Peugeot takes Le Mans prize as Audi falters

Third time lucky for Peugeot, then. For the French team this was ‘La Belle Victoire’ at its third attempt with a diesel. Its cars were faster than the Audis last year but somehow they conspired to lose the Le Mans 24 Hours. This June, as well as the superior speed of the 908 HDI over the new Audi R15, Peugeot had that element of luck you need to win at La Sarthe.

The weather was consistently warm and dry, the winning car ran faultlessly and Audi chose this year to have the weekend from hell. Not only were the new cars unreliable – in Audi terms anyway – but they weren’t fast enough. And one of them crashed early on. All this fell into the hands of Peugeot, which made the most of a chance to land the killer punch when Audi was on the ropes.

“Today it was the warriors who won,” beamed a relieved Olivier Quesnel, director of Peugeot Sport, referring to the ecstatic Marc Gené, Alexander Wurz and David Brabham. “They drove without mistakes and the car was perfect. We were here as challengers and our mission was to topple the favourites. And that is exactly what we did. It was a huge challenge and I am so proud of this truly magnificent team. I really sensed that the public wanted this victory for us.”

And so did the board of Peugeot, which must now decide whether or not the company stays with the programme or quits while it is ahead.

The race, after the first hour at least, may have looked easy for Peugeot. Once, that is, it had recovered from the acute and very damaging embarrassment of releasing Pedro Lamy’s car into the path of the incoming 908 run by the Pescarolo team. Nothing is easy at Le Mans, never mind winning.

All the time that you have Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Dindo Capello out there in an Audi with all its wheels on, nobody can relax for a moment. The trio kept chasing all the way but the new R15s were hampered by understeer, fuel pressure problems and untypical niggling failures that relegated them to third place.

It hurt, but the team was generous in its praise for its arch rival.

“We know how difficult it is to win Le Mans and it does not happen by chance,” said Audi chairman Rupert Stadler. “We congratulate them on a well-deserved victory, but it needed three attempts and we will strike back next year. Audi will leave no stone unturned in its quest to reclaim the Le Mans winners’ trophy in 2010.” This is good news for those who love a good long-distance sports car race. And very good news for the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, which is under pressure to clarify the rulebook. Those – and they are the vast majority – who run petrol cars are seeking further concessions to reduce the margin between them and those pesky new diesels.

Le Mans, however, is not just about the big-hitters from Ingolstadt and Velizy. This race is a constantly evolving tangle of twists and turns, tales of triumph and disaster, and impressive feats of endurance. And that’s just the drivers. At La Sarthe the crowd is as much a part of the event, and this year 234,000 people came to stay up all night, drink a lot of beer, consume copious amounts of fast food and yet still be there at the end to cheer their heroes over the line. This is entertainment, how sport should be – a spectacle and a thrill that brings them back year after year. And this was a vintage year for the huge British contingent who crossed the Channel for their regular boisterous invasion of the Pays de La Loire. Those who came in Aston Martins – I’ve never seen so many Astons on one motorway – went home happy. The Lola LMP1 car – run by Prodrive and driven by Jan Charouz, Tomas Enge and Stefan Mucke – finished fourth overall and just two laps down on the Audi R15. If there was a prize for the best noise at Le Mans the Aston V12 had no competition. The car looked and sounded gorgeous.

“We exceeded all our expectations and I am absolutely delighted,” said David Richards, chairman of Aston Martin. “We came with modest expectations but once again Aston has punched well above its weight and this is a fantastic achievement for everyone involved. Now we have to ask ourselves some serious questions about where we go from here.” He will, no doubt, be asking the ACO if it has any intention of reducing the performance gap between his cars and the dreaded diesels.

Interestingly, Ferrari president Luca di Montezemelo, accompanied by Stefano Domenicali from the Scuderia, was at Le Mans, ostensibly to start the race. One thing is for sure – if Ferrari returns to sports car racing it will not bring a diesel. Watch this space.

So, 2009 was not the much-vaunted titanic duel between HDI and TDI, 908 and R15. It was, however, an enthralling battle of wits. And Peugeot finally delivered on its promise.
Rob Widdows