The 24 Hours of Le Mans, the greatest auto race on Earth, tests engineering skill, driving skill, mechanical skill and everyone’s patience. This year’s race, the 79th running, showed once again what great racing companies like Audi, Chevrolet, Nissan, and BMW can do.
Audi brought three brand new, brutish-looking diesel-powered R18s to race in the top LMP1 class, with new V-6 turbodiesel engines replacing the older, heavier and less efficient V-10 turbodiesels.
Before 15 laps were done, their #3 car had crashed heavily, sending Scottish driver Allan McNish to the infield hospital. Around 11:45 PM, the #1 car tangled with a Ferrari and lost, taking out a huge section of guardrail and sending German driver Mike Rockenfeller to the hospital, as well.
It took more than two hours to fix the guardrail while the field of 56 cars idled around in the dark under a yellow flag. But the remaining #2 car, with drivers Marcel Fassler, Benoit Treluyer, and Andre Lotterer, soldiered on and won the race, a close finish, with five diesel Peugeots trailing it home. It was Audi’s tenth overall victory at Le Mans, now more than Ferrari.
In the LMP2 class, for lighter cars with smaller engines, the British Greaves Motorsports team’s Nissan-powered Zytek chassis prevailed, with second place going to the new French Signatech team’s Nissan-engined Oreca chassis and third to the Level 5 Motorsports Lola coupe with Honda power, the Japanese engines dominating the class.
The more recognizable GT Endurance Pro cars, the Corvettes, Ferrari 458s, Porsche 911s, and BMW M3 GTs, were joined at Le Mans this year by a couple of new Lotus Evoras, but at the end of the 24-hour races, the Corvettes won again, the #73 car of Olivier Beretta, Tom Milner and Antonio Garcia besting the second-place Ferrari by almost two and a half minutes and the BMW M3 GT of Joey Hand by one lap.
It was Team Corvette’s seventh GT victory in ten years, and was seen live by GM North America president Mark Reuss and his family, first-time visitors to the race.
In the GT Endurance Amateur class, new this year, another Corvette C6 won its class, the French Larbre team besting its own Porsche 911 that finished one lap down in second place.
If there was a storybook finish, it was in this class, where the all-American driving team of Dave Robertson, his wife Andrea Robertson, and lead driver David Murry (cq), a low-budget team running a Ford GT in its first Le Mans race ever after three seasons in American Le Mans Series racing, started 55th out of 56 entries due to some qualifying hiccups.
All three drivers ran steadily all day and all night to finish 30 positions higher and win third place in GTE Am and a trip to the winners’ podium first time out. Coincidentally, it was the Robertsons’ wedding anniversary weekend.
Le Mans is a race of attrition, and this year, exactly half the field, 28 out of 56 starters, failed to finish. But racewatchers agreed that, in spite of the Audi team’s two horrific accidents, the race was one of the tightest and best in many years.