When a heartbroken Allan McNish was asked why he kept coming back to Le Mans after his car retired from a dominant lead on Sunday morning last year, he replied in a low voice, looking directly into the eyes of Motor Sport’s editor: “Because I must win. It’s just got to be done.”
Well, a year on he has done it. Ten years after his debut victory for Porsche, McNish finally ended his Audi Le Mans drought – and did so after the most gruelling battle we’ve seen at La Sarthe this century.
In its third year, Audi’s R10 turbo-diesel didn’t have the pace to run with Peugeot’s similarly-powered 908. “This one I have to say was probably the hardest race I’ve ever lived through because the competition was so strong,” said McNish. “We knew that we couldn’t make a mistake, we knew that if we had any technical problems we would be out, we just had to be perfect. We had one chance, which was when it rained in the morning, and we took that chance and took it very well.”
The Peugeots threatened to run off into the distance in the opening few hours, but crucially the Audis could run a lap longer. McNish and his team-mates Tom Kristensen and Rinaldo Capello pushed hard to stay in touch, McNish and Kristensen putting in heroic quadruple stints to do so.
It all changed at 3am when the rain came. From a position of clinging on to the Peugeots, the Audis suddenly found the advantage had switched their way as the French cars struggled in wet conditions. The No2 Audi reeled in and passed the leading Peugeot of Marc Gené, Nicolas Minassian and Jacques Villeneuve. The Peugeot drivers pushed until the end, but the race had slipped through their fingers. McNish had his victory, Kristensen had added to his incredible record tally of Le Mans wins – he’s now on eight! – and Capello secured his hat trick.
The GT1 class battle matched the Audi-Peugeot duel for ferocity, with the No009 Aston Martin and the No63 Corvette swapping places throughout the race. The Aston of David Brabham, Antonio García and Darren Turner finally took the chequered flag, but with the American car chasing hard on the same lap. For Aston it was a second successive Le Mans class win and a fitting way to mark the 40th anniversary of Gulf Oil at the 24 Hours, the most celebrated sponsor in sports car racing.
The days of drivers running to a set pace to save the car at Le Mans are long gone. Today, greater reliability demands they run flat out all the way, sprinting over the 24 hours. And what a spectacle this makes: watch the cars take the Porsches Curves with only a hint of a lift; see them brake beyond the point of comprehension into the chicanes on the Mulsanne. Le Mans is as special today as it has always been.
To Audi and McNish, the satisfaction of a hard-won victory. To Peugeot, the pain of defeat with the knowledge it had the quickest car. The only consolation? It was beaten by a near-perfect team, and in McNish and Kristensen the best sports car drivers in the world.