The epic finale that brought Le Mans' diesel wars to a close

Jamie Klein

I’m fortunate enough to have attended 10 of the most recent 11 editions of the Le Mans 24 Hours, either enjoying the atmosphere as a fan in the campsite or as a journalist trying to keep abreast of all the action from the media centre. The one that I didn’t manage to get to was the 2011 race, which just also happened to be one of the all-time classics. No regrets there though, as watching at home on TV meant I could follow the drama much better than I could have hoped to in the grandstands, and watch live the race’s breath-taking final showdown that culminated in the fourth-closest finish in the event’s history.

The 2011 race also has the distinction of bringing to a close the ‘diesel wars’ era of Le Mans, five years of intense competition between Audi and Peugeot that are often overlooked in comparison to the hybrid era that followed. My memories from my first two visits to the Circuit de la Sarthe in 2009 and ’10 of watching trackside the Audi R15 (in both original and ‘Plus’ guises) and the original Peugeot 908 HDi FAP whizz past remain vivid, the spaceship-like hum of these machines providing a constant reminder that this generation of LMP1 cars were operating on the cutting edge of technology.

For the first time, in 2011 Audi and Peugeot had both brought all-new cars to Le Mans at the same time to coincide with the revised regulations, which were aimed at slowing down the increasingly rapid LMP1s. For the German manufacturer, this meant replacing the unloved R15 Plus, which had taken a fortuitous 2010 win as the Peugeot challenge imploded through unreliability woes, with the all-new R18. It was Audi’s first closed-top car since 1999, after a decade of running only open-cockpit cars, and also featured a new 3.7-litre V6 turbodiesel powerplant that was much lighter than the V10 in the back of the R15.

#2 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18 TDI: Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer

#2 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18 TDI: Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer Rainier Ehrhardt

Rainier Ehrhardt

“It was a lot nimbler,” recalls Andre Lotterer of the R18. “The engine became much smaller, and so the car felt so much lighter at the rear, less inertia, and the aero was much more efficient. It was the first time I felt we could take some crazy speeds in corners and play with the car. The R15 was a bit of a tank and you couldn’t play with it so much, it had much more weight in the back. I was much more confident with the R18; everything was so much better. During testing, I felt the car was made for me, that I could do whatever I wanted with this car.”

Peugeot’s new car meanwhile, simply called the 908, looked outwardly similar to its predecessor but likewise did away with four cylinders, with the previous-generation V12 motor making way for a V8. But, as Sebastien Bourdais explains, it had a design flaw.

“Our entire concept was meant to have a ton of front downforce,” says Bourdais. “But the model was somewhat off and early on we had to run with a lot more rear wing than the design intended. So the car was very draggy and we didn’t have the speed. We had to run two or three degrees more of rear wing than was intended by the design of the car. And when you do that, the performance on those long straights at Le Mans, it kills you.”

#9 Team Peugeot Total Peugeot 908: Sébastien Bourdais, Simon Pagenaud, Pedro Lamy

#9 Team Peugeot Total Peugeot 908: Sébastien Bourdais, Simon Pagenaud, Pedro Lamy Rainier Ehrhardt

Rainier Ehrhardt

The second round of the 2011 Intercontinental Le Mans Cup season at Spa marked the first time the new machines went head-to-head (Audi instead gave the R15 Plus one final hurrah at Sebring), and it was Peugeot that came out on top with a decisive 1-2 finish, the new car’s issues proving less of a problem on a more conventional circuit. But the roles were reversed when it came to qualifying for the big one as Audi locked out the top two positions. Benoit Treluyer grabbed pole in the #2 car he shared with Lotterer and Marcel Fassler by just 0.061 seconds ahead of the #1 R18 driven by Romain Dumas, while the best of the Peugeots, the #9 car piloted by Simon Pagenaud, was third, 0.272s off the pace.

It was clear that on raw pace during the day, when track temperatures were at their highest, Audi had the edge over its rival. That was partly because of how little downforce Peugeot was forced to run to stay competitive on the straights, but also because the 908 “was a bit hit and miss” on the medium tyre favoured by Audi, to quote Bourdais. When the track was cool enough to use the soft during the night, things were much more even.

Adding to the intrigue was that Peugeot was able to pull off 12-lap stints, one more lap than Audi, and that meant it could get by on 28 pitstops over the course of the 24 hours. The one R18 left standing at the end of the race meanwhile had to stop 31 times, but being able to eke out the tyres a bit longer meant it spent 22 seconds less in the pits than the only Peugeot to go the distance with a relatively trouble-free run, the #9 car.

