The Audi team became the first winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a hybrid engine after accidents in the fourth hour hit Toyota’s return to the race.
Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer drove an Audi R18 e-tron Quattro to victory, covering 378 laps of the 8.5-mile circuit southwest of Paris. Audi also took second with its other hybrid in the field, while one of its R18 Ultra diesels was third.
Race organizer Automobile Club de L’Ouest changed the rules for the top class last year to allow part-electric engines, allowing a boost of recouped energy from braking at the expense of a smaller fuel tank. The Audi power train also included a flywheel developed by Formula One team owner Williams Grand Prix Engineering Ltd.
It’s the eighth win in nine years for Audi, the first winner with a diesel car in 2006. Toyota, at its first Le Mans race since 1999 and also using two hybrids, was the only other team owned by a major carmaker.
Both Toyotas failed to finish. The team’s chances of victory evaporated just after driver Nicolas Lapierre had taken the lead by passing Audi’s Treluyer on the Mulsanne straight.
A few seconds later, the other Toyota TS030 driven by Anthony Davidson was clipped by amateur racer Piergiuseppe Perazzini’s Ferrari 458. Davidson’s car flipped in the air and smashed into a tire barrier.
Davidson, 33, suffered two broken bones in his back, Toyota said. The fractures should heal in about three months, according to a team statement.
Perazzini, 56, got of the car and sat on a grass verge. Amateur and professionals race side-by-side at Le Mans even though they compete in different classes. Each team has three drivers who take turns at the wheel.
Overtaking was suspended for more than an hour to clear debris and repair a guardrail. With cars bunched up at the restart, the Toyota of Kazuki Nakajima -- who’d taken over driving from Lapierre -- made contact with the Nissan DeltaWing, which went into a wall and quit the race because of the damage.
Nakajima had to stop to repair a puncture, dropping the car out of contention, and it eventually withdrew in the 11th hour because of engine failure.
“It really hurts to see both cars retire early,” Toyota Team President Yoshiaki Kinoshita said in a statement. “But in the next days we will look back with pride that we could lead Le Mans” in the team’s first race back.
The DeltaWing had taken much of the pre-race attention because of its design: It has four-inch front wheels and weighs about half the amount of other cars.
The project was backed by U.S. entrepreneur Don Panoz and the 1967 Le Mans winner Dan Gurney, and the car had been running near the back after an early gearbox malfunction.
The Audi cars also had accidents. In the fourth hour, Romain Dumas was in third place when the R18 Ultra he was driving ploughed into a tire wall.
As a race official in orange overalls signaled for Dumas to abandon the race, he ripped off the damaged front wing, jumped back in the car and nursed it slowly to the pits with a front wheel hanging loose.
Audi teammate Marc Gene slammed the same R18 Ultra into the same tire barrier with three hours left. While the Spaniard shepherded the car back to the pits, Allan McNish in an e-tron Quattro hit a barrier.
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