The 24 hours at Le Mans are the ultimate test of endurance—for man and machine. It’s the pinnacle not just of motorsport, but of motoring too. It is also the testing ground for new technologies for regular cars, since only the best engines and chassis can survive racing continuously for a gruelling 24 hours. Winning it is the ultimate prize for any manufacturer, speaking volumes for their technical prowess.
Knowing all this, I was still left in awe after I visited Le Mans in 2011. The atmosphere was electric, the race action—though stretched over 24 hours—spellbinding, and the drama around big crashes was intense. Having had that experience, I really didn’t imagine that I would still get goosebumps when I flew to Paris a few days ago for the 2012 edition of the “24 Heures Du Mans”, as the French call it. But after we arrived in Le Mans, the excitement and anticipation washed over me like a giant tsunami. There is something to be said about that first sight. People milling about—some pitching tents, others buying pennants and flags, organizers and teams stitching up last-minute details. The little town is a bevy of activity, with almost 300,000 out-of-towners descending on to it. It’s religion to some, passion for others. And for me that kind of dedication meant I simply couldn’t help but succumb to it all.
Audi has led the competition in the higher category, LMP1, for some years now—on the back of innovative use of diesel engine technology rather than the traditional petrol. Unlike last year, where it was a fierce fight to the finish with arch-rival Peugeot, this year Audi seemed to stand unrivalled. Peugeot had to stay away this year due to the company’s financial struggles. But a new contender joined the fray—Toyota.
What was also interesting is that both Toyota and Audi were fielding two hybrid cars each in the race for the first time. This is a historic change in the Le Mans tradition, and in both cases the cars could also use regenerative energy stored on board to provide an extra boost of power at specific intervals on the 13km lap—somewhat like the Kers (Kinetic Energy Recuperation System) in Formula One. In the case of Audi, the extra power transfers to the front wheels only, while the diesel motor powers the rear, making the R18 e-tron a quattro or all-wheel drive—something otherwise disallowed in motorsport. Significant amendments to the rules allowed these changes. Audi also had two more cars—the R18 Ultras —which were diesel-only, like last year’s.
A stylish side dish: The race also served as a showcase for other cars, such as the new Audi Q5 SUV.
Another first: a car with a relatively smaller engine taking on the bigger, more powerful cars—the Nissan DeltaWing. This experiment nearly seemed to work, till a mishap saw one of the Toyota cars knock it out.
In fact, the Toyotas themselves too had a run of very bad luck. Within a few hours of the race starting, Toyota lost its first car in a horrific crash with a Ferrari GT car. And the subsequent incident with the DeltaWing meant the second Toyota hybrid was also out of contention. This was a bit unfortunate, not just for Toyota but for the race too. What ensued was a rather one-sided affair, with the four Audi cars more or less left competing among themselves for the better part of the remaining 15-odd hours. The drama continued, though, with cars in the LMP2 and GT categories also being involved in some incidents. Eventually it was Audi that swept the race in the premier LMP1 category.
A car that climbed its way to sixth place smartly was the Honda from team JRM Racing. And the reason I was drawn to it was that it was driven by the first Indian to drive at Le Mans—Karun Chandhok. For the very first time, the strains of our national anthem could be heard across the famous circuit before the start of the race, and the tricolour was fluttering proudly in the breeze right through race-weekend. No better sight, I can tell you, and it made me truly proud. Chandhok was also the fastest of his teammates—which improved the overall time and helped the team to finish sixth.
Making history: Karun Chandhok at Le Mans.
Incidentally car makers also use the occasion to showcase some new vehicles on the sidelines. This year, Audi had the global debut of its SQ5 —the most powerful version of the Q5 SUV. This also marks the introduction of the facelift for the Q5 model range with a sharper face, and also the powerful 313 bhp, 3.0-litre bi-turbo diesel engine for the S version. The facelift on the Q5 arrives in India only around January, but the SQ5 is unlikely to be launched here.
So all in all, was going back to Le Mans worth it for me? You bet! Add to it the fact that this was the 80th year of the 24-hour race, that an Indian stepped on the track for the first time, and that hybrids made history—and I’m suddenly feeling very privileged to have been there. Soaking in the charged atmosphere, absorbing the intense passion from the likes of team Audi and its drivers, and catching up on cutting-edge technology mean that I am already looking forward to the 81st edition! I also hope the race, its heritage and importance do find some kind of a following in India in coming years. Who knows, maybe India can hope to host its own endurance race too one day.
Siddharth Vinayak Patankar is Editor, Auto, NDTV.
Write to Siddharth at email@example.com