Audi claimed a shock 1-2-3 victory in this year's Le Mans 24 Hours after Peugeot suffered a catastrophic collapse from the stronghold it enjoyed early in the race.
Peugeot was cruising, with the #2 car in particular looking almost certain for victory, but reliability woes plagued the 908s throughout the race and each of its cars ground to a halt before the end. That left the race to fall into the laps of the unfancied Audi R15s, which had been unable to compete with the raw pace of the Peugeots all week long.
Romain Dumas, Timo Bernhard and Mike Rockenfeller clinched their maiden Le Mans victories in their first year together, while the #8 car of Andre Lotterer, Marcel Fassler and Benoit Treluyer followed home in second. The favoured Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen, Dindo Capello car was the one to hit trouble during the race and recovered to complete the podium.
But, as expected, it was Peugeot that romped off into the distance early on, with the ORECA example also leaving Audi in its wake. But their formation was broken inside the three-hour mark when a suspension failure damaged the tub of the #3 car and Pedro Lamy, Sebastien Bourdais and Simon Pagenaud were spectators before the latter two had even been strapped in.
The #1 and #2 cars ran closely up front into Saturday night. A safety car period separated them for a while before the next of the problems struck. The #1 car lost four laps in the pits to alternator trouble and the rest of its race became a charge to catch up. Ultimately it was the last of the factory cars to expire, but only after 13 hours of intense charging from Anthony Davidson, Alex Wurz and Marc Gene.
It clawed back time right through the night, but was always fighting a losing battle to make the progress required. Davidson gave it everything and a bit more during his stints and was the car's most impressive pilot. He had an early spin and tangled with a couple of GT cars, playing his part in an incident that dumped the #64 Corvette out of its GT2 lead. - Davidson was trying to lap Emmanuel Collard at the Porsche Curves when the pair got a little close for comfort. There was no contact, but Collard spun into the wall.
But his race pace was incredible. He circulated consistently four seconds per lap quicker than the Audis he was chasing, for four consecutive stints. He propelled the #1 car from obscurity to within a lap of the second-placed #8 Audi.
Ironically, the best hope for the #1 car came after the demise of the #2 from the lead on Sunday morning. Once chasing an Audi two laps ahead, rather than another version of itself four laps ahead, it began to make real progress. Wurz was at the controls and homing in on the #8 for second place when the Peugeot engine let go at Indianapolis and all he could do was lead a thick trail of oil all the way back to the garage.
That was curtains for the factory team with the #2 car of Franck Montagny, Stephane Sarrazin and Nicolas Minassian having gone out early on Sunday, also with a blown engine. This car was not even on a caution to the wind charge, it had been settled into a two-lap lead all the way through the night and was lapping no quicker than it had to. This retirement more than all the others in the last three years exposed the fragility of the 908, even when it enjoys such a performance advantage over its rivals.
During the closing stages, all Peugeot had left to hope for was that its customer car might still be able to sneak third and stop Audi taking a clean sweep of the podium. Not exactly what it had in mind when its 908s took to the track on Wednesday as easily the fastest cars in town.
But the ORECA car's desire to charge all out in an attempt to topple just one Audi from the rostrum ended predictably prematurely with an almost identical failure to that of the #2 car. And so Audi, which had not been given a prayer of victory since crossing the French border, found itself with a 1-2-3.
Yes, this was a case of Peugeot snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and Audi inheriting glory only when those ahead faltered, but that is not to say it was not deserved. Audi simply did its sums. It was not that Peugeot pushed too hard and blew up all its cars. Far from it. But that did not matter.
This was Peugeot's race to lose. They knew it, and so did Audi. It was never going to be much of a poker game. Audi would ride its cars only as hard as it knew it could, while Peugeot would sit ahead of Audi and hope for the best. The Audi R15 responded dutifully. The Peugeots misbehaved. The worrying thought for Peugeot is that its flagship machine might just be fundamentally flawed. Even when you treat it nicely it is a fragile creature with a cruel streak and a habit.
And this time it was not the fancied Audi that came through. It did not need the outstanding individual performances that won the 2008 race. McNish, Kristensen and Capello were out of the hunt by Saturday afternoon when Kristensen tripped over Andy Priaulx's wounded BMW and backed into a tyre wall in the Porsche Curves. It was never given the chance to recover the three laps it lost because the other two R15s ran near-perfectly.
The #9 line-up of Rockenfeller, Dumas and Bernhard was just quicker than Fassler, Lotterer and Treluyer and spent the vast majority of the race circulating a minute up the road from it. And that was it. When all the rival cars drop out, all you have to do is finish.
Speaking earlier in the week about his chances of victory, Bernhard had told AUTOSPORT: "It will be a big dream come true. This is the one race missing in my CV. I've won Daytona overall, I've won the 24 Hours of the Nurburgring, I've won Sebring, so really this is the race in my career that I want to win at least one time.
"I remember I had a video game from 1989 called Le Mans, it had a 962 Porsche and for me to drive here was a childhood dream. Just to drive here in an LMP1 car was a dream come true, to be on top of the podium would really be a dream."
