story and photos by Tim Hailey with photos and releases from Audi, Chevrolet, Honda, Toyota, and Chevrolet
It would take sandbags the size of casaba melons for Toyota to show Audi this view in the 24 Hours
A disappointing performance for Toyota Racing so far finds them starting the Le Mans 24 Hours on Saturday from fourth and fifth after qualifying concluded for the third round of the FIA World Endurance Championship at the Circuit de la Sarthe. That places them close on the grid to the top three qualifying cars from rival Audi, but far behind in terms of performance. Only the greatest sandbagging campaign in racing history would find these cars competitive for the win on raceday.
When the checkered flag flew at midnight in France on Thursday (again, I LOVE the Le Mans schedule…qualifying ’til midnight, racing starts at 4 pm. No wake-up calls neccessary….), the #8 of Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi and Stéphane Sarrazin was fourth thanks to a lap of 3mins 26.654secs from Sarrazin in the final minutes of qualifying. The #7 TS030 HYBRID of Alex Wurz, Nicolas Lapierre and Kazuki Nakajima starts fifth after a best lap of 3mins 26.676secs, set by Kazuki during Wednesday’s first qualifying session. Unlike other WEC races, the grid for Le Mans is decided by each car’s single fastest lap from a total of six hours qualifying, spread over two days and three sessions.
A rain shower just before the day’s first session limited running for Alex and Anthony during the first hour, and just as track conditions improved enough for slick tires, another shower interrupted proceedings. Rain and wreck clean-up redflags have been the story so far at la Sarthe, as well as the surprisingly slow performance from Toyota, who claim a 70-80 horsepower disadvantage for their normally aspirated gasoline hybrids vs. Audi’s turbo diesel hybrids.
“We are where we expected to be on the grid after we again focused on developing our race pace,” claimed Yoshiaki Kinoshita, Toyota Team President. “The target here at Le Mans is not qualifying; it is the end of the race on Sunday. It has been a good day and I am very happy with the team’s work.”
“The entire day was challenging for everyone with the weather and other incidents, which showed the unique character of Le Mans,” said Toyota driver Alex Wurz. “I enjoyed it but unfortunately I didn’t get the dry running. We are fourth and fifth on the grid so now we have to make sure our race set-up is working well. Then it will come down to race strategy. We will use the warm-up to make the final adjustments for the race; the real game now is the 24 hours of racing.”
“The car showed more potential than yesterday and I think we have a more competitive package so we are happy with what we achieved,” said Toyota driver Nicolas Lapierre. “On the #7 we focused on long runs and working for the race, which is more important than qualifying. Anyway fourth and fifth was the best we could achieve. Now we will see where we are with tire management and fuel consumption. I am quite excited about Saturday and can’t wait for the race.”
“Today we continued working for the race,” agreed Toyota driver Kazuki Nakajima. “We were evaluating the tires, putting mileage on them to judge the durability. The conditions were difficult for me because they were changing all the time. It was not pure dry conditions but it improved and we have some good data to prepare for the race. We made some changes from Wednesday and I can feel the difference. There is still room for small improvements but we are pretty much there. Now I look forward to an interesting race.”
“It was good that Stéphane could improve our lap time at the end,” said Anthony Davidson, outspoken co-driver of the quicker of the Toyotas and the guy who flipped so dramatically in last year’s race. “Personally I felt a lot of frustration because my stint in the first session was in the wet, but Stéphane and Sébastien said they found a nicely-balanced car in the dry. Of course, it’s nice to move up the grid compared to yesterday but the best news is that we feel better in the car and that it seems more competitive. It’s a long race so just wait and see what happens.”
“Finally I have been able to do few laps so I am happy about that after the frustration yesterday,” said Sébastien Buemi. “It’s always special to drive at night at Le Mans and to experience this special atmosphere. We improved our qualifying position thanks to Stéphane and we are quite happy with this, but it’s the race that counts. We will see for the race; many things can happen over 24 hours so we need to do our job and be in contention at the end.”
“We are fourth on the grid and even after the issue yesterday the car felt really good, so it has been a satisfying day,” said an upbeat Stéphane Sarrazin, quickest of the Toyota drivers. “It was fun to finally have some dry track time at the end and it’s nice to improve our grid position. But the priority has always been the race and we have a really good race balance. All of us feel comfortable with the car and the set-up we have defined for the race. It’s a long race and we’ll give everything we have.”
Toyota’s rearviews may be full of Audis coming up to lap them
Meanwhile, Audi has been fast in any and all conditions. On Thursday night, Audi Sport Team Joest with its three Audi R18 e-tron quattro cars took the three best grid positions for the world’s most important endurance race.
