Looking through the entry list for this year’s Le Mans 24 race, it occurs to me that this year will be the seventh consecutive time that Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer will have driven together in the same car. Apart from this being remarkable in its own right, it is also significant because it equals the record set by Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Dindo Capello, who also shared the same car on seven occasions, between 2006 and 2012.
“I wasn’t aware of that!” said Allan McNish when I drew his attention to the fact earlier this week. “But it is an interesting reflection on the fact that there are not many manufacturers around that are in a position to provide that sort of an opportunity, where drivers can work together for that many years.”
Although Allan, Tom and Dindo only won the big race once as a team of drivers (in 2008), McNish believes it gives a big advantage to have that kind of longevity for a driving crew. “Knowing your co-drivers is very important,” he says. “It is harder for three drivers to make it work than if you would only have two, but it is very important to be able to understand and work well together. Tom, Dindo and I are all very strong characters – you have to be a strong character if you are a racing driver – but it was Dindo who really brought us together as a team. He was the key ingredient: he would put his arm round your shoulder when you needed it.”
The combination of the Briton, the Dane and the Italian came together in the first year of the Audi turbodiesel engine. Although they had never all driven together before, all had been part of the Audi family for many years, and all had already won the 24 hours before – Kristensen and Capello having shared the winning Goh Audi in 2004 as well as the Bentley that triumphed in 2003. “It was a good time to get together,” opines McNish, “as the new technology meant a new start in some ways. On the other hand, we all knew each other well already, so it didn’t take long to be effective, as a team.”
It is more than just a team of three drivers, though, as McNish readily admits. “People like Dr. Ullrich, Ralf Jüttner, Ulrich Baretzky and Jo Hausner have all been involved since the very start,” he says. “Even if there has been change [Howden Haynes, Chris Reinke have both now moved on], the nucleus of the team has remained. That’s especially true on the design side and in the engine development, which is vitally important.”
The German/French/Swiss combination of Lotterer, Tréluyer and Fässler has been immensely successful of course: on the six occasions they have shared a car at Le Mans, they have won the race three times. Does McNish see any parallels in the driving crews? “Not really, Marcel, Ben and André are quite different from Tom, Dindo and me. With them, you have someone for every occasion. André may seem quite laid-back, but he is pretty intense. What you have to remember is that they all had quite varied careers before joining Audi – they haven’t been successful all of the time. Ben has quite a lot of other elements to his career. He and Marcel are both a little older – they have families, in fact Marcel has four girls!”
Although André Lotterer is regarded by many people as the outstanding member of the crew when fast laps are required – indeed some would regard him as the outstanding endurance racer of the current era – both Marcel and Benoît have turned in race-winning performances of their own. “Absolutely!” agrees McNish, “there have been races in the past where Marcel and Ben have both stepped up and, quite frankly, won the race. All three drivers have the ability to raise their game when they have to. They are all extremely strong under pressure. With Marcel, well, he’s Swiss! There are no secrets with him – what you see is what you get. If he’s feeling an emotion, you will know exactly what it is!”
In 2009, the year before Fässler, Lotterer and Tréluyer came together at Audi for the first time, they had all been at Le Mans, but in rather different machinery. André Lotterer had been at the wheel of the older, Kolles-entered Audi R10; Tréluyer had been employed by Henri Pescarolo to drive his privately-entered Peugeot 908 and Fässler had been at the wheel of a factory GT1 Chevrolet Corvette.
“It wasn’t a crew of drivers that seemed a natural fit at first,” accepts Allan McNish. “Marcel was part of the Audi team already (having driven Audis in GT racing) and the relationship between him, Ben and André was a bit like a marriage: it had to be worked at. It took a bit of time to get it right.”
What is not in doubt, as the teams assemble for the 84th running of the 24 hour race, is that the relationship is now absolutely right. With Leena Gade on the pit wall, masterminding the crew for the last time before moving on to pastures new at Bentley, the no.7 Audi e-tron quattro must be counted among the favourites for what would be a fourth win for the four of them together!