The two Bentley Speed 8s were always going to be the fastest things around the Circuit de la Sarthe last weekend. That much was for sure.
Less clear was the ability of the all-new LM-GTP contender to go the full distance. Then there were the dual issues of fuel consumption and tyre wear, so crucial to success in the Le Mans 24 Hours. Those doubts were answered last weekend by one of the most dominant displays at the world's biggest sportscar race. Ever.
Bentley made Audi's domination of the event over the past three years look plain ordinary. The Speed 8s were driven flat out for the best part of 24 hours, yet experienced not a single major mechanical problem between them and completed the race with only the most minor hiccups.
What's more, the hopes of the three customer Audi teams of being able to keep up with the faster British Racing Green coupes - courtesy of better tyre wear and fuel consumption - went out of the window almost immediately. The Speed 8 drivers were able to triple-stint their narrow tyres and, if they so desired, could make a 90-litre tank of fuel last for 14 laps - just one fewer than the German cars.
This was Bentley's race from the outset, but at least a race is what it remained. The British manufacturer may have had things all its own way, but there was not sign of any team orders, even in the closing stages, as Team Bentley allowed two evenly matched crews to fight it out almost to the end.
The race was effectively decided in the pits. Rinaldo Capello, Tom Kristensen and Guy Smith had a near-perfect run through the 24 hours in the #7 car. Johnny Herbert, David Brabham and Mark Blundell, meanwhile, had a series of minor glitches that left them playing catch-up almost from the beginning. They were unlucky to lose vital seconds early on, but their two-lap deficit to the winning car came courtesy of a pair of stops - one after 13 hours, the other after 17
- at which the battery needed changing.
Bentley leads at the start © LAT
Capello converted pole position into leadership of the race, though it was Herbert who led into the first round of pitstops. The former grand prix driver nipped past his former Audi co-driver on his in-lap, only to find himself back in second after his team-mate stopped two laps later.
Herbert repeated the trick at the end of the next stint, again one lap before pitting. Brabham took over and found himself behind the #7 Bentley and then fell further behind when he returned to the pits a couple of laps later - the headrest had worked loose and was dangling disconcertingly in the cockpit.
The #8 Speed 8 may have been stationary for only a handful of seconds, but the Australian now found himself the best part of 40 seconds behind four-time Le Mans winner Kristensen. That was less than a fifth of the time it was taking a Speed 8 to lap the 8.5 mile Le Mans track last weekend but, in the context of two near identical racing cars being driven hard by six of the world's top sportscar drivers, it was a veritable country mile. The race was not two hours old, yet the #7 car would never be headed again.
The gap grew again early in the fourth hour. Brabham handed over to Blundell after a double session, but Kristensen stayed on board for the first Bentley triple of the race. The Dane now had more than a minute in hand, and that turned out to be crucial when the safety car came out midway through the hour.
Such is the length of the Circuit de la Sarthe that no fewer than three course vehicles are deployed when the race goes yellow. Blundell was behind the second safety car, which didn't pull off the track until a good 20 seconds after the first. The yellows should have reduced the gap between the two Bentleys; instead they extended it to well over two minutes.
Briton Smith climbed aboard #7 shortly after the yellow-flag period. He got a new set of Michelins, which allowed Blundell to close within 1m40s of the leader. The former Champ Car race-winner then set about whittling away Smith's advantage and had reduced the margin by more than 20 seconds by the time he handed back to Herbert.
Herbert closed to within 30 seconds of Capello, until more seconds were lost in a pitstop.
One of the wheelmen, on hand to change tyres just in case, got jumpy at what was proceeding as a fuel-only stop. He undid the left rear, which then had to be retightened. More seconds went west.
Shortly afterwards, Herbert and co came as close as they would ever get to retaking the lead. Kristensen took over from Capello on schedule, but now it was the #7 car's turn to have a delay, though it was barely worthy of that description. The water system of the speed 8's Audi-built V8 engine had overpressurised and a handful of seconds were lost while the system was bled.
The pitstops proved crucial © LAT
Brabham closed to within 25 seconds, but Kristensen had his measure and edged away until the next round of stops. The increasingly de rigueur lead of about 1m40s was re-established when Brabham came in seven laps later.
That remained the typical gap until 5.00 in the morning. Blundell had seen the electrical system's voltage fall over the course of the stint and a new battery was required. The car was halted for more than five minutes and put the #7 Bentley a full lap ahead, an advantage that would be doubled four hours later when a second battery change was required.
