Saturday, June 22, 2013

Audi Le Mans legacy: Fourteen years of success 1999-2012

By Tarek Ramchani and Johan Laubscher

Audi at Le Mans is a fourteen year story. The brand has been racing at La Sarthe since 1999, scoring no less than 11 overall wins, 9 of them as a full factory team. Here is a complete round up of Audi's legacy at the world famous endurance race.

Le Mans 1999: Audi arrived at La Sarthe

After years of dominance in touring car racing, Audi arrived at Le Mans in 1999. The Ingolstadt brand fielded four cars with two very different styles. An open top Audi R8R and a closed cockpit Audi R8C, "R" and "C" representing roadster and coupe respectively. The two projects were very different and run by two equally different teams. The "Roadsters" were developed in Germany and run by the top Le Mans specialist team of Joest Racing under the name of Audi Sport Team Joest. The "Coupes" were developed in Britain by RTN and entered by Apex Motorsport running under the name of Audi Sport UK. The two different cars shared only the engine, a 3.6 V8 twin-turbo unit. Audi was a new comer to sports prototypes and endurance racing. Winning at Le Mans first time out is nearly impossible, thus the cars were mainly competing to learn in preparation for the brand's big assault on the race in 2000. Ahead of the team was a battle that was dubbed the race of the millennium. Multiple factory teams made up the field, including: BMW, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz. The Audi R8C Coupes were very fragile and unable to finish due to persistent gearbox problems, mainly due to a lack of testing. The Audi R8Rs fared a lot better than their coupe siblings and remained near the front throughout the race. The roadsters also suffered gearbox issues with a number of gearbox changes during the race. The team soldiered on and through misfortune for the other teams the Audis would eventually claim a podium finish on their debut. The Joest team finished in an amazing third and fourth outright. The #8 car shared by Emanuele Pirro, Frank Biela and Didier Theys achieved the great podium finish. The sister #7 car of Dindo Capello, Laurent Aiello and the late Michele Alboreto was right behind them in forth. Overall it was a great debut in the French classic. The open R8R showed great potential, however this was to be the R8R's and R8C's one and only Le Mans appearance as Audi was preparing a new weapon to dominate Le Mans for almost half a decade.

Le Mans 2000: An era of domination started

After a successful debut in 1999 Audi returned to Circuit le la Sarthe for Le Mans 2000. Lessons learnt and armed with a new weapon Audi was ready to take on Le Mans for their first overall win. Le Mans 2000 would be the beginning of a legacy at Le Mans with the introduction of the Audi R8 in the LMP900 class. A car that clearly showed a resemblance to the outgoing 1999 Audi R8R, but with a much sharper focus. The cars were fast straight out of the box and Audi had entered a three car team. Each car carried one colour from the German flag: Red, Yellow and black, to differentiate the cars, a fact that would become a long standing tradition for Audi liveries for almost a decade. The 2000 race was dubbed Europe versus America with the Audis going up against factory teams from Panoz and Cadillac. Audi locked out the top three positions in qualifying and the race was a runaway success. Much inter-team revelry was present as the three cars exchanged the lead during the first half of the race. Eventually the number 8 Audi R8 driven by Frank Biela, Tom Kristensen and Emanuele Pirro took control of the race for Audi’s first overall Le Mans victory. The German marque took a commanding 1-2-3 finish with the number 9 of Allan McNish, Stéphane Ortelli and Laurent Aiello in second followed by the number 7 driven by Michele Alboreto, Christian Abt and Rinaldo Capello. 2000 marked the beginning of Audi’s reign at Le Mans and more specifically the reign of the Audi R8 in international sports car racing.

