JUNE 18, 2014
During the 24-hour life of the world’s greatest endurance race, the 24 Heures du Mans (24 Hours of Le Mans), the leading teams typically travel at an average speed of 215 km/h and cover some 5,000 kilometres (in excess of 370 laps) on the 13.629km Circuit de la Sarthe. In driving parlance this equates to travelling non-stop from New York to Los Angeles or Paris to Moscow.
The challenge for engineers, mechanics and drivers in the battle against the clock at the 24 Heures du Mans, organised by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, is magnified compared to those they face in 3, 6 or even 12 hour racing. The parameters for the formbook and planning to be scuppered are immense. There are constant threats to the most well honed preparations: the weather, the light, fatigue, mechanical issues; traffic problems and human error. Preparation is stringent, all geared to ensuring the relentless 24 hours run smoothly. As the saying goes, ‘you can only win at Le Mans, if you finish Le Mans’. “It’s 24 one-hour sprints, running 99, 100% all the time,” defines Gary Pratt, Corvette Racing Team Manager.
15:00 CEST: The Start
As the iconic Rolex clock ticks down to 15:00 on Saturday 14 June, one of motorsport’s most familiar images is captured. 54 of the world’s most striking prototype and GT cars, technologically advanced vehicles, many setting the benchmark for future developments in the commercial market, sit poised on the start grid for the 82nd edition. On pole is the car which performed fastest in qualifying, the pre-race favourite Toyota, a perennial bridesmaid following four-second place finishes and seeking that elusive first place. In setting a time of 3:21.789 Kazuki Nakajima, driving #7 Toyota Racing became the first Japanese driver to qualify fastest. “You don’t get many chances to achieve pole in Le Mans,” says Nakajima. “However, starting on pole is only a small advantage in a 24-hour race.” A narrow gain indeed given the quality of drivers and manufacturers in the LM P1 prototype field: this was the year of Audi, Porsche and Toyota coming together.
The #1 Audi Sport Team Joest comprising defending champion Tom Kristensen began seventh on the grid. At first glance, a disappointing statement. However, #1 Audi had performed miracles to even make the start grid. Kristensen’s teammate Loïc Duval suffered a violent crash in the practice session 72 hours before the start. Fortunately, he escaped serious injury but was ruled out of the race. The car was destroyed and completely rebuilt over night. “You have to get on with it,” explains Kristensen, Testimonee for Rolex, Official Timepiece of the race since 2001, and the event’s most successful driver with nine victories to his name. “I know at Le Mans, always expect the unexpected. You always have to be alert. We are not back at zero, we can still see the goal but maybe from a different angle. We’ll try.” Duval was replaced in the car by reserve driver Marc Gené.
16:30 CEST: Weather Turns
Bright sunshine and the largest number of spectators in twenty years – over 260,000 – welcomed the start. The weather soon became erratic. In the first few hours of the race, localised storms caused havoc on the track. Many cars were still on slicks before they could pit. #8 Toyota and #3 Audi collided on the Mulsanne Straight; the latter was ruled out of the race; the former spent 20 minutes in the garage and was forced to play catch up. By the third hour of the race, five cars had been ruled out. Proof that the 24 Heures du Mans can reserve surprises at any time. “The beauty of endurance racing, and particularly Le Mans, is that you can’t predict where the important part of the race will be,” explains John Hindhaugh, renowned commentator for Radio Le Mans, an event institution. “In fact sometimes you don’t even recognise that turning point until hours after it has occurred, as the situation plays out.”
23:00 CEST: In The Dark
Night is a key component of Le Mans. There’s an air of solitude for the drivers, vision is restricted but so are the distractions. In the garages and pits, there is no let up. The engineering teams work through, sleep is for tomorrow, they are constantly on call in case of breakdowns and crunching data to help boost performance. “We have a core group of guys who do pit stops, other guys who can rotate, everybody is a motorsport fan, so like at the Rolex 24 At Daytona, everybody stays up,” explains Gary Holland, Team Manager of #57 Krohn Racing in GTE amateur.
