2012 24 Hours of Le Mans – AudiWorld perspective

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The 80th running of the 24 hours of Le Mans was won convincingly by Audi, who finished first through 4th in their 11th overall victory at La Sarthe. We knew going in that there was to be no real competition for Audi, as even though the Toyotas had shown some speed, the Audi squad was vastly better prepared for the 24, and their lap times had been consistently faster. As “boring” as this year’s race might have seemed given the relative lack of direct competition from a strong opponent on track (thanks to the sudden withdrawal of arch rival Peugeot from racing in 2012), this result is nevertheless an incredible feat of racing prowess. There is no such thing as an “easy” win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Ponder this for a moment – other than a few unscheduled trips to the pits for crash damage repairs, Audi suffered no major mechanical issues on any of the 4 cars during the race. Finishing all 4 cars took significant planning and development. It is indeed a testament to the years of experience that the Audi team have built up that they are able to construct a car that is not only quick on track, it is sufficiently durable to withstand the bumps and scrapes it might encounter throughout the course of the 24 Hours.

It’s not as if the Audi drivers were out there turning parade laps either, for the most part they were turning laps within 5 seconds of the pole time throughout the race. There was a time during the race, albeit somewhat brief, where there was a glimmer of hope that things would turn interesting for people looking for an actual challenge to the Audi squad. Somewhere in the 5th hour of the race, the #7 Toyota managed to get itself into the lead after an actual on track pass of the leading Audi.

Unfortunately for people looking for a great on track dogfight, this position swapping didn’t last long. We were lucky enough to be standing between Indionapolis and Arnage while the battle was heating up, we saw the Toyota come through in the lead, with Audi #1 inches behind, then squeak past in Arnage. The battle raged on for a few more moments, till a massive crash took place at Mulsanne corner. Toyota owns the dubious honor of being involved in the most spectacular crash of the race, something Audi is happy to pass on after last year’s events. The #8 Toyota, driven by Anthony Davidson, had contact with a GT Ferrari, which caused the Toyota to go sideways, and then blow over in spectacular fashion.

This exact type crash was supposed to be impossible this year keep in mind, as there were new aerodynamic regulations on the cars intended to prevent it. Two examples of these anti-flip tweaks are the huge fin like vertical piece on the back of the car, and openings on the tops of all 4 fenders above the tires. Clearly, those changes didn’t work, as even though aided by a missing left rear tire, the Toyota took flight almost the instant it went sideways. Davidson received a broken back as a reward for his efforts, and the Toyota effort began to unravel. Later in the race, the Toyota would have a coming together with the Nissan Deltawing, resulting in much pit time for Toyota, and the withdrawal of the Deltawing.

Audi had a few off track excursions of their own, with the #3 car taking 2 nearly identical trips into the tires at the first chicane on Mulsanne straight. The first off was when Romain Dumas attempted to pass a slower GT car on it’s right, which put the Audi R18 Ultra out onto the marbles (the small bits of rubber that builds up and flings off of the tires) and gravel which resides just off of the racing line. The car was significantly damaged, but Dumas managed to rejoin the circuit, and bring the car into the garage for repairs, which were done under a caution period that resulted from debris on the track.

Marc Gene also took the #3 car in the exact same place, in the exact same way, though his off didn’t seem to involve any slower cars, just a lot of slag on the race track surface. Once again, the car received significant damage to the front body and front suspension. As a testament to the Audi team Joest crews, once again they had the #3 Audi R18 TDI Ultra back on track in little time.

The only other drama was when Allan McNish had a light off with the #2 R18 e-tron quattro. At this point, spares were running a little low we’re told, and the crews set about repairing the damaged nose instead of replacing it outright. McNish rejoined the race and took his spot within the Audi train.

Through the various caution periods Audi raced within its ranks, and essentially put on a clinic on racing’s grandest stage. Once again, even though the on track racing wasn’t the most exciting we’ve ever seen, the result of the 2012 24 Hours of Le Mans is incredibly impressive. None of the Audis suffered any unexpected trouble, which is astonishing given the overall pace of the race. No, this was not a slow and steady Audi parade, as the ever competitive Audi drivers were battling amongst themselves, turning ever increasingly fast lap times.

As Audi brand enthusiasts, of course we’re thrilled with the result, and what it means. It’s clear that Audi has an enormous following, and equally clear that is 100% committed to the 24 Hours. There are 5 fully staffed hospitality areas, each with a distinctively different style.