The combination of TDI power and quattro drive, with which Audi celebrated the first-ever hybrid victory at Le Mans last year, outperformed the competition on the 13.629-kilometer race track in western France on both days of qualifying. The squad of the number ‘2’ Audi R18 e-tron quattro decided the battle for the top spot on the grid in its favor. The fastest time of 3m 22.349s (242.5 km/h), which Loïc Duval had achieved right at the beginning of the first qualifying session on Wednesday night, remained unbeaten on Thursday.
For the 31-year-old Frenchman, who is running together with Le Mans record winner Tom Kristensen (Denmark) and Allan McNish (Scotland), this marks the first pole position at Le Mans, and the eighth for Audi. And as in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2011 and 2012, the brand with the four rings secured the complete front row on the grid.
“It’s always better to start from the pole position even, though that doesn’t really mean a lot at such a long race,” said Duval. “Still, we’re happy about the top spot on the grid. Yesterday, we weren’t completely satisfied with the balance of our cars yet, but today the set-up was much better. As the track at the end was faster today than it was yesterday I was a bit worried that we might still lose the pole position. But in the end, we made it. Everything went according to plan. That’s why we’re very happy with the result.”
“After Loïc’s dream lap yesterday we fully concentrated on the set-up for the race tonight,” noted cool Dane Kristensen. “We’re all very happy with our car. But we’re still going to get together with the guys from the team and from Audi Sport to be really perfectly prepared. To stand our ground against the competition, we need a car that we can drive hard and fast for 24 hours.”
“Congratulations to everybody at Audi Sport,” said aggressive Scotsman McNish. “We’ve spent a few rough weeks to prepare for this race. But we couldn’t have been off to a better start than on grid positions one, two and three. We’re on the top spot ourselves and have found a good balance in racing conditions for our car. On Wednesday, Loïc managed setting a very impressive time on a pretty dirty track – that has made him enter the history books. Tom and I felt very comfortable in the car as well tonight. We’re well set but, as always, these are very long 24 hours.”
Starting the race from position two on Saturday will be the number ‘1’ Audi R18 e-tron quattro of last year’s winners Marcel Fässler (Switzerland), André Lotterer (Germany) and Benoît Tréluyer (France). André Lotterer was one of the few drivers who in the final qualifying session on Thursday night managed to improve over the day before on a track that was just slowly drying after rain showers and, by setting a time of 3m 23.696s, advanced from third to second place.
“Congratulations to our sister car on clinching the pole position,” said Fässler. “André (Lotterer) recovered a place tonight and put our car on the front row – that makes me very happy. I finally got to drive myself as well today and was able to prepare for the race in different conditions.”
“A brilliant result for the whole team,” agreed Lotterer. “I’m personally very pleased too because we improved by another position. But more important was the fact that our Audi felt quite a bit better than yesterday. I didn’t expect us to have such a speed even on used tires. We’d saved the new ones for Ben (Tréluyer) because we were hoping for the track to dry off some more. Our second place is a superb starting base for the race.”
“Naturally, we’d have liked clinching the pole position but we didn’t have a clear lap at the end,” noted Tréluyer. “We drove very fast intermediate times, so I think that we could have made it. Loïc (Duval), however, was struggling with traffic at the end and could have improved some more as well. But that’s part of motorsport. The whole team did a great job. It’s a brilliant result for Audi, but from now on, we’ve got to concentrate on the race.”
Le Mans newcomer Lucas di Grassi (Brazil), Marc Gené (Spain) and Oliver Jarvis (Great Britain) in the number ‘3’ Audi R18 e-tron quattro secured third place. The fastest lap of this squad (3m 24.341s) was driven on Wednesday by the seasoned campaigner Marc Gené.
“All in all, it was a good qualifying session, even though there was more potential for our car at the end,” said di Grassi. “I had a best time in the first sector at the end and was also running really well in the middle sector but in the final sector I got stuck in traffic. Having three cars at the front is a very good starting base for Audi but we all know that the race is very long.”
“In the third qualifying session I was only able to do one lap, but that one was in the dark,” noted Gené. “Today, Lucas showed that our car is fast, as I did yesterday. We feel well set for the race.”
“What we can say after qualifying is that we’ve got a very good car,” agreed Jarvis. “We were running fast even on used tires. On new tires and a clear lap even the pole position might have been possible, so we’re starting the race with confidence.”
Before the race starts on Saturday, another 45 minutes of practice time will be available in the morning’s warm-up session.
“This is a nice way to start the weekend,” said Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich (Head of Audi Motorsport). “Especially as all three cars set their fastest times during the normal preparation for the race. This is what we concentrated on in all the practice sessions so that all the drivers would be one-hundred-percent happy with the car. The first three positions on the grid are a nice reward for the whole team but, as always at Le Mans, not really crucial.”
