The Audi trio of Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler wrote themselves into Le Mans history by clinching a third victory in the great race in four years after a thrilling 24 hours.
Each manufacturer lead at some point during an attrition filled race where both Porsches and one each from Audi and Toyota failed to reach the checkered flag.
Lotterer’s #2 car moved into the lead for the second time in the race with just two hours to go after Mark Webber slowed to a crawl in the #20 Porsche 919.
The German had been chasing Webber down at a rate of up to five seconds a lap before his rival’s car gave out, forcing the Australian to trundle back to the pitlane on electric power alone.
From then the #2 never looked back, Lotterer handing over to team mate Treluyer for the final stint and the appropriately the French driver brought the R18 e-tron home to victory.
The drivers had set off 24 hours earlier at a furious pace, with the LMP1 cars battling it out on track as if the race were a 20 lap sprint rather than a twice-through-the-clock enduro.
The pole sitting #8 Toyota piloted by Alexander Wurz stayed at the head of the pack off the rolling start and was able to pull out a comfortable lead of around 30 seconds.
But behind him it was far from comfortable, Nicolas Lapierre had launched the sister #8 TS040 past the 919 of Neel Jani to run second behind his team mate.
Jani was soon swallowed up by the chasing Audi of Lotterer and would cede third to Marco Bonanomi’s #3 when the Porsche stuttered exiting Arnage and limped back to the pits.
The pair of R18 hybrids set about hunting down Lapierre, trading places with the Toyota throughout the first hour before the #2 was eventually able to pull marginally clear.
Nine-time champion Tom Kristensen was also engaged in a battle with the second 919 piloted by Timo Bernhard for sixth, but that would be cut short after just half an hour when Bernhard also ran into trouble, slowing and losing nine minutes in the pits.
Just as the race began to settle into a rhythm a sudden and torrential downpour turned everything on its head.
Cars were forced to crawl down the now waterlogged Mulsanne straight as the tarmac, which had been bone try just moments earlier, became a treacherous lake.
Bonanomi, running in third, brought his car to a near halt amongst a group of slower cars, but behind him Lapierre lost control of the #8, spearing off into the barrier, causing heavy damage to the front of the car.
Moments later Sam Bird arrived on the scene, completely unsighted and at unabated speed in the #81 AF Corse 458.
He took avoiding action around the spinning Toyota but could do nothing to stop the GTE Am Ferrari car slamming into the Audi.
A desperate Bonanomi spent several minutes trying to get the R18 to move following the crash, but would eventually travel back to the pits in a course car – the Audi becoming the first major retirement from the race.
With debris across the track and cars unable to control drive in a straight line race director Eduardo Freitas scrambled the safety car.
The #8 was able to limp back to the pits, but lost several laps due to extensive repairs. Its misfortune however would be a boon for the sister car.
Alex Wurz had been running just around a minute clear of Lotterer, the pair trading lap times for over an hour before the safety car’s intervention.
But Lotterer would lose nearly a minute to the Toyota after being caught behind a different safety car to Wurz.
The rain returned less than an hour later, bringing another caution period, during which the #20 919 was able to leapfrog the rest of the P1 field after pit stops – Porsche lead Le Mans for the first time since 1998.
The car, now in the hands of Kiwi Brendan Hartley would trade the lead with Stephane Sarrizan, in the #7, for over an hour due to their out of sync pit stops.
But the 919’s lack of pace showed, Sarrizan was eventually able to overhaul the pit stop deficit before the #2 Audi dropped Hartley to third.
Through the night the battle settled into a rhythm, the Audis with perhaps more pace in the cooler temperatures, but unable to close the gap significantly while attempting to quad stint their tyres.
Just as it looked like the Toyota may be able to see out the night and regain it’s pace in the hotter daytime temperature disaster struck.
At around 5am the #7 came to a halt near Arnage, despite the best efforts of Kazuki Nakajima he was unable to get the recalcitrant Toyota back to the pits. It was out and Audi swept into the lead.
The Japanese would later reveal an electrical fire cost the team their place in the race, and that Nakajima had been called in to fix the problem that very lap.
Now Fassler held a lead of over two laps back to the #1 Audi, which had lost time pitting to sort a fuel flow problem.
Two hours later the #2 appeared on pitlane again and became the fifth of the leaders to be wheeled into the garage.
Audi mechanics sprang into action, making quick work of a complete turbo replacement to get the car back out within 20 minutes.
But that was enough for Marc Gene, substituted into the #1 at the last minute to replace the injured Loic Duval, to sweep into the lead, nearly two minutes clear of the #20 Porsche, which was now having a clean run behind the leaders.
The lead over the chasing Porsche 919 would extend to over a lap over the next three hours as Kristensen took over the #1 and exerted Audi’s dominance over their sister brand.
Kristensen was on for his tenth victory at La Sarthe and Audis policy of bringing three cars to Le Mans seemed vindicated.
But that was to reckon without this extraordinary race, and sure enough in the 21st hour, with victory almost in sight the #1 slowed to a crawl.
The nine-time champion was able to bring the hobbling car back to the pits where the mechanics discovered an identical turbo problem to the sister car and set about with the same repairs.