"The battery was losing its charge," explained team director John Wickham. "There may have been a short circuit, but there was nothing that we would trace on the telemetry."
Equally, there was nothing the drivers of the #8 Bentley could do about the sister car. "Twenty-four hours may be a long time, but you can't afford to drop any time," said Blundell. "Not when you are up against such a good group of drivers. We had the pace, but we also had the niggly problems. Without those, it would have been a proper dogfight between us all the way."
No one on the Bentley team could quite take in the #7 car's performance. "It was a faultless run," said Wickham. 'We believed we could do it and our testing programme said we could do it, but Le Mans always throws things at you."
Capello couldn't believe it either. Not surprising given that, in the past two years with Audi, minor problems cost him a shot at Le Mans victory.
"It is amazing that we could run through 24 hours without any real problems," said the Italian. "We didn't even have a puncture."
Punctures, technical dramas, time consuming off-track excursions and even bizarre driver errors were the domain of the three privately entered Audi R8s last weekend. Never on the pace of the Bentleys, the German cars were left to fight it out for the final place on the podium.
The US Champion Racing squad was the only one of the R8 teams to enjoy a clean race, and thus JJ Lehto, Emanuele Pirro and Stefan Johansson came home third. Their run was interrupted, like the #8 Bentley, by a stop for two new batteries, and there were also delays caused by a brace of punctures, but apart from that the team's updated 2001 chassis ran like clockwork on the way to third, five laps down on the winners.
"That was the best we could do," said Johansson. "We ran hard all race and we never messed up, but it wasn't good enough. Our only hope was that the Bentleys hit trouble. They didn't, so there was nothing we could do."
The Audis finished third and fourth © LAT
The Audi Japan-backed Team Goh car was a further two laps down after an up-and-down race during which it was often the fastest Audi but also the most frequent visitor to the pits. Time was lost after nightfall on Saturday when Marco Werner had a minor off. First the nose was replaced and then a missing wing mirror, and after that suspension failure put Jan Magnussen off the road and precipitated another stop for repairs.
More time was lost to an electronic glitch around midday on Sunday, which left Werner, Magnussen and Seiji Ara no chance of improving on fourth place. "The car is good," said Magnussen. "But we lost too much time at night."
The third Audi had only a walk-on role, despite heading the other R8s in qualifying. Frank Biela was running third when he somehow contrived to miss the pitlane entry on his in-lap and ran out of fuel long before he could make it back around.
The battle for the 'best of the rest' spot behind the Volkswagen-Audi Group cars was fought out by no fewer than three constructors and four teams. More amazing, the fight went down to the final lap.
Jan Lammers, who got in among the Audis during qualifying, made his usual bid for stardom on the opening lap and shot past Biela to claim third. When the Racing for Holland team boss realised he wasn't going to hustle his Dome-Judd S101 to the front, he settled into a race pace and dropped behind the R8s.
Sixth became fifth on Biela's demise and that's exactly where he and team-mates Andy Wallace and John Bosch stayed for the next 18 hours. A puncture sent Lammers briefly into the gravel at the first Mulsanne Chicane shortly before midday with the loss of only a couple of minutes. Nearly two hours later, however, the battery needed changing.
A total of 11 minutes were lost, dropping the fastest of the three Domes in the race down to eighth. Wallace, Bosch and then the evergreen Lammers fought back, and then the Dutchman dug even deeper once he scented fifth place.
That position was held by the number one Panoz LMP-O1 Evo driven by Olivier Beretta, Max Papis and Gunnar Jeannette. The ageing front-engined design had defied the pundits by running ultra-reliably throughout the race - and at a decent pace too.
Beretta had endured a massive amount on the Mulsanne when a rear tyre blew out and Jeannette went off at Arnage on Sunday morning, but otherwise the old warhorse ran without a problem.
The #6 Audi completed the podium © LAT
So much so that Panoz looked certain to equal its best ever result at Le Mans once the Dome ran into its problems. The team was counting without the talents of Lammers and Jean-Marc Gounon, who was working wonders in the factory Courage-Judd. A strong triple stint from Gounon on Sunday morning leapfrogged the French car into fifth shortly after the three-quarter distance mark.
The fourth contender for the unofficial 'non-VW/Audi class' was Pescarolo Sport. The team's more fancied Courage-Peugeot, driven by Stephane Sarrazin, Jean-Christophe Boullion and Franck Lagorce, had dropped back in the early stages when a leaking break calliper needed replacing, with the loss of one minute. More time was lost in the night to minor body repairs, which meant the all French driver line-up was unable to regain contact with the battle for fifth.