“Today, the conditions were even a bit more chaotic than yesterday,” said Ralf Jüttner (Technical Director Audi Sport Team Joest). “Rain kept setting in and there were interruptions. We managed to make another step after we’d prepared the cars from scratch again overnight. All three driver teams are happier with the car’s balance than they were yesterday. They’re saying that they’ve got a good race car. That’s the most important thing because at Le Mans the qualifying result doesn’t mean very much.”
1 Duval/Kristensen/McNish (Audi R18 e-tron quattro) 3m 22.349s
2 Fässler/Lotterer/Tréluyer (Audi R18 e-tron quattro) 3m 23.696s
3 di Grassi/Gené/Jarvis (Audi R18 e-tron quattro) 3m 24.341s
4 Davidson/Buemi/Sarrazin (Toyota) 3m 26.654s
5 Wurz/Lapierre/Nakajima (Toyota) 3m 26.676s
6 Prost/Jani/Heidfeld (Lola-Toyota) 3m 28.935s
7 Belicchi/Beche/Cheng (Lola-Toyota) 3m 32.167s
8 Leventis/Watts/Kane (HPD-Honda) 3m 36.547s
9 Pla/Heinemeier/Brundle (Morgan-Nissan) 3m 38.621s
10 Rusinov/Martin/Conway (Oreca-Nissan) 3m 39.535s
If Toyota’s performance is disappointing to fans seeking sharpm competition, that of Chevrolet’s Corvettes is doubly so. The two Compuware Corvette C6.Rs will roll off eighth and ninth in the GTE Pro class on Saturday following Thursday’s final qualifying sessions. Damp weather early in the first two-hour period hampered all team’s efforts to work toward improvements from Wednesday.
The field did enjoy mostly dry running in the final period, and Oliver Gavin took advantage and improved the position and qualifying time for the No. 74 Compuware Corvette to 3:58.644. Antonio Garcia’s 3:59.526 from Wednesday’s session remained the best for the No. 73 Corvette. The pole time was a 3:54.635.
“The Corvette team is focusing on a race setup that will deliver the right combination of performance, handling, fuel economy and durability for this 24-hour race,” said Jim Campbell, U.S. Vice President, Performance Vehicles and Motorsports. I mean, what else could he say? “Add to that efficient pit stops, staying out of trouble and a little bit of racing luck (something the Corvette program has lacked recently), we can position ourselves to be up front in the GTE Pro class in the final laps of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.”
“The conditions were quite tricky in the first session since half the track was wet and the other half was dry,” said Corvette driver Jan Magnussen. “I ran on wets just to get my five laps in. I do believe we’ve made some headway in terms of car handling but we’re still down on speed.” It should be noted that Le Mans rules actually cut horsepower for big American cars like Corvette and Viper considerably below their street counterparts. Crazy, eh?
“I had a good little run, getting my five nighttime laps in to qualify for the race and I’m glad I did that without any mistakes,” admitted Magnussen’s co-driver Jordan Taylor. “It was a bit tricky since the whole of the backstretch was wet and we were on slicks. That was my first time really experiencing that part of Le Mans, with the tricky conditions, so I’m glad to have gotten that out of the way and get a feel for the car before the race.”
“We gained a second, and it will be interesting to see where we picked that up,” noted quickest Corvette driver Gavin. “We’ve been working hard the last day to put together why we are where we are and why we aren’t as competitive as we want to be. Yes, we made some gains. Fundamentally, we still have to find that main reason for the deficit to our competition.”
“You want to be competitive to run at the front, and we’re not quite there,” admitted Gavin’s co-driver Tommy Milner. “We’ve improved the car handling-wise. Obviously faster is better than slower, so we’re going in the right direction. We are still working on it to find everything we can to find more speed.”
“We wanted to see how long the wet tire can last in changeable conditions,” said Richard Westbrook, also a driver of # 74. “It started off really wet and dried off quite a bit. So we got some really good data. Michelin is a great partner and it looks like we were able to give them some great feedback. It also was good for me because I’ve been at Corvette Racing for three years and had never driven in the wet! But the main issue is still there, which is straightline speed.”
The focus now turns to final preparations for Saturday’s race start when Corvette Racing will go for its eighth class victory in 14 tries. The race will air live on SPEED starting at 8:30 a.m. ET Saturday. SPEED.com will feature live in-car camera videos of both Corvettes as well as a garage camera at stream.speedtv.com/corvette.
Live streaming including onboard footage of the three Audi R18 e-tron quattro cars will be available at www.audi-motorsport.com. Sports car fans can watch the most important endurance race of the year on www.lemans-tv.com as well. Audi is offering a live ticker on Twitter: @Audi__Sport.
The traditional Audi press conference at Le Mans will be broadcast live on www.audimedia.tv on Friday, starting at 14:00 CEST.
