It might well become the biggest autosport story of 2016. There you had it, the longly awaited first Toyota win of the Le Mans hybrid era scuppered by a failure that the team has identified as a “defect on the air line between the turbo and the intercooler”, three days after the excruciating episode. Those who had already switched to Formula 1’s countdown will have braced themselves to a shock by the time they revised the Le Mans results two hours after the finish. Is there something more telling of the reason why we all love racing than an LMP1 failing to reach the chequered flag after leading 23 hours and 57 minutes of the world’s most famous event for prototypes?
Probably not but, equally, maybe if we dig deeper we can find the reason why most of us love the technical side of the sport and enjoy it even when the race seems a snooze-fest and anyone else with a bit of common sense would change to another channel. While Toyota tries to understand how a lack of reliability robbed them the glory from under their noses, that once all-conquering Le Mans force called Audi is still at a loss to explain why they didn’t even challenge the Japanese carmaker and Porsche for the win.
Did Audi overcomplicate their R18 e-tron Quattro for this year’s World Endurance Championship? This time, they have opted to face the challenge of combining a high, aerodynamic-friendly and drag-minimizer nose with a tight packaging of the hybrid system at the front. If we consider the results achieved by Audi before arriving to the high-speed French track, we could be forgiven for thinking that the chances were still there more than ever for the German manufacturer. They had reached the top of the podium in both of the previous events. Silverstone was a race to forget for them after the exclusion of Lotterer, Fassler and Treluyer’s car, due to the front section of the R18’s skid block being found to have worned more than the 5mm that the regulations allow. “Here and Spa will be the most difficult, so we’re looking forward to the Le Mans 24 hours,” said Lotterer. But the mistakes on part of the competition exacerbated the illusion in the shape of a triumph at Spa. Audi should have realised that in Belgium they simply had stolen a lucky win from the competition, and that with the supposed Le Mans low-downforce configuration; and that the failures of Toyota at the historical track were officially caused by the cars bottoming out at Eau Rouge, while they didn’t have such a great excuse for their hybrid system problems in Britain. All in all, the logic dictated that we were approaching a disaster which was waiting to happen.
Funnily enough, for sure this previous result at Spa was what prompted driver Lucas di Grassi to say after Le Mans: “To finish on the podium is a nice reward, but this race is not Audi, with how many times we went into the garage, how many repairs we had to do, and how much time we spent stopped.” Yeah, Lucas, and the third row of the grid isn’t Audi either, by the way. To sum up the mood at Audi’s WEC stable, best if we let Di Grassi’s co-driver Loic Duval tell us how mistyfied they were for their poor performance: “We lacked pace, and we didn’t think we would.”
All these problems were translated into an astonishing 12 laps gap to the leader at the end of the event. Among the gremlins that maintained Audi far from the podium positions until Toyota’s #5 car failure, we should mention a change of turbo for the #7 vehicle and a brake disc problem for car #8 that forced the team to lose 40 minutes while they changed the whole suspension system.
On the other hand, it’s hard to determine how much has the VAG emissions scandal damaged Audi’s resources for his motorsport programme. Fact is that Porsche and Audi refused to line up the traditional third car due to budget considerations after the $7 billion provisions that VW group has found itself forced to reunite. And, after all, we all know the singular way by which sister company Porsche has conquered this Le Mans 24 Hours edition… Has it been by chance that Toyota found this year their best oportunity by far to conquer the event?
Still too many questions demanding an answer as the 2016 WEC develops.