Bourdais leads Peugeot's assault into turn one. - Image courtesy of Geoffroy Barre / leblogauto.com
A brutal display of style, glamour, and speed, the Le Mans 24 Hour manages to provide an atmospheric roller coaster ride of raw emotion unable to be matched by any other event the world over on a yearly basis.
This year’s edition of the event bore a special significance for many reasons. For both fans and competitors, 2010 would provide the swan song for a once titanic GT category now left stagnant as a result of lacking manufacturer interest. For GT1 class competitors it’s the end of an era. After providing a worthy stomping ground for a selection of the world’s greatest supercars for the better part of the last decade, the GT1 category will see its last year of competition at the 24 Hour.
LMP categories would also see the final running of current-spec machinery before a major regulations change is enforced for the 2011 season. Although fraught with attrition, the 2010 running of the 24 hour classic delivered one of the more bizarre, yet mesmerising renditions of the race in recent years.
Hour one of the event saw the use of several, extended caution periods resulting in multiple safety car deployments. The first of which would be caused by the retirement of both Autocon and Beechdean Mansell entries. Several laps later the premature (yet highly anticipated) return of Jaguar (in the form of US-based, JaguarRSR) would succumb to a similar fate as a result of electrical difficulties. An innocent casualty of the events, Joest would lose over 60sec to the overall leading Peugeots. The disparity due to a difference in running pace between two of the circuit’s safety cars.
Peugeot #2 of Sarrazin/Minassian/Montagny. - Image courtesy Geoffroy Barre / endurance-magazine.fr
Having set the benchmark for single-lap pace, Peugeot had stamped its dominance early in both practice and qualifying sessions. The reigning LMP1 champions would commence from positions one through four, tailed by the trio of Audi entries, and the petrol-engined LMP field (lead of course by AMR). Despite possessing an obvious performance advantage during the first half of the race, the Peugeot squad would again be haunted by reliability issues.
Drama would strike late in the third hour for the #3 Peugeot of Bourdais, Pagenaud, and Lamy. Having been swiftly summoned to pitlane, the French squad would set to work furiously, with idle team members and spare bodywork to maintain any means of disguising the nature of repair efforts taking place. The pole-setting chassis was officially retired as a result of a front suspension failure.
Peugeot maintained a 1-2-3 formation at the front of the field and, with three factory Audis now only a small margin behind, the goose chase for the overall lead was well underway. Frustration would set in over the next several hours for both Peugeot and Audi squads. Peugeot #1 would be forced to pitlane courtesy of a failed alternator late during the seventh hour. With maintenance costing the French team over 12 minutes, ultimately taking the reigning champions out of contention for victory.
Peugeot would continue to hold positions 1-2, Audi remaining in close pursuit with cars #9/8 only a small margin behind. All the while AMR cars continued to turn consistent laps without error in positions 7/8 to maintaining their lead over fellow petrol-powered LMP1 counterparts. By mid race distance it was the Oreca Peugeot to suffer issues.
The Peugeot #2 squad completes one of the more successful pit stops of the day. - Image courtesy Geoffroy Barre / endurance-magazine.fr
The team’s #4 entry being forced to pitlane, leaking oil as a result of engine faults. The #4 later returned to the race, losing thirteen minutes as a result of the repairs. Only some four hours later, the race leading #2 Peugeot would suffer a dramatic engine blowout on the approach to Tertre Rouge, resulting in a second factory Peugeot retirement.
This occurrence would prove to be a turning point for the Audi squad, inheriting the lead as a result of the #2 Peugeot’s retirement. With cars #9/8 now running in positions 1/2 respectively, the Joest cars would begin to increase pace as Peugeot opted for an all or nothing approach to victory. Despite being over a lap down on the leaders, the #1 car (at at the time driven by Davidson) had been instructed to take necessary action in order to ensure Peugeot victory (even at the cost of lower class participant’s safety).
Peugeot’s problems would only worsen throughout the remaining hours. While managing to reduce the margin to the leading Audi to under a lap, the sole factory #1 Peugeot would ultimately suffer a similar fate as its sister cars. Retiring in the dying hours of the race as a result of an engine blowout (now thought to have been caused by a faulty turbo).