Audi leads first Le Mans qualifying session
Loïc Duval nailing the Audi’s throttle at Le Mans
After a shortened first day of qualifying for the Le Mans 24 Hours, all three Audi R18 e-tron quattro cars are at the front of the field. The Audi hybrids, which have been undefeated in the current season so far, dominated on the 13.629-kilometer track in western France on Wednesday right from the beginning. In free practice and in qualifying, Audi maintained the top three positions. The fastest in both qualifying sessions was the number ‘2’ Audi R18 e-tron quattro driven by Loïc Duval (France), Tom Kristensen (Denmark) and Allan McNish (Scotland). The best time of the day of 3m 22.349s was achieved by Loïc Duval shortly after qualifying started at 22:00—that’s 10pm! Qualifying was scheduled to end at midnight—that’s my kind of schedule!
Spaniard Marc Gené, who is sharing the number ‘3’ Audi R18 e-tron quattro with Lucas di Grassi (Brazil) and Oliver Jarvis (Great Britain), achieved the second-fastest time of the day (3m 24.341s). Trailing them in third place were last year’s winners and current World Endurance Champions Marcel Fässler (Switzerland), André Lotterer (Germany) and Benoît Tréluyer (France). The fastest lap of car number ‘1’ was driven by André Lotterer in 3m 25.474s.
But none of the three Audi squads was mainly focused on the chase for fast lap times on Wednesday. Following the predominantly rainy pre-test on Sunday before last, Audi Sport Team Joest continued the test program that had been started then, focusing on tire tests and a perfect race set-up of the three cars. In addition, all drivers tried to do the mandatory laps at night. All, except for Marcel Fässler, who was stopped twice by red flags, managed this.
Both the free practice and the first qualifying sessions were stopped early after incidents in which the guard rails of the race track were damaged – qualifying even ended as early as after 65 minutes of the originally scheduled two hours. “Still, we basically completed our work tonight as planned,” said Loïc Duval, who celebrated his 31st birthday last week. “Our plan was to reel off a real qualifying lap on a dry track as well – you never know what the weather will be like tomorrow. I caught a lap without traffic. But our car isn’t perfect yet simply because the track conditions aren’t so conclusive yet. At this point in time, the outcome after the final qualifying session on Thursday is still completely open.”
“It’s nice that the race week has finally begun for good,” said Head of Audi Motorsport Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich. “The weather conditions were better today than expected so that we were able to work well. Unfortunately, there were two longer interruptions because the track had to be repaired after accidents. That’s why we’re hoping to be able to make optimum use of tomorrow for checking off the final details we’ve got on our action list.”
From 19:00 to 21:00 and from 22:00 to 24:00 two further qualifying sessions are scheduled at which the the final grid positions will be awarded. To date, Audi has started from the pole position seven times at the Le Mans 24 Hours, which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year, and has won the world’s most important endurance race eleven times in 14 runs.
Is Toyota sandbagging??
And if Toyota doesn’t find (or exhibit) some speed in that time, we could be in for a yawner at the front of the field. It’s commonly thought that the Toyota TS030 HYBRID cars will get better fuel mileage in the race, as much as 2 laps better than their rivals Audi. But even 2 laps more on a full tank will not make up for the speed differential currently being displayed, with the leading Audi over 4 seconds quicker than the leading Toyota. The #7 driver line-up of Alex Wurz, Nicolas Lapierre and Kazuki Nakajima finished this week’s opening qualifying in fourth place, while the #8 crew of Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi and Stéphane Sarrazin was sixth.
Today’s work began on a dry track for the only practice session of the week, which saw the #7 evaluating aerodynamic set-up while the #8 focused on mechanical options. A rain shower soon after the hour mark affected the normal programm while two red flags cut short running time, although all Toyota Racing drivers managed a stint.
As darkness fell at Le Mans, Kazuki and Stéphane started the session in warm and dry conditions, setting what would turn out to be the fastest laps of the session. Nicolas and Anthony had the second stint in their respective TS030 HYBRIDs. Sébastien took the #8 but suffered a driveline problem soon after and stopped on track. At the same time, a separate accident brought out the red flags and caused sufficient damage to the crash barriers to prevent the session restarting.
Qualifying 1 results:
1 Duval/Kristensen/McNish (Audi R18 e-tron quattro) 3m 22.349s
2 di Grassi/Gené/Jarvis (Audi R18 e-tron quattro) 3m 24.341s
3 Fässler/Lotterer/Tréluyer (Audi R18 e-tron quattro) 3m 25.474s
4 Wurz/Lapierre/Nakajima (Toyota) 3m 26.676s
5 Prost/Jani/Heidfeld (Lola-Toyota) 3m 30.423s
6 Davidson/Buemi/Sarrazin (Toyota) 3m 30.841s