2010 24 Heures du Mans
2010 24 Heures du Mans; photo courtesy Audi. Click image to enlarge

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2010 24 Heures du Mans

Le Mans, France – Outright winners of nine of the last 11 “24 Heures du Mans” endurance races (five with the gasoline-powered Audi R8 and four with the diesel powered R10 and R15 plus), it’s hard to say whether this year Audi underestimated its own vehicles, or overestimated those of its direct rival, Peugeot, which won this race last year.

How else to explain Audi’s pre-race comment that for 2010 the company would be happy just to make it to the podium? Indeed, scuttlebutt among invited media that included CandianDriver.com, was that it was unlikely Audi would even achieve that.

But, as one by one, the favoured Peugeot vehicles dropped out of the race, and one by one, the laps relentlessly accumulated for the three LMP1 (Le Mans Prototype) Audi R15 plus entries, Audi recorded yet another outright win in 2010. In fact, at race end, all three spots on the LMP1 podium would be occupied by Audi drivers.

2010 24 Heures du Mans
2010 24 Heures du Mans
2010 24 Heures du Mans; top photo courtesy Audi. Click image to enlarge

In the event, Audi didn’t beat Peugeot; they demolished Peugeot, the winning car covering a record 397 laps representing 5,410.7 kilometres (equivalent to a one-day trip from Moncton, New Brunswick to Vancouver, British Columbia).

Wins like this don’t just happen. Many storied marques competed in the four race-classes comprising this years field of 56 entries, including Jaguar, Ford, Ferrari, Porsche, BMW, Corvette and Aston Martin. Half of the starting grid failed to finish.

A particular combination of drivers, technology and organization (along with some luck) is required to run vehicles pretty much flat-out for 24 hours straight. At Le Mans, as everyone seems fond of saying, anything can happen (and usually does).

The race begins at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, and ends at the same time on Sunday. It’s an endurance race, with winning cars completing the most laps of the 13.65 km “Circuit de la Sarthe” within the allotted 24 hours. During that time, cars can be refueled, repaired, rebuilt, and otherwise revived, as long as they can make it back to the pit area under their own power to do so. Each car has a team of three drivers who take shifts behind the wheel, with speed, control and consistency their key attributes.

2010 24 Heures du Mans
2010 24 Heures du Mans. Click image to enlarge

Of course, no matter how experienced the driver, the car has to keep going. You might think, therefore, that Audi’s vehicles, being diesel powered, would have an advantage in power and range. But the Peugeot cars used diesels as well, and won quite handily with them in 2009. The difference this year was that each of the Peugeot 908 HDI cars retired in flames, or just flamed out, while the Audi vehicles possessed both performance and reliability.

Le Mans is also an endurance event for spectators. Most people aren’t accustomed to staying up for 24-hours, although many of the estimated 240,000 attendees attempted just that. The issue, of course, is that if you do succumb to sleep, you know something spectacular will happen and you’ll miss it.

In my case, I lasted until 3 a.m., taking a break from the race with Peugeot well in command, followed by another Peugeot and an Audi. It looked like the earlier predictions were coming to pass. But by 7 a.m., major events had taken place, and it was Audi, Audi, Peugeot; first, second and third. Late in the race, the last Peugeot retired resulting in the sweep by Audi.

2010 24 Heures du Mans
2010 24 Heures du Mans. Click image to enlarge

Audi has clearly made its point by dominating racing at the highest of levels with diesel powered vehicles. The company’s entire line-up of consumer vehicles is available in Europe with diesel engines, except, ironically, the R8. In Canada consumers can buy a diesel Audi A3 compact car and diesel Q7 SUV.

This year at Le Mans, other “alternative” fuels were used by the Drayson Racing Lola/Judd (bio-ethanol), and the Corvette racing team (E-10). In the past, gas turbine engines were tried. We wait now for hydrogen to debut on the grid, and may not have to wait long, as Mazda entered its RX-9 Hydrogen RE at the “Le Mans into the Future” demonstration event this year.

Along with the race, a must-see at Le Mans is the museum (Musee Automobile de la Sarthe), housing winning vehicles from races past, and tributes to their drivers. You can also purchase an official poster, which at almost four-by-five feet in size would surely enhance anyone’s living room.

2010 Le Mans winners (by Class)

LMP1 – Audi R15 TDI plus
Laps: 397
Drivers: Mike Rockenfeller, Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas
Power: Audi TDI 5.5L Turbo V10 (diesel)

LMP2 – Acura ARX-01C
Laps: 367
Drivers: Nick Leventis, Danny Watts, Jonny Kane
Power: AL7R 3.4L V8

GT2 – Porsche 997 GT3
Laps: 338
Drivers: Marc Lieb, Richard Lietz, Wolf Henzler
Power: Porsche 4.0L Flat-Six

GT1 – Saleen S7
Laps: 331
Drivers: Roland Berville, Julien Canal, Gabriele Gardel
Power: Ford 7.0L V8

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