Le Mans 2001: Title defended in apocalyptic conditions

The 2001 Le Mans campaign was overshadowed by a tragedy for the Audi camp and the motorsport community as a whole. During testing at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz, Michele Alboreto suffered a tire blow out and the resulting accident claimed the life of the popular Italian driver. The tragedies shook the Audi team deeply and lead to advancements in real-time early warning systems for tire pressure and puncture detection. The team ran with black bands on the cars at the Le Mans test day during May 2001, to remember Michele, a symbol which was also repeated ten years later in 2011. The race itself saw four Audis on the grid, two factory cars and two year old privateer cars. The factory squad had car number 1 driven by the previous victors Frank Biela, Tom Kristensen and Emanuele Pirro with the number 2 car driven by Laurent Aiello, Rinaldo Capello and Christian Pescatori. The privateer cars were from Champion Racing and Arena Motorsport racing under the banner of Johansson Motorsport in Gulf racing colours. The race itself took place in apocalyptic conditions. The race may have started in the dry but the heavens soon opened and the scene was set for 2001, a very wet and wild race. Both the privateer Audis unfortunately retired as the factory cars controlled the race from the front. In the end the winning drivers from 2000 pulled through to claim their second victory in a difficult race which Tom Kristensen described as: “It felt like I was in the car for a week”. The number 1 car was followed home by its sister car and the Audi R8 engined Bentley EXP Speed 8 in third. The victory in 2001 saw the victorious debut of the FSI direct injection technology, a technology which would subsequently make its way to Audi and Volkswagen Group road cars.

Le Mans 2002: The magical triple

Audi would once again enter a three car factory team at Le Mans in 2002. The Audi team included the previous winners in car number 1, Frank Biela, Tom Kristensen and Emanuele Pirro. Car number 2 included Johnny Herbert, Christian Pescatori and Rinaldo Capello with number 3 being driven by the “young” Audi team consisting of Michael Krumm, Philipp Peter and Marco Werner. A fourth Audi from Audi Sport Japan Team Goh was entered as a privateer. The entire race week was dominated by the factory Audi cars who were aiming for Audi’s third consecutive victory. The race got started with the number 3 getting a puncture on the opening lap. The number 3 driving crew quickly made their way through the field back up to third, after only a few hours to complete the Audi 1-2-3, as the first two Audi R8s cleared off into the distance. The privateer Audi R8 had a testing race as the team got to grips with the car and Le Mans, ultimately finishing in seventh. This would however not be the last time that Team Goh was at Le Mans with Audi. The factory team completed the week of dominance with the Audis crossing the finish line in numerical order, number 1 leading home numbers 2 and 3. The victory marked two very special occurrences. It was the first time in history that the same three drivers had won the race for three consecutive years. The second occurrence was that with Audi having won three years in a row they were allowed to keep the floating Le Mans trophies, a long standing Le Mans traditions.

Le Mans 2003: Audi beaten by Bentley but took class victory

In the year 2003 there were three Audi R8 cars entered at Le Mans. No more factory efforts from Audi, this time the Audi squad were all privateer entries. The #3 car from Champion Racing with drivers Emanuele Pirro, JJ Lehto and Stefan Johansson. The #5 R8 was from Audi Sport Japan Team Goh in the hands of Seiji Ara, Marco Werner and Jan Magnussen. The #10 machine shared by Frank Biela, Perry McCarthy and Mika Salo was entered by Arena Motorsport racing under the name of Audi Sport UK. The three privateer Audis faced the might of the factory Bentley team, which mounted a huge 2003 Le Mans campaign. The new Bentleys were clearly faster than the Audi R8s which had were running in 2002 specification. There was some hope for the Audi fans as the Joest and Champion Racing Audis had beaten Bentley at the 2003 Sebring 12 Hours. The three customers Audi R8s did very well, and dominated the LMP900 class (open top prototypes). However they could not match the very strong pace of the works Bentley Speed 8 cars. The Audis were forced to play catch up for the first time ever since the R8 debuted in 2000. In the early stages Audi cars were able to take the race lead, but only when the Bentleys came in for pit stops. Later the British run #10 Audi faced real drama. Frank Biela was running slowly towards Indianapolis, reported as having run out of fuel. It was a tragedy for the Audi team within the first two hours of the race. Frank was blocked in traffic on the approach to the pits and missed the pit lane entry and started a lap for which he, and the team knew, they did not have enough fuel to complete. Frank tried hard to bring the car back to the pits, running on the starter-motor for several kilometers, but ultimately the car was a retirement. The remaining Champion Racing and Team Goh Audis kept fighting hard throughout the race. Small technical difficulties eventually dropped the Tean Goh Audi from their long time held third place to fourth behind the Champion Racing Audi. The top four positions remained stagnant for the duration of the Sunday and the Champion Racing Audi came home in third overall, taking victory in the LMP900 class. In the end the Florida based squad got the third podium spot, but five laps down to the winning Bentley. The Audi R8 was beaten for the first time at La Sarthe.