The Audi Racing Arena is the busiest, and the largest. Located on driver’s right just befor the Ford Chicanes, Audi has several new and vintage racers on display, as well as last year’s winning R18. They have all kinds of foods and drink there, as well as a large theater style seating area where people can relax and watch the race on a gigantic screen.

The Audi Terrace is next largest. Located at the Dunlop Chicane on driver’s right, the terrace offers the best views of the racing action, with cars coming into view at Dunlop Corner, and running the chicane, and through the Dunlop Bridge. As with last year, we chose the terrace as our spot to watch and photograph the start of the race.

In the Paddock is the Team hospitality building, and there is another team and VIP hospitality area above the Audi pits. Directly across the track from there, and high atop the grandstand is the Audi Racing Club, which is accessible via an elevator. The Racing Club has very comfortable seating, food and drink, as well as many TV screens and live telemetry feeds from the cars. This is a great place to spend the overnight hours, as it’s less busy and quieter than some of the other areas.

Audi are always keen to show off their historically important race cars, and at Le Mans, they set up a nice display area just off of the Vendor Village called the Fantreff, which had an R18 e-tron quattro on display (one of two they had on display at the race, the other being off to the side of the Paddock hospitality area), as well as a collection of historic DTM and Trans AM cars.

As with everything Audi does, the hospitality is top notch, with food service rivaling that of fine restaurants. Outside of the circuit, and across the street, Audi sets up a 1500 room hotel inside a huge convention center, called the Audi Racing Hotel. This is a great place to take a break from the track if needed, catch a few winks, and take a shower (the bathrooms are “common”, as each bedroom is really no more than a closet with a bed inside), and hop on a shuttle back to the track. The convenience of not having to try to park in the various grass (really, they turn into mud with even the slightest moisture) parking lots outside the track, and the shuttles are worth the small rooms. We never actually spent the night in the racing hotel, a quick nap in the media room was all we needed, but it was nice to know we had the option.

The 24 Hours was attended by a reported 250,000 spectators, from seemingly all corners of the world. The vast majority of spectators seem to congregate within the main part of the circuit, essentially from the area just before the Ford Chicanes down through Tertre Rouge. Walking from the paddock area to Dunlop corner involves navigating through the hordes of people who are milling about in the Vendor Village, which is where one can purchase items from a variety of competing teams, food, and even fine jewelry. We found that from 10am on, this area is positively jammed with people and it can be quite difficult to make good time through here if you are in a hurry to get somewhere. There are also bleacher type stands erected in various places around the 8.5 mile track, for people who want to see some of the other famous turns on the track.

We took some media shuttles out to the entry to Porsche Curves, as well as Indianapolis and Arnage on the far side, and out to the end of the Esses (just before Tertre Rouge) on the near side, and highly recommend to anyone visiting Le Mans for the 24 Hours to do the same. We’ve watched the race on TV, we’ve played the track in video games, and the one thing we found interesting is that none of those are able to convey the elevation changes around the Dunlop corner and the bridge. When standing at the Dunlop bridge, we noticed that we were looking down at the top of the Ferris wheel. Another thing that we noticed is that many of the turns are actually noticeably banked, where they appear mostly flat on TV.

Because the circuit is still mostly made up of public roads, which are only closed for the race and other various events leading up to the race, it’s possible at certain times to go for a drive on parts of the track. We had lunch at the Arbor Hotel, which is located directly after the 2nd chicane on the Mulsanne heading in the direction of Mulsanne Corner, necessitating a drive on a few sections of the track to get there from the main entry gate of the Bugatti Circuit. Honestly, there is just something really cool about being able to drive up and down the Mulsanne Straight during the race weekend, especially in our borrowed Audi RS 5.

There is a lot more to Le Mans than just racing though. During the week leading up to the race, there are a few events that are enjoyable for spectators. The Sunday prior to the race in the city of Le Mans is Scrutineering, which is where the cars are checked out by the organizers to make sure they are legal. This also tends to evolve into photo shoots for the teams.

The other big fan favorite leading up to the 24 Hours is the driver parade. Also held in the city of Le Mans, the parade winds through the city streets, through thousands of people who are hoping to grab a souvenir from their favorite driver. This year it was pouring with rain, making the already incredibly intense job of running along with the parade that much more hectic.

We’re hoping that Audi will stay the course with the development of the R18 etron and ultra TDI, and that some other teams work out the kinks in their programs, so that next year’s 24 hours will have more exciting action on track. We’re certain that Audi will be more than up for the challenge!

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