Damp and Gloom Define 2013 Le Mans

ACO 24 Hours Le Mans, France, June 19-23, 2013

story by Tim Hailey with photos and releases from Audi, Honda, Toyota, and Chevrolet

Allan Simonsen was probably killed instantly when his car slapped the Armco and the first tree at Tertre Rouge

Aston Martin driver Allan Simonsen succumbed to injuries he sustained in a serious one car accident shortly after the start of the Le Mans 24 Hour race. In addition to being a tragic event, the crash and subsequent lengthy safety car period defined what has continued to be a strange, gray, damp week at Le Mans. From practice to qualifying through the end of the race, intermittent rains, Armco repairs and red flags or safety cars were the norm.

Simonsen was the first stint driver in the #1 qualifying car in his class. “It is with great shock and sadness that the Aston Martin Racing Team confirms that an accident occurred shortly after the start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans at around 15:09 hrs CET today (22 June) when the No 95 Vantage GTE driven by Allan Simonsen left the track at Tertre Rouge,” reads a statement on the Aston Martin website. “Tragically, and despite the best efforts of the emergency services in attendance, Allan ’s injuries proved fatal.

“Aston Martin Racing Managing Director, John Gaw, said: “On behalf of all of us at Aston Martin Racing, I would like to extend our deepest sympathies and condolences to the individuals, and families whose friends or loved ones were involved in today’s terrible tragedy.”

“Aston Martin Racing will not make any further comment until the precise circumstances of the accident have been determined. Next of kin have been informed.

“Following the ACO’s media statement concerning the tragic death of Aston Martin Racing driver Allan Simonsen, and at the specific request of his family, the team will continue to participate in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in tribute to Allan.”

The 3 Audis fan out in front of the 2 Toyotas and 2 Rebellions at the start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans

And so the race continued. A spirited battle at the front between Audi and Toyota settled into an Audi lead followed modestly closely by the Toyotas. Audi #2 and its veteran driver line-up settled into the lead as its sister cars had offs and mechanical troubles.

Nicolas Lapierre moved into second place from fifth in the Toyota #7 on the first lap as light rain fell and fought for the lead before the Simonsen crash. Early in his second stint Nicolas dropped back to fifth, while on his second stop, he took on intermediate tyres. The #7 lost time due to a loss of fuel pressure, which quickly rectified itself and Nicolas was able to resume lapping at normal speed, in fifth, as drizzle continued. “The track hasn’t been really dry since the beginning of the race,” Lapierre said then. “The track conditions changed from one lap to another. We seemed quite competitive. The race will be tough, the weather will be difficult to predict but the pace seems okay and fuel consumption is quite good. But it’s going to be a long race.”

Anthony Davidson started the race in Toyota #8 and took fourth place on the opening lap before battling fiercely for third place. He emerged from his first pit stop in fifth but overtook the other TS030 HYBRID for fourth soon after. Anthony stayed on the same dry tyres through his four pit stops, holding fourth place. “The crazy weather has continued and has been making everyone’s job difficult,” said Davidson. “I was trying my best to keep the car on the track at a good pace. That was some of the hardest driving I have had to do; slicks in the rain is tough but you have to balance that with the time you lose in the pit stop.”

Is the pondering pace of safety cars keeping Toyota close to Audi or erasing their fuel efficiency advantage?

Tall Alex Wurz took over from Lapierre with the #7 in fifth place. Another safety car with 19 hours left moved the #7 directly behind the #8. Racing resumed briefly before an incident caused yet another safety car. As Alex approached the third pit stop of his stint, he lost around 30 seconds conserving fuel on his final lap but soon after two of the leading Audis suffered their problems, lifting the #7 to third. Alex completed four stints on the same set of slick tyres before Kazuki Nakajima took over.

“We are just through a quarter of the race,” Wurz said then. “We have seen Le Mans is not an easy race. You can never feel secure or too confident here, and that goes for all competitors. Now is the time, before the night, to get into a rhythm and hope that everything runs okay.”

Sébastien Buemi swapped with Davidson at the #8 Toyota’s fifth pit stop. He held on to fourth place despite pressure from Alex during the safety car periods and that became second when problems struck two cars ahead. Sébastien ran four trouble-free stints on the same set of slick tyres on a dry track before handing over second place to Stéphane Sarrazin. “Alex was behind me in the safety car period but I was able to pull away a bit,” said Buemi. “I did my maximum. It is difficult to follow the Audi because they are quicker than us on the straight but we are pushing. The car is feeling good in the lower temperatures; the track is cooler and I felt very comfortable.”