Even so, team boss Henri Pescarolo's second entry was in the hunt until midday on Sunday. Eric Helary, Soheil Ayari and Nicolas Minassian were in seventh and ahead of the Dome when a stub axle broke - another surprise failire for the Pescarolo team - and dropped them behind their sister car to an eventual ninth place.
That left three contenders for fifth spot as the race entered its closing stages. Gounon's team-mates, Jonathan Cochet and Stephan Gregoire, hadn't been able to keep up with the ex-Formula 1 racer's good work, dropping the Courage back behind the Panoz. The local team reinstalled its star driver for a final short double shift, and he jumped back into fifth when the Panoz had a new nose fitted at its penultimate stop.
Jeannette used his straight-line advantage to get back ahead of the Courage shortly before both cars dived into the pits, on successive laps, for the final time with just half an hour to go. Gounon came within inches of overhauling the Panoz, harried it for a while and then dropped back, his clutch having given up the ghost. This left him powerless to resist the challenge from a flying Lammers, who reckoned he might have pipped Jeannette had he not eased off over the final lap.
That left Gounon down in seventh, though he was far from disappointed. The former Le Mans runner-up was brought in by the team at the last moment, so he had few complaints.
"My engineer was telling me to speed up, but there was nothing I could do about Lammers," he said. "I should have been sitting by my swimming pool this weekend. Instead, I've finished seventh at Le Mans."
At least Gounon, Lammers and Jeannette put on a show at the end, because Bentley didn't. Audi has made great play of its formation finishes over the past three seasons, but the two Speed 8s were nowhere near each other when the famous Le Mans clock struck four o'clock on Sunday. Exactly why isn't clear, though it seems that no one could quite agree on who should slow for whom.
The Team Bentley set-up could be excused for the cock-up. After all, it was probably its only mistake over the course of 24 history-making hours.
The much-anticipated battle between the Italian finesse of the Ferrari 550 Maranellos and the muscle of the Chevrolet Corvette C5.R was touted as a tortoise-and-hare affair, but it was the sole remaining Veloqx Prodrive Racing entry of Tomas Enge, Jamie Davies and Peter Kox that dominated while the Chevys faltered.
The winning Ferrari ran perfectly throughout, spending barely an hour in the pits during the race and enjoying the luxury of a lengthy precautionary checkover late on.
Starter Kox (though Enge had set the pole time) led the early going from the all-British sister car of Darren Turner, Kelvin Burt and Anthony Davidson. Their cause was helped somewhat by an unexpected first-lap problem for the third-placed Corvette of Oliver Gavin, which dropped off the lead lap after pitting twice in the first two tours with a throttle linkage problem.
What's more, far from harrying Turner for second, Ron Fellows in the second Corvette was more concerned with dealing with the Solution F-run Luc Alphand Adventures entry, which established itself in third position with Jerome Policand at the wheel.
Turner lost a minute to Enge during the first pitstop while the team investigated a mystery misfire, necessitating an engine mapping change. The two Ferraris circulated trouble-free well into the night, consolidating their one-two before Davidson put the second-placed car in the gravel and lost a lap while he extracted himself.
Worse was to come. During the 13th hour, a right-front wheelbearing failure put Davidson into the tyre barrier at Mulsanne Corner. The impact was sizeable, severely shaking the driver, who required medical attention after the incident.
The Chevrolets lost out to Ferrari in GTS © LAT
The second Corvette, which had run ahead of its sister car in the first hours, was seven laps down and fourth in class, two laps behind the Alphand Ferrari after a 20-minute halt to tend to the alternator. A gearbox problem cost the car another 35 minutes a little after daybreak.
Although the Gavin Corvette was running well ahead of its sister car and was a comfortable second in class, it lost close to an hour for gearbox repairs shortly before midday. Thereafter the pair ran relatively close together, taking the finish in formation for a creditable, but disappointing, double podium, 10 laps behind the metronomic Ferrari.
It could well have been worse, because the Alphand car was looking well set for a podium finish before a driveshaft problem cost it 70 minutes when Frederic Dor trundled into the pits at 7.50am. A clutch change shortly after midday cost a further hour, leaving the car fifth by the finish.
The once dominant but now long-in-the-tooth Chrysler Viper took fourth in class, even tough Larbre Competition drivers Christophe Bouchut, Patrice Goueslard and Steve Zacchia had been forced to pump the brake pedal from the start of the race.
