Audi won Le Mans for the 13th time but only after a war of attrition that put all the leading teams through the wringer before Benoit Treluyer took the chequered flag to end one of the most dramatic 24 Hours in years.
The win was the third in four years for Treluyer, Marcel Fassler and Andre Lotterer in the #2 R18 e-tron quattro and marked another 1-2 for Audi as the #1 car of Tom Kristensen, Lucas Di Grassi and Marc Gene made a phenomenal recovery after a huge crash in Wednesday practice that wrecked the car and put team-mate Loic Duval in hospital.
Audi made it 13 wins in 15 races to deny Toyota and Porsche
Third was the #8 Toyota TS040 Hybrid of Anthony Davidson, Nicolas Lapierre and Sebastien Buemi, marking another recovery drive in the race after an early accident while Porsche came tantalisingly close to the podium and even the winners’ spot but ultimately had the disappointment of both 919 Hybrids finishing more than 30 laps down on the winner.
The first few hours of the endurance epic were dominated by Toyota and the weather. Two torrential downpours would result in the #3 Audi of Oliver Jarvis, Felipe Albuquerque and Marco Bonanomi crashing out after being hit by Lapierre in #8 Toyota with just 90 minutes gone.
In difficult conditions under yellow, Lapierre came upon a group at speed, hitting a barrier and then the Audi. The then-leader of the GTE AM class, Sam Bird, in the #81 AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia also hit the R18 and was out. Lapierre got the car back to the pits but the car was eight laps down when it restarted.
Toyota had led the race for much of the opening three hours
“I’m not sure if the GT car hit me first or not,” the Frenchman said. “I don’t know really what happened. Then I went against the wall on the right side and a GT car took everyone out. That’s all I can remember from the crash. Honestly there was nothing I could see and nothing I could do.”
Earlier, the first high profile casualty came after just five laps when the experimental Nissan ZEOD RC retired with gearbox failure just hours after it had made history by becoming the first car to run a complete circuit of Le Mans on electric power only.
More rain soon came, bringing out another safety car period with the #7 Toyota of Alexander Wurz leading Lotterer in the #2 Audi and then Timo Bernhard’s Porsche. The first two pitted and Bernhard went through to give Porsche the lead at Le Mans for the first time in 16 years. He relinquished the position though in the sixth hour to Stephane Sarrazin and the #7 Toyota.
The #7 extended its lead, helped by another safety car in the seventh hour which split the field mainly after the #47 KCMG Oreca-Nissan car crashed in the Porsche Curves. Kazuki Nakajima pitted the TS040 as did Treluyer in the #2 Audi e-tron quattro pitted but whereas the Japanese driver stayed in the car, Treluyer handed over to Marcel Fassler, who restarted nearly two minutes behind.
During this period, Mark Webber had his first taste of Le Mans since 1999 but his #20 Porsche which had been leading had been relegated to fourth first when Stephane Sarrazin overtook Bernhard and then when Brendon Hartley took an excursion off the track.
Benoit Treluyer gave Audi the lead during the early hours of Sunday
At the halfway point of the race the Toyota was still ahead but with the #2 Audi nibbling into its lead. Kistensen was third but lost two laps when he had to pit after he lost power on his out lap from a previous pitstop, a portent for what was to come. The #20 and #14 Porsches were second and third respectively while Davidson, who had been climbing back up the field, had to pit again with a balance problem and remained 12 laps off the lead.
But fortunes were to change again with Audi taking the lead of the race for the first time with 10 hours remaining; Kazuki Nakjima stopped at Arnage in the leading Toyota and could only watch as first Treluyer and then Hartley went by.
His retirement meant the LMP1-H class was down to six cars, throwing the race wide open again although Treluyer held a three-lap advantage over Hartley with the #1 Audi of Lucas Di Grassi a further lap behind but there was another twist when Fassler unexpectedly pitted and was wheeled back into the garage where the mechanics furiously set to work solving a turbo problem.
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It cost him 20 minutes and from three laps ahead, he rejoined two laps behind the sister #1 car with Marc Gene at the wheel. Webber move up to second and Davidson third but then Kristensen's car slowed again on Mulsanne and he was back in the Audi garage from where he lost the lead to Bernhard and was then relegated to third by Lotterer.
Kristensen’s time in the garage also allowed Sebastien Buemi in the #8 Toyota to claw back the six-lap deficit on the Audi. The Dane was sent back out in third place three laps up on the Toyota but three down on the other Audi, now with Lucas Di Grassi driving.
A couple of stops for Bernhard put the 919 Hybrid into second behind Lotterer as Porsche put Webber in the car to run to the end and chase down a one minute deficit. When Lotterer pitted, Audi kept him in the car to hold a 25-second lead with just over two hours remaining.
Within minutes, Webber was out as the 919 crawled from Mulsanne back to the pits not to be seen again, putting Lotterer back in the lead, Di Grassi second - and after 25 minutes - Davidson into a podium place once the Toyota had pulled ahead on laps.
Lotterer held a comfortable three laps in hand on Di Grassi so when he handed over to Treluyer, there was no pressure on the pitstop with just under 90 minutes to go. It was the final twist of an incredible race.