That Audi would mount a strong challenge in this year’s World Endurance Championship (WEC) was never in doubt, they have not dominated the top-end of sportscar racing for 14 years by accident but after a difficult run in 2014, that they should come out of the blocks with a win was proof again, were any needed, that they remain the benchmark against which all other marques must test themselves.
Fortunately for fans, while last year’s Le Mans winners, Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer, did return Audi to the top spot, they did so only after an absolutely enthralling fight with rivals Porsche and Toyota, setting the scene for what promises to be a fascinating season-long, ding-dong.
The winning No7 R18 e-tron quattro took the flag after six hours of racing just 4.61 seconds ahead of the No18 Porsche 919 Hybrid of Romain Dumas, Marc Lieb and Neel Jani, with which it had been battling throughout the race, while the Toyota of last year’s WEC champions, Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima, followed them home in third, only 15 seconds further back, with all three having reached a new record distance for the race of 201 laps.
Ultimately Audi just had the edge in pace at Silverstone but it was no simple task to exploit it. Indeed the winning car’s race had begun very poorly. Tréluyer, starting from fifth on the grid, had trouble engaging a gear from the start and tumbled backwards through the pack, while at the same time Mark Webber in the No17 Porsche leapt into a strong position from pole, pulling out a ten-second lead by the second hour.
Porsche had been quickest in testing and their form looked ominous but as the race unfolded the margins became tighter and tighter. The WEC’s technical regulations are far less restrictive than Formula One and encourage innovation and interpretation, thus the three leading manufacturers (four including Nissan who join the series at Le Mans) have differing approaches. Porsche running a V4 petrol engine opted for the maximum energy recovery system of eight mega joules from a battery, to Audi’s 4MJ, diesel, flywheel approach, with Toyota sporting a 6MJ, petrol V8 using a supercapacitor to store energy.
Porsche’s system, a step up in energy recovery from last year where they had still won the season finale in Brazil, gave them a huge advantage on the straights that Webber exploited only to have to retire with a gearbox problem on lap 44, handing the lead to the sister car. But having fought back, found some clean air and quicker through the corners, Fässler caught Jani and the pair engaged in some thrilling racing. Overtaking brilliantly through corners, particularly Village and The Loop, Fässler would only find himself repassed on the Wellington Straight as Jani put the hammer down.
The pair exchanged the lead several times a lap for some time but with Audi taking advantage of being able to double-stint their tyres, ultimately it was Lotterer who finally made it stick in the fourth hour, passing Dumas who had gone wide through The Loop. However Porsche had also eked out a fuel advantage and with a lead of just over a minute in the final stages Fässler had to take a splash and dash stop, compounded by a drive-through for taking an advantage by exceeding track limits at Club while overtaking an Aston Martin.
Both of which visits to the pits put the gap down to eight seconds with 10 minutes to go, which proved not quite enough for a charging Jani to come back but that made for a thrilling finale to what had been a very tough race – acknowledged by Lotterer. “We were under pressure from the first to the last lap and could not afford to slip,” he said. “We managed to do this and the team did everything right at the pit stops and with the perfect strategy. Now, we’re going to take this momentum with us to Spa and to Le Mans.”
It is momentum his team will be anxious to maintain, the gap between the three teams is marginal and Spa will prove a further, fascinating, sighting shot for the big one at La Sarthe in June. Audi have once again made their point that you underestimate them at your peril, but the team who use the hashtag #welcomechallenges have found their offer accepted with a powerful and determined threat this year and one that bodes well for a cracking season.