Saturday, 16 June 2012

2012 Le Mans 24 Hours (Updated Periodically)

Full spotter's guide. Click to embiggen (open in another tab for 4000px).
So it's here again, and this time it doesn't coincide with Formula 1. The Le Mans 24 Hours is being run for the 80th time, and without Peugeot, it's down to Toyota and their updated TS030 hybrid (pictured below) to take down the dominant Audi team in their first LM24 since 1999. Meanwhile, the much-lauded DeltaWing-Nissan is running outside of the rules - and therefore won't be classified in any classes - to showcase a completely different way of making a racing car, featuring a 300bhp 1.6 turbo engine derived from that of a Nissan Juke and a much lower weight than the other competitors, as well as a distinctive Batmobile-esque body that's extremely narrow at the front before growing outwards at the rear (Fun Fact: The body is so aerodynamic that when ACO made them add fixed mirrors instead of cameras, it made an 8% difference to aero performance!). The name "DeltaWing" is derived from the shape, used to mean aeroplanes with triangular wings, like a Vulcan bomber or Concorde. It's certainly an intriguing proposition that qualified level with mid-running LMP2 cars, so how will it get on? Let's find out...

Toyota TS030 Hybrid (final car)

The First Three Hours:
The 80th running of the prestigious Le Mans 24 Hours got off to a smooth start, with the only Audi R18 not to out-qualify the two Toyotas quickly passing Stephane Sarrazin's #7 TS030 through turn 4, at the hands of Allan McNish, who crashed spectacularly at the very same corner last year. McNish then started to drop back behind the other Audis to hold up the Toyotas and let the Germans get away, which didn't work for long. That's not to say that Sarrazin got back past him, though. As Toyota kept applying pressure, the #4 Audi R18 Ultra came in with technical problems and fell back. The Toyotas got up to 3rd and 4th as the Audis suffered from more problems, with the #2 Audi R18 e-Tron quattro also dropping back, allowing the TS030s to reliably ascend to 2nd and 3rd places, now at the hands of Nicolas Lapierre and Sébastien Buemi (former Toro Rosso F1 driver). The leading e-Tron quattro hybrid will be hard to catch though, especially as it becomes 4WD above 120km/h (75mph), which will give it a major advantage if it rains.

On that front, it drizzled lightly about 10 minutes in, but stopped pretty quickly, failing to catch out the front runners but seeing a few LMP2 drivers panic and pit in. P2 is actually a more competitive class, with plenty of privateer teams running Lola or Oreca chassis with a Nissan, Judd, Toyota or Honda engine. Martin Brundle is in a team with his son and GT Academy winner Lucas Ordoñez (Greaves Motorsport) and are currently running in 15th overall and 5th in class.

The DeltaWing was holding on to its qualifying place of 30th place overall (out of 56), reaching 25th place before an "air shift" gear shift actuator - fitted by regulation - failed and put them in the garage for a good 20 minutes or so. They fell to stone dead last, but have now got back up to 52nd, a whopping 15 laps behind the leader (#1 Audi R18 e-Tron quattro driven by Benoit Tréluyer). The only retirement so far has been a Lola-Nissan being run by Gulf Racing Middle East, who spun out and hit the wall before the final chicanes. Well, you know, money doesn't buy you skill.

The GTE classes have been fiercely competitive so far. Earlier, Darren Turner of Aston Martin Racing was fighting toe-to-toe with Tommy Milner of Corvette Racing, swapping the lead for GTE-Pro lap after lap for over 10 minutes, before Turner made a mistake on the exit of Mulsanne Corner and dropping back, having to defend from the #51 AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia, who then spent a couple of laps battling and passing Turner. Leading the class for a while due to a long range, the Ferrari has now pitted in and switched drivers to former F1 driver Giancarlo Fisichella. At this point, Corvette closely leads Aston Martin, while in the GTE-Am* class it's a Porsche 1-2-3, with the Flying Lizard team leading the amateur-driver class.

*There's no difference between the cars in Pro an Am class, but in Pro, you're allowed one or two of your three wheelmen to be professional drivers. The Corvette and AMV8 engines sound fantastic!

