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Audi sweeps Le Mans qualifying; Porsche dominates GT classes

LE MANS, France -- Audi continued its March through the World Endurance Championship Series with an impressive effort in qualifying at the historic Circuit du la Sarthe, garnering the top three times with its R18 e-tron quattro. So far the Ingolstadt-based team has dominated the series as their main competition, the Toyota TS030 Hybride, has been off the pace. However, the wildcard in this year's event seems to be the weather with mother nature dealing a wildcard to the teams for the 90th anniversary running of the event, splashing the track with rain showers on a schedule that has kept team managers guessing on tire set-up. Leading the Audi charge was the No. 2 car of Allan McNish, Tom Kristiansen, and Loic Duvall. It was Duvall, the new comer to the team, who found a clear track later in the first session to drop low time on the field that was not to be beaten. His time 3:22.349 was faster than last year's time. The No. 1 Audi, the two-time defending champion, sat in third on the qualifying ladder until late on Thursday evening's final qualifying session. That's when Benoit Treluyer got a shot a clean track after a yellow flag bunch the cars together. Treluyer and McNish in the No. 2 Audi jumped on the gas when the track went green and when Treluyer got by his teammate he had an open track to work his magic. He turned in a 3:23.696 lap that moved the team from third on the grid to second and within sniffing distance of the pole position team. The No. 1 car's best time to that point had been about four seconds off the pace set by Duvall. Meanwhile the Toyota Team was only able to earn a fourth place with the No. 8 Toyota finding a 3.36.654 lap. At the Driver Parade on Friday evening, a highlight of the pre-race activities, one of the Toyota drivers was asked about the race and said that his team would "battle the Audi's as hard as they could". It was not a concession speech -- but it also did not have the ring of optimism. The Toyota Team can take solace and hope from the fact that the Audi Team found itself in a similar position several years ago when Peugeot dominated qualifying and seemed to have a fast car. When the rains during the race, the Audi's drove through the rain and into the winner's circle, much to the chagrin of the Peugeot team. While the Audi's have been the leaders all season, they still have to race the race -- and therein is the challenge of endurance car racing -- it is not always to the swift.  

The world awaits the 90th anniversary of the 24 hours of Le Mans

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.

Outstanding debut performance by Toyota; They are done for the 80th running.

Le Mans, France - One of the best manufactures debut to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in recent history. The remaining No. 7 Toyota TS030 Hybrid has pulled out of the race due to engine problems. Toyota at one point in the race led, and was bringing the fight to Audi. The team has come into the race with very little testing, after destroying one of the chassis, and did not make the either Spa, or Sebring races.
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