Dedicated readers (with good memories) might recognise that the heading of this post has echoes of an article that I wrote two years ago. If not, it’s here.
Leena (whisper it) may be a little older than H, but she has learnt her trade at Progressive Motorsport, and been mentored by H for many years now. And during the Six Hours of Shanghai she proved that she’s just as good at making swift strategy calls, if circumstances call for it.
The circumstances in question came as the two Audi R18 e-tron quattros battled over third place with the no. 14 Porsche and the six hour race headed into its final two hours. It was clear that the Porsche held the upper hand – not merely in terms of average lap times, but more significantly by virtue of superior fuel consumption. Both Porsches had planned to complete the race on just five stops, and the early Safety Car period had enabled the Stuttgart marque to carry out its plan without even the need for fuel-saving in the second part of the race, at least for the Dumas/Lieb/Jani car.
Marc Lieb brought the 919 into the pits from third place to hand over to Neel Jani a good ten minutes later than the Audis had pitted, and by then the Swiss driver knew that he would be able to get to the end of the race with just one stop for fuel and tyres, practically securing a podium finish.
Following a fine opening stint by André Lotterer in Audi no. 2, Ben Tréluyer had struggled slightly on the tyres during his stint, losing time to Loïc Duval in the no. 1 car. It’s important to appreciate that Audi does not implement team orders (as a rule), so the fact that the no. 2 car held a significant advantage in the WEC points standings didn’t mean that Wolfgang Ullrich was about to interfere. It was down to the race engineers on the each car to make the strategy calls: Kyle Wilson-Clarke and Dave Brown looking after the no. 1 and Leena Gade and Justin Taylor the no. 2.
Marcel Fässler took over from Tréluyer with a little over two hours remaining. The trouble was that the Audi would only do 30 laps on a full tank of diesel, and that would take less than 56 minutes, so Marcel would have to make two stops to get the R18 e-tron quattro to the end of the race. Tom Kristensen, in the no. 1, was 17.3s ahead and having stopped two laps before the no. 2 car, also had to make two more stops. The only difference was that Kyle was planning a driver change, to get Lucas di Grassi back into the car for the final stint.
There may be only two points difference between finishing fourth and finishing fifth, but Leena wanted those two points badly. How was she to recover those 17.3s? The answer, she decided, was to do the short-fuelling stop early, which would gain track position over the no. 1 car and secure fourth place should the Safety Car be deployed.
So after a 29-lap stint (taking nearly 54 minutes), Fässler came into the pits, took on board enough fuel for eight laps and a new set of tyres, and was on his way after a stop of just 56.927s (from pit in to pit out). He also found himself on a clear track, and in the eight laps before his next stop, his average lap time was 1m 50.418s. During the same period, di Grassi’s average in the no. 1 was 1m 51.520s.
But of course Fässler’s stop would be for a full tank of fuel; di Grassi only needed to take on enough for ten laps. To ensure fourth place, Fässler would need to keep delivering the lap times. Excluding pit laps, Marcel’s average lap time over the final hour of the race was 1m 51.365s, compared to Lucas di Grassi, whose average was 1m 51.613s.
As ever at Audi, the credit must go to the whole team of the no. 2 car: Fässler, whose driving this year has been sublime; Gade, for having the courage to make the call; and also the team of mechanics, who gained a further 4.8s in those crucial final two stops. That in itself was probably down to the extra two laps of fuel that the no. 1 car required. And that was due to Duval and Kristensen not being quite efficient enough in fuel-saving.
It might have been clever, but it deprived the spectators of a wheel-to-wheel battle which would almost certainly have ensued between the two Audis otherwise.