I don’t know about you, but I thought 2011 was hardly a vintage year for motorsport. There was plenty of great racing across the board, just not enough to keep my interest levels up, with only the WRC and NASCAR going down to the wire with their nail biting finales.
Still, for all its faults, 2011 did produce possibly one of the best race weekends that I can ever recall. Two days of fantastic, drama filled racing in mid-June, that featured Dario Franchitti and Will Power winning the first IndyCar double header in 30 years, Jenson Button’s magnificent win in an elongated Canadian Grand Prix and, of course, the absolute thriller that was the Le Mans 24 Hours.
The 79th running of the endurance classic was one of the most exciting – most compelling – races I have ever had the pleasure of watching. A race that had more twists and turns than a John Grisham novel, and one that would easily win my Race of the Year award, if such a thing existed.
The return of the Le Mans Test Day hinted that the fifth episode of Audi versus Peugeot would be close, but nobody could have imagined that after almost 3,000 miles of racing that the top two cars would be split by a mere 13.854 seconds – the fourth closest finish in Le Mans history.
It was Audi who won the battle of the diesel-engined heavyweights, turning potential disaster into triumph, as the German marque was reduced to one lone Audi R18 TDI following two horrific accidents that left everyone’s hearts in their mouths.
The first major incident came at the end of the opening hour, when Allan McNish clipped the Luxury Racing Ferrari in the Dunlop Chicane. The Scot went careering off the track at alarming speed – the gravel proving little resistance – before hitting the tyre wall with such ferocity it was a miracle that nobody was killed.
Thankfully McNish came away from the accident largely unscathed. Yet, unbelievably, worst was to come in the form of Mike Rockenfeller’s violent smash as darkness descended.
Reaping the benefits of the R18’s superior downforce, Rocky was able to put in a string of quality laps while darting in-and-out of traffic, and secured an Audi 1-2 shortly before 11pm. This wouldn’t last long, however, as things took a turn for the worse as he attempted to overtake Rob Kauffman’s Ferrari 458 at over 200mph just after the Mulsanne Corner.
The American Le Mans amateur wandered into Rocky’s path, pinging the Audi head first into the barriers, where it disintegrated upon impact and was reduced to its safety cell. Amazingly, the German racer was able to extract himself from the wreckage before being admitted to hospital for further checks.
It took over two hours for the barriers to be repaired and the barely recognisable R18 to be removed. Leading the pack behind the safety cars was Audi’s lone contender in the form of its trio of young racers: Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotter and Benoit Treluyer.
When the race resumed, Treluyer initially found himself with a comfortable two minute margin over Frank Montagny, his nearest Peugeot rival in the number 8 vehicle.
But Audi wouldn’t enjoy such an advantage for long. As temperatures plummeted during the twilight hours Peugeot came into their own, with their 908s picking up the pace on the softer Michelin tyres. Such was their performance, Simon Pagenaud in the number 9 Peugeot even managed to take the lead as a new day dawned.
However, the French team’s purple patch disappeared almost as quickly as it emerged. As the sun began to shine above the Circuit de la Sarthe, Audi’s form returned and Peugeot were back to being the second quickest around the 13.629km track.
With a quarter of the race still to go, it was impossible to predict just who would take the chequered flag. Would it be Audi, with their better tyre management and outright pace, or Peugeot, whose new-for-2011 tank allocation of 65 litres meant they were able to eke out an extra lap over their German rivals?
Well the number 8 Peugeot’s charge came to an end after serving a stop-go penalty, and Alexander Wurz made a rare mistake when he came off the circuit at Indianapolis. This effectively made it a head-to-head race between the lone Audi and the number 9 Peugeot, with the other 908s now reduced to supporting roles in the final six hours.
It resulted in an intriguing battle, and one that featured some of the best sportscar racing I have ever seen, as Treluyer created a sizeable buffer by putting in an amazing five-stint run before passing the baton to Lotterer, who kept up the phenomenal driving standards.
A brief rain shower threatened to put a spanner in the works at lunchtime – a period in which Peugeot briefly came back into the picture, as Pagenaud reduced the deficit to just 24 seconds – but Lotterer kept his cool and fended off any advances, before pulling away once the wet stuff disappeared.
There was no let up in excitement as the race entered its final hour, with Audi never quite managing to shake off the ever approaching Peugeot and, with mere minutes remaining, there was a further twist as Audi called Lotterer in early with a suspected left-rear puncture – on the same lap as Pagenaud!
The battle for 2011 Le Mans 24 Hours victory now became a pitstop competition. Audi weren’t about to let this one slip away after all they had been through, and amazingly they managed to change their tyres and get Lotterer out ahead of Pagenaud, with only 7.85 seconds separating the pair as they left the pitlane!
From here it was a straight race for the chequered flag, and although Pagenaud put in a brave performance, he could do nothing to reel in Lotterer who had the measure on him on new rubber.
And so, at 3pm on Sunday 12th June 2011, the number 2 Audi, expertly driven by Lotterer and Treluyer – and to a lesser extent Fassler – crossed the finishing line to win what was one of the most topsy-turvy Le Mans 24 Hours in living memory.
It was a fantastic victory for Audi after what had been an emotional roller coaster ride of a race. A win that was made all the more poignant by the absence of McNish and Rockenfeller who were both recovering from their horrific accidents.
Peugeot played their part in making it such a thrilling race and there was never a moment when they didn’t have a car on the lead lap. Even though they finished second, third and fourth, the disappointment on their faces was clear to see, for this was Audi’s day, and deservedly so after everything they had been through.
It was a titanic battle between the two LMP1 giants and one of the greatest ever seen at the Circuit de la Sarthe. Twenty four hours of sheer unadulterated brilliance – the sort that will be remembered for generations to come.