Audi claimed a podium shut-out at the Le Mans 24 Hours this weekend, with the all-new diesel-hybrid R18 e-tron quattros finishing first and second in the famous endurance race.
For the second year in succession, the crew of Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoit Tréluyer finished first, amassing 378 laps after 24 gruelling hours, although the race was not without incident for the four-car Audi squad.
The Ingolstadt manufacturer went into the French event as clear favourite to score its 11th victory in 13 starts. Peugeot, which had ruined Audi's run of success by winning the 2009 race, had pulled out, and although Toyota had entered two of its new TS030 petrol-hybrid prototypes, the Japanese manufacturer was not expected to seriously challenge with its still-developing machine.
As it happened, the Toyotas showed a surprising turn of pace in both qualifying and the race. Although Audi led from the start, the two Toyotas – one driven by Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi and Stéphane Sarrazin and the other by Alex Wurz, Nicolas Lapierre and Kazuki Nakajima – remained in contention during the early hours.
But the Japanese challenge was dramatically blunted when Davidson's car was hit by an errant backmarker at the flat-out Mulsanne Corner. The Toyota got airborne, before crashing heavily back onto the asphalt and slamming into the tyre barrier. The British racer broke two vertebrae in the accident and the car was destroyed.
The second Toyota remained in touch with the leading Audis until Nakajima, trying to make up ground shortly after a safety car period, struck the experimental Nissan DeltaWing. The contact pitched the crowd-pleasing DeltaWing into the wall and subsequent retirement, and forced the Toyota into the pits for time-consuming repairs.
With the Toyota team decimated, the race for victory effectively boiled down to a duel between the two hybrid Audis. It was decided in the favour of the reigning champions when Allan McNish, sharing the number two hybrid with Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello, spun off into barriers while trying to lap a slower car in the Porsche Curves. Although he got the damaged Audi back to the pits, the incident and delay gave Fässler, Lotterer and Tréluyer the breathing space they needed to cruise home at the head of the pack.
The two hybrid cars were chased home by the more conventional diesel-powered R18 Ultra of Oliver Jarvis, Marco Bonanomi and Mike Rockenfeller. The prospect of an Audi top-four shut-out was scuppered by Rebellion Racing Lola-Toyota piloted by Nicolas Prost, Nick Heidfeld and Neel Jani, who finished a lap ahead of the second R18 Ultra of Marc Dumas, Loic Duval and Romain Dumas.