Le Mans 2012: The race defining moment

There were many battles throughout the Le Mans 24 Hours 2012. Many decided places in the end results. Some were the difference between winning and not. However, there was one moment that, although it happened early on the Saturday evening, changed the whole race dramatically.

Audi were big favourites from the start. They have been one of the biggest forces at Le Mans for the last decade. With the withdrawal of the nearest rivals Peugeot before the 2012 season started, it was left to a new factory team in Toyota to step up. Audi came to Le Mans with 4 cars. 2 new Audi R18 diesel powered Ultras & 2 Audi R18 E-tron Quattros, a diesel-hybrid powered car. Toyota were rushed. They arrived at Le Mans with 2 TS 030 petrol hybrid cars but hadn’t been able to race the cars before Le Mans. A crash in testing prevented them from racing in the FIA WEC round at Spa.

Audi R18 E-tron Quattro

Qualifying for Le Mans 2012 showed everyone that the Toyotas were fast enough. Although they finished third behind an Audi E-tron and an Audi Ultra, third & fifth on the grid showed everyone they could mix it with the Audis. That just left the race.

An early shower at the start of the race initially caused some concern, but all the cars eventually settled down to a good race pace. Audi were in front from the start and continued to show dominance in the early hours of the race, but by early evening the Toyotas began to make their move and suddenly we had a race.

Just after 7:00pm the Toyotas began to close the gap. Whether they speeded up or whether the Audis slowed, the gap to the leader began to narrow. Pit stop sequences and errors from the normally unflappable Audi drivers were adding to the tension. The Toyotas were working together as a pair in hunting down the leading Audi.

At 7:30pm the number 8 Toyota pitted for new tyres and a new driver. British driver Anthony Davidson got behind the wheel and continued the pace. Nicholas Lapierre was driving the number 7 Toyota & was just ahead of Davidson.

Toyota TS 030 Hybrid

The normally secure Romain Dumas made a mistake in the number 3 Audi R18 Ultra at 7:39pm and continued straight at the first chicane. He hit the barriers and had to remove front bodywork himself, before limping the long distance to the pit on 3 wheels. These left the Number 1 Audi up front alone and open to a challenge from the Toyotas.

The gap kept narrowing and at 7:57pm the Number 1 Audi R18 E-tron Quattro pits and emerges just in front of the Toyotas. The next sequence of events changed everything at the front of the race.

At 8:01pm Lapierre’s Toyota catches the Number 1 Audi. Both cars are held up in GT traffic, but Lapierre makes a pass. He can’t quite make it work, however and Benoit Treluyer in the Audi re-passes the Toyota. Lapierre comes again at the Audi and in an aggressive move passes Treluyer and then cuts across the front of the Audi. For the first time Toyota were leading Le Mans.

Toyota TS 030 Hybrid

Davidson’s Number 8 Toyota had got caught in traffic and dropped a few seconds behind the leadership battle. At 8:05pm at the bottom of the famous Mulsanne straight, the quickest part of the track, he pulls to the right to overtake the Number 81 Ferrari of AF Corse competing in the GTE Am class. It is a much slower car, but just as Davidson makes the pass, Piergiuseppe Perazzini in the Ferrari turns in to the corner. The Ferrari collides with the Toyota’s rear left hand side. At the speeds the two cars were travelling there was nothing more either driver could so. They were just passengers. The Ferrari was sent skidding off sideways in to the tyre wall. It hit with such an impact the car was thrown upside down. A worse fate befell the Toyota. In an accident reminiscent of Allan McNish’s Audi accident only a year ago, the Toyota is thrown sideways, and then lifted off the ground. With air now flowing under the car it is carried metres in to the air, before coming back down nose first and hurtling in to the barriers beside the upturned Ferrari.

The crowd were stunned. From a moment of such excitement as Toyota took the lead from Audi to shock as the wreckage came to rest in the barriers and tyre wall at Mulsanne. Quite amazingly Anthony Davidson was first out of the car, signalling to race marshals he was OK and that they should see to Perazzini. By the time Perazzini had been extracted from the Ferrari and he sat nursing his bruises on the grass banking, Davidson was flat on his back and in pain.

The safety car was called and the rest of the field lined up behind it while an ambulance was called to the scene and marshals made plans for removing the cars and repairing the barriers. Both drivers were taken to the medical centre & Davidson was then taken to hospital. He was conscious but complaining of back pain. This was later diagnosed as 2 fractured vertebrae.

Nissan DeltaWing

This collision was to have a further sting in the tail for Toyota. After an hour behind the safety car, the remaining Toyota has to pit, and Audi seize the initiative and pit as well, passing the Toyota in the pit lane. The lead held so briefly has been lost.

At 9:14pm the safety car comes back in and the green flag is raised and the racing begins again. But now the cars are all bunched and the prototypes are mixed in with the GT cars. The Toyota now driven by Kazuki Nakajima has to stay with the lead Audi or risk being left behind. Both the Audi and the Toyota weave in and out of the traffic in front of them.

At 9:17pm the Toyota is right behind the lead Audi. They arrive at the Porsche Curves where it is narrow. Nakajima sees a chance to pass the Audi and goes for the lead. Unfortunately the gap he chose was already filled by the smaller Nissan DeltaWing. The DeltaWing was slowing to allow traffic to pass as it made its way back to the pit. The collision was inevitable. The DeltaWing was pushed sideways and smashed in to the barrier. The number 7 Toyota continued the short distance to the pit with damage. The Audis carried on.

Audi at Le Mans 2012

It wasn’t immediately obvious to the spectators but that was the race. The Nissan DeltaWing’s Le Mans experience came to an end in that barrier. Despite attempts to get it going again the steering was broken and the team had to concede the end of their race. The number 7 Toyota had to be worked on in the garage for a long time. Although they did get it back out for short time, the Audis were long gone, and in the end the car had to retire with engine failure.

The number 1 Audi R18 E-tron Quattro went on to make history. Just this afternoon at 3pm it came home first and took the chequered flag to win the 80th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours. The first hybrid car to achieve this victory. The number 2 Audi hybrid finished second ahead of the Audi R18 in third. Audi are the champions of the Le Mans 24 hours 2012 with the same driver team that were victorious in 2011, just with a different car.

After 24 hours of racing it was a well deserved victory for Audi. The race however was defined by that short period of time on Saturday evening.

Le Mans 24 Hours 2012 winners:
LMP1: Audi R18 E-tron Quattro – Audi Sport Team Joest
LMP2: HPD ARX 03b Honda – Starworks Motorsport
GTE Pro: Ferrari 458 Italia – AF Corse
GTE Am: Chevrolet Corvette C6 ZR1 – Larbre Competition

Words: Richard Webb
Photos: Dan Carr & Dave Davies