For the last decade and a half, Audi has dominated World Endurance Championship racing. It would be easy to dismiss yesterday's 13th Le Mans 24 Hour Race win for the company in 16 years as "same stuff, different year." In that time, it has significantly changed the world's perception of diesel engines, flywheel batteries and hybrid power trains, yet yesterday's win is probably its finest achievement.
The Audi of Marcel Fassler, Benoit Treluyer and Andre Lotterer eventually took the victory in Sunday's event, but not before both Toyota and Porsche had led and looked like winning. For this particular driver grouping, it was the third win in the last four years (it also won in 2011 and 2012), with last year's winning combo of Tom Kristensen, Marc Gene and Lucas Di Grassi taking second place three laps down in another Audi, giving the marque a 1-2 finish against all odds.
Toyota took third with Anthony Davidson, Nicolas Lapierre and Sebastien Buemi a further three laps down, and no other LMP1 team finished in the running (technically they may have been still under their own power, but their racing was done for the day).
Audi's wins in prior years are not diminished by yesterday's triumph, but rather validated. For most of Audi's dominance, it has achieved its wins with just one main competitor. For most of that time it was Peugeot, and more recently Toyota, but the addition this year of the mighty Porsche name has seen the ferocity of the competition increase dramatically. To win against both Toyota and Porsche shows the team knows 24 hour racing better than any, at least for now.
Porsche has won Le Mans 16 times, retiring on top when its 911 GT1 won the 1998 race. When Porsche raided its museum to put on a display of its past winning cars at Le Mans in the lead-up to this year's race, it had me wondering about the company's insurance policy. If a Mercedes Silver Arrow can fetch US$30 million, what would be the worth of a dozen Le Mans winning race cars, all driven by the sport's greatest, at auction.
The heat in the kitchen was turned up even more in the weeks before the race with Nissan announcing it would compete at the highest LMP1 level next year (making it a four-way battle), and Ferrari teasing it might better spend its vast annual Formula One financial commitment (US$300 million plus per annum) by going endurance racing. Honda has an LMP1 engine under development too.
It would seem that with renewed participation and interest from the world's auto giants, the Le Mans 24 Hour is entering a new era of global focus, and a great deal of that focus seems to have been based around the race promoter's clever use of the internet. The entire 2014 race could be viewed over the internet free of charge from numerous camera angles, with lap scoring, video and commentary – something that other motorsports charge for. There was a premium service for the real die-hards, but, in general, the Le Mans 24 Hour provides far better digital access for the fan than any other motorsport.
By removing the barrier to entry of payment or registration, many millions of borderline enthusiasts around the world followed the battle with the many free internet visualization tools, and a new level of semi-participation with motorsport was achieved. During times when I had to do something else other than watch, I was able to follow the action minute by minute from the free iPhone app, which offered live race order, and regularly and quickly updated video highlights.
The 24 Hour organizers have taken a different approach to internet integration in their marketing plans and it may well be one that drives the race to new levels of public awareness.
It wouldn't be the first time that a pioneering approach from L’automobile Club de la Ouest has had global implications.
If you were to choose a physical location as the "spiritual home" of motorsport, it would be the French provincial town of Le Mans. Le Mans was the venue for the world’s first Grand Prix in 1906, staged by the L’automobile Club de la Ouest.
The "Grand Prix" idea caught on and gives the original Le Mans Grand Prix direct lineage to Formula One.
In 1923, the same club conceived the first 24 hour motor race as the ultimate test of endurance and reliability for road cars, and that race has since grown to become the most famous and important in the world.
The Le Mans 24 Hour event is woven into global popular culture in myriad ways across many generations. It has featured in countless movies (most famously Steve McQueen's Le Mans) and video games and was the site of the world’s most famous automobile accident in 1955 when 80 spectators were killed by a flying racecar.
Between the two events (the French Grand Prix and the 24 hour race), every driver and technology of global significance has crossed the Le Mans stage since motorsport began.
With the demise of the French Grand Prix due to politics, the annual Le Mans 24 Hour race is now motorsport’s "Mecca."
From the other side of the fence, the race is embedded in the DNA of Ferrari, Porsche, McLaren, Audi, Peugeot et al. A win in this event is a brand attribute.
