There are races, there are terrific races and there are historic races. There are goals that must be achieved, there are missions that must be made possible through hard work, and there is the hand of fate that controls the strings of so very many marionettes. And then there is that rare occasion when all these factors meld together to create something truly memorable in sight and sound.
In this case the visuals were that of drivers Nico Hulkenberg, Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy on the top step of the podium at the historic Circuit de la Sarthe. Their smiles were bright, their eyes even brighter, with a hint of moisture there no doubt. The glorious sound was that of the 2.0-litre turbocharged V4 engine that powered the Porsche 919 Hybrid to a historic Le Mans win. A sound that was soon drowned out by the roar of the fans at Le Mans, swarming onto the track, waving flags, blaring klaxons. It was memorable indeed. Porsche had, after all, just claimed their seventeenth Le Mans win. They had broken their own record, set in 1998, of winningest manufacturer at the legendary race thanks to victory in the 911 GT1-98. To win then, after 16 years away from the sport, was very special. It was almost as if the men from Stuttgart had bowed out of Le Mans for as many years as they had wins, allowing the rest to catch up until they came back.
‚ÄúIs this the biggest challenge of your career?,‚ÄĚ we‚Äôd asked Alex Hitzinger, the technical director of Porsche‚Äôs LMP1 project in October 2013. They were then exactly six months away from debuting their 919 Hybrid in the World Endurance Championship, making one of the biggest comebacks in motor racing history. ‚ÄúYes!‚ÄĚ was the emphatic response that we got at once, the word darting out with the speed with which one of those LMP1 cars heads down the Mulsanne straight. ‚ÄúBut it should be,‚ÄĚ Hitzinger had added. There should be progress in the sort of challenges that are thrown your way during your career, he had told us. He spoke of how he had faced other challenges before. Very big challenges. Like the time he was head of advanced technologies for the Red Bull and Toro Rosso F1 teams. ‚ÄúBut I would say this is the biggest‚Ä¶ because it‚Äôs the complete car,‚ÄĚ he‚Äôd said to us with a nervous smile.
Also with nervous smiles at the 2015 edition of the big race, were Hulkenberg, Bamber and Tandy. Of the three drivers in Porsche‚Äôs No 19 LMP1 car, it was only Tandy who had driven at Sarthe before. Hulkenberg and Bamber were babes in the Le Mans woods. And there was pressure aplenty on them. The No 18 car of Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb had qualified on pole, followed by the No 17 car of Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard. The No 19 drivers, down in third, had their work cut out for them. After all, they were the ones who had the Audis snapping closest at their heels.
And it was for this reason that the 2015 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans was set to be such a thriller. The Porsche team had made their Le Mans return just the previous year. ‚ÄúMission 2014. Coming home!‚ÄĚ their posters had screamed. They were out to defend their record from the Audi assault that had taken place over the last few years. And while Mission 2014 hadn‚Äôt gone all according to plan, Porsche‚Äôs qualifying pace already had Audi worried.
Within the Audi camp, the defending title holders appeared calm. ‚ÄúAudi has prepared well for the Le Mans 24 Hours. There are many strong rivals and teams in contention for victory. The crowd can look forward to seeing a classic in the 83rd running of the race,‚ÄĚ Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, Audi‚Äôs head of motorsport, had said. The best of the Audis had qualified fourth on the grid, with Lucas di Grassi, Loic Duval and Oliver Jarvis piloting the No 8 car. ‚ÄúBesides speed, it‚Äôs efficiency and reliability that count here at Le Mans more than anything else ‚Äď and those are exactly the strengths of Audi,‚ÄĚ di Grassi remarked after qualifying. As it would turn out, both were right. The crowd at the 2015 edition of Le Mans were witness to a classic indeed. And as always, Le Mans boiled down to efficiency and reliability. Just not in Audi‚Äôs favour.
The talk in the Audi pits was all about how their strategy might still prove to be effective, despite the fact that they weren‚Äôt on pole. They had planned to stay calm during qualifying, not aim for pole, and then blitz Porsche during the race. Then, in characteristic Le Mans fashion, the French tricolour was waved, and the race was on. It was the men from Stuttgart up against the men from Ingolstadt. Healthy amounts of sibling rivalry within the Volkswagen Group then. The goal for Porsche was to end the dominance of the diesel Audis. The goal for Audi was to prevent exactly that. Game on! Le Mans 2015 had turned into a six-car battle.