Toyota in the pits….slightly less so than rival Audi…but is it enough?

Nakajima took the wheel of the #7 Toyota at 9.50pm and resumed in third on a dry track as darkness fell. After his first pit stop, the car’s ninth in total, a 15-minute safety car interrupted matters. Kazuki kept up the pace in third and, as midnight approached, the fifth safety car of the race slowed the field and brought Kazuki within sight of the #8. Two further stints on the same set of slick tyres followed until Nicolas took over, just after 1am, in third and one lap behind the leader. “The track conditions are quite good,” said Nakajima. “Temperatures are getting lower but our tyres are working well. It’s a bit frustrating when we have safety cars because it’s harder to keep a rhythm, which you need to do to keep the temperature in the tyres. In the traffic sometimes you can be lucky and sometimes not, but that’s part of the Le Mans challenge. The car feels pretty good and we have been setting decent lap times. So far it is going all right and we keep pushing.”

Buemi handed second place in the #8 to Sarrazin at 9.35pm. The safety car period fell during his second pit stop window which meant the #8 needed to wait before leaving the pit lane until the next safety car passed, costing two-and-a-half minutes. When Stéphane resumed he safely cut through the traffic during his next two stints. He handed the #8 to Anthony during its 13th pit stop with the car holding second, a lap off the lead and half-a-minute ahead of the #7. “It was a good stint for me so I am happy,” said Sarrazin. “We pushed really hard and never gave up. It is a good fight and looks like an interesting race; we keep fighting for the best possible result. Conditions on the track are okay tonight, although visibility is not ideal which makes it tricky when lapping the slower cars. I didn’t take any risks because it’s easy to lose time so it’s better to be safe; there’s still a long way to go.”

Like Toyota, but even worse so, the Chevy Corvettes are off the pace of their rivals—especially class-leading-yet cursed Aston Martin. The two Compuware Corvette C6.Rs from Corvette Racing ran fifth and ninth in GTE Pro after six hours.

Richard Westbrook ran fifth in the No. 74 Corvette one-quarter of the way through the race. All three of drivers in the car – Westbrook, Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner – drove double-stints, and the car picked up two spots in class from the start of the race. Gavin and Milner weathered changing conditions in the opening four hours that saw intermittent showers mixed with dry but cool periods as well.

The No. 73 Corvette had Jordan Taylor at the wheel for his opening triple-stint at the six-hour mark. A scheduled brake change under one of three safety car periods also left the car a lap down from the class leader but well within striking distance with Taylor chasing down the sixth-place car at the rate of four to five seconds per lap. Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia each ran double-stints in the challenging conditions to open the race.

“The start obviously wasn’t great because of the accident, so the first stint I spent mostly behind the safety car,” said veteran driver Magnussen. “When we got going again the car was pretty decent, but after the pitstop I didn’t like the balance of the car so much. Toward the end, in the rain, it felt good but everyone was super-cautious so I managed to make up some time. There is still some work to on the car as we need to make it a bit more comfortable on the second stint on the same tires.”

“The stints worked out OK, but of course I have mixed feelings,” said Garcia. “Richard (Westbrook) was the first one I spoke when I got out of the car and he told me straight away about Allan (Simonsen). Everything about the stint I just forgot, those two hours behind the wheel. I feel sad and sorry for the family and friends of Allan. Other than that we’re just doing our race, trying to make the best of it. In the tricky conditions we seem to be able to reduce the deficit to the others quite a bit. We didn’t make any mistakes, which allowed us to gain a few places. At the end I was satisfied with the stint. Maybe the track can come more and more to us during the night.”

“Those were very difficult conditions,” agreed Gavin. “It is one of those situations that you kind of dread. Here you are driving a fast car with very low downforce on slick tires with the rain coming, and it’s one of the most challenge parts of the Le Mans track. Trying to find a tire that suits the entire track when it starts to rain in one spot is impossible. You have to roll your sleeves up and get on with it. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Right at the very start, (the weather) was doing it. I had the dreadful situation of witnessing Allan Simonsen’s crash first-hand. He was right in front of me. I didn’t see the car go into the guardrail but I just knew from the way he went off that it was going to be a huge accident. I sort of saw in the mirror what happened, and it was sickening. But then it was a case of keeping your head back in the game and working through the situation with the restart and changing conditions. The last five to six laps were very difficult and tricky. I always seemed to catch people just as they were coming out of the pits or behind other people who were having problems. It’s all part of the race. We have to keep on going through this and work our way through these situations.”