DeltaWing-Nissan DeltaWing (show car)

4th-6th Hours:
The Toyotas pushed hard at this point. That didn't stop Romain Dumas (#3 Audi R18 Ultra) getting back up into 3rd during pit stops, passing Nicolas Lapierre's #7 Toyota TS030h. The lead Toyota then had a minor exterior glitch, as the leading edge plate for the right side of the rear wing (the curved bit) came loose about 4h48m into the race, flying off when Lapierre reached the Mulsanne Straight. This doesn't seem to have affected him much. While this was happening, the #99 Aston Martin V8 Vantage spun off at the Porsche Curves and into the gravel. He continued on. At 5h15, the DeltaWing team had a leaky fuel rig, but that didn't hinder their progress as they continue on, now up into 46th place.

All fairly ordinary, until this happened [I'm downloading these so I can re-upload if they're taken down for copyright]:
Running Time: 3:35

For those of you who have YouTube blocked where you are, this is Roamin Dumas being a real racing driver. Following a Flying Lizard Porsche 997 GT3 RSR, he hit oil and slithered into the tyre wall at the first chicane of the Mulsanne Straight. After a few seconds of panicking, he leapt to action, getting out of his car (you're still in the race if you stay within 30ft of your car) and ripping off the dislodged bodywork like a surgeon removing scar tissue or a gangrenous foot... with his bare hands. Having removed the dead skin, as it were, he then jumped back into his R18, strapped in and set off, despite having only one working front wheel! He got it back to the pits and although he's now 8 laps down, he is still running after Audi restored the front suspension and put a new nose piece on. Fantastic.

Alas, this section has to be dominated by Toyota. Nicolas Lapierre chased down the lead Audi of Benoit Tréluyer, getting right up to the back of him as the 5th hour closed in. Nose-to-tail coming out of the second chicane on the Mulsanne Straight, Lapierre had a look down the inside of the Audi heading into Mulsanne corner, but braked too conservatively to make a move, perhaps due to the two LMP2 cars ahead. Nevertheless, he drew alongside after the exit and started to overtake, staying right and even brushing the grass briefly as two flat-out right kinks came and went, followed by a quick dab for a slower right kink and then a full braking zone, down three gears for Indianapolis, a 90° left-hander for which Tréluyer was on the inside. He retook the lead, but coming out of the following corner the difference in hybrid recuperation systems became clear. While Audi's Williams Hybrid Power-designed flywheel recuperation system is more adjustable about how the power is delivered to the front wheels, Toyota's capacitor-based system (which is more like F1's KERS), just dumps the full 120bhp of extra boost onto the rear wheels in one blast, which a very excited Eurosport commentator described as "like an explosion". Sure enough, the TS030 overtook the R18, and Toyota became race leaders at the Le Mans 24 Hours in a brand new car, having passed a refined version of last year's winner. Fantastic!! ...... And then, all of a sudden, not fantastic:

Running Time: 2:07

Not a minute after Toyota #7 took the lead, Toyota #8 collided with a GTE-Am Ferrari 458 (#81 AF Corse) heading into Mulsanne corner. The car bounced over a kerb, and as soon as air got under it, the car flew upwards and back-flipped, landing on the rear wheels and slamming hard into the wall. The kink heading into the braking zone is flat-out in an LMP1 car, so Anthony Davidson will have been doing around 200mph when the Ferrari piloted by Piergiuseppe Perazzini drove into the side of him, and as such the impact with a tyre wall four deep wasn't enough to stop the Armco bending completely out of shape where the Toyota hit it, while the Ferrari also slammed into the tyres hard enough to turn himself upside down. He got out and walked away, telling an interviewer that he couldn't tell how far away Davidson was and said "it's impossible to overtake there". Erm, no it isn't, mate. With a car's width, Ant would've done so without breaking sweat. The visibility thing can definitely be a problem though, as Ferraris and leading LMP1s demonstrated last year, although it wasn't exactly night time and the Toyota is considerably louder than the Audi...

