It's dark out on the 8.5-mile Le Mans circuit and Marco Andretti sits quietly in the cockpit of the tiny Rebellion Lola coupe waiting for the signal to start the engine. Precious minutes mark the time since his teammate, Nicolas Prost, arrived unscheduled on pit lane and was hurriedly backed into the team's garage. The Rebellion mechanics are trying, again, to solve an ongoing problem with the transmission. The quiet, organized focus and speed of the crew under the harsh lights of the team's work space are in stark contrast to the shrieks and drama of the race in progress just a few yards away.
Andretti, visor up with occasional casual glances of acknowledgement at team manager Bart Hayden's voice on the intercom in his helmet, has mentally insulated himself from all the activity and noise swirling around him. He seems unfazed that he's had to climb into a racecar that he's only practiced for six laps on a completely unfamiliar circuit and now awaits his first stint in blackness at speeds over 170mph; not exactly the scene of bright sunshine and open wheels he's used to. At age 23, Andretti's calm is that of an elder pro racer, perhaps a reflection of having lived with pit lane tension from the time he can first remember going to the races with his family.
The race is already several hours old and Andretti's two co-drivers – Prost and former Champ Car racer Neel Jani – have each driven their first stints, pitted and described the problems with the recalcitrant transmission. With the loss of time there's no way the car can be competitive, but Rebellion's team leaders Bart and Hugh Hayden want to see the car finish. There are two coupes on the team and one has already been parked.
Finally Andretti's No. 12 is lowered to the floor, pushed out the door, spun around on casters and dropped onto its tires so it aligns with pit lane. He gets the signal to start and roars off into the night. Andretti explained later that in his brief practice laps, he'd focused on critical braking points and the racing line so he felt comfortable right away; the car was that good. Even his out lap was competitive. However, 59 laps later, the Rebellion racer is in the dead car park. Same problem, but this time irreparable.
Rebellion, the name for team partner Alexandre Pesci's Swiss watch manufacturing concern, is a new label for the Hayden team. For years the Haydens, Hugh and Bart, have raced Porsches in England, and at Le Mans, and had hoped to acquire one of Weissach's latest RS Spyders to race at Le Mans but factory logistics made it impossible to deliver. Being a UK-based team, the Lola with a Judd engine seemed like a reasonable alternative, but the problem, as always for racers, was time. It's obvious now, with two DNFs, that the cars lacked the development required to make the new Julian Soles design as reliable as it was fast. Everything on the car seemed right, but the transmission has proven the Achilles heel.
Yet, for an out-of-the-blue opportunity, Le Mans has been a great sports car experience for Marco. He'd raced three times in the 2008 American Le Mans Series in an Acura ARX-01a run by Andretti Green Racing and he shone brightly. That, and familiarity with teammates Jani and Prost from competing against them in the A1GP series, prompted a cold call, earlier this year, from Bart Hayden. An introductory test at Paul Ricard circuit in France went well enough for the Haydens to sign him for Le Mans.
Afterward, Andretti felt he'd done his best for the team; his times were equal to those of his co-drivers and he'd acquired just enough of a taste of Europe to whet his appetite for more.
“Seeing the impressive efforts of teams like Audi and Peugeot was really educational,” he said. “I'd heard stories from my father and grandfather about Le Mans, but it's hard to appreciate fully until you've been here and experienced it. Like the Indy 500, Le Mans holds so much history for so many people.
“I was fortunate enough this year to experience both the 500 and Le Mans within a couple of weeks of each other. The fans were outstanding and it was great to see so much of their support poured into the event. Hopefully, I'll get the opportunity to experience it again in the future.”
Read Marco's thoughts on Le Mans in his regular blog here on RACER.com.
FROM THE JAWS OF VICTORYEven allowing for bad luck, who'd have thought that all four Peugeots would DNF? Certainly not Audi, whose R15-plus was outgunned on pace, yet finished 1-2-3.
