Hybrids at Le Mans: Tragedy and Triumph

There was no question that this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans was going to be one for the history books, with the Audi and Toyota hybrids putting in some impressive performances. Having beaten last year’s qualifying record, pole sitter André Lotterer got off to a fabulous start in the #1 Audi R18 e-Tron diesel hybrid. The lead Audi of Team Joest went on to dominate the race, Lotterer and co-drivers Marcel Fässler and Benoît Tréluyer, traveling a distance of 378 laps to finish one lap ahead of teammates Rinaldo Capello Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish in the #2 diesel hybrid R18.

Nevertheless, there was quite a bit of drama, with the two leading Audis facing not only stiff competition from each other but also a healthy challenge from Toyota. Nicolas Lapierre, driving the #7 TS030 hybrid, briefly took the lead from the #1 Audi piloted by Treluyer, though not long after, tragedy struck the Toyota team, when Anthony Davidson, who was running third in the #8 Toyota, got clipped by the #81 GTE Ferrari of Piergiuseppe Perazzini at the Mulsanne corner. The impact was enough to send Davidson’s car airborne, somersaulting, before it plowed nose first into the barrier. The Ferrari skidded tail first, before flipping over onto its roof. Although Perazzini walked away, Davidson suffered back injuries and was taken to a nearby hospital.

The #7 Toyota also eventually succumbed; during hour 7, Kazuki Nakajima who was driving the sole remaining TS030, hit the Nissan DeltaWing while attempting to pass it. The damage was enough to eventually force retirement, leaving Toyota without a chance of finishing the race; nevertheless, the TS030 hybrids had shown they could run with the leaders and it was an impressive return for a team that hasn’t run at Le Sarthe since 1999.

Even the Audis weren’t immune from mishaps; as the race wound on and fatigue began to set in, a couple of instances looked like they could cost Team Joest the lead. Fässler, driving Audi hybrid #1, spun the car in the Porsche Curves in the 14th hour, lightly touching the wall; luckily damage was minor. He went off into the gravel four hours later, requiring a pit stop and repairs to the rear bodywork. Tréluyer; taking over driving duties from Fässler, later spun the car while entering the pits and just an hour later, McNish, in the other R18 hybrid, went off at the Porsche Curves. Luckily the car was repaired and three hours later, Audi made history with a 1-2 hybrid finish.

Although Audi has dominated Le Mans for the last decade (save for the single upset by Peugeot in 2009), the 2012 running must surely rank as one of the most memorable victories, especially from a technological standpoint.

Audi Sport supremo Wolfgang Ullrich was understandably delighted at this year’s result. “I think it’s very special,” he said, in regards to the victory, “because [it’s] something that will pave the way for the future.”