Nevertheless, Davidson was taken by ambulance to the Medical Centre for check-ups. He was walking and talking, but shaken up. Toyota say he's in shock and has back pain, and will now be taken to hospital. At least he can swap notes with Mark Webber after the race. As the Safety Car(s) came out for over half an hour while marshals rebuilt the barrier afoot the Mulsanne Straight, the two leaders pitted in for a driver change and new tyres. Audi serviced the car faster than Toyota, putting R18 e-Tron quattro #1 back in the lead, now piloted by Marcel Fässler. Kazuki Nakajima, former F1 driver who wasn't that great if we're brutally honest, took the wheel of the sole remaining Toyota as they rejoined to follow the safety car, stuck among slower cars. When the race restarted, Nakajima and the two Audi e-Trons jostled for position among LMP2s and the DeltaWing (up to 48th place), and going through Corvette Corner (the last left before the pit entry), Nakajima accidentally bashed into the DeltaWing, sending it off and into concrete walls. Nissan SUPER GT driver Satoshi Motoyama stayed in the car, and I think it's still running. It's not like there's a lot of bodywork to fly off, so as long as it's structurally OK - which it should be - they could continue. The live timing says they're still running in 48th place, but that's not to say it's telling the truth. Commentators say the car is still in the wall with extensive damage, but they're trying to get it going again.

The Toyota was damaged at the rear right corner and suffered a puncture, so was forced into the pits. Since I started typing all this, he's pitted again and has now been pushed backwards into the garage. That doesn't mean he's out, it just means they need more than two people working on the car. So all of a sudden, just when it was coming together for Toyota, it's all falling apart......

Meanwhile in GTE-Pro, it's now Corvette versus Ferrari, as the Aston Martin has dropped back a little. They're still going at it though.

Audi R18 Ultra & Audi R18 e-Tron quattro

Hours 6-9:
As night falls, the DeltaWing is definitely out. When the team boss was interviewed, he said it was too damaged and "down on one side", as well as being beached. Satoshi Motoyama made every effort he could, but a driveshaft was broken and steering shafts were smashed. It suffered most of its damage in the first impact with a concrete wall, with the second impact merely bringing it to a halt. It's a shame - and it's becoming slightly annoying/ironic that Nissan is still showing adverts for it on TV during the race - but what have DeltaWing achieved? Well, a car with only 300bhp was running at LMP2 speeds, while going eleven or twelve 8.5-mile laps on 40 litres of petrol, so all-in-all, it's been very impressive, and has proven its point. It's just a shame it was side-swiped off the track. Toyota's getting karmic retribution, though; the TS030 came out of the garage 7h14m in, only to stop at the end of the pit lane and get wheeled back in again. Nakajima had handed over to Alex Wurz - a much safer pair of hands - but when the Toyota finally rejoined the race at 8h21, the drivers had swapped back again. Since then the #7 Toyota TS030 has been running way back in 47th place (2nd- or 3rd-last). It has also had a spin at Dunlop Corner and apparently tangled with an OAK-Nissan, who are now having troubles. So if you betted on Toyota, I'm afraid you've had it...

Up front, Nicolas Prost in the Rebellion Racing Lola-Toyota (sponsored, confusingly, by Lotus) is now in 4th place, fastest of the petrol-powered cars, while the #3 Audi R18 Ultra that narrowly avoided defeat earlier has climbed up to 6th place. The top 5 are now Audi e-Tron, Audi e-Tron, Audi Ultra, Rebellion, Rebellion. Aside from the #3 Audi passing the purely petrol-powered Prost-piloted privateer prototype, it'll probably stay that way from now on.

So what about the other classes? In LMP2, the #24 OAK Racing Morgan-Judd is leading the class and running in 7th overall, with the #48 Murphy Prototypes Oreca-Nissan a mere lap behind (and currently catching, as the Morgan is in the pits). It's all very close, actually, with the first 11 P2 cars separated by three laps. Third in class is the #44 Starworks Honda ARX-03B. Other noteworthy teams in this class include the Signatech Nissan team, featuring GT Academy sequel winner Jordan Tresson. They are currently 7th in class, and so far haven't shown any signs of repeating the impressive 2nd in class they achieved despite a puncture last year, at the hands of Lucas Ordoñez. Speaking of Lucas, the "Brundle bundle" that he's racing with, the #41 Greaves Motorsport Zytek-Nissan, are in a lowly 13th in class (19th overall), so GT Academy drivers aren't getting on as well as in '11. So far, at least.

