Audi Wins 24 Hours of Le Mans Race as Hybrid Bests Diesel

The Audi team became the first winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a part-electric engine as Toyota suffered a crash that left driver Anthony Davidson in the hospital.

Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer took turns to drive an Audi R18 e-tron Quattro to victory, completing 378 laps of the 8.5-mile circuit in France yesterday. Davidson’s Toyota flipped over in the air for about 40 meters and smashed into a tire barrier.

Ingolstadt, Germany-based Audi, a unit of Volkswagen AG, competes at Le Mans to market its brand. The carmaker will “try to make a big deal” of winning with a hybrid even though the racing car’s rationale is to go faster, rather than save fuel like hybrid road cars, according to Quentin Spurring, who is writing a history of the race.

“You have to judge whether it’s a P.R. exercise or real advance and you have to conclude it’s a mixture of the two,” Spurring said by telephone.

Race organizer Automobile Club de L’Ouest tweaked technical rules last year to allow part-electric cars to use a boost of recouped energy from braking at the expense of a slightly smaller fuel tank. Audi’s other hybrid was one lap behind the winner and its diesel-only R18 Ultra two laps further back when the race ended yesterday.

“This is no doubt a historic victory for Audi,” Wolfgang Ullrich, the head of Audi Motorsport, said in a statement. “Audi is now the first brand to have achieved victory with a hybrid vehicle -- and right on the first run.”

Toyota Flies

The E-tron front end is powered by an electric motor that collects energy from braking via a flywheel. The rear axle is driven by a V6 diesel engine.

Audi’s pre-development unit “have in mind” using such a system for a Quattro road car, Ullrich said in a May 30 phone interview. The racing team chose the design because it helps weight distribution, Ullrich said.

Both Toyota TS030 hybrids failed to finish. One that was being driven by Davidson went air-born after it was clipped by amateur racer Piergiuseppe Perazzini’s Ferrari 458.

“I felt I was in an aeroplane out of control,” Davidson said in a Toyota statement. “I reopened my eyes and I realized I was still here, albeit in a bit of pain.”

Davidson, 33, broke two bones in his back that will take three months to heal, according to a team statement.

Overtaking was suspended for more than an hour to clear debris and repair a guardrail. 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.

DeltaWing Quits

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 multiple accidents. Romain Dumas ploughed into a tire wall with one of the Audi diesels. The French driver ripped off the damaged front wing, jumped back in the car and nursed it to the pits with a front wheel hanging loose.

Audi teammate Marc Gene later went into the same tire barrier with the same car, and Allan McNish hit another barrier in the e-tron Quattro that finished second.

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