TOYOTA grabbed the bragging rights when it bagged pole position for today’s 82nd running of the world’s most gruelling endurance race, Le Mans 24 Hours.
But unlike Formula 1, where the pole-sitter can normally scamper off into the distance to an easy win, the significance of starting from the No 1 slot on the grid does little more than generate additional media coverage.
Over the space of the 24 hours — which starts at 3pm local time and is run over 8.47miles, the majority of which is closed-off public roads normally used by cyclists, cars, HGVs and even tractors — the lead cars will cover around 380 laps and 3200 miles. That equates to more than the total race distance of all 19 F1 grands prix this season.
Japan’s former F1 racer, Kazuki Nakajima, set the pole time of 3mins 21.789secs, denying the No 14 Porsche 919 Hybrid of Frenchman Romain Dumas by just 0.357secs.
Toyota actually lines up first and third, with Porsche — on its return to competing in the lead class at Le Mans for the first time since 1998, the year a young Dumfries racer, Allan McNish, won the first of his three races before switching allegiance to Audi — in second and fourth.
Audi’s troubled week, which began when Frenchman Loic Duval destroyed his No 1 Audi R18 e-tron quattro in a frightening 170mph crash in opening free-practice, starts fifth, sixth and seventh.
The team, which seems to consistently set new benchmarks at Le Mans, did it again by completely rebuilding Duval’s wrecked car, including a new monocoque, within 24 hours in the cramped conditions of the Audi pit garage. It completed Thursday’s qualifying to start seventh.
The Ingolstadt manufacturer has dominated Le Mans in the modern era, winning 12 times in the last 15 years. And while McNish — who won his final Le Mans race with Audi last year before retiring as FIA World Endurance champ in December — acknowledges Toyota are favourites, he believes Audi may well come up on the rails and surprise them.
“We’ve seen over the years that it’s not always the car that’s fastest over a single lap that wins Le Mans,” the 43-year-old Scot, now a pivotal figure behind the scenes at Audi Sport, admitted yesterday.
“I’ve experienced it from both situations, when I’ve been on pole, had the fastest car and didn’t win; and from starting back in the pack and coming through to win. Twenty-four hours is a long, long time. My experience of Le Mans, in the how many times I’ve done it, is there’s always a strong chance that something is going to rear up and try to trip you up.
“It doesn’t matter how well you’ve prepared, but as we’ve seen with Audi in the past, something will trip you up: then it’s a case of how you react to it.
“The team did that brilliantly after what happened on Wednesday evening. In contrast to the way everyone was feeling immediately after Loic’s crash, now that he’s fine and back in Geneva resting and the No1 car is back on-track, everyone’s feeling bullish.
“Ok, Toyota and Porsche are ahead of us on the grid, but what really matters is who’s at the front 24 hours later. One of the big strengths we have is that we know what it takes to win at Le Mans. It’s a tough place: brutally tough. And everyone at Audi believes we can come from behind again and win.”
While McNish has parked his Le Mans racing career and thrown away the keys never to re-appear, former F1 racer Mark Webber returns to the French classic for the first time since his Mercedes flipped twice at high speed in 1999. The 37-year-old former Red Bull driver leads the two-car Porsche assault on the 2014 event and he’s realistic about their chances of success.
“Look, to do 24 hours, you need to have a smooth race,” Webber explained. “Keeping the garage time to a minimum is going to be crucial. In my opinion, Toyota are the favourites. Audi are in very good shape. We have done a very impressive job in the space of time we had.
“Let’s see how we go. For us to be sitting here saying we have a chance to go for the victory is extremely optimistic.”
Former France and Manchester United goalkeeper Fabien Barthez will be another lining up on the grid as the 42-year-old makes his debut in the race.
The World Cup winner, who clinched last year’s French GT championship after turning his attention to motor racing, will share a Ferrari 458 with Soheil Ayari and Anthony Pons in the GTE-AM class.
NO DUVAL: Loic Duval of France was fortunate to escape with just grazes when he crashed in practice on Wednesday. Duval spent one night in hospital as a precaution, but a doctor’s report prompted Le Mans officials to disallow him from competing this weekend.
PORSCHE’S EXPECTATIONS: Reliability will be the main concern for Porsche, which is relying on the experience of Australian driver Mark Webber. “For the return of Porsche at Le Mans, finishing the race would be OK,” Webber said. “For me, Audi remains the team to beat.”
TOYOTA’S STRONG CHALLENGE: The Japanese manufacturer has significantly improved this year, taking the top two spots at Silverstone in April and clinching the victory at Spa-Francorchamps last month. “It is promising for the race because we feel so confident in the car,” Stephane Sarrazin said. “We can push on every corner, every lap. The race will be very long, we know that we have to be very calm and not attack it like a short sprint.”
AUDI’S DOUBTS: Audi has won nine of the last ten races at Le Mans. Audi’s two cars did not finish at Silverstone and Duval’s absence adds to the doubts. Despite that, Tom Kristensen, the most successful driver at Le Mans with nine titles, said: “It wasn’t about the grid position but about preparing the car for the race. I’m looking towards the race with a positive feeling.”
TECHNOLOGICAL EDGE: The Audi R18, the Toyota TS040, and the Porsche 919 all use hybrid drive systems. But while the Audis and Toyotas convert only kinetic energy generated under braking into electricity, the Porsches also use a second hybrid system, which recovers thermal energy from exhaust gases. Toyota and Porsche have been able to generate more power from their hybrid systems than Audi as qualifying showed.