Along the 108 year time-line of Le Mans motorsport, the event has validated not just marques, but every major new motorsport technology along the way – disc brakes, aerodynamic bodywork, turbo and supercharging, rotary engines, diesel engines, are just a few of the many sub-plots which played out in this intriguing annual technological show-and-tell.
Now the battleground of practical motoring technologies has moved to hybrid powertrains and although Porsche and Toyota both led the 2014 race several times, Audi can legitimately claim to have conquered its hybrid challengers, at least for the moment.
While Mercedes-Benz has humiliated Renault and Ferrari under new hybrid rules in Formula One, the World Endurance Championship is proving to be much less predictable.
Toyota entered the 2014 race having already won the first two rounds of the 2014 World Endurance Championship, and its speed in practice, plus the early and middle parts of the race looked likely to win the event.
The TS040 Hybrid of Alex Wurz, Stéphane Sarrazin and Kazuki Nakajima started from pole position (Toyota qualified one–two) and held a 90-second lead with less than half the race remaining.
With so much onboard computing and electronics relied upon these days, it's interesting to note its effect on motorsport. Just two weeks ago we witnessed the two previously unassailable Mercedes Benz Silver Arrow Formula One cars slow dramatically for no mechanical reason at the same time during a race. Overheated electronics were to blame.
In this race, there were periods for most contenders where they slowed for periods of time while electronic systems were rebooted, then continued on at race speeds shortly thereafter.
So too is it difficult to follow what's actually happening when cars slow marginally to save fuel or to follow a strategy determined by a remote computer which is running massive simultaneous simulations, not just on the team's own cars, but for all the competitors.
Applying real world technologies to motorsport is not an exact fit and there is no doubt that there will be more questions raised before we have answers as to how to incorporate and police new technologies and ever more complex energy regulations. When time penalties are being handed out for non-compliance of fuel usage over a rolling three lap average, it puts one level of obfuscation too many between the viewer and the action. Perhaps they should also make all the telemetrics available too, so uber-enthusiasts can watch in ever deeper granularity.
After 14 hours of racing, the leading Wurz–Sarrazin–Nakajima Toyota encountered an unexpected electrical problem in the wiring loom and stopped, stranding the car on the circuit at the Arnage corner. It had led the event for 202 of the 218 laps covered, and ... it handed the lead to the Audi of Fässler–Lotterer–Tréluyer shortly after 5 a.m. on Sunday morning
The other Toyota TS014 (Davidson–Lapierre–Buemi) was the victim of a sudden downpour of rain at the 90 minute mark of the event, which caught the field on slick tires and caused a multi-car accident on the Mulsanne Straight. Toyota was running 1-2 at the time.
Nicolas Lapierre nursed the badly damaged Toyota back to the pits where the pit crew rebuilt the front left suspension plus most of the bodywork, losing 50 minutes to repairs, and putting the car eight laps from the lead when it returned to the racetrack. Retirement was not an option as the team had entered the race (the third round of the FIA World Endurance Championship) with a 16-point lead in the standings.
Even when aerodynamic balance issues prompted further bodywork repairs five hours after the car had returned to the track, the team was always aiming to salvage as many points as possible. That the team managed to fix the issues, claw back two laps on the leaders and grab a podium position is testimony to the benefits of never giving up. Despite seeming like a disaster, Toyota still managed to leave Le Mans with a 16 point lead in the title.
Porsche was never out of contention, but when the leading Toyota stopped, it was suddenly in the frame for a win, and with just four hours of the race left to go, Timo Bernhard took the lead for the Bernhard–Hartley–Webber Porsche. With only two hours and 26 minutes of the race to go, he handed the car over to distinguished Formula One driver Mark Webber.
The race had swung in Porsche's favor and ... just 20 minutes later, the Porsche 919 suffered a powertrain problem and its race was over. It may not have won, as Lotterer was on fire in the Audi, cutting relentless successive laps at near fastest lap times. It was however in contention for a win with just 10 percent of the race left.
The Porsche 919 of Dumas–Jani–Lieb was also competitive when it was running, but suffered too many technical problems to stay near the front of the field.
In the end, Audi prevailed with a 1-2 win, Toyota remained in the championship lead, and Porsche was left wondering just how close it was to a win at its first return attempt.