Le Mans 2004: Audi back to victory

For 2004 the dominant works Bentleys would not return, thus meaning that the Audi R8 LMP were again the big favorites for the overall win. Four cars were fielded from three customer teams. Audi Sport UK Team Veloqx entered a pair of R8s and both Champion Racing from America and Audi Sport Japan Team Goh had a single car each. The British run Audi squad dominated qualifying by locking out the front row. In the race it was a fierce battle between the four cars in the opening stages, with some casualties for the Audi teams. The first incident was a spin at the Dunlop chicane for Capello in the #5 Audi R8. The spin cost the Goh team almost an entire lap, a gap that would require hard work to close. Later during the opening stages Allan McNish and JJ Lehto were involved in a titanic battle for second place. The cars were seen nose to tail for many laps until the two cars hit oil on the entry into the Porsche curves. The two cars crashed hard with both colliding with the barrier at very high speed. The Champion Racing car dragged itself back to the pits and was repaired within an hour. The British car with McNish suffered a greater crash and had substantially more damage. The car took longer to return to the pits and was crabbing from side to side. McNish jumped out of the car and was seen lying down in the pits. Later medical examinations suggested that McNish should not race again during the event, and it was up to Biela and Kaffer to complete the race on their own. The crashed #8 Audi R8 was fully repaired in under two hours and was also back out on track. The other British car and the Japanese R8 were left alone in front. A titanic fight between the Japanese and British team took place during the entire race. The leading #88 British Audi suffered handling issues and pitted to resolve the issue during the morning. The team frantically worked to fix the problem with the rear suspension but lost the lead in the process and exited the pits still on the same lap as the new leader, the #5 Audi. A big chase commenced as the #88 was hunting down the #5. In the end Team Goh won the race with under 50 seconds over the British Audi. The winning #5 Audi R8 was driven by Tom Kristensen, Seiji Ara and Dindo Capello right ahead of the #88 of Jamie Davies, Johnny Herbert and Guy Smith. The #2 Champion Racing Audi completed a magnificent recovery drive to finish in third with drivers JJ Lehto, Marco Werner and Emanuele Pirro. This was the third 1-2-3 victory for the Audi R8 at Le Mans. The other recovering Audi #8 of Frank Biela and Pierre Kaffer finished in 5th, despite having done the race by themselves as McNish did not drive again after the crash.

Le Mans 2005: Winning farewell for the Audi R8 at Le Mans

2005 was the last year for the all conquering Audi R8 at La Sarthe. Regulations changed for the top LMP1 class, which meant the Audi was strongly penalized against the newer machines, and mainly the much quicker new Pescarolo. The Audi had 50kg of extra wight and reduced power. Three cars entered the race, two from the Americans of Champion Racing and the third was from Team ORECA supported by Audi France. From the first free practice session it was obvious that the R8 couldn't match the Pescarolo for pace. The Audi squads had no other choice but to rely on reliability, combined with a very consistent pace. Champion Racing was clearly ahead of ORECA with the R8. The American cars were racing with a strong pace putting a great pressure on the Pescarolo. Later into the race the French cars lost a large amount of time in its garage with Gearbox problems which let the Audis regain the lead. The #2 Champion Racing Audi with Pirro behind the wheel was in the lead but cold brakes after a caution period resulted in a crash into the wall at Arnage. The resulting damage caused the #2 to drop a lap behind its sister #3 car and as Pirro stated: "It will be hard to catch the leading R8." The race was lead by the #3 driven by Tom Kritensen, JJ Lehto and Marco Werner, but they were chased hard by the remaining Pescarolo. The ORECA R8 suffered various problems during the race which held them back for an eventual fourth place finish. The relentless charge from the Pescarolo was not enough to catch the #3 as Kristensen piloted the Audi R8 across the line for victory.  The Pescarolo finished in 2nd followed by the #2 Champion Audi in third. This race marked the final victory and Le Mans participation for the Audi R8, which had claimed 5 victories in 6 starts. 2005 was the  most difficult race for the R8 in its history at Le Mans, but it was well deserved as new technology was on the horizon for 2006, and a new chapter for Audi at Le Mans.