#8 Peugeot Sport Total Peugeot 908: Franck Montagny, Stéphane Sarrazin, Nicolas Minassian

#8 Peugeot Sport Total Peugeot 908: Franck Montagny, Stéphane Sarrazin, Nicolas Minassian Rainier Ehrhardt

Rainier Ehrhardt

Less than a third into the race, the #2 car was on its own as both of its sister entries were written off in spectacular accidents while trying to lap slower traffic. In hour one, Allan McNish’s terrifying crash in the #3 R18 at the Forest Esses deprived Audi of its de facto lead car, shared by the Scotsman, Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello. Then, during hour eight, Mike Rockenfeller was lucky to walk away unscathed from a massive impact with the Armco barriers on the approach to Indianapolis in the #1 car, ruling out the 2010 race-winning crew as well.

The battle between the sole remaining Audi and the two Peugeots still in contention for the victory, the #7 and #9 cars (the #8 was delayed early on with a brake-balance adjuster issue and then lost further time to a puncture and a penalty), raged through the night and into the morning hours. At this point it seemed the #7 machine crewed by Anthony Davidson, Marc Gene and Alexander Wurz was the stronger bet for victory, the #9 car having been reduced to just Bourdais and Pagenaud with an unwell Pedro Lamy having been stood down by team management after just one triple stint in the evening.

That was until Wurz put it in the barriers at Indianapolis with just over five hours to go, an accident which cost the #7 crew four precious laps and which made it a straight fight between the #2 Audi and the #9 Peugeot. Installed at the wheel of the Audi at this point was Treluyer, who was midway through a marathon quintuple stint of 55 laps, which Michelin claimed was the longest ever for a set of dry tyres at Le Mans.

#2 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18 TDI: Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer, Benoit Tréluyer

#2 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18 TDI: Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer, Benoit Tréluyer Eric Gilbert

Eric Gilbert

“They told me I was in for five stints – I hadn’t eaten, I hadn’t brushed my teeth,” says Treluyer of that pivotal phase of the race. “I needed some time to wake up. I was overtaken by [Stephane] Sarrazin [in the delayed #8 Peugeot] and that woke me up, and after that I gave it everything. I overtook him at the Karting corner [the final element of the Porsche Curves], a bit off the track but I had to avoid hitting the Corvette. After that I overtook Pagenaud [to take the lead]. It was one of those days you know you have to give everything. You have to push 120 percent. These five stints are one of my best memories in racing.”

If Treluyer’s time at the wheel in the morning seemed instrumental in setting up the #2 car for the grand finale, Bourdais reckons the rain that fell with around four hours to go was the moment the pendulum swung decisively away from Peugeot and towards Audi.

“Unfortunately, it started to drizzle half an hour into my triple stint, and that pretty much was the race right there,” rues Bourdais. “I lost a minute I think over the three stints… I just didn’t have the confidence in the car. From there on, since the weather had cooled off a bit and the rain was still hit and miss and we weren’t sure what was going to happen, we stayed on the soft tyre and Simon did a great job for an hour-and-a-half and started to close the gap. It seemed like it was going to work. The Audi was struggling a bit, but then the sun came out, it got warmer, and basically the stronger car became the stronger car again.”

As the race neared its conclusion, it looked like Audi, with Lotterer back at the wheel for the final three hours and 40 minutes, had done enough. But there was to be one final twist – a slow puncture that threatened to force the #2 car to make an additional stop. Luckily for the German marque, the tyre held on just long enough for it to be changed at the same time Lotterer was due in for fuel anyway with just 35 minutes left on the clock, although the resulting slower final stop was what set up that super-tense finale with the #9 Peugeot.

Last pit stop for #2 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18 TDI: Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer, Benoit Tréluyer

Last pit stop for #2 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18 TDI: Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer, Benoit Tréluyer Eric Gilbert

Eric Gilbert

Lotterer recalls those defining moments of the race: “The penultimate stint, I thought I was second and Leena [Gade, the #2 car’s race engineer] was giving me the gap and it was increasing all the time. I thought we were losing the race. I was taking crazy risks, pushing more, I couldn’t understand why the Peugeot was so much quicker. But actually I was in the lead and making a gap, which then helped us when we had the slow puncture. I had to save some fuel to do an extra lap to make sure we didn’t need a splash at the end, and then for the pitstop we changed all four tyres instead of one tyre. When I saw in the mirror I saw I was in the lead after a full pitstop, I was like, ‘huh?’ Then I could relax a bit.”

