Audi has been on a torrid run of victories at the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans, with 13 wins in the past 15 years. This weekend, after what turned out to be a neck-and-neck sprint against Volkswagen stablemate Porsche, Audi's supremacy comes to an end. Two of the three Porsche 919 Hybrids glided to first and second place and return the storied marque to its place as Rightful Ruler of la Sarthe.
In a race that is usually marked by high attrition, mechanical failure, and dramatic crashes (including, 60 years ago, a wreck that claimed the lives of 84 spectators), this race proved that cars are getting stronger, crews more efficient in fixing them, and drivers better prepared to finish races. In the end, the relentless back-and-forth battle between two teams and six hybrid-powered protoypes was the story of the weekend. And then the #19 car, driven by Earl Bamber, Nick Tandy, and F1 driver Nico Hülkenberg, exceeded all expectations.
250,000 spectators arrived in this tiny town on the French countryside and camped in trailers and tents in the lots and forests inside the track, keeping warm in the dark hours with blankets, sleeping bags and the temporarily comfort provided by a multi-hour drinking binge.
Since 2000, Audi has mastered the elite P1 prototype class, and won the previous five races at the 8.42-mile long Circuit de la Sarthe using a hybrid engine that paired its diesel TDI V6 with a battery-powered electric motor. This year, Porsche, racing for only the second time since returning to the sport, brought a more powerful—and durable—hybrid engine with a very different configuration.
In a somewhat less positive narrative, Nissan returned to the sport this year with fascinating front-engine, front-wheel-drive prototype that may have proven slightly too radical for primetime. Only one of its three underpowered cars crossed the finish line, and the drivers were battling, among other bugs, unsettled rear tires on exit from the slow-speed corners. Nissan views the race as a live test session, though the surprisingly poor lap times call into question the wisdom of the front/front configuration.
In the lower classes, Corvette Racing won the always electrifying GTE Pro class after Ferrari and Aston Martin succumbed to a series of wrecks and mechanical failure. Actor Patrick Dempsey, sharing wheeltime on his Dempsey Proton Racing Porsche 911 RSR, surprised the GTE Am class with a very strong second place finish.
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