Le Mans » 16 June 2012
Audi leads, but Toyota strong in 2nd and 3rd
There was a comfortable lead for the Audi #1 during the first four hours, but glitches hit the #2 and #3 cars allowing Toyota to keep them honest and apply some pressure.
As expected, Audi were looking hard to beat right from the moment the tricolour waved to start 24 hours of racing action at Le Mans on Saturday afternoon. But while the #1 car sailed off into the distance, Audi weren't looking invulnerable and minor glitches befell the #2 and #3 cars, allowing Toyota to move into the second and third positions and apply some pressure on the race favourites.
The race started with a hint of showers in the area, but the skies soon cleared and the threat of wet conditions subsided. Audi and Toyota set a blistering pace from the very start, and were lapping backmarkers less than half an hour into the race and just seven laps into their runs, with the closing speed of the Audi and Toyotas on the GTE backmarkers appearing even more phenomenal than usual.
Both Toyotas came into the pits fairly early on lap 9 for quick services, along with Mike Rockenfeller in the #4 Audi which seemed a rather more unusual affair as he was pulled back into the garage for a checkover, putting him down a lap before he was allowed to return to action. Two more Audis - race leader Andre Lotterer in the #1 and Allan McNish in the #2 - were in next time around for rather more straightforward stops, leaving Loic Duval in charge of the race in the #3 Audi until his own stop on lap 11.
Duval was in again on lap 12 - for another new set of tyres, costing him additional time because of a rear puncture from a sharp stone. As a result of this, Lotterer was restored to the lead in the #1 Audi ahead of McNish in the #2 with Duval eventually temporarily slotting in to fifth behind the two Toyotas before making his way ahead of Alexander Wurz and Stephane Sarrazin during the next stint and return to third place, half a minute off McNish. Rockenfeller had fallen to tenth because of his own extended call to the pits, the first car off the lead lap at the end of the first hour.
Pescarolo's painful 2012 Le Mans continued, with both Sebastian Bourdais in the #17 Dome Judd and Emmanuel Collard in the #16 Pescarolo 03 Judd both having prolonged stays in the pits and tumbling off the lead lap and down the running order. The Dome was able to rejoin after a transmission problem was attended to but there were also subsequent alternator and driveshaft problems that kept the car making repeat visits to pit lane. The #16 was looking to be effectively out of the race with yet more engine problems, making the problem of Jean-Christophe Boullion's exit from the driver line-up after his mid-week accident somewhat moot.
Two hours in the first driver changes among the factory LMP1 teams cycled through: Benoit Treluyer took over from Lotterer in the lead while Tom Kristensen took over from McNish in the #2. Duval went a stint further before handing over to Romain Dumas in the third #3 Audi, while both Toyota cars opted for quick driver changes with Nicholas Lapierre taking over the #7 and Sebastien Buemi installed in the #8.
Until he spun at the Ford chicane, Nick Heidfeld had been in sixth place in the #12 Rebellion Racing Lola Coupe-Toyota ahead of the fourth factory #4 Audi that was still recovering from that prolonged early check, with Rockenefeller handing over to Marco Bonanomi for the next stint. Audi's business-as-usual plan was slightly upset on lap 45 when Kristensen's progress was briefly interrupted as the #2 paid an unexpected visit to the pit garage to remove a large lump of rubber pick-up from the suspension, which dropped them down to fifth place behind the Toyotas and Dumas and just ahead of Bonanomi, but Kristensen was clearly determined to make up the positions again in short order.
As the end of hour four loomed, Treluyer still dominated the race lead in the #1 but was looking oddly vulnerable without his wingmen, while Nicholas Lapierre and Sebastien Buemi were very much keeping the Audi marque honest in second and third place. Dumas was the next hightest placed Audi in fourth place in the #3 ahead of Kristensen and Bonanomi, while the best of the rest were the two Rebellion Racing Lola B12/60 Coupe-Toyotas with Neel Jani in seventh place having taken over the wheel of the #12 and Jeroen Bleekemolen eighth in the #13.
In the LMP2 class, John Martin kept the lead in the #25 ADR-Delta Oreca 03-Nissan at the start from Olivier Pla in the #24 OAK Racing Morgan Judd, but the #26 Signatech Nissan Oreca fell down the running order early on. That was shaken up by the first round of pit stops that promoted Pla to the lead ahead of Mathias Beche in the #46 Thiriet by TDS Racing Oreca Nissan and Thomas Kimber-Smith in the #44 Starworks Motorsport HRD ARX 03B Honda.
Tagged as: Toyota , Giancarlo Fisichella , Audi , Nissan , Oliver Gavin , Sébastien Buemi , Allan McNish , Darren Turner , Benoit Treluyer , Andre Lotterer , Alexander Wurz , Loic Duval , Delta
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