Le Mans 2006: New R10 TDI introduced and first ever Diesel win

The successful Audi R8 had finally been retired. Audi introduced a brand new car, the R10 TDI powered by a V12 TDI engine. The car convincingly won the ALMS season opener at the 12 Hours of Sebring. After years of absence, Joest Racing was back at La Sarthe again, as a full factory team from Audi. Two cars entered the race and set a great pace that the petrol powered LMP1 couldn't match, as they dominated the entire event. Not even the fast 2005 Pescarolo cars were a match for the new diesel monster from Audi. The two cars locked out the front row in the qualifying session and in the race it was full domination. The Audi pair pulled away at the front. The #7 car suffered various small technical problems which dropped them back, leaving the race in the control of the sister #8 car. The race was nearly flawless for the #8 crew, the only scare came early on Sunday morning. The #8 was backed into the garage with a small gearbox problem but this was resolved quickly, and the #8 was on its way again. Ultimately victory went to the #8 car of Emanuele Pirro Frank Beila and Marco Werner. The sister #7 shared by Tom Kristensen, Dindo Capello and Allan McNish was able to secure third overall. A great debut for TDI at Le Mans and the  first ever win for a diesel powered car in the 24 hours race.

Le Mans 2007: Audi beats the arriving Peugeot

For 2007 Audi Sport Team Joest fielded three R10 TDI cars. Cars #1 and #2 with the same trios as in 2006. The third car was in the hands of the “Youngsters” Mike Rockenfeller, Alexandre Premat and Lucas Luhr. Audi was not the lone full factory team in LMP1 anymore. Peugeot Sport was back with a pair of new 908 HDI FAP race cars. The French team had built up a very quick racer which took pole position first time out. Very early into the race the #3 Audi was off, Mike Rockenfeller having crashed heavily right after Tertre Rouge, entering the Mulsanne Straight. The rear end of the Audi was destroyed, ending the #3 car's participation in the race. Only two cars were left for Audi on track, with #2 R10 TDI of Allan McNish, Dindo Capello and Tom Kristensen strongly leading the race. The #2 crew had an amazing race leading for the first 16 hours, however on Sunday morning Dindo Capello had a massive crash in #2 Audi R10 TDI at Indianapolis, after the left tire, the car had to retire. The sister #1 car took the outright lead and held it to the finish. Victory again for the 2006 winners Emanuele Pirro, Frank Biela and Marco Werner, ten laps ahead of the second placed #8 Peugeot 908. Audi took a back-to-back win, but the new French team were taking Le Mans very seriously.