In GTE-Pro, it's Corvette, Ferrari, Corvette, Ferrari, Porsche, Aston, Ferrari, Ferrari. Tommy Milner is still leading in the #74 'Vette, followed by Gianmaria Bruni in the #51 AF Corse 458 Italia, who is around 90 seconds behind at present. The #61 AF Corse Ferrari running in GTE-Am had a spin at the end of the Porsche curves and is now in the garage.

Overall, the race is calming down and settling into the night shift. Now that it's past midnight in France, Italian Audi works driver Rinaldo "Dindo" Capello has changed age mid-race. I wonder how often that happens? Anyway, happy 48th birthday, Mr. Capello! His car, the #2 R18 e-Tron quattro, is currently running in 2nd. I'm sure a win would be a lovely birthday present!

As the race is settling down - the odd spin to one side - I shall do the same. More in the morning. Just remember, as you sleep tonight, the most famous endurance race in the world is still raging on...

#74 Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette ZR1

Hours 9-20:
First, a couple of updates on earlier things. Anthony Davidson officially has a broken back (vertebrae T11 and T12), and is lying in hospital. The #7 Toyota had engine problems and finally retired by hour 11, ending an emotional rollercoaster that went so high up before plunging so far downwards. LMP1 is now the Audi R18 show, with Ultra #3 regaining 4th position and probably staying there until the end, as he's 8 laps behind the leaders. It wasn't that simple though, as it collided with a GTE-Am Corvette in hour 12 and needed a new front bodywork section. If any of them run into problems now, the Rebellion Lola-Toyotas will be there to get a petrol car on the overall podium for the first time in years. Also, some footage has emerged of Satoshi Motoyama trying desperately to get the DeltaWing back on track before having to call it quits after 90 minutes of trying:

Running Time: 2:05

He looks pretty upset about it, and to be fair it wasn't his fault. The fan favourite couldn't complete the race, as we know. Meanwhile, LMP2 is still closely fought. While the two OAK-Pescarolos, both former class-leaders are having problems (one with engine and one with chassis), the #44 Starworks Honda, #46 Thiriet By TDS Racing Oreca-Nissan, #49 Pecom Racing Oreca-Nissan and the #26 Signatech Oreca-Nissan (which includes 2nd GT Academy winner Jordan Tresson) all on the same lap, meaning that any of the four cars could snatch a class win. That said, as I type the Signatech Nissan is coming into the pits with a puncture...

Martin Brundle's car (Greaves Motorsport #42) has had a difficult night. It developed a stuck throttle problem when Alex Brundle was in the car, then when Martin took over, it stuck wide open going into Indianapolis, which he described as "very scary". The car is now being looked at in the garage.

Most of the action has been in the GTE classes. In hour 11, the #74 Corvette Racing Corvette ZR1 lost a rear wheel and had to crawl back to the pits, losing three whole laps on the leaders. They put a new wheel on, but it wasn't quite that straightforward. Both Corvettes developed unrelated steering issues, and the #74 has been in the garage since 8 o'clock (UK time) having a gearbox changed and other niggles looked at. As a result, it's now Ferrari-Ferrari-Aston Martin in the Pro class, while the Larbre Competition Corvette ZR1 is at least winning the Am class. Ferrari aren't having it all their own way, however; the #59 Luxury Racing 458 Italia went off into the gravel at Indianapolis. This dropped it down to fourth in class until the Corvettes had issues. The Aston Martin is recovering from issues in class 3rd, and has been slowly catching up to the Fezzas, while the #51 AF Corse and #59 Ferraris race one lap apart (formerly one minute apart, but they've spread out in the last 8 hours). The #51 car is leading the class after Giancarlo Fisichella had a huge crash in qualifying and has effectively been rebuilt for qualifying and the race.