“The track changed every single lap for my first 14 laps,” said Milner. “It was very hard to push. You want to go and push hard but you have to take into consideration the conditions. I had a situation where I went into Turn 1 at 75 percent and should have gone 45 percent. The 2011 race was tough with changing conditions at the end. It was similar to what we have today but there was nowhere as much rain and as much change. It was something like only three or four laps in my stint in 2011 were like that. But this year all 14 felt like they were in dramatically different conditions.”

Then at the halfway point, the No. 74 Corvette with Westbrook at the wheel ran seventh. In the No. 73, Garcia was completing a triple-stint just before the 12-hour mark and sat eighth.

Garcia took over for Magnussen, who had a double-stint to open his second round of the event. Jordan Taylor began the run from hour seven through 12 with a triple-stint as well. Luck didn’t appear to be with Magnussen, Taylor and Antonio Garcia. The trio found itself beset by being separated from its other GT competitors by the safety car on three consecutive yellow-flag periods.

Bad fortune also followed the No. 74 Corvette at the half-way point. It ran seventh in class despite having to pit twice for suspected tire issues and once for what Westbrook and Oliver Gavin said felt like a fuel pressure issue. The crew uploaded a fix to the ECU to help manage the engine under acceleration, which corrected the problem.

Tommy Milner ran a double-stint into darkness with a different tire compound on his Michelin tires, which helped him keep pace with the rest of the field. “We went to a different compound tire and the car feels better in the nighttime than in the daytime,” said Milner. “The track is fully dry, and that plays a part in it. The car felt better and was more competitive so we won’t lose as much time as before. Antonio was doing a (3):57 and I was doing (3):58s. Right now that is comparable to what everyone else is doing. That’s encouraging but we are still quite a ways down. If we can run with some of the faster GT cars, at least we can keep up with them. If nothing else, we can use their speed to make us go faster.”

“I had a good two-and-a-half stints with a caution in the middle, which we used to change the brake pads,” said Taylor. “We tried some different tIre compounds, which went well. Right now we’re just trying to keep it within one lap (of the leaders) and on the track without making any mistakes, and see where we are when the sun comes back.”

“I just spent four hours in the car, mainly because of the lengthy safety car period which allowed me to stay in longer,” said Garcia. “The car feels better. I had the class leader in front me in my first stint, and then the second- and third-place cars in my second stint and in both cases I could easily follow them. We don’t have the pace to catch and pass them, but we can follow them and put in some decent laps. Now it starts raining again, and I know what it’s like at this point in the race for it reminds of 2008, but I must say I’m happy I can have a rest now instead.”

“Those were pretty small problems that haven’t hurt us too much,” said Westbrook. “We have a great crew and they turned it around quickly. We highlighted the problem with what felt like a fuel pressure issue, and they got that fixed really quickly. We also had a rear tire issue, which happens at Le Mans. There is a lot of debris. Our plan is to keep going around. We will see where that takes us.”

Through three-quarters of the world’s greatest road racing, Corvette Racing’s two C6.Rs continued to persevere through the night and into the daytime. At the end of 18 hours, Tommy Milner ran seventh in GTE Pro and Jan Magnussen was eighth in the class—discouraging for a team so comfortable with the podium.

The race likely will be remembered for the number of safety car periods – nine so far, to be exact. Both Jordan Taylor in the No. 73 Compuware Corvette and Oliver Gavin in the No. 74 spent most of their night driving in more changing conditions with a mix of dry and wet track to go along with cool temperatures and wind. “This was probably one of the trickiest stints in my life, because when I got in it was raining on the first third of the track and the rest of the track was dry, so we went on the dry-and-wet tires,” said Taylor. “That was just super difficult, trying to keep heat in the tires in one section and overheating them in the next. We then put on slicks and tried to figure out how fast we could go on those. Once we got into a rhythm the car was good and quick, and we just tried to maintain our pace without making any mistakes.”