Le Mans 2008: Hardest Le Mans win for the Audi R10 TDI

In 2008 the Audi R10 TDI entered its third year of competition. Racing in both the Le Mans Series in Europe (Team Joest) and the American Le Mans Series (Champion Racing). The car was clearly outpaced in both series by the new Peugeot 908 HDI FAP during the first races of the season before Le Mans.  Arriving at La Sarthe with three factory Audi R10 TDI cars, things were immediately worse. The French cars were storming and fully dominated the Audis in all the free practice and qualifying sessions. The R10 TDIs started from fourth (#2 Capello/McNish/Kristensen), fifth (#3 Luhr/Premat/Rockenfeller), and seventh (#1 Biela/Pirro/Werner). Audi’s only hope was to race hard and be reliable, not doing a single mistake and having a perfect pit stops strategy. In the race the three works Peugeots immediately pulled out a massive lead, the R10s only able to follow. Later problems started to hit the 908s, while the Audis ran almost without any troubles. The #2 Audi was pushing and kept itself within striking distance of the leading Peugeots. Two of the three French cars had problems, one with gear selection problems and the other with a spin. This left the race to be dueled out between the #2 Audi and the #7 Peugeot. Almost exactly at half distance, at 3am in the night, the heavy rain arrived and the #2 Audi hunted down the leading Peugeot for the overall lead. The car shared by Allan McNish, Dindo Capello and Tom Kristensen pushed to the limits to keep a very narrow race lead. In the closing stages the track began to dry and the Peugeot began catching the Audi again. In the final hour the rain returned and the teams gambled on tire choice. It was chaos for the perfect tire choice, Audi did well opting for the wet tires whereas Peugeot opted to remain on slicks, hoping the rain shower would be short lived. Peugeot got the gamble wrong as the rain increased, a high speed spin at the Dunlop chicane followed by a puncture sealed the French team's race outcome. Tom Kristensen crossed the finish line victorious to clinch his eighth overall win at Le Mans. For Dindo Capello this was his third win, while for Allan McNish it was his second win, and most importantly his first ever win with Audi. The R10 TDI was able to clinch three straight outright wins in the French endurance race. However as the duel with Peugeot has proven, the car had to be replaced in order to keep fighting with Peugeot. 2009 would see the first new Audi LMP race car in many years.

Le Mans 2009: A defeat is good for the character

Le Mans 2009 was a dark year for Audi. For the first time since 2006 Audi had a brand new race car, the Audi R15 TDI. The car may have won on its debut at Sebring, but Le Mans 2009 would be a difficult birth for the new car. During 2009 Audi had reduced running in competition and only took part in three events. This lack of running showed at Le Mans as for the first time ever the factory team battled with the race. Three factory Audis were on the gird. Car number 1 with Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen and Rinaldo Capello, car number 2 with Lucas Luhr, Mike Rockenfeller and Marco Werner and car number 3 with Alexandre Prémat, Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas. Along with the factory cars two privately run Audi R10 TDI cars were also entered from the KOLLES team. The cars did show pace during the race but the Peugeots were clearly the fastest cars. The race started with a bad omen for the team. The number 3 had an off at Indianapolis within the first fifteen minutes of the race, and things only got worse from there. The Peugeots pulled away at the front running 1-2 for the majority of the race. The two other Peugeots collided during a pit stop, thus ending their chances for victory. The Audis tried to chase the Peugeots but could not match the pace. As dusk began to fall the number 2 Audi R15 TDI suffered a heavy backward crash into the barriers on the entry into the Porsche curves, causing an instant retirement. The two private Audis had a tough race and were also not immune to problems, but the team pushed forward and both cars ultimately finished inside the top ten. The number 1 Audi pushed hard to stay with the leaders but ultimately had to settle for a third place spot, thus continuing the Audi podium tradition at Le Mans. There has always been at least one Audi on the overall podium in every single Le Mans wherein Audis have competed since 1999. The number 3 Audi soldiered on through many problems to eventually finish in seventeenth overall. As Ulrich Baretzky, the head of Audi Sport engine development says: “A defeat is good for the character, if you take it the right way,” Audi learnt from their mistakes in 2009 and they would return stronger than ever in 2010.