By sunrise, only 40 of the 56 entrants are still running. We've lost both Toyotas, the DeltaWing and plenty more besides, but the track will only get brighter and there's no sign of rain.

In hour 18, the Aston Martin's serious progress was hindered by a spin and crash into Indianapolis, where the #97 AMV8 suffered far less damage than the crash would've suggested and carried on, re-passing the #59 Luxury Racing Ferrari 458 which passed him during the off, as the Ferrari suffered a puncture. Later on, the #61 AF Corse Ferrari 458 played to the annoying stereotype of Italian supercars catching fire, as a high-speed puncture somehow lead to a fire under the left-front wheel arch. The spectacular flames were doused the the injured car was taped up by the team and sent on its way. It's now in 32nd overall, 7th in the GTE-Am class. The Level 5 Honda ARX-03 ran out of fuel at Indianapolis, dropping way back from the LMP2 class lead. They're now running 37th overall, 14th in class.

The #1 Audi R18 e-Tron quattro found itself facing the wrong way in hour 14, needing a long unscheduled pit stop to get back in the running. This meant the #2 car piloted by birthday boy Dindo Capello took the lead. In the last hour or so, the #1 car has caught up and started really racing the sister hybrid for the race lead, dicing for position and even going off at the first Mulsanne chicane after out-braking himself. Neverhteless, the #1 car now piloted by Benoit Tréluyer is in the lead, around 2 seconds ahead of Allan McNish, who's now piloting the #2 car. The #4 R18 Ultra is four laps down, in 3rd place.

2012 is the last year for the Porsche 997 GT3, which has served very well in Porsche's bid for GT dominance over the last 7 years or so, and if they could win a class at Le Mans in their final year, it would be fitting, as 911s have been a key part of GT racing for decades. Soon, a 991-based car will take over. Currently, the #67 IMSA Performance Matmut 911 GT3 RSR is second in the GTE-Am class having lead for a time, now ~30 seconds behind the Larbre Corvette, and the distinctive Flying Lizard #79 a few laps down in class 4th.

By hour 20, the #38 Jota Zytek-Nissan has spun hard at the last of the Porsche Curves, mashing the rear end. They got it going again, but it was crabbing horribly as the bent rear end was all out of line. Nasty. Needless to say, they're in the garage.

Benoit Tréluyer and Allan McNish are still dicing for the lead, weaving through traffic all along the bottom section of the track, with Tréluyer even putting two wheels on the dusty hard shoulder to pass a slower car before McNish. This put three cars between them, until McNish cleared them all by the end of Indianapolis. Tréluyer in #1 has pitted, allowing McNish in #2 a fat lap in clear air to try and jump him in the pits, F1-style... and it hasn't quite worked. They're now 16 seconds apart after McNish's stop.

It's taken most of hour 21 to type this, and not a great deal has happened, but come back after the race for the final bit. The Strakka Honda (former P2 leader) is out, and it now looks like whoever can save themselves a pit stop at the end of the race will come out on top...

Circuit de la Sarthe map

Hours 21-24:
OK, so I don't muddle it all up, I'll do it via time stamps for the final three hours.

20:57 - Benoit Tréluyer had a surprising and bizarre entry to the pits, locking his rear wheels and pitching the #1 Audi R18 e-Tron quattro into a quick spin. Whether this was caused by a pit speed limiter coming in strongly or the hybrid system messing with the rear brakes, it's unclear, but he lost about 3 seconds to McNish. Audi then had plenty more drama, as the #3 R18 Ultra had exactly the same accident it had yesterday evening, hitting oil mid-way round the first Mulsanne chicane and crashing into the tyre wall, ripping off front bodywork and, this time, damaging the front-right suspension in the process. He and the marshals pulled off the loose bits and he hobbled off to the pits, having 3/4 of a lap to travel with one very loose wheel.