The rate of attrition took its toll right through the LMP1 class. The Rebellion Lolas disappeared early on, Nigel Mansell crashed his punctured Ginetta-Zytek on the fourth lap, and the Drayson Lola spent half its time in the garage - so the unofficial petrol class was pretty thinly contested. It got a lot worse on Sunday afternoon as both works Aston Martins blew their engines and Vanina Ickx crashed the Signature car, leaving the ORECA-AIM of Soheil Ayari, Didier Andre and Andy Meyrick with victory by default.
The arrival of HPD (still Acura, to you and me) at Le Mans sadly failed to bring the underwhelming LMP2 class to life. It's a shame that the arrival of a new manufacturer coincided with the absence of another - neither of the two Porsche Spyders that have been giving CPR to the class for the last two years were present this time, so it was another two-car race.
For much of the race, it seemed as though the Highcroft car of David Brabham, Marco Werner and Marino Franchitti was well-matched against Strakka's Danny Watts, Jonny Kane and Nick Leventis. Strakka could run its HPD car a couple of seconds quicker than Highcroft, which gave it a handy margin to compensate for Leventis, who was never going to match the pace of any of the opposition's trio.
Watts and Kane did a fine job of tearing off up the road and Highcroft just never found a way to close the gap. It was hurt by the positioning of the safety cars at the start. And later, each of its three drivers lost time to a puncture. Highcroft was already two laps back and staring up a pretty steep mountain before the car developed a problem with the water pressure in the cooling system. It had to make a string of pitstops early on Sunday morning just to keep it running, and then eventually stopped for good.
The #35 Oak Racing Pescarolo and the #25 RML Lola completed the class podium by doing exactly what is necessary in LMP2 - both simply kept going. Neither had any major problems, nor ever threatened the pace at the front. But with the fourth car in class 25 laps behind the winner, the podium filled itself.
The GT1 class signed off its final year as part of the Le Mans 24 Hours by displaying exactly why it is being dropped for 2011.
Early on, there was a decent scrap between the Young Driver Aston Martin and the Ford GTs of Matech and Marc VDS. But it was not long before they began to tumble. The Aston lost 15 laps to a broken driveshaft and Bas Leinders had a big crash in the Marc VDS Ford. The #60 Matech GT hung around longest, and even survived a tangle with the second Oak Pescarolo, but eventually folded with a similar engine failure to the one that claimed the sister car - although in less firey fashion than the departure endured by Natacha Gachnang.
That left the Larbre Saleen to take the honours - a car that was not only three laps behind the class leader by Saturday evening, but is also a model that has been around since 1999. The Alphand Chevrolet team picked up second in class, but even that was not for its better car. The #73 Corvette ground to a halt with transmission failure on Sunday morning, leaving the #72 five laps shy of the Saleen.
This was a particularly punishing year on the reliability front, but at least the fiercely and relentlessly competitive GT2 class had good reason for most of its frontrunners to blow up - they all spent the first half of the race doing qualifying laps.
The ongoing scrap at the front between the #82 Risi Ferrari and the #64 Corvette quite literally kept the crowd on its feet through more than four hours of bumper to bumper racing on Saturday afternoon. The lead changed back and forth as the pair continually chased, caught, drafted, passed and repassed each other as though in a touring car race. Unfortunately for the spectacle, the Risi car developed intermittent gear selection problems a third of the way through the race and had to yield for lengthy repairs. It did get back into the race but never cured the problem and gave up the ghost during the night.
The Corvette held the lead over its #63 mate until early Sunday morning, when Emmanuel Collard spun the car into the barrier after the non-contact clash with Davidson. Again, the car did make it back into the race, but fell to an engine problem soon after - possibly a legacy of the rear-end damage sustained the crash. The #63 car had departed only recently, also with a blown engine.
With the Corvettes and the quickest Ferrari out of the way, the road was clear for the #77 Felbermayr Porsche of Marc Lieb, Richard Lietz and Wolf Henzler to coast to victory on the 40th anniversary of the marque's maiden Le Mans triumph. It wasn't given a great deal of opposition in the end. The AF Corse Ferrari ran second for a while in the hands of Jean Alesi, but tumbled down the order after Giancarlo Fisichella had a scary moment overshooting Indianapolis on Sunday morning.
The Hankook Farnbacher Ferrari finished second in GT2 after a pretty quiet and uneventful run, with the BMS Scuderia Italia Porsche completing the podium.
BMW's first Le Mans with its M3 turned into a race to forget. Its aesthetically fetching art car - the #79 machine of Priaulx, Dirk Muller and Dirk Werner - had just about everything possible go wrong with it on Saturday. The race was barely three hours old when the Schnitzer team had to completely rebuild the right rear suspension following a puncture for Muller.
Priaulx had only been back out in the repaired car for 45 minutes before it sprang the puncture which led to the accident with the Audi. Muller was back in it later on Saturday afternoon to collect its third puncture, and then damaged the gearbox in a spin caused by the deflation. It only put an end to the misery when it ran out of fuel later on Saturday evening. The #78 sister car at least kept on going, but was only sixth in class and never in the lead fight.
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