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Audi’s speed vs. Toyota’s strategy

June 21, 2013

Toyota will rely on race strategy to counter Audi’s superior speed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans this weekend.

Audi took the top three spots on the grid while Toyota will start from fourth and fifth.

Frenchman Loic Duval in his Audi No. 2 clocked the fastest lap in qualifying in 3 minutes, 22.349 seconds on the 13 1/2-kilometer circuit.

Defending champions Andre Lotterer of Germany, Marcel Fassler of Switzerland and Benoit Treluyer of France will also be on the front row. At the wheel of Audi No. 1, Lotterer was 1.3 seconds behind pole-sitter Duval.

Marc Gene of Spain completed the German manufacturer’s show of pace by clocking the third fastest time in his Audi No. 3.

“This is a nice way to start the weekend,” said Wolfgang Ullrich, the head of Audi Motorsport. “The first three positions on the grid are a nice reward for the whole team but, as always at Le Mans, not really crucial.”

Audi will seek a 12th title at Le Mans. It is second for most victories by a manufacturer behind Porsche’s 16.

Speed is no guarantee of victory. Reliability matters just as much in a competition won by the team that completes the most laps in 24 hours, with up to three drivers alternating.

Stephane Sarrazin’s Toyota No. 8 and Kazuki Nakajima’s Toyota No. 7 were four seconds slower than Duval’s Audi in qualifying.

However, the Japanese manufacturer is confident that fuel consumption and tire management could tip the scales in its favor.

“It will come down to race strategy,” said Nakajima’s co-driver, Alexander Wurz of Austria. “We will use the warm-up to make the final adjustments for the race. The real game now is the 24 hours of racing.”

Last month, the FIA endurance committee allowed Toyota’s gasoline-hybrid TS030 to have a fuel tank capacity of 76 liters while limiting Audi’s diesel-hybrid R18 to 58 liters. Those regulation changes have slightly improved Toyota’s chances at Le Mans.

“They might run one more lap each stint and they might save three pit stops during the 24-hour race,” Ullrich said. “We have to run half a second faster than they do during the race.”

Toyota briefly led the race last year but fell out of contention after its two cars retired.

In the world endurance championship last season, the Japanese manufacturer beat Audi in three of the six races where it entered cars, winning in Sao Paulo, Fuji and Shanghai.

But Audi has dominated Toyota this year, taking the top two spots in Silverstone before sweeping the podium in Spa-Francorchamps.

“We’re a bit away from where we’d like to be,” said Sarrazin’s co-driver, Anthony Davidson of Britain. “But we still have the economy on our side. That means we can go longer than them, come race day, and hopefully minimize the amount of pit stops we need to do.”

Davidson broke two vertebrae in Le Mans last year when his car was bumped by a Ferrari and became airborne before slamming into a tire barrier.

Toyota has had three runner-up finishes at Le Mans, and never won. The only Japanese manufacturer to win was Mazda in 1991.

Audi has won eight of the last nine races at Le Mans. Only Peugeot was able to disrupt the dominance of the German manufacturer in 2009.

While Peugeot decided in January 2012 to shut down its racing program for economic reasons, Porsche and Nissan recently announced they will be back next year in the LMP1 class at Le Mans.

The 81st race starts on Saturday at 1300 GMT.

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