21:15 - Before he got it back to the pits, the leading car of Allan McNish, the #2 e-Tron quattro, has smashed into the wall on the outside of the first left-hand Porsche curve. It turns out he came across a red Ferrari 458 Italia mid-corner and overreacted, spinning off left, hitting the inside wall and bounding off for a hard impact with the outside right wall. The front wheels were straight on the #2 car, so once he reversed backwards, he got it to the pits relatively quickly, and was back out in 7 minutes. Gené came into the pits a couple of minutes after McNish, and left the pits just 6 minutes later, despite needing a suspension rebuild. Beat that, Edd China!

21:42 - The Safety Cars - all three of them - are off the track after McNish's accident left too much debris strewn across the high-speed left-hand corner. McNish lost a lap and a half to Benoit Tréluyer, and Marc Gené in R18 Ultra #3 is now tasked with passing and catching the Rebellion Lola-Toyota that inherited third place from him. Andre Lotterer now pilots the lead car.

(The #67 IMSA Performance Matmut Porsche 911 GT3-RSR (997) is now leading GTE-Am)

22:38 - The #97 Aston Martin Racing AMV8 Vantage determinedly catching the two Ferraris for the lead of GTE-Am is reportedly losing fluids from the rear. Still going though, so it's probably minor.

22:51 - The #40 Race performance Oreca-Judd went for a skip across the gravel at the Ford Chicane (last corner) and is now in the pits.

23:00 - One hour to go, and the teams are just trying to hang on at this point. Not that they aren't still vying for class wins.
LMP1: 1st) #1 Audi, 2nd) #2 Audi, 3rd) #4 Audi, 4th) #12 Rebellion Lola, 5th) #3 Audi
LMP2: 1st) #44 Starworks Honda, 2nd) #46 Thiriet Oreca-Nissan, 3rd) #49 Pecom Oreca-Nissan, 4th) #26 Signatech Nissan, 5th) #41 Greaves Zytek-Nissan
GTE-Pro: 1st) #51 AF Corse Ferrari, 2nd) #59 Luxury Racing Ferrari, 3rd) #97 AMR Aston Martin, 4th) #73 Corvette Racing ZR1, 5th) #71 AF Corse Ferrari
GTE-Am: 1st) #67 IMSA Porsche, 2nd) #50 Larbre Corvette, 3rd) #57 Krohn Ferrari, 4th) #79 Flying Lizard Porsche, 5th) #70 Larbre Corvette

23:30 - All teams holding station atop their respective classes, Audi #3 doesn't look to be catching the Rebellion Lola for 4th place. If only it were for 3rd...

23:41 - Porsche have lost the lead of GTE-Am to the #50 Larbe Competition Chevrolet Corvette.

23:47 - The four Audis have found eachother and are racing in formation. With 2nd place now a lap down, they're not going to play silly buggers at the last corner or anything like that. They're just going to cross the line in position order (1-2-4-3 in 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th places) nice and neatly.

23:56 - The #67 IMSA Performance Matmut Porsche 997 that just lost the GTE-Am lead now has a puncture. Anthony Pons is crawling through the Porsche curves and getting it to the pits so he can do the final lap, take the flag and hopefully finish 2nd in class.

23:59 - The Audis arriving two-by-two hurrah, hurrah...

23:59 - The #50 Corvette atop GTE-Pro had to pit and change driver, because Pedro Lamy had reached his time limit. Drivers are only allowed 4 hours at a time.

24:00 - Aaand that's it! Audi take yet another win at the Le Mans 24 Hours. That's 11 wins now at the most famous and prestigious motor race in the world, and their third in a row. It sucks that Toyota didn't make it to the end, especially as they showed clear race-winning pace just before it all fell apart. There's always next year, when Porsche will also be back, to protect their all-time Le Mans record of 16 wins. Rebellion Racing kept their foot in and finished ahead of one of the dominant Audis, teaming Toyota engine and Lola chassis with the son of four-time F1 World Champion Alain Prost and two other solid drivers. Lola are in administration at the moment, but surely 4th at Le Mans, part of the fastest privateer team and a key provider of race car chassis for so very long in sportscar racing (pre-dating the GT40, in fact) can't go out of business altogether.

Apart from the GTE-Am lead change I mentioned, the top 5 in each class are the same as they were an hour ago. Full results below (click to enlarge):

A summary/review will appear when I'm not busy with college work.

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