Le Mans Week 2008 began with a series of events that transformed this quaint town in France to a world class venue, honoring the 76th running of the race.
One event of Le Mans Week is the “Technical Scrutineering,” where fans can get up close and personal with their favorite race cars. Also on hand are the pit crews to answer a myriad of questions about these high-tech wonders. These sessions were held on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday and Thursday, you could take a walk along Pit Row, where lots of action takes place during the race. Qualifying sessions to determine grid positions were also held these two days. On Friday, pit walks were again available, as were press conferences with teams for the attending media. Friday evening brought a very exciting event, the Grande Parade Des Pilotes or Driver’s Parade where fans could see the cars and drivers so closely that they could even get autographs. This multi-hour parade also featured plenty of classic race and road cars, including the latest offerings from small and large auto manufacturers.
On Saturday, all that is Le Mans came together. Fans from around the world took their positions in grandstands or hillsides along the famed 8.5 mile circuit. Want to see flat out speed? Then the Mulsanne Straight, where speeds exceed 200 mph, was for you. Want action and drama? Then the Porsche Curves or the Indianapolis Corner is where you should have been stationed. If you wanted to check out all of Pit Row drama, then a seat along the start/finish straight was in order. A record 258,500 fans attended Le Mans this year. At 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 14, the 2008 24 Hours of Le Mans began.
Audi began its tenth year of running in the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a lot of history behind it. Considered the world’s most important endurance race, Audi has won Le Mans seven times in the last eight years. Audi first established its dominance at Le Mans with the gasoline powered R8, sweeping the top three spots in the main LM P1 class in 2000, 2001 and 2002.
In an effort to tout its technological superiority, and to bring “green” racing into the Audi Motorsports stable, Audi showcased the R10 TDI turbo diesel-powered racecar at the Paris Auto Show in 2005. It didn’t take long for Audi to show its dominance with diesel, winning Le Mans in 2007.
It’s amazing that a diesel-powered racecar can be so competitive. We often think of diesel powered cars as stinky and slow. With 650 horsepower and 811 pound-feet of torque, these Audi race cars are far from slow. Of the 55 cars in the race, spread over four performance classes, six were diesel powered. Peugeot, the French automaker, also fielded three turbo-diesel entries.
Audi’s head of motorsport, Dr. Wolfgang Ulrich, had high hopes for Audi’s tenth entry: “We enter our anniversary race well-prepared. Nevertheless, like every year, you have to expect the unexpected at Le Mans and react as good as possible to whatever comes up. It shouldn’t be forgotten that we compete against extremely strong competition,” said Ulrich. Overall, the nine factory drivers from Audi share 23 first, second and third place victories.
And Peugeot was ready too. Their diesel cars qualified on the pole with the fastest lap times in Le Mans history, shattering the record of 3:27.18 (held by Audi) by almost eight seconds. The three French cars propelled from the “flying start” with ferocity. It was stunning to see the effortless way the Peugeots powered away from the field. But endurance races are about endurance, and 24 hours is a long time to race, with the weather (it rained overnight in Le Mans), darkness, driver fatigue, and durability and reliability all coming into play.
This year, Audi was the first team to race at Le Mans with a mix of traditional diesel and biodiesel. Co-developed with Shell Oil, Shell’s V-Power “Power Diesel” uses biofuel made from biowaste which cannot be used for food. The Power Diesel is nearly sulfur free and odorless, and the R10 TDI uses two Dow particulate filters to further clean up the exhaust stream. These cars are super clean and amazingly quiet, producing a humming sound instead of the usual droning noise of a typical high strung racecar.
The final hours of the race were full of drama. Overnight, as the rains came down, Audi’s slower cars had the advantage, and the number 2 car pushed into the lead, with the number 1 and 3 cars fighting with Peugeot for the second and third spots. And it was a battle that would go to the wire. Peugeot misfired on a pit stop, with the car spinning to a stop on the wet tarmac. The number 2 Audi was involved in a crash in the 22nd hour that sent another car to the pits, but the Audi, piloted by then seven time winner Tom Kristensen, powered on.
Before the race, Audi driver (car number 1) Emanuele Pirro called the 24 Hours of Le Mans “the greatest wheeled race since Ben Hur.” In the end, his thoughts were spot on as the number two car, piloted by Kristensen, Dindo Capello and Allan McNish, beat the number 7 Peugeot 908 by four minutes, thirty-one seconds. During the entire race, these two cars were never separated by more than one lap. Kristensen added to his Le Mans trophy total with his record eighth win. At the end, only 35 of the 55 cars that started the race were running at the finish, truly underscoring the beating man and machine take during the race. According to McNish, “You have to beat Le Mans before you beat any of your competitors. And beating Le Mans is the hardest part of it.”