LE MANS, FRANCE — History awaits the winner of the 90th anniversary of the first running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The questions are many and like a Shakespearean play that is written in real time on the historic circuit du la Sarthe each year, in 2013 fans of endurance car racing will wonder how the fickle hand of the poet of racing will write the ending of this race.
While cars go through scrutineering on Monday and Tuesday, most pundits have pretty much written Audi and its vaunted diesel hybrid team into the winner’s circle. The Ingolstadt crew is more than up to the challenge as it is the defending the champion and to date has won everything that the team has entered, including a final adieu at Sebring and the first two rounds of World Endurance Championship (WEC) at Silverstone and Spa. Its only competition has come from the upstart Toyota team that is again getting a late start to the season, running last year’s car Silverstone and one of the 2013 chassis at Spa. Audi has seemingly had an answer for the Toyota at every stop along the way, winning handily in each of the first two venues and testing its “long-tail” version of its r18 e-tron quattro at Spa.
The Long-tail was the fast qualifier at test day at a soggy Le Mans (on June 8) as it was obvious that the Toyota Team was still sorting out the new car. Last year the Toyota gave the Audi a run for its money for a short period of time at Le Mans before a shunt and mechanical issues put both cars out of the race. However, in subsequent WEC events the Toyotas showed that they were a force to be reckoned with, winning three of the last five races and sending a message to the vaunted Audi team. Team Audi was listening and returned to the racing wars fully prepared to defend its title.
After Spa, in fact Toyota officials said that the Audis were just too fast and that the Automobile Club de l’Ouest and the FIA should make changes in the rules if it wanted to have a competitive race. Pascal Vasselon, Toyota Motorsport GmbH technical director said that the “balance of performance” heavily favored Audi’s turbo diesel over the normally aspirated gasoline engine of the Toyota. Vasselon indicated that he thought that the Audi’s have a 70 to 80 horsepower advantage over his Toyotas. Vasselon thinks that a mistake was made over the winter when the air-restrictor rules were rewritten, reducing the air restrictor by three percent but not changing the fuel allocation. Vasselon contends that the Audis are making more power whereas the Toyotas are looking at an increase in fuel consumption of 20 percent (in order to keep up with the Audis).
Wolfgang Ulrich the Audi Sport Director did not mince words regarding the challenge from Toyota on the specs. It is his perspective that the Toyotas have come to the first two races of the season somewhat unprepared since they ran last year’s car at Silverstone and only had one of the new car’s at Spa, where it failed to finish. “How can they ask for a change in the BoP with such little data. The new Toyota, which was doing its first race, was at least comparable to our Le Mans car.”
Vasselon was not satisfied and added,”We looked better in the race, but it was entirely related to the engine setting of the Audi.”
Indeed at the test day at Le Mans, even in the sloppy weather, Toyota was still off the pace — even the pace set by the second and third Audis. Thew fastest Toyota (fourth fastest) was nearly two seconds off the pace of the third fastest Audi.
At this writing this has just been a war of words and neither the ACO nor the FIA have indicated that they are looking to make changes in the rules at this late date.
But remember there are 56 cars running at Le Mans and while the prototypes get most of the press the GTs provide some of the best racing. This year features the return of the Dodge Viper after a decade hiatus and certainly the return of “Dr.McDreamy” — Patrick Dempsey of the Grey’s Anatomy series adds a little extra interest to the race this year. Dempsey will racing a Porsche and is team with Porsche factory driver Patrick Long.
As they say in the states, “it’s not over ’til the fat lady sings” and at Le Mans the fat lady never sings until she is ready.