Things weren’t much different for Richard Westbrook during his night-time stint in the No. 74 and Antonio Garcia in the No. 73. Adding to the disrupted flow of the race was the duration of the safety car periods due to repairs to safety barriers and walls throughout the first 18 hours. “It’s definitely not been a typical Le Mans, that’s for sure,” agreed Westbrook. “I’m not sure what the deal is with the safety barriers … it seems that if anyone touches them we have a long safety car period. It’s disrupting the flow of the race – stop, start, stop, start. The tires get cold and take awhile to warm up and sometimes you don’t really get going on the rest of your stint after a safety car. Sure it’s frustrating but it’s the same for everyone. Our plan is the same – to keep going and see how things are at the end. I don’t know the history books, but I’d guess (the number of safety cars) would be a record. And they’ve all been long ones as well. I was in for three hours during the night and it felt like two hours were behind the safety car. I think it was 45 minutes but you’re bored and you want to go. But there is a reason for them and the organizers do have our safety in mind.”

As the 14th hour began for prototypes, Toyota #7 driver Lapierre took the wheel from Nakajima and faced more safety car periods on his second and third stints. Rain began to fall during the latter, making track conditions slippery and leading the #7 to take on wet tyres during Nicolas’ third stop. That safety car period lasted an hour, after which Nicolas swapped places twice with the #8 as both cars returned to the lead lap. Track conditions improved and when Nicolas handed the car, and third place, to Alex just before 5am, the team fitted slick tyres. Alex made two stops within two laps due to a slow puncture directly after a refuelling stop, which delayed the #7 by a minute, although he remained in third when he made a routine fourth stop around 8am.

Just after 1am Sarrazin handed the #8 Toyota to Davidson, who took advantage of the sixth safety car to switch to new slick tyres on his second pit stop. With rain falling, the #8 changed to intermediate tyres at Anthony’s third and final stop of his stint. Quick front bodywork repairs were also carried out on the front right dive plane while Buemi replaced Davidson in the cockpit. His first stop saw a change back to slick tyres and he resumed the fight at the front, keeping up a strong pace as the sun rose behind thick gray clouds at the Circuit de la Sarthe. Around 7.30am, after three-and-a-half hours and four stints, Buemi swapped with Sarrazin and the #8 resumed in second.

“On #7 Nicolas and Alex lapped consistently to maintain the gap to Audi #3,” noted Toyota chassis project leader John Litjens. “On #8 Anthony and Sébastien did a great job to make sure the Audi #2 did not stretch out a bigger gap. The drivers did really well in very challenging circumstances, with changing track conditions and lots of traffic. The rain very early in the morning meant we had to change off the slicks; one went on wets the other to intermediates. In the end both worked quite okay and as soon as we had an opportunity to go back to slicks we did. We have seen, as we did in the previous days, that we are more competitive against the Audis in damp conditions so we would be quite happy for some rain later in the race.”

Wurz resumed his stint in Toyota #7 at 8am in third and soon found progress delayed by—guess—two safety cars in quick succession. An hour later, with 262 laps in the book, Nakajima jumped into the #7 to defend third place, with his nearest challengers on the same lap. “I am happy after my stint, which was nearly four hours long,” said Wurz. “When you are in the car for such a long time it does get tiring at some point but I have trained well for this. At the beginning it was very tricky to drive with the slicks in the wet but then I found my rhythm. I encountered a few small issues and of course there were a few safety car phases. The grip wasn’t perfect so it was difficult to squeeze the lap times out of the car but that’s the way it is here sometimes.”

Nakajima’s first stint included an unplanned stop when sensors indicated a slow left rear puncture so the tyre was changed. Soon after, a short shower briefly made track conditions difficult but he stayed on slicks while a heavy accident down the field created a long safety car period, the 10th of the race. The rain returned on Nakajima’s second stint and caught him out, with 20 seconds lost when the car spun across the kerbs at an unexpectedly-wet Dunlop Curve.