It was no surprise that a Peugeot 908 HDi again took pole position for the 78th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours. One of the sleek turbo-diesel coupes had scored fastest time in each of the past three years, proving its aerodynamic superiority over the Audi roadsters on the Sarthe's long, fast 8.5-mile circuit.
This year it was Sebastien Bourdais who found the fast way around, with a record time of 3min19.7sec. What was astonishing to many that cool Wednesday evening, was the speed differential between the now three-year-old Peugeots and Audi's “new” R15 plus.
Audi's engineers had gone to great effort to maximize the efficiency of their new design since the race's organizing body ACO had announced its new “greener” regulations for the LMP1 class last November. A reduction in both induction restrictor size and turbo boost pressure for diesel cars was mandated to offset growing protests from the gasoline-powered entrants who had been at a distinct disadvantage for three years. Audi's controversial internal front wing from last year was scrapped for the new R15 plus. Audi also incorporated its new VTG (Variable Turbine Geometry) to increase turbo efficiency.
The results were effective, as R15 plus easily matched last year's speeds, and yet it still wasn't enough to keep pace with the French team's parallel development. The four Peugeots (one run by the privateer ORECA team) humiliated the factory Audis by almost four seconds per lap. Prior to that point, collective paddock wisdom had the Audis at even money against the Peugeots for the race win, but when the qualifying checker finally fell, there were few takers for an Audi victory.
Audi's questionable strategy for the race was to improve fuel efficiency by sticking to a slightly reduced pace. This would extend tire life and reduce time in the pits by double and triple stinting tires to offset the 908's speed. At first this didn't work very effectively because as soon as the four 908s, running in formation, had established a good lead, they too backed off, enabling the 908s to run 13-lap stints to the Audi's 12 and gaining an even further advantage. To make matters worse, Tom Kristensen, Audi's eight-time Le Mans winner, spun off in the unforgiving Porsche Curves when he encountered BMW's crippled “art car” creeping along the entry line. The fastest of the three Audis was slightly damaged and knocked out of contention for Kristensen's possible ninth win. For the first few hours it was looking grim in the Audi pit.
The first crack in Peugeot's apparent dominance came late in the second hour when the Bourdais/Pedro Lamy/Simon Pagenaud 908 retired with irreparable suspension failure. In the 16th hour, Peugeot's second 908 (Franck Montagny/Stephane Sarrazin/Nicolas Minassian) pulled off the track, just past Arnage, with smoke and flames dramatically belching from its engine compartment. This evidently was considered an unfortunate anomaly, so there was no order to reduce speed in the remaining two 908s to conserve their engines.
By now though, the relentless metronomic precision of Audi's counter attack had begun to pay off as Mike Rockenfeller, Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas had the lead R15-plus splitting the lone, remaining factory 908 and the “privateer” ORECA-run 908, captained by Le Mans veteran Hugues de Chaunac, which had already lost four laps with a right-hand driveshaft failure.
The factory's third and last 908 (Marc Gene, Alex Wurz, Anthony Davidson) had lost three laps in the pits with alternator failure in the seventh hour, but such was the pace of the drivers that with a little over three hours to go, it was back on the lead lap! Could it catch the lead Audi? We'll never know. On an out lap after refueling, the engine exploded.
With the Germans now in command, and the Audis running 1-2-3 in the final two hours, a desperate de Chaunac gave the command to save face for France. With his fist in the air, he exhorted his driver, Loic Duval, to use every bit of the 908's superior speed to chase down the Kristensen/Capello/McNish Audi so that a Peugeot driver might stand on the podium. Duval went for it, setting a new track record of 3:19.0 just 26 laps before the checker and the brave Frenchman's mission might have succeeded had not his engine also erupted in molten metal, flame and steam in exactly the same way as the previous two.
Audi's engineers may not have had the speed in their R15 plus to match the Peugeots but they knew exactly how fast and far the Audis could be pushed on the one circuit in the world that demands endurance over sheer speed. Racing technology may now again have reached a plateau where strategy and stamina have become as important as they once were in the days when drivers were faster than their machinery.