As expected, the Saleen S7Rs were nowhere near the leading cars. The Graham Nash entry of Pedro Chaves, Thomas Erdos and Mike Newton fared best, making it to the penultimate hour before gearbox failure.
Despite the initial Ferrari fanfare, the GT category was a Porsche dominated affair. But the usually reliable 911 GT3-RS seemed a more troubled beast than usual, with the Alex Job/Petersen Motorsport entry of Sascha Maassen, Lucas Luhr and Emanuel Collad finally taking victory by six laps after a spot of nocturnal pass the parcel.
Kevin Buckler's The Racers Group Porsche, driven by Buckler, Timo Bernhard and Jorg Bergmeister, was the first of the frontrunners to hit trouble. The American team had relieved the Job car of the lead after three hours when Collard pitted for repairs to the gear selector.
An hour later, joy turned to despair as a more serious problem forced Bergmeister into the pits for a 100-minute clutch replacement. Buckler rejoined, but would have taken little solace from a rouble-free recovery drive to fifth.
Maassen was able to keep the Team Taisan Porsche of Akira Iida, Atsushi Yogo and Kazuyuki Nishizawa in check before replacement Luhr pulled in with a holed oil radiator at 1.22am. Maassen re-emerged fifth, three laps down, 20 minutes later.
Porsche dominated the GT class © LAT
Two laps later, the leading Taisan car spent 25 minutes in the pits (new door and gearbox radiator repair), handing the initiative to the Rizi Competizione Ferrari of Johnny Mowlem, Shane Lewis and Butch Leitzinger. But that fell by the wayside after just a lap at the front when the engine failed.
This elevated the Orbit Racing car of Peter Baron, Leo Hindery and Marc Lieb - itself delayed by an earlier radiator problem - to the lead. But only Lieb was able to match the Job car's pace blow-for-blow, and by 3.40am, Maassen had taken a lead that even a mid-morning alternator change could not shake.
The Orbit car held second, while the Perspective Racing entry of Michel Neugarten, Nigel Smith and Ian Khan bagged a deserved third after a run hindered by a mid-race brake change and an 80-minute driveshaft replacement on Sunday afternoon.
And what of the remaining Ferraris? Best of the bunch in the final reckoning was the troubled JMB Racing entry of David Terrien, Fabrizio de Simone and Fabio Babini, with the second Risi car of Terry Borcheller, Anthony Lazzaro and Ralph Kelleners seventh after losing significant ground during the first six hours.
No one, it seemed, really wanted to win the LMP675 prototype category. Each of the 'baby' prototypes that took the start ran into major delays and victory went to the car that suffered the least problems. That honour, for the second year in a row, went to the Noel del Bello team's Reynard.
The French sqad's ageing 2KQ chassis, powered as usual by a Volkswagen-based Lehmann engine, wasn't the fastest car in the class, but it was just about the most reliable. Didier Andre, Christophe Pillon and Jean-Luc Maury-Laribiere had their problems - loose suspension, a detached intercooler pipe and body damage - but the car did more than enough to take the honours.
The second-placed DBA4-Zytek was easily the fastest LMP675 in qualifying and the race, but owner/driver John Nielson, Hayanari Shimoda and Casper Elgaard endured even more problems than the Reynard drivers and were little more than walking wounded by the end.
The car, formerly known as the Reynard O2S, ran into delays early on - it needed a new alternator and encountered starter motor problems. Then, at the end of the race, the Zytek V8 lost power, probably as a result of the crank sensor being damaged during a gravelly excursion.
Noel del Bello's Reynard triumphed in LMP 675 © LAT
The DBA4 still made it home second in class, 31 laps behind the Reynard. That was still more than 40 laps ahead of the next best LMP675, which meant only two cars in the class were classified. Welter Racing's old four-cylinder turbo car was around at the finish, but only after the team rebuilt the engine in situ with the loss of four hours.
Jon Field's Intersport team adopted a conservative approach after its qualifying problems, but was within striking distance of the Reynard when its engine gave up just before midnight.
The majority of the LMP900 field had little more luck than their cousins in the 'baby' class. Riley and Scott driver Marc Goossens lost time early on when a left-rear tyre exploded in the Indianapolis right-hander. That left the Ford-engined contender, regarded as a potential top-six finisher, way down, a situation not improved when car owner Jim Matthews damaged the nose during the night. The team was put out of its misery when its engine failed at 7.30am.
The bio-ethanol-fuelled Nasamax Reynard encountered a