Before I get into anything about the race, I want to share how I enjoyed the race this year. Usually my weekend off in June doesn’t fall on the 24 Hours of Le Mans weekend, so I usually miss a big chunk of the race. This year I was off, so I had the chance to watch the entire race (no, I didn’t sleep for 29 hours straight, but it was worth it!). I watched the race on SpeedTV with both their commentary and the commentary from the online radio station Radio Le Mans. The quality of the Radio Le Mans coverage is unbeatable; they cover every ALMS and Le Mans Series race in addition to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, so give them a try. Additionally, I enjoyed the comments and conversation about the race with fellow fans from around the world on Twitter. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – watching a race with other s on Twitter is a blast.
The 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans was without a doubt THE best race I’ve seen this year and that includes the 2011 Indianapolis 500. To use the old Wide World of Sports line, there was “The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat.” There were so many fascinating storylines weaved throughout the race: Robertson Racing’s Ford GT, the 100th Anniversary Year of Chevrolet, the performance of Audi’s young squad, the mental toughness of Audi, and more. There was never a point in this race where one team had a stranglehold on overall victory. In fact, it is hard to say that there was a dominating team in any of the classes this year. Finally, the last hour of the race was absolute edge of your seat drama!
Could anyone ever believe that a race that had multiple hour long full course yellow safety car periods would be considered as epic? It’s hard to believe but yes, the 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans had those but in my opinion is still an epic race that will go down in the books as one of the best Le Mans races ever. So many things came together to make this race so great. After 24 hours of racing on an 8.5 mile course, the interval between the first and second place cars at the end of the race was 14 seconds. Only 14 seconds! It wasn’t a contest of who could save the most fuel either; it was a straight up race all the way through. Both the first place Audi #2 and the second place Peugeot #9 made their final stop at the same time and left the pits with a 7 second interval between the two cars. There would be no conserving fuel, no going easy on the tires; the last 30 minutes of the race was a straight up fight! Audi overcame two near tragedies to win a race on performance. The team put those two massive crashes (which I posted about during the race) in the back of their mind and not only soldiered on with a lone bullet, they triumphed with that lone bullet. As much as you can argue that Peugeot lost the 2010 race instead of Audi winning it, there is no way that you can argue anything else than that Audi won this year’s race on pure performance.
The GTE race was just as intriguing. As soon as any team seemed like they had a solid grasp on the top spot, Le Mans took them down. The #74 Corvette crashed from the lead the leading AF Corse Ferrari lost a large lead as Tommy Milner in the #73 Corvette tracked them down as they fought mechanical issues. In the 100th Anniversary year of Chevrolet and on the 10th Anniversary of the Corvette team’s first win at Le Mans, Corvette took the GTE Pro win. I have to say that it brought a tear to my eye to see Doug Fehan clutching the American Flag when Speed interviewed him after the race. The story of the race for GTE Am, for me, was the Robertson Racing Ford GT. A lot of folks didn’t even give this small team the chance to finish the race but they did and were on the podium in 3rd place! The Robertsons are a husband/wife team and the race fell on their anniversary; in the closing minutes Andrea Robertson was given an anniversary present, with plenty of time between them and the 4th place car, the car was brought in and David Robertson put her in the car to take the checkered flag!
As good as the race was, there was still a black mark, and that is how Peugeot decided to race in the closing hours. Despite the fact that I did on Twitter during the race, I’m not going to call any of the drivers by name because I feel that the actions were dictated by team orders from the Peugeot garage rather than by individual driver actions. Peugeot knew that they were racing Audi 3 against 1. With the Audi in the lead or trying to catch up to the leading Peugeot their other two cars made deliberate attempts, while a lap or laps down, to balk the Audi by blocking. Some of the blocks were subtle but others were downright blatant. It was unsportsmanlike and Peugeot should be ashamed of their behavior towards the end of the race. Personally, I hold the ACO complicit with Peugeot. It is no secret that the ACO, a French organization, has been more lenient towards French teams than other teams but apparently Peugeot didn’t even get so much as a warning. It was simply shameful. On one hand they exclude Rob Kauffman for being unsafe but the Peugeots made several unsafe moves against the Audi and nothing was done.
Finally, I hope that some NASCAR fans tuned in to watch Michael Waltrip’s first attempt at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. I’ve never been a Michael Waltrip fan but I’m happy to see him giving sports car racing a go now that he’s retired from full time NASCAR racing. Hopefully he will bring new fans to a great form of motor sport and to one of the greatest motor sport events. His team didn’t finish and they had their problems, but he was honest and straightforward about how difficult the race is; hopefully he comes back and brings a lot of new fans with him!