#WELCOMECHALLENGES was the mantra laid down by Audi’s Racing team over the last two years as it faced competition in its quest for continued dominance at the famed 24 Hours at LeMans in France.
Over the years, Audi has managed to win 14 of the past 16 contests held at the iconic track south-west of Paris. This year teams from Porsche, Toyota and Nissan all competed in the ultra high-stakes LMP1 category.
Everyone says, regardless of which racing series you favour, total dominance is not good for the sport and I am sure the race organizers have been eagerly waiting for a serious challenger to bring some suspense back to the famed race. Over the years, the sport’s governing body has sought to hinder Audi’s dominance by enacting rule changes aimed at nullifying the fuel economy advantage provided by Audi’s TDI turbo-diesel engines. A series of races around the world has developed from this field of cars and surprisingly enough Toyota actually won the overall championship last year. The pitfall is however that the 24 Hours at LeMans is the marquee event in the series and the real jewel in the crown for anyone that competes in the series. Put bluntly, many at the track this year were surprised to learn that Toyota was the overall series champion in 2014. These same fans were all too well aware that Audi claimed the victory in last year’s contest.
Qualifying for the 2015 edition quickly showed that the Porsche 919 Hybrid was going to be a serious challenge to the reworked Audi R18-etron. Porsches ended up qualifying first and second and fifth on the grid, with Audi’s third, fourth and sixth. Next were the two Toyotas followed by the pair of newly introduced, radically designed Nissan front-wheel drive cars.
From the start of this year’s event, it was clear this was going to be a 2 horse race, well six horses from 2 stables, owned by the same entity. The three Porsches and three Audis traded leads as pit stops and driver changes unfolded. The wondrous thing about a race lasting 24 hours is that you go to sleep with one vision of the race circumstance and awake to find something completely different. Throughout the daytime both teams seemed so evenly matched that it looked as though some unforeseen encounter with a back marker would once again be a deciding factor. This year it was a pure extrapolation of a miniscule margin per lap. Take .9 of a second per lap and run 100 laps. Suddenly you’re 90 seconds ahead of the next closest competitor. Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, the head of Audi Motorsport, explained in an interview over breakfast, that as night fell the Porsches managed to maintain their earlier speed. The dropping temperatures seemed to sap the Audis of a fraction of a kilometer per hour. Compounding Audi’s trial were some unscheduled pit stops including some for loose body work, broken bodywork and some for electrical issues.
At the end of the day, the pair of Porsche 919 Hybrids crossed the finish line first and second with last year’s Audi champions, occupying the 3rd place finisher’s podium position. Following the race, for all the glee over the new champions sitting atop the perch, we were reminded that this was in fact Audi’s 17th straight podium finish. If Audi continues in the series it should be interesting next year to see if fate will prevail in their favour and if they can squeeze that extra kilometer per hour out of the car. “If Audi continues?” Well that’s an interesting thought as its main competitor is also owned by the Volkswagen Group.
That’s a major corporate investment in the series and wouldn’t it be a more prudent business decision to invest in another series for broader reach? The other side of the coin is what if Toyota decides this is no longer a feasible program to continue with given the perpetually poor showing at the series marquee event? That leaves a single competitor, Nissan, who performed so miserably this year that their car failed to surpass cars in a lower class on the same track. Perhaps the event and the series needs both Audi and Porsche to participate to bring maintain the excitement brought by this year’s event. Well, we’ll see what happens over the off season.