Sarrazin moved one lap ahead of the third-placed #7 in his first stint before his pit stop window fell within a safety car period. As happened yesterday evening, Stéphane had to wait in the pit lane to join a safety car queue, losing time and dropping the #8 off the lead lap. Like its sister car, the #8 stayed on slick tyres throughout the morning shower as Stéphane kept the pressure on the leading car. With nearly four continuous hours behind the wheel, he handed second place to Davidson just before 11.30am. “Everything was fine; so far, so good,” said Sarrazin, downplaying Toyota’s inferiority to Audi. “The stint was very long for me because of the long safety car. We stayed on track and didn’t make any mistakes even though the rain came and it was very difficult in the wet. The team did a great job; we have a few hours to go so we have to push very hard. We’ll see what happens as this race is never over until the end.”

Meanwhile, Audi’s superior effort kept the #2 car at the front and their other cars moving back up for attack. The twelfth Audi victory at Le Mans was achieved by theAudi R18 e-tron quattro driven by Loïc Duval (France), Tom Kristensen (Denmark) and Allan McNish (Scotland) who had started the race from the pole position. For Duval, who had clinched the pole position on Wednesday, this was the first success at the classic French endurance race and the third for McNish. Kristensen, who has been the sole win record holder of the race since 2005, triumphed for the ninth time. The three Audi R18 e-tron quattro cars, which are equipped with an electrically driven front axle, were the fastest vehicles in the field throughout the entire race – as well as the most efficient ones: Victory in the Michelin Green X Challenge, a competition of the cleanest, fastest and most efficient prototypes.

“We knew that, not least due to the regulatory requirements, it would be very difficult for us this year,” commented Head of Audi Motorsport Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich. “As expected, Toyota was a very strong rival – but our Audi R18 e-tron quattro was in a class of its own. My thanks go to the entire team that worked for months to achieve this success.”

Ullrich was referring to a change in the regulations that meant the Audis on average were able to do two laps less on one tank filling than their main rival Toyota. But rain showers crossed the track again and again during the dramatic race. They resulted in numerous incidents and a total of eleven safety car deployments. The field ran for more than five hours under ‘yellow’ while the track was cleared and repairs were performed, negating any pitting advantage that Toyota may have had.

Duval/Kristensen/McNish took the lead at 21:43 on Saturday night and would not relinquish it anymore up to crossing the finishline at 3pm on Sunday. The three Audi drivers achieved the crucial one-lap advantage over the second-placed Toyota at an early stage and maintained it all the way to the end, even in partially chaotic conditions with torrential rain.

Misfortune struck the other two Audi squads that almost simultaneously were forced to make unscheduled pit stops shortly before the end of the seventh hour of the race and, up to that time, had made for an Audi one-two-three lead. Oliver Jarvis was touched by a slower vehicle and, as a result, suffered a punctured tire on which he had to complete nearly an entire lap that cost him two laps. In the thrilling final phase, Le Mans newcomer Lucas di Grassi (Brazil), Marc Gené (Spain) and Oliver Jarvis (Great Britain) managed to overtake the Toyota that had been running in third place up to that time, and to thus secure third place on the podium.

Due to changing the alternator Marcel Fässler (Switzerland), André Lotterer (Germany) and Benoît Tréluyer (France) lost a total of twelve laps. With an impressive recovery the 2011 and 2012 winners managed to advance from 24th place to position five.

“Obviously, (Simonsen’s) horrible incident dampens the joy about another great Le Mans victory for Audi, in which our team and our drivers were under extreme tension for 24 hours and couldn’t make any mistakes,” commented Dr. Ullrich. “We were all completely shocked by the news of Allan Simonsen’s death. During his career, he also contested races in the Audi R8 LMS. Our sympathy primarily goes to his family and friends but to the team of Aston Martin as well. It shows that you must never stop doing whatever is possible for safety in motorsport. This is the first fatal accident we’ve had to witness in 15 Le Mans years. I hope it’ll remain the last.”

In the end, Simonsen and Aston Martin’s class was won by the #76 Imsa 911 GT3 RSR of Jean-Karl Vernay/Raymond Narac/Christophe Bourret. The OAK Racing Morgan won LMP2 with Bertrand Baguette, Ricardo Gonzalez and Martin Plowman at the wheel.

GTP was won by the #92 factory Porsche of Richard Lietz, Marc Lieb, and Romain Dumas. Antonio Garcia, Jan Magnussen and Jordan Taylor brought home the No. 73 Compuware Corvette in fourth place after starting seventh, with that trio picking up three spots in the final six hours. The No. 74Corvette finished seventh with Oliver Gavin, Jan Magnussen and Richard Westbrook driving.