Le Mans 2010: The resurgence of the underdog

Fresh from their defeat in 2009 Audi returned to Le Mans 2010 labelled as the underdog against their arch rivals Peugeot. Audi had worked hard on the Audi R15 TDI chassis and design, and launched the Audi R15 plus for 2010. The car was clearly a R15, but it had been redesigned radically in the aerodynamic department. The aggressive looking car was also covered in a very striking and equally unique silver, black and red livery. The team arrived at Le Mans without the numbers 1,2,3 on the cars and along with the new numbers of 7,8,9 came new driving squads. The number 7 car was the only unchanged driving crew with the Le Mans dream team: Dindo Capello, Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish. The number 8 was filled with three brand new drivers, Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoît Treluyer. Number 9 was dubbed the “Porsche” car as it was driven by Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Mike Rockenfeller. The privateer KOLLES team also returned with their two Audi R10 TDI cars. The race week itself had one clear theme: The Audi R15 plus was a major improvement over the 2009 car and was clearly faster, but the Peugeots remained the kings of outright speed, but Le Mans is indeed a race of 24 Hours… The French lions controlled the race, leading for more than half of the 24 hours, despite having lost one of their cars very early with suspension and chassis problems. The lead Audi, number 7, was involved in an incident with a BMW M3 which lost the trio a few laps, which ended their bid for victory. The number 8 and 9 kept the leading Peugeots honest as the race headed into the morning. The race seemed to be in the bag for Peugeot until the leading car was seen with fire bursting out of exhaust due to engine failure. As the stricken Peugeot sat at the side of the track the race came alive. It became a dog fight between the now leading number 9 and the chasing two Peugeots. Eventually the other two Peugeot cars also suffered the same engine disaster as their sister car, leaving the Audis to take a well deserved 1-2-3 finish. The number 9 lead home 8 and 7. The private KOLLES team had an up and down race, one car retired with the other hovering around the top ten for most of the race. With all the Peugeot and other car’s problems the KOLLES car found itself in fourth place behind the three factory Audis. A technical fault unfortunately left the car stranded on the track, robbing Audi of a 1-2-3-4 finish. Le Mans 2010 was a race of attrition and the race lived up to its traditional name, the Grand Prix of Endurance. The 2010 victory was the debut victory for the Variable Turbo Geometry (VTG) technology at Le Mans.

Le Mans 2011: The race of the millennium, the Audi versus Peugeot dogfight

The 2011 season saw the introduction of new rules, foremost of which was the downsizing of the engines. With the increased requirement for aerodynamic efficiency, coupled with the new slower pit stop regulations, Audi decided to build a closed roof car for the first time since 1999. The Audi R18 TDI was the weapon aimed against Peugeot who also had a new car. The 2011 race would go down in history as an all time classic. The Audi driving squad was unchanged from 2010. Car number 1 with Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Mike Rockenfeller, number 2 with Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoît Treluyer and number 3 with Dindo Capello, Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish. Audi had taken pole for the first time since 2006 with the number 2 car taking the top spot. The race itself was an all out sprint and a classic Le Mans duel was in play: Peugeot could do 12 lap stints at a slightly slower pace whereas Audi could only do 11 laps but at a higher pace. So the scene was set for this titanic duel and the race got off to a flying start at a lightning fast pace. The pace would ultimately claim two Audis in accidents. The number 3 with McNish behind the wheel was the first crash for Audi, with a massive role after contact with a GT car under the Dunlop Bridge. Allan emerged unharmed but the number 3 Audi was destroyed. After an hour under safety car conditions the race and the pace resumed. The remaining Audis battled hard against the three Peugeots. In the darkness the television screens were filled with the aftermath of a horrific accident. The second major crash had befallen the Audi team, as Rocky and a GT car touched on the run to Indianapolis corner. The number 1 Audi was completely destroyed, but fortunately Rocky also emerged unharmed. The race had been under caution for over two hours as the scene was cleared, some indication of the severity of this crash. As the race resumed there was only one remaining Audi versus three Peugeots. The sole remaining car would have to fend off the Peugeots for more than half of the race. The number 2 crew, supported by the entire army of Audi Joest personnel, drove an outstanding race, soaking up the pressure as the front running cars battled through the night and early Sunday. The three car challenge from Peugeot eventually became a one car challenge as two of the cars suffered setbacks, effectively turning the race into a straight out dog fight between the number 2 Audi and the number 9 Peugeot. Despite a rain shower and questionable tactics from the Peugeot team cars, the number two Audi held the lead. After the penultimate pit stop the Audi developed a slow puncture. André Lotterer had to drive five laps with the slowly deflating tire before he could pit, if they pitted earlier they would have lost the race due to an extra pit stop. With just over half an hour to go the Audi entered the pits for its final pit stop followed by the Peugeot. Audi changed all four tires whereas Peugeot only added fuel, the time saved by the French team resulted in the cars exiting the pits only seven seconds apart, and this after over twenty three hours of racing. The last half hour was a straight forward sprint to the line with Lotterer extending the lead, bringing the number 2 Audi home to a glorious victory at Circuit de la Sarthe, with only 13,854 seconds separating the first two cars. The victory marked Audi’s tenth overall win in the French endurance classic.