Treluyer shares his view of the action, having already stepped out of the cockpit for the final time: “When we got the slow puncture there was a big discussion with the engineers about what we should do, if we should change just the punctured tyre or all four. In the end we decided to change all four tyres and we knew it would be really close. I remember seeing the car still on the jacks, and we could hear the Peugeot restarting from the first pit box and coming down the pitlane. We were like, ‘Ahhh!’ I still remember how stressed Marcel was in the pits. I still remember his face: he was stressing like I’ve never seen anyone stress!

“In the end we restarted with six seconds of difference [over the Peugeot], but I knew at the time with Andre with fresh tyres he could lead until the end.”

And so it was – armed with new rubber, Lotterer more than doubled his advantage over Pagenaud to seal Audi’s 10th Le Mans victory and what would turn out to be the first of three triumphs for himself, Fassler and Treluyer, with just 13.854s in hand over his rival.

LM P1 podium: class and overall winners Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoit Tréluyer with Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich

LM P1 podium: class and overall winners Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoit Tréluyer with Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich Eric Gilbert

Eric Gilbert

“It was pretty heart-breaking to come 13 seconds short at the end,” reflects Bourdais. “We did the best fight we could, it could have gone either way. But at Le Mans if you end up having to run less downforce than you’d like, the next thing you know, you don’t switch on the tyres, you degrade them a bit more. That can be traced all the way back to [the design error]. We have some interesting stories from the first time the car rolled out in Le Mans configuration at Paul Ricard, everybody was pretty scared! It was a pretty wicked car originally. It was a heck of a car, but it just missed the mark at Le Mans.”

Behind the surviving diesel cars, honours in the unofficial ‘petrol’ class went to Rebellion Racing. In its third year in the LMP1 class, Alexandre Pesci’s squad finally emerged as a serious contender, having replaced the Judd V10 motor in the back of its Lola B06/10s with a Toyota V8. While one car failed to finish after a crash for Jean-Christophe Boullion, the other, piloted by Neel Jani, Nicolas Prost and Jeroen Bleekemolen, was sixth overall, just a lap down on the heavily delayed previous-generation Oreca Peugeot in fifth.

“It was the first time we had the Toyota engine, so we had high hopes to finally finish the race with a decent result,” says Jani, who would go on to be a pillar of Porsche’s LMP1 programme and win Le Mans himself in 2016. “There were a lot more privateer cars back then, so it was quite a battle. The tension was quite high and P6 felt like it was like a win. It was the first year I would say Rebellion started becoming competitive at Le Mans as a team, and also me. It was the first time I had a car I could push for 24 hours.”

#12 Rebellion Racing Lola B10/60 Coupe-Toyota: Nicolas Prost, Neel Jani, Jeroen Bleekemolen

#12 Rebellion Racing Lola B10/60 Coupe-Toyota: Nicolas Prost, Neel Jani, Jeroen Bleekemolen Rainier Ehrhardt

Rainier Ehrhardt

There was no shortage of other storylines in the LMP1 class in 2011 – the most memorable being the abject failure of the Aston Martin AMR-One project, which remains the British manufacturer’s last foray into the top division of sportscar racing. Fatally undermined by an unreliable, under-developed and unconventional straight-six petrol engine and inadequate preparation, the ill-fated machine would warrant an entire article of its own.

On top of that, there was the return of the legendary Henri Pescarolo’s team to La Sarthe after a year away; WRC squad Kronos Racing entering an old Lola-Aston Martin with an all-Belgian crew, including Jacky Ickx’s daughter Vanina; and the first-ever hybrid-powered car at Le Mans developed by Swiss firm HyTech and entered under the banner of ‘Hope Racing’, a foreshadowing of what was to come in LMP1 in the years that followed. And that’s to say nothing of the fantastically varied LMP2 class or the newly rebranded GTE Pro division, in which Corvette triumphed over factory rivals Ferrari and BMW.

By this point I’d seen Le Mans twice with my own eyes, but it was after following the incredible events of the 2011 race from afar that I resolved to go back the next year and every year since. And while there have been some other great editions in that time, with the 2015, ’16 and ’17 races standing out as particular highlights, for me nothing has quite scaled the heights of Audi and Peugeot’s fifth and final battle for glory.

Race winner Andre Lotterer takes the checkered flag

Race winner Andre Lotterer takes the checkered flag Rainier Ehrhardt

Rainier Ehrhardt