It was a battle of the hybrids: Audi versus Toyota. The German brand had already won 11 previous Le Mans 24 Hours, while Toyota had come tantalizingly close at second place. The Japanese brand was keen to become the second company from its home country to win the prestigious race, the first being Mazda with its famous rotary engine.
Even before the start, it was clear that the battle would be between these two giants. Audi had taken pole, while the highest Toyota started from second place. Audi clearly had the faster car, as they clinched all of the top three grid positions after qualifying. For the first time in Le Mans 24 Hours’ 90-year history, two hybrid race cars lined up on the front row. Audi Sport Team Joest’s three Audi R18 e-tron quattro cars ended up as the fastest three cars in qualifying.
The Audi R18 e-tron is an evolution of the race-winning R18. Like the R18, the e-tron is powered by a midengined turbodiesel engine good for 510 horsepower. The hybrid part is courtesy of a motor that drives the front wheels. The system captures energy when the car is decelerating, then transfers it to a flywheel. The flywheel can then send the energy back to the front wheels for more acceleration.
Right behind the Audi hybrids were the pair of Toyota machines, the TS030. Toyota No. 8 was piloted by Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi and Stéphane Sarrazi, while the No. 7 car started fifth, with Alex Wurz, Nicolas Lapierre and Kazuki Nakajima behind the wheel.
The TS030 uses a 3.4-liter normally-aspirated gasoline V8, paired with its own hybrid system. In contrast to Audi’s flywheel, Toyota uses supercapacitors to store energy captured under
braking. The TS030 has electric motors on both the front and rear axles. Characteristically, Toyota is with its multisupplier system, the front motors are by Aisin and the rear by Denso. The car can take off in electric mode, potentially saving a lot of fuel.
Drivers include erstwhile F1 pilot Alex Wurz, who said, “It was cool to drive the TS030 hybrid car for the first time. Just leaving the garage on the electric power is very futuristic, then when you let the clutch go and the internal combustion engine kicks in it is like an old friend has returned!”
Audi anticipated a tight, difficult battle, and indeed it was very fast hare versus lightning-fast rabbit. Audi’s R18 e-tron, despite being fuel-efficient for a race car, still could do two laps less per full tank than the Toyotas. Thus the Audi drivers had to compensate by being faster on the track, and this they did despite weather conditions that changed quickly and extremely. Eleven safety car deployments and more than five hours under “yellow flag” conditions were the result.
Still, the Audi team of Loïc Duval (F), Tom Kristensen (DK) and Allan McNish (GB) took the lead at 21:43 on Saturday night and clinched the victory by recording the most number of laps by 15:00 on Sunday.
Audi says that this is a successful test of their hybrid technology, as well as other developments meant for their road cars. These include innovative radiators and “matrix-beam” LED headlamps that optimize lighting of corners.
Toyota took second and fourth place, with Davidson-Buemi-Sarrazin and Wurz-Lapierre-Nakajima, respectively. The second place equal’s Toyota’s best finish at Le Mans, with the TS010 in 1992, 94C-V in 1994 and TS020 in 1999.
Tragically, a race driver lost his life during the race. Danish driver Allan Simonsen succumbed to injuries sustained when his Aston Martin figured in a heavy accident just minutes into the race.
The 34-year-old spun into the barriers at Tertre Rouge on lap three after 10 minutes.
Simonsen’s death is the first driver fatality at Le Mans since Frenchman Sebastien Enjolras was killed during prequalifying in 1997, and the first during the race since Austrian Jo Gartner died in 1986.
“In a serious condition, Allan Simonsen was transferred immediately to the Circuit Medical Centre where he died soon after due to his injuries,” read a statement on the event’s website (www.24h-lemans.com).
Simonsen, widely regarded as an extremely fast endurance driver, was competing in the GTE Am class in the 90th anniversary edition of the annual epic sportscar race.
Media reports said he was conscious and talking to doctors immediately following the accident.
He was attended to at the scene of the crash by staff from the Automobile Club de l’Ouest’s medical service who transferred him to the Circuit Medical Centre.
Aston Martin team chief David Richards informed his family, who said they wanted the team to carry on in the event in tribute to Simonsen.
Aston Martin Racing managing director John Gaw added in a statement: “On behalf of all of us at Aston Martin Racing, I would like to extend our deepest sympathies and condolences to the individuals, and families whose friends or loved ones were involved in today’s terrible tragedy.” Simonsen had taken part in seven Le Mans 24 Hours events.
His codrivers in the car, numbered 95, were compatriots Christoffer Nygaard and Kristian Poulsen.
In a statement, the organizers (Automobile Club de l’Ouest) said that no further information will be released “while the exact reasons for the accident are still being determined.” Simonsen was quoted telling reporters on Friday that he was looking forward to the race with great anticipation.
“Just being at Le Mans and to be allowed to drive the car on the track is incredibly special,” he said. “It’s the biggest race for us.
“It’s the one we most look forward to. It’s also difficult because there are so many excellent drivers from all over the world—it’s a huge challenge.” After Simonsen’s accident, the first hour of the race was led by the safety car until waved green flags signaled renewed racing.
Three hours after the start, German Andre Lotterer led the race in the No. 1 Audi R18 e-tron quattro diesel hybrid ahead of two other Audis.With wire reports