Audi's silent diesel wins Le Mans
18 June 2006
Audi's eerily quiet diesel-powered R10 has made history by becoming the first non-petrol powered car to win the world famous 24 Heures du Mans with a faultless run by the #8 R10 in its debut at the French classic with Frank Biela, Emanuele Pirro and Marco Werner scoring the emotional victory in front of a record crowd of 235,000.
The German concern's new car took over from its all-conquering R8 and the win continues Audi's exceptional record at Le Mans; out of eight years of participation they have won six times, and an Audi engine powered a further winner in that period too.
The fortunes of the winning #8 Audi contrasted with that of the pole-sitting #7 Audi with Rinaldo Capello, Allan McNish and Le Mans legend Tom Kristensen on driving duties. Kristensen, the driver to have won the most Le Mans races, looked set to continue his unbroken win run this century until engine problems related to the sophisticated high pressure injection system meant the car was stationary for over 20 minutes in the pits approaching the four hour mark.
The #7 car fought back but the damage was done. Despite all this there was still a second Audi on the podium as the race pace was good enough to fight back to third, 13 laps down on the winner and four down on the second placed finisher, the #17 Pescarolo C60 Judd with Eric Helary, Frank Montagny and Sebastien Loeb on driving duties.
The #17 car had been the slower of the two-pronged Pescarolo entry but the #16 sister car of Nicholas Minassian, Emmanuel Collard and Erik Comas suffered an engine problem approaching the six hour mark with Minassian at the wheel. Unsure of where the electrical problem lay, the French squad adopted a shotgun approach and changed all relevant components to ensure the problem would not reappear.
It was not all plain sailing for the winning car either. A ten minute pit stop approaching 4am local time, most notably to replace the gearbox cluster, and the front bodywork also required replacement due to the headlights not functioning as they should have been were but the only notable mentions but these were not sufficient to hand Pescarolo the advantage.
The #16 Pescarolo's pit stop handed third place to Jan Lammers' Racing for Holland #14 Dome-Judd with Lammers, Stefan Johansson and Alex Yoong sustaining the gifted third before Yoong suffered a reported throttle jam and broke the steering arms in the subsequent contact with the wall. Car #16 fought back to take fifth.
Winning the prize for most spectacular race exit was the #37 Belmondo Racing Courage C65-Meacachrome which suffered a high-speed rear tyre failure with Frenchman Yann Clairay at the wheel approaching the four hour mark. The 23 year-old was unscathed, but the same could not be said for the car he was sharing Didier Andre and Jean Bernard Bouvet. The bodywork damage was compounded by a brief fire, quickly extinguished by the marshals.
In terms of class battles, all bar the leading LMP1 class offered changes of lead and fluctuating fortunes at the head of the order. LMP2 saw a sterling effort from last year class winners RML in the MG Lola EX264 running as high as fifth in the overall standings and finishing in ninth overall at the flag.
The RML #25 car, driven by Thomas Erdos, Mike Newton and Andy Wallace did enjoy an early battle with the #22 Rollcentre Racing Radical with Joao Barbosa, Stuart Moseley and Martin Short on driving duties. The Radical, on its Le Mans debut, was leading the class at the three hour mark but subsequently faltered due to 30 minutes in the pits assessing a water leak and subsequently dropping down the order with more problems.
The #24 Binnie Motorsports Lola Zytek with William Binne, Allen Timpany and Le Mans veteran Yojiro Terada took LMP2 silver whilst the #27 Miracle Motorsport Courage-AER of John Macaluso, Andy Lally and Ian James took class bronze.
The GT1 battle proved to be close once more and with a season under their belt the Aston Martins looked to be more than a match for the Corvettes but just like last season the Aston charge faltered in the final leg. The 009 car of Pedro Lamy, Stephane Ortelli and Stephane Sarrazin needed a late clutch change which lost its class lead of over a lap.
The Aston's stop handed the class lead to the Jan Magnussen piloted #64 Corvette Racing Corvette C6-R that the Dane shared with Oliver Gavin and Olivier Beretta, with the #007 Aston overtaking its sister car to lead the Aston charge in pursuit. The 'vette had earlier suffered a puncture which had benefited the Aston but otherwise the American car has run without hinder and to an impressive fourth in the overall standings.
Bond's 007 car had earlier suffered problems when Darren Turner crossed the kerbs when coming into the pits in the first hour. The kerbs damaged the engine sump and the oil deposited brought about the first retirement of the race. Whilst the 007 car was returned to action it was another Aston which ironically retired as the BMS Scuderia Italia #69 Aston skidded off on the oil.
In the GT2 class it was the category stalwart Porsche which looked to be taking the win with the #83 Seikel Motorsport GT3 RSR of Lars Erik Nielsen, Pierre Ehret and Dominik Farnbacher well in the lead. However the car's engine faltered and came to a stop before being restarted to endure an agonising return to the pits for the crew to attempt to rectify the problem.
Whilst in the pits the Team LNT #81 Panoz Esperante of Tom Kimber-Smith, Richard Dean and Lawrence Towlinson took the lead. Team boss Tomlinson had been minded to drive the final stint in his car, but given the heat of the competition on track with the Seikel car eating the time back he opted to leave Dean out on driving duties. The Porsche was pushed bodywork damagingly hard by Farnbacher but the deficit was too much to overcome.
Reigning British GT champions Scuderia Ecosse in the Ferrari 430 GT with Andrew Kirkaldy, Chris Niarchos and Tim Mullen on driving duties came home third in class after a difficult weekend for the popular squad.
Le 24 Heures du Mans 2006 represented more than just a change on track with the record number of spectators enjoying the new Village area with a large Audi-sponsored TV screen providing a focal point and gathering area through the night, whilst the beer consumed by fans from all over Europe must surely have been as good as ever.
There was more than just the racing too. The cars coming to the event are almost as exotic as the cars on the track and the enthusiasm by the petrol-heads on the roads around the track was entertainment in itself whilst those preferring a musical interlude to their race watching could enjoy British band The Charlatans playing into Saturday night as the race cars blasted by.
Retirements stretched to 23 cars highlighting the gruelling nature of this event. Hearts were broken, aspirations denied and the challenge of the world's greatest motor race remains intact.
Audi's diesel win represents the start of a change to the French event with the car not only being faster than the opposition but more fuel efficient too. The most noticeable aspect for the spectators, or most absent factor is the lack of noise from the car. That the Audi also runs with particulate filters shows a real forward thinking approach.
2007 will see Peugeot wheel out their diesel contender with the French marque not being noted for approaching its motorsport – save for its Formula One engine programme – at a anything other than . The nature of Le Mans may be changing, but the competition is likely to be as strong as ever.
Tom Kristensen's win run at Le Mans may have come to end, but Audi's is well and truly alive and well.