Le Mans 2012: The double team from Audi

For 2012 Audi committed to Le Mans with a new technology, in the form of a hybrid system. Two new Audi R18 versions were produced for the 2012 season. The two cars were virtually the same, except that one model had the new hybrid system. The hybrid cars were known as the "Audi R18 e-tron quattro" and the non-hybrid cars as the "Audi R18 ultra". The cars proved to be very fast and two of each were entered for Le Mans 2012. After a victorious debut at Spa, coupled with a 1-2-3-4 finish, Audi headed to Le Mans with confidence. Unfortunately the 2012 Le Mans did not see the addition of the Peugeot team, their departure from the sport has left many fans heartbroken. However there was still a factory duel in 2012. Toyota returned to Le Mans with a hybrid car ready to challenge Audi. Audi topped qualifying with an e-tron quattro on pole followed by an ultra and a Toyota. All three of the top cars/versions of cars were represented within the top 3 in qualifying.  The race itself saw Audi taking the early advantage. The Audis were not trouble free as both the ultra cars faced issues, unscheduled pitstops for #4 and a crash for #3 at the first chicane. At the front the two Toyotas gradually stayed in touch with the leading #1 Audi, and a fierce battle for the lead ensued. Toyota successfully lead Le Mans after a sequence of lead changes between the #1 Audi and the #7 Toyota. Unfortunately moments later the sister Toyota suffered a massive accident and the #8 Toyota later suffered retirement due to mechanical problems. The race then turned into an all-Audi battle at the front. The two R18 e-tron quattro cars controlled the race with the #1 of  Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoît Treluyer leading the #2 of  Dindo Capello, Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish. Their dual became fierce during the morning as both teams battled. The race was finally decided when McNish suffered an off in the Porsche Corners whilst lapping a car, the subsequent damage and time loss ensured victory for the #1 crew. At almost the same time as McNish's off the #3 Audi again suffered an accident at the first chicane, almost identical to the shunt from the previous evening, thus two Audis were in the pits at the same time, undergoing repairs. The latter shunt for the #3 cost Audi its 1-2-3-4 finish, as a Rebellion Lola has progressed up to fourth and split the Audis. In the end the #1 Audi R18 e-tron quattro won the race, crowning the driving trio from 2011 as race winners once more. They were followed home by the #2 Audi R18 e-tron quattro in second, with the #4 Audi R18 ultra completing the podium for yet another Audi 1-2-3 finish at Le Mans. The sister #3 ultra finished in fifth. This result raised Audi's tally at Le Mans to a total of eleven victories, in only fourteen appearances.

Le Mans 2013: The hybrid battle recommences

Audi has returned with the Hybrid technology in 2013, fielding three Audi R18 e-tron quattro cars. The competition is in the same form as in 2012, that of the Toyota team. The Japanese manufacturer will be running a two-car team with the TS030 Hybrid race cars. So far Audi has been unbeaten all year, taking victory against Toyota at Silverstone and Spa, rounds one and two of the FIA World Endurance Championship respectively. We now arrive at round three, the show piece of the series, the Le Mans 24 Hours. A classic Le Mans scenario awaits in the 2013 edition, as a faster car will face off against a more frugal car. Thus far Audi has lead the pace this year, and at Le Mans, but the Toyota team have a fuel consumption advantage, speculated to be up to two-laps per stint more than the Audis. Thus the scene is set for this showdown between the two current LMP1 factory heavy weights. Who will ultimately come out on top will only be known after another Grand Prix of Endurance concludes on Sunday 23 June 2013.

Le Mans: Audi's era of dominance

No other manufacturer has won Le Mans as many times as Audi in the time period wherein they have competed. Porsche may have 16 overall wins, but Audi has 11 victories from only 14 starts, an awe-inspiring statistic. Le Mans has been a happy hunting ground for Audi with much success. With ever improving cars and new technology, the Audi brand is set to hopefully continue its reign at Le Mans. This year is once again Audi versus Toyota and the addition of Porsche in 2014 opens up even more excitement in the future. But no one can deny that Audi have written themselves into the elaborate history books of this French classic at La Sarthe.

Photo credit: Audi Media