MAY 03rd 2015

Audi Sets Down Le Mans Marker With Close Spa Victory

Audi laid down a marker ahead of next month’s Le Mans 24 Hours at Spa on Saturday. It claimed a narrow victory in the second round of the FIA World Endurance Championship — and did it with the low-drag car that it will be racing on the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 13/14.

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Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler took honours for the manufacturer in another thrilling battle with the best of the Porsches. Their R18 e-tron quattro crossed the line after six hours a shade over 13 seconds ahead of the best of its German rival’s 919 Hybrid shared by Neel Jani, Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas.

Porsche, which had taken the top three positions on the grid, had the faster car over one stint on a set of Michelin tyres. But the Audi was the quicker car over two, and even managed to completed two and half stints on a single set. That was key to its victory and also explains why it now has to be regarded as favourite to retain its Le Mans crown next month when multiple runs on one set of tyres are the name of the game.

Lotterer jumped ahead of the leading Porsche in the pits early in the fourth hour by forgoing fresh tyres. Porsche opted against new Michelins for Lieb at the next round of stops, which leapfrogged him
back ahead of the Audi. But the German lost out to a hard-charging Treluyer on new rubber when the Audi took to the front with an around-the-outside manouevre at Fagnes right-left.

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Jani came back at Treluyer in the penultimate hour and briefly took back the lead for Porsche before making his final pitstop. That put the Audi back ahead and, with only a splash and dash fuel stop required, Treluyer was able to hang onto his lead by keeping the same tyres the short run to the flag.

‘When they told me that I was going to keep the tyres for a third stint, I though, oh!’ said Treluyer. ‘But that was our chance to win and I was still able to take risks in traffic and push like hell.’

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The pace of the latest racing machine to carry Audi’s e-tron quattro monicker — all its LMP1 prototypes since 2012 have confusingly had the same designation – in the specification that it will race at Le Mans speaks volumes of the work the German marque has undertaken over the winter. Porsche and reigning world champions Toyota both opted against running their Le Mans-specification bodywork at Spa — their simulations each said it would be slower — yet Audi still had the quickest car
where downforce matters in the high-speed corners of the circuit’s middle sector.

Porsche claimed the final spot on the podium with the pole-winning 919 shared by Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard. It finished a lap down after two delays: a stop-go penalty for Hartley after he had missed his braking and overshot the Bus Stop chicane; and then a ultra-fast change of a failed damper when Bernhard was at the wheel.

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Toyota was nowhere at Spa, a race it won last year on the way to the WEC drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles. Alex Wurz, Stephane Sarrazin and Mike Conway finished fifth – three laps down on the winners — on a day when the TS040 HYBRID was never in the hunt. Reigning world champions Anthony Davidson and Sebastien Buemi, who raced as a duo after Kazuki Nakajima sustained a fractured vertebra in a crash in practice, finish a delayed eighth.

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Audi made its mark ahead of Le Mans, but it won’t admit to being confident.

“Optimistic yes, confident no,” said Lotterer. “You have to respect Le Mans and the clock now gets re-set to zero.”

Photography: Jochen Van Cauwenberge/Frozenspeed

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