I have nothing but huge admiration and respect for what Audi has achieved in the past 15 years or so in global sportscar racing, and at Le Mans in particular. I mean, the German giant has won the great race 13 times since 2000 – or, expressed another way, it’s only lost it three times in 16 attempts – which is an incredible strike rate.
The R8, R10, R15 and R18 prototypes, variously in petrol, diesel and hybrid spec, have sent statisticians spinning in all directions with record-busting performances the like of which we may not see again for a long while.
And yet, yesterday, at the end of the 83rd running of the world’s longest, toughest and most famous motor race, I was delighted it hadn’t won.
Why? Because the only manufacturer that’s won the French endurance epic more times than Audi took the honours for the first time since 1998 at the Circuit de la Sarthe. And, as a devotee of the Zuffenhausen marque, having grown up watching 936, 956 and 962 trouncing all-comers in the 1970s and ’80s, I was super-chuffed.
Not since Allan McNish, Laurent Aiello and Stéphane Ortelli steered their 911-GT1 to Porsche’s 16th win in what was the firm’s 50th year had this iconic brand triumphed in sportscar racing’s blue-riband event, but that victory drought – explained away by Porsche’s absence from the top flight of long-distance competition until 2014 – ended yesterday with a longed-for 17th success in year two on the comeback trail.
And what a comeback. Fast but frail at Le Mans last year, the best of the two 919 Hybrid LMP1 cars finished 11th, more than 30 laps adrift of the winning Audi. Twelve months on, with a revised car and another year of experience in the World Endurance Championship for which the 24 Hours is a qualifying round, Porsche got it right. And how.
Pole position for the #18 machine of Romain Dumas, Neel Jani and Marc Lieb, with a time five seconds inside last year’s qualifying best by Toyota, set the tone for a classic and at the traditional 3pm start the six German racers, comprising three Audi R18 e-tron quattros and three Porsche 919 Hybrids, charged off round the 8.3-mile circuit, sadly leaving world champion Toyota and its brace of TS040s in their whooshing wake.
What followed was a nip-and-tuck duel between these 200mph laboratories that are now packed with technology to shame Formula 1.
The pace was furious at the front, with lap times edging close to the qualifying mark. True to form, the Le Mans 24 Hours was once again a twice-round-the-clock sprint to the finish, with the slightest driver error or mechanical frailty being punished hard.
At the end of the ninth hour, as midnight approached, it was the third-string Porsche 919 Hybrid that truly defied its crew’s relative lack of experience. Race rookies Nico Hulkenberg and Earl Bamber, joined by GT-class convert Nick Tandy with one previous start on his CV, moved the #19 car to the front and stayed there for 15 hours, showing their seasoned rivals the way home to notch up a famous win, by a lap, over the #17 machine of early leaders Mark Webber, Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley – and by two laps over the third-placed Audi.
Not since 1993 had a Le Mans-winning car been pedalled by two rookies, highlighting what a remarkable effort this had been.
And a feel-good factette about Porsche’s 17th Le Mans victory? It came on June 14 – 45 years to the day since British ace Richard Attwood (a notable guest of the team at the race this year) and German veteran Hans Herrmann guided their 917K to the very first.
But the best feel-good moment of this extraordinary event has to have been watching weary drivers, mechanics and management from Audi warmly embracing and congratulating their rivals after losing for only the third time in 16 attempts.
What was I saying about admiration and respect?
Photography by Ben Miles