Audi gifted ninth Le Mans

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On Saturday night at the Circuit de la Sarthe thousands of Brits turned away from the motor race in front of them to watch England’s World Cup campaign get off to a faltering start against the USA. Victory was theirs for the taking, but they failed to deliver. Then as the fans switched their attention back to the motor race they witnessed another national team implosion. How Peugeot missed this open goal will haunt the manufacturer for years.

The four 908 HDi FAPs three run by the factory, one by crack privateer Team ORECA looked set to repeat the back-to-back victories trick Peugeot last pulled off at Le Mans in 1992-93. Qualifying had been easy, Pedro Lamy’s pole time of 3min 19.711sec heading a French lock-out on the front two rows. For pace, this was domination on a scale we only used to see from Peugeot’s arch-rival, Audi.

Come the race, the Pugs were even handed an artificial advantage in the opening hour by race officials who somehow managed to split them from the chasing trio of Audis during an early safety car period. Three safety cars are used to control the huge 55-car field at Le Mans, and the second rolled out in front of the Audis, essentially handing the 908s, sifting further up the road behind the first safety car, half a lap. Patriotism is strong in these parts, someone murmured.

In the end, it counted for little. The pole car was the first to fall less than two and a half hours in. Lamy suffered rear suspension failure, and as he nursed the car back to the pits irreparable damage was done to the tub.

Still, there was very little to fear at this stage. Franck Montagny, Nicolas Minassian and Stephane Sarrazin established themselves in the lead, which they held throughout the night. But just after 7am flames licked from the right exhaust. Peugeot diesels letting go would become the defining image of Le Mans 2010 – along with team boss Olivier Quesnel’s mortified face.

A failed alternator had already delayed the third works 908, but Anthony Davidson, Alex Wurz and Marc Gene fought back into contention on Sunday morning. Second place looked on until more tell-tale engine smoke signalled the end of their hopes.

That left the much-respected ORECA team to defend Peugeot’s reputation. Boss Hugues de Chaunac had been heartbroken by a driveshaft failure in the night that robbed his team of a tilt at a first victory since its 1991 success with Mazda. Now the team was charging on for a third-place podium finish only for another dose of Gallic pain to inflict itself. In the 23rd hour the 908’s right exhaust bellowed flame, just as we’d seen before. Loic Duval pulled off and Peugeot’s humiliation was complete. Cue the national inquiry.

As Peugeot unravelled, inevitably Audi was there to pick up the pieces. The R15 Plus couldn’t match the 908 for pace, but the previous eight Le Mans wins in 10 years were built on reliability the like of which was unthinkable at La Scuffle in the old days. So it would prove for the ninth, too – a win that pulls them even with Ferrari’s Le Mans tally. Only Porsche have won more. Audi new boys Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas, joined by Mike Rockenfeller, were gifted a lead they would not lose thanks to a metronomic trouble-free run. And even if they couldn’t match the 908s for speed, they were hardly hanging about. The trio set a new distance record of 3361 miles, beating the previous mark set way back in 1971.

This time Audi’s established stars were relegated to a supporting role. Tom Kristensen knew after four and a half hours that a ninth Le Mans victory would have to wait for another year. The dice for once rolled against him at the Porsche Curves when Andy Priaulx’s BMW struggling to the pits with a puncture, got in his way. The collision left Audi boss Wolfgang Ullrich fuming (he’d be smiling the next day!) and lost Kristensen, Allan McNish and Dindo Capello three laps. But by 3pm on Sunday they still found themselves on the podium, third behind team-mates Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer. The least likely Audi 1-2-3 of this modern era? Most definitely.

“This is the toughest Le Mans I have ever done,” said Ullrich. “We had incredible competition from Peugeot and they gave us a lot of work to do. After practice on Wednesday we were a long way from where we are today.”

Aston Martin returned to Le Mans for a relatively low-key effort compared to 2009, with its trio of Lola prototypes. An exciting new car is planned for 2011 (see page 31), so for this year the Gulf cars once again were happy to be fastest of the petrol brigade. Last year’s fourth position was considered likely to be out of reach, but oh, how close they came. As the clock turned into the final hour Aston debutant Sam Hancock looked comfortable in a fourth place inherited from the expired ORECA 908. But down the Mulsanne the big V12 began to smoke, and the dream debut turned to deep disappointment.

Fittingly, ORECA’s AIM-powered spyder picked up the place – scant consolation for what the team had lost. But it was beffer than nothing, especially for inexperienced Brit Andy Meyrick who was a star performer on his Le Mans debut.

For Aston Martin, the question now will be whether a bespoke prototype built by David Richards’ company can challenge the German and French diesel giants for overall victory.

The second-division prototype class was conquered by British aces Danny Watts and Jonny Kane, joined by countryman Nick Leventis, driving Strakka Racing’s HPD ARX01. The car formerly known as the Acura and built by Nick Wirth’s eponymous British company is a force in the Le Mans Series in Europe and the American Le Mans Series, and that form travelled with it for its first appearance at La Sarthe. Along with class honours, the Strakka boys claimed a brilliant fifth overall thanks to the high attrition rate, heading home the delayed Aston Martin 007 LMP1 of Adrian Fernandez, Stefan Mucke and Harold Primat.

Larbre Competition’s ageing Saleen S7R scored what will be the last ever GT1 victory at Le Mans (see page 30) after the Young Driver Aston Martin DBR9 and Matech Ford GT starred early on. But the bigger stories were in the highly competitive GT2 division.

This is the true multi-manufacturer Le Mans class, featuring Chevrolet, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Spyker and the inevitable horde of Porsche 911s one of which (run by the stalwart Felbermayr squad) survived where more fancied runners died to score an unexpected win.

Porsche’s latest victory stole the limelight from two significant ‘newcomers’ to GT2. BMW returned to Le Mans for the first time since its overall win in 1999 with a pair of Schnitzerrun M3s, as did Jaguar, Britain’s most famous endurance racing marque. For both, their returns were inauspicious.

Of the two, BMW had the highest-profile campaign. But a distant sixth in class was all it managed, while the ‘Art Car’, featuring a striking livery by Jeff Koons that kept up a cult BMW tradition dating back to the ’70s, was an early casualty. Priaulx’s incident with Kristensen was one of a number for the M3 before he inexplicably ran out of fuel at Indianapolis.

More embarrassing was Jaguar’s ‘race’. Expectations were low for Paul Gentilozzi’s US team, which had been charged with the honour of bringing Jaguar back to its spiritual racing home. The XKR has struggled for speed and reliability in the ALMS, and was duly the slowest qualifier in only its fourth race. Engine management traumas thwarted the team through practice and it was quietly withdrawn shortly after the start. Jaguar went home with its tail between its legs, thanks to a campaign unworthy of its mighty heritage.

Another great name taking an early bath or more accurately an early private jet home to Jersey was one Nigel Mansell. ‘II Leone’ was making his first Le Mans start beside sons Greg and Leo in a Ginetta-Zytek, but a slow puncture threw the 1992 Formula 1 World Champion into a high-speed spin just 17 minutes in. As the safety cars made their early and controversial first appearance, a concussed Mansell was last seen being lifted into a waiting ambulance. He was fine.

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