That meant Porsche again led with three hours to go, an extraordinary turn of events for a car that many had predicted wouldn’t even make it through the night.
Bernhard now held a lead over the #2, but a determined Lotterer was slashing chunks from that with every lap.
He closed to within three seconds before pitting, setting about reducing the gap again on returning to the track
Berhnard handed the #20 over to Webber with just over two hours to go, but the former F1 driver was barely able to enjoy his lead before the 919 was again reduced to just hybrid power.
It would manage the crawl back to the pits, but the #20 was never seen out on the track again, handing the victory to Lotterer and ending Porsche’s hopes of what had looked like a certain podium.
Lotterer handed over to Treluyer and they were able to stroke their R18s home for an Audi 1-2.
Behind them the #8 Toyota, long forgotten after Lapierre’s early drama was able to fight back to third place, picking up spots as the other P2 contenders dropped by the wayside and inheriting the podium spot when both Porsches headed for the garage in the closing stages.
Rebellion took LMP1-L honours after managing to complete the full 24 hours with the #12 car despite never having tested it over the full distance before.
P2 battle goes to the wire
The battle for P2 honours raged equally as manically behind, the #35 Ligier of G-Drive racing leading the majority of the race after stunning overnight stints from former GT Academy champion Jann Mardenborough and Alex Brundle.
But it was forced into the pits, first with a rear brake problem and then again after losing a cylinder in its Nissan engine.
The Ligier, now severely restricted by the stuttering engine, was a sitting duck at the head of the field, but the mighty lead built up overnight left the pack having to push to make up the time.
In the penultimate hour the second Ligier of Thiriet by TDS Racing was able to overcome the ailing G-Drive before the #38 Jota Zytek followed them through for second.
That left the #46 and #38 less than a minute apart at the head of the field entering the last hour.
The race would swing on a pit stop, Tristan Gommendy bringing the TDS car into the pits for a full service and driver change.
Oliver Turvey, who had only arrived in France on Thursday as a late call up to replace the Audi bound Gene, brought the Jota car in shortly after, but, crucially, was able to leave without waiting for new tyres, exiting the pits just ahead of the #46, now piloted by Ludovic Badey.
Turvey was able to maintain that lead to the end handing he and team mates Harry Tincknell and Simon Dolan the victory ahead of the #46 and the #36 Signatech Alpine of Nelson Panciatici, Paul-Loup Chatin and Oliver Webb.
Ferrari come out on top of thrilling GTE battle
In the GT ranks an intense fight for victory had raged for the majority of the race before Giancarlo Fisichella, Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander cruised to victory when their rivals one-by-one suffered dramas.
Their #51 AF Corse 458 had fought hard with the #97 Aston Martin of Darren Turner, Bruno Senna and Stefan Mucke and the #74 Corvette piloted by Oliver Gavin, Richard Westbrook and Tommy Milner.
The trio traded places throughout the evening and night as pit stops pushed them apart and back together again hour-after-hour.
The Corvette was the first to fall by the wayside, an alternator problem causing them to pit overnight, losing several laps.
That left the Aston and Ferrari to battle it out, Bruno Senna taking over the car in the morning and hunting it down to put AMR on for a victory in their tenth year.
But he too was forced to head to the garage, a power steering hose failure seeing the Vantage in the garage for 29 laps.
The 458 was able to cruise for the victory by over a lap as another fight for second broke out behind it in the late stages.
The second Corvette, which had fallen away in the early stages, was running third behind the #91 Porsche of Frederic Makowiecki, Marco Holzer and Richard Lietz.
Antonio Garcia in the #73 Vette he shared with Jan Magnussen and Jordan Taylor, took chunks out of the Porsche’s lead, before eventually passing it for second when the #91 was delayed briefly in the pits.
A special mention had to go to the Prospeed Porsche #79 of Cooper MacNeil and Jeroen Bleekemolen, who finished sixth in Pro.
They had been forced to run the entire 24 hours between the two of them after being denied permission to replace the injured Brett Curtis in the car.
That made them to move from the Am class to Pro as they lacked a bronze driver and take the whole race themselves.
An heroic 14 hours from Bleekemolen was complemented by MacNeil’s 10 as they finished 31st, 20 laps behind the winning Ferrari.
Emotional Aston triumph in GTE Am
The fourth GT car across the line was the #95 GTE Am Aston of Kristian Poulsen, David Heinemeier-Hansson and Nicki Thiim, which had taken the lead of the class and built a three lap lead.
Despite the car juddering to a halt on pit exit with less than an hour left the trio were able to bring home the victory for the AMR/Young Driver Squad a year after the tragic loss of Allan Simonsen in the car in the early stages of last year’s race.
The team would later dedicate the victory to the popular Dane and his family.
Behind them it had been looking set for an Aston 1-2 before the sister #98 of Pedro Lamy, Paul Dalla-Lana and Christoffer Nygaard suffered the same issue seen in the Pro car.
That left the #88 Proton Porsche and the #61 AF Corse Ferrari to complete the podium.
The garage 56 ZEOD RC entry failed to make it to the first hour mark after a second gearbox problem of the week brought their progress to a halt trackside.