must be experienced in person. It differs to Formula One as the cars can be radically different and yet compete in the same class. The rules and regulations are significantly less strict, which no doubt favours teams with the most money but also funds great advancements in motorsport technology.
In Australia the Le Mans race goes largely unnoticed by the general motorsport loving populace, mainly as the relevance of the cars and the 24-hour nature makes it hard to watch. Nonetheless, having been here and experienced the event in person, we can say hand-on-heart that we will be watching again next year!
Check out the gallery for more pictures.