Over in the Toyota camp, things were muted. The two TS040s had started the race seventh and eighth. Their qualifying performance, with the No 2 car over six seconds behind the leading Audi, was an indicator of the fact that over the course of 24 hours, chances of keeping pace with the leaders were slim. Their strategy, then, was to play things cool, put in steady laps, and hope that the 2015 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans turned into a race of attrition. After all, Le Mans was known to catch out racer and car alike. Racers falling prey to exhaustion and fatigue, especially during the disorienting night stints, the race turning into a blur of lights from sections of the track that are lit up, and the headlights of other cars. Cars, meanwhile, would suffer metal fatigue. Parts of aero flying off, engines blowing up and tyres giving way.
For the Audi trio of Marcel Fassler, Benoit Treluyer and Andre Lotterer, along with race engineer Leena Gade, the race was turning out to be particularly stressful. Not only were they defending champions, with three Le Mans wins under their belt, they were eager for a fourth. At the beginning of the third hour, that very No 7 Audi had slipped past the Porsches into the lead. From our observations, the fans are divided. One-third in favour of Audi and two-thirds in favour of Porsche, as is in evidence from the number of people we see gathered outside the Porsche pit garage before the start of the race. Audi‚Äôs run at the front, however, ends up being compromised by a cruel twist of fate that involves its sister No 8 car. When yellow flags are out, leaving driver Loic Duval with not enough time to slow down, he swerves into the barricades to avoid colliding with another car and bounces back onto the track. This brings out the Safety Car while the barriers are being repaired. This also allows the field to close up. There is no way the lead Audi is going off into the distance, those Porsches are right on its tail. Of course Duval makes it into the pits and the incredibly swift metronome-like mechanics in the Audi pits have turned that car around, replacing the front end and rear end in the matter of three minutes.
During the fourth hour, the No 17 car is back in the lead. In the Audi hospitality suite, we‚Äôre munching LMP1-shaped popsicles. While watching someone take a bite out of one such popsicle we can‚Äôt help but wonder whether Porsche is doing exactly that. Taking a giant bite out of the Audi‚Äôs chances at a fourteenth Le Mans title.
As the sun sets over Le Mans, and day turns into night, there is no denying the morale within the Audi camp seems a little low. Or better said, it seems erratic. Every time Porsche wrestles its way into the lead, there is a groan. Every time the Audi gets back into the lead, there is a loud cheer. But you get the sense that they aren‚Äôt really used to this‚Ä¶ This possibility of a defeat.
We wander around bleary eyed. While the LMP1 cars blitz down Indianapolis and into Arnage, we take in the sights at Le Mans. There are fans swigging beer and dancing to loud music at the camp sites. There is the ferris wheel at the Ford corner that overlooks the track, that giant eye in the sky that looks over Le Mans, protecting the men and women who choose to go racing at the Circuit de la Sarthe. Drivers keep changing, hurriedly walking from the garage into their motorhomes for a quick nap. We‚Äôre having trouble just staying awake. Imagine what they must be going through. Our own OVERDRIVE 24 hour endurance runs, certainly pale in comparison. And those are gruelling enough as it is!
Then the Le Mans effect sets in, as much for us as for the drivers. The hours pass by in a blur. By the 15th hour, the No 19 Porsche piloted by Hulkenberg, Bamber and Tandy is in the lead. Even when they need to pit for a new rear body shell and wing a couple of hours later, they manage to come back into the lead. They‚Äôre running strong at the head of the field alright. Of course, as the hours pass, like every other Le Mans, this one is proving to be interesting too – close even. But realistically, we know what‚Äôs going to happen. In fact, we felt it all through. The No 19 Porsche has one last driver change. And once Hulkenberg is back in the car, no matter how much the Audi No 7 car tries, there‚Äôs no catching them. No catching even the No 17 car of Mark Webber and co. It seems like Audi is ready for the inevitable.
Then the chequered flag falls. There is celebration for Porsche. And disappointment within the Audi camp. But even as we see the mechanics and engineers, exhausted not just from the last 24 hours, but from the last year of preparation that has gone into the quest for their 14th title, we can tell there burns within them the desire to put things right. To beat Porsche. The next few years at Le Mans are going to be a giant tug of war between the two, then. And we cannot wait to witness this!
For Porsche, it is a job well done. Mission accomplished, so to speak. And another Le Mans conquered. For Audi, it is a job done, but not well enough. But they seem to know already that just as what goes up must come down, what goes down must come up again. Exactly like that ferris wheel at Le Mans. This crazy roundabout will continue in one endless circle.