“Driving at night is a different skill,” admits Ben Collins, driver for Krohn Racing. “Your depth of vision is less and you get blinded. It’s hazardous stuff. Because you can’t see further ahead, you have to think ahead, so you start taking other visual references.” Collins is no stranger to both endurance and adrenalin racing. He has stunt doubled for both BBC’s Top Gear and James Bond. “When I first came here and closed my eyes (during the rest periods), I noticed my retinas were still running the white line from the Mulsanne Straight!”
Clear vision at night is vital. This year the Audi R18 e-tron quattros were fitted with laser lighting. “The first year I came here it was like driving in candlelight!,” jokes Kristensen. “It’s interesting to see the evolution from LED to the laser lights. With the laser lights it’s the contrast of being able to recognise things a little bit earlier before you are actually passing them. With the speeds we do today it’s a good tool for us.”
When finishing their stints, it is crucial for the drivers to disconnect, switch off from the race, place their trust in the engineers and co-drivers, a skill that comes with experience. “We have a rotation system; one driver asleep, one on stand-by with the physio getting him up to speed; and the other guy in the car,” explains Maarten De Busser, Team Manager of #47 KCMG in the LM P2 category. “It’s important for them to have this routine, they can’t just get out of the car, fall asleep for four hours, and get back in.”
As midnight passed, the #7 Toyota of Nakajima, Stéphane Sarrazin and Alexander Wurz continued to lead.
05:00 CEST: Leadership Change
“The best part is sunrise because it’s beautiful,” admits Jordan Taylor, American driver for #73 Corvette, GTE Pro. “It’s a signal that you’ve made it through the night at Le Mans, you’re on the home stretch to the finish line.” It's a sentiment shared by most drivers, a magical yet hazardous time of day. “It’s about keeping drivers from making high percentage moves,” admits Pratt. “From 3 or 4 in the morning until the sun comes up there seems to be a three-hour window where more mistakes are made. I don't know why, whether it’s letting your guard down or you haven’t got your second wind yet.”
This year sunrise witnessed a significant, script-changing casualty, with the leader #7 Toyota declaring following an electronic failure related to the car’s wiring loom. A simple mechanical breakdown rather than a driver error. #2 Audi assumed control. After so many incidents already in LM P1, could it hang on?
13:00 CEST: To The Wire
By midday both remaining Audis had separately encountered turbocharger problems. #2 headed to the garage first, losing 20 minutes and five laps. “We thought it was over and almost impossible to recover,” said German driver André Lotterer. “The turbo is part of the car which never breaks.”
Audi’s #1 car of Kristensen, Lucas di Grassi and Gené assumed control of the race. A tenth victory now seemed possible for Kristensen, a near impossible notion just days before. Another twist. Its turbo packed in forcing a lengthy garage stop. Porsche Team #20, the car of Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley and Mark Webber assumed control of the competition. Could Porsche take victory in its heralded return to Le Mans following a 16-year absence?
More drama. In a cruel half an hour and with a mere two hours of the race remaining both of its cars headed for repairs. Webber had to nurse #20 back to the garage due to a drive train problem. It never reappeared. “That was tough for everyone,” reflected the Australian. “It would have been such an amazing achievement to go through to the finish. I think we never expected to be in such a great position towards the end of the race.” Its #14 car underwent extensive repairs due to a gearbox failure. The final few hours became #1 Audi versus #2 Audi.
15:00 CEST, Audi maintains domination
The drama subsided. #2 Audi controlled a three-lap lead. A third triumph in four years for the affable team of Marcel Fässler (SUI), Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer (FRA). Audi celebrated its fifth straight victory at Le Mans, its 13th success in 16 appearances. “It was a great course for the fans and for us too. It’s the first edition with the new car and a great victory for Audi," remarks Fässler. Meanwhile, Kristensen achieved a remarkable 14th podium in 18 appearances at Le Mans.
In the other categories competition was equally as fierce. In LM P2, #38 Jota Sport triumphed narrowly defeating #46 Thiriet by TDS Racing. #51 AF Corse, comprising Giancarlo Fisichella, took GTE Pro ahead of Pratt and Taylor’s #73 Corvette Racing in a category which witnessed 24 leadership changes. #95 Aston Martin Racing won GTE Am having led for 206 laps.
The teams can now rest. The 2014 edition proved that in a Le Mans 24 hours anything is possible. It is about believing, persisting and enduring.