Say what you like about the 81st running of the world famous Le Mans 24 Hour race, but it was certainly eventful and incident packed.
The rain wouldn't stay away for more than half an hour at a time, making for a record number of safety cars and time spent under yellow flag condition: every time it appeared that the race was settling down into a procession it was soon clear that the weather had very different ideas.
The first shower hit the race just as the tricolour was waved to get proceedings underway, and the sudden onset of the slippery track surface made for treacherous conditions. Allan Simonsen was immediately caught out in the #95 Aston Martin Vantage V8 on the second run through Tertre Rouge; his car lost grip over wet kerbs and snapped left into a brutal impact with the Armco barrier.
Although it was initially reported that the Dane was conscious and talking to medics, tragic news came from the hospital two hours later with confirmation that the 34-year-old from Odense had died of his injuries. The news of the first in-race fatality since 1986 hung heavy over the remainder of the 90th anniversary of Le Mans; the Aston Martin Racing team decided to continue competing at the request of Simonsen's family, with the need to claim a class win in one of the GTE categories given an added emotional impetus.
At the front, Audi's André Lotterer had launched the team's #1 R18 e-tron quattro into an early strong lead past the polewinners in the #2 car, with the three Audis soon locking out the top spots early in the proceedings as an initial burst of pace from the two Toyotas before the hour-long safety car for Simonsen's accident proved to be short-lived.
In the end, Audi proved the master of everything that the French climate could throw at it and one of their three cars was almost always out in front. That might makes it sound like it was an easy drive in the country for the German manufacturer on the way to a certain win, but the truth was rather more white-knuckle than the team would have liked.
The #1 car suffered a mechanical issue during the night with a crank shaft sensor failure that required a lengthy repair in the garage. When the car finally emerged back out onto the track it was 12 laps behind the leaders down in 24th place - and out of contention.
Fortunately the #2 car took over the lead in the hands of the über-experienced Tom Kristensen, and despite some worries from time to time about vibrations the car performed flawlessly for the team, Kristensen and his co-drivers Lois Duval and Allan McNish running in the lead from there all the way to the chequered flag 16 hours later to clinch Audi's 12th Le Mans title.
It was just as well they did, because the #3 Audi was meanwhile struggling to hold back the two Toyotas, who were making a better fist of things then many had been expecting given the relative paces of the cars during the week of practice and qualifying. The #8 Toyota TS030 hybrid eventually settled into a reasonably safe second place in the hands of Anthony Davidson, Sebastien Buemi and Stéphane Sarrazin, while the #7 sister car was locked in an increasingly heated battle for the final podium position with the #3 Audi.
As the race neared its end, it was Oliver Jarvis in the Audi trying to maintain the position ahead of a hard-charging Nicolas Lapierre. Lapierre had the raw speed, but he was caught out by the onset of a heavy downpour just over an hour from the end of the race, and he ended up burying the front of the #7 into the tyre wall at the Porsche curves.
Although Lapierre initially assumed the worst and jumped out of the car, a safety car period meant that he was able to climb back in and return the Toyota to the team garage for repairs which meant that he would at least finish the race in fourth place. However it certainly put the podium out of reach, with Marc Gene, Lucas di Grassi and Oliver Jarvis duly taking the honours instead in the #3 Audi.
The late cloudburst also caused a scare for longtime LMP2 class leader Bertrand Baguette in the #35 OAK Racing Morgan-Nissan he shared with Martin Plowman and Ricardo Gonzalez. Although he spun, he managed to avoid collecting anything in the process, and got back to pit lane without losing his lead over team mate Olivier Pla in the sister #24 car. Once the green flag came out he was able to complete the run to the class win.
The late rain had a more serious impact on the battle for the GTE-Pro honours, which had come down to a battle between Richard Lietz in the #92 Porsche AG Team Manthey and Stefan Mücke in the #97 Aston Martin Vantage V8, who thanks to a hard-charging stint in the car from his team mate Darren Turner was still in with a chance of getting an emotional team victory to dedicate to Allan Simonsen's memory. Mücke seemed about to clinch the class lead when a combination of rain and waved yellows forced him to back off.
Mücke dived into pit lane for a quick change to wet weather tyres, but he was then caught out by the red light at the end of pit lane. Through some combination of Le Man's uniquely arcane rules surrounding its multiple safety car procedures, this ended up dropping Mücke into third place, a lap off the back of Lietz and the sister #91 Porsche. It was a deflating end to what had already been a tragic weekend for everyone working in the Aston Martin family at Le Mans this weekend.
The final GTE-Am category had been controlled for much of the back half of the 24 hour endurance race by Jean-Karl Vernay and his co-drivers Raymond Narac and Christophe Bourret in the #76 IMSA Performance Matmut Porsche 911 GT3 RSR, and it was only fitting that Vernay was at the wheel when the chequered flag waved. He finished a lap ahed of two AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italias, who in turned pushed Patrick Dempsey's #77 Dempsey Del Piero-Proton off the podium in the final hours.
Despite the tricky conditions, multiple spins and run-offs and a record number of safety cars, the race still saw a remarkably low attrition rate. Other than Allan Simonsen's terrible accident just ten laps into the event, there were just 13 further formal retirements during the full day of racing.
Aston Martin Racing might have been unable as a team to bring home the heartfelt tribute victory in memory of Simonsen; but with the Danish flag flying at half mast over the Le Mans podium, at least the top spot on the podium went to a fellow Dane.
Tom Kristensen had won the event for the ninth time in his career, making him one of the greatest Danish sporting heroes of all time, but on Sunday afternoon that significant and hard-won achievement was nonetheless a decidedly secondary matter when compared with the tributes and ovation paid to Allan Simonsen, to whom Kristensen himself duly dedicated the race victory from the winners' podium.Full race resultsFull results by classFull WEC entrants results
Hourly 'as it happened' reports: H1