With all factory cars now out of the running, the responsibility of flying the French marque’s flag would be left to the Oreca squad, and the hands of talented rookie, Loic Duval. Had Duval’s pace been maintained a podium position would have been possible for the local team. Unfortunately for the Oreca team the #4 would suffer a similar fate to it’s factory cousins. The car failing midway through the 22nd hour of the race, taking with it any chance of a face saving finish for the French manufacturer.
The race winning #9 Audi of Rockenfeller/Dumas/Bernhard. - Image courtesy Geoffroy Barre / endurance-magazine.fr
Having not been able to compete with the single-pace set by their Peugeot rivals, the goal of would be to endure the imminent storm. Normally the fastest entry in the Joest camp, the #7 squad had suffered setup difficulties throughout practice and qualifying sessions, placing the car slightly off the pace of its #8/#9 sister cars.
The #7 would later suffer a delay early in the race as a result of a damaged BMW straying across the Porsche curves. Although not suffering any major damage, the #7 would be pitted for preventative maintenance. This unfortunate turn of events would shift the balance of power to the #9/8 Joest entries. Both of which would now be tasked with maintaining the chase for victory. The #9 crew had maintained consistent pace through the event, focusing on sustainable speed. The distinguished trio of Rockenfeller/Bernhard/Dumas would lead home cars #8/7 to secure an Audi 1-2-3 finish.
#42 ARX01c of Strakka racing. - Image courtesy Geoffroy Barre / endurance-magazine.fr
Setting a pace bordering on cruelty, LMP2 had promised to be an HPD dominated affair from the outset.
With HPD-powered entries qualifying 1-2-3, and managing average lap times over four seconds faster than the nearest class competitors, P2 regulars were in for a tough day at the office. Having beaten race favourites Highcroft to the class pole, Strakka had immediately stamped their position as the team to beat.
Having lead the race for 356 laps (to Highcrofts 11 laps-lead) the Strakka trio of Danny Watts/Jonny Kane/Nick Leventis would finish first in category, placing an excellent fifth overall (only laps behind first-home petrol LMP1 team Oreca) to take their maiden 24 hour victory and, in doing so, handing the ARX01c a victory on its LM24 debut. In addition to this, the teams HPD package also won Michelin’s GreenX challenge.
Highcroft's Marco Werner navigates the Ralentisseur chicane. - Image courtesy Geoffroy Barre / endurance-magazine.fr
Overshadowed by a myriad of technical difficulties, from shrapnel induced tyre punctures, to oil leaks and water pressure issues, the Danbury, Connecticut-based squad managed a semi-successful 24 Hour debut. Despite the presence of reigning champion David Brabham, multiple Le Mans overall winner Marco Werner, and up and coming endurance star Marino Franchitti, the Highcroft team were unable to match the speed and reliability of their Trans-Atlantic cousins. Plagued by misfortunes throughout the event, Highcroft would minimise the gap to their Strakka counterparts to less than two laps on several occasions. A margin which would unfortunately never be regained
OAK racing, and RML would round off the LMP2 podium finishing second and third respectively. In the unexpected absence of the Highcroft team, RML’s position would secure HPD’s second debut podium finish.
YoungDriver AMR leads the GT1 field through the Dunlop Esses. - Image courtesy of Geoffroy Barre / leblogauto.com
Contesting their final year of Le Mans competition, the GT1 swansong was, at times trying and, although well and truly outclassed by their GT2 counterparts the once mighty supercar category managed to produce a fitting outcome.
Dominated in its early stages by Matech and MarcVDS entries (both teams suffering race ending mechanical failures during the first half of the race) the ailing eight car category (consisting of six GT1WC entries) saw the lead shared by no less than six different entries throughout duration the race.
Despite the obvious pace of the Ford, Corvette, and Aston Martin entries, reliability would once again prove to be a deciding factor. Although not the fastest car in its category (or the category below it), Le Mans veterans and fan favourites Larbre Competition would finish the race with minimal error to take first in class, in a fitting tribute to both the category and machinery.
#82 Risi entry enters the Mulsanne. - Image courtesy Geoffroy Barre / endurance-magazine.fr
Widely proclaimed as the new manufacturer stomping ground, and with seven marques present the GT2 category was set for a cracking battle. In typical Le Mans fashion, the Risi squad managed the surge to an early lead in the opening hours (despite having been relegated to the rear of the starting grid).
The team would go on to endure an intense battle with the P&M squad throughout hours six/seven. In an unfortunate twist, Risi would later suffer tranmission issues, forcing the #82 to pitlane for lengthy repairs, ruling them out of the chase for victory.
#63 Corvette of O'Connell/Magnussen/Garcia. - Image courtesy of Geoffroy Barre / leblogauto.com
The #82 would later go on to retire as a result of the persisting difficulties. Leaving the P&M Corvette squad to dominate the category for what seemed like the majority of the event.
Running in 1/2 tandem for several hours, everything seemed to be going right for the American outfit. During a two hour period, disaster struck for the P&M team. The departure of the #63 P&M entry as a result of engine issues would leave the #64 to fly the remaining Corvette flag.
In a controversial incident, an impatient Anthony Davidson would attempt to pass the #64 Corvette entry of endurance veteran Emmanuelle Collard through the tight Porsche curves while on a late race charge for victory. This would cause Collard to lose control of the Corvette, sending the car spinning into nearby barriers. Suffering massive rear damage as a result of the impact, Collard would be forced to limp the severely damaged #64 back to pitlane where the team would furiously attempt a repair operation.
Davidson later commented on the incident in a bid to plead his innocence, only managing to insinuate Collard (amongst other GT competitors) had made intentional efforts to cause difficulty for the (then chasing) PeugeotSport team. Davidson retracted the statement/s in a later interview.
While the #64 did manage to return to the field, it would later retire as a result of engine issues similar to those suffered by the #63 car, leaving the justifiably distraught American team without any result.
A victim of late regulation changes, the #79 BMW Motorsport entry during the early hours of the race. - Image courtesy Geoffroy Barre / endurance-magazine.fr
A contender in its class, a fan favourite, and like many others, an unfortunate casualty. BMW’s return to La Sarthe was not as triumphant as many had originally hoped.
Having been hit with an increase in restrictor size (resulting in the loss of 10-15hp) upon arrival to La Sarthe, the manufacturer’s bid for victory would suffer a major setback from the outset. While down on single-lap pace, the aim of the Schnitzer squad was no doubt to endure the storm of inevitable attrition. A strategy adopted by the team during both Le Mans Series rounds.
Unfortunately for the Bavarians, sparks of promise were shown but reliable performance was not forthcoming. Suffering multiple tyre punctures (amongst other difficulties), the #79 would return to pitlane on several occasions during the opening hours of the race. The entry being officially retired after the eighth hour. The remaining #78 entry of Müller/Alzen/Farfus also experienced its fair share of difficulties but, despite tyre and engine difficulties would go on to finish sixth in category.
Felbermayr-Proton's class winning #77 entry of Lieb/Lietz/Henzler. - Image courtesy Geoffroy Barre / endurance-magazine.fr
Maintaining a sustainable pace throughout the race and opting to focus on reliability, the #77 Felbermayr squad would inherit the class lead shortly after the late race departure of Corvette #64. Having run a flawless race to edge out Risi,P&M, and BMW entries, the #77 crew found themselves with a two lap lead over nearest placed rivals, Hankook Farnbacher #89, and BMS Scuderia Italia #97 with several hours still remaining.
The trio of Lieb/Lietz/Henzler would continue to lead for the remaining hours to finish a phenomenal eleventh overall, taking Felbermayr’s maiden 24 Hour victory and, after years of Ferrari domination, reclaiming the LM24 GT2 crown for Porsche. A fitting triumph for Le Mans most successful marque.
With the curtains now drawn and the race now run and won for another year, the Sportscar world sits back to ponder…only another 12 months until the madness begins all over again.
Images courtesy Geoffroy Barre // Endurance-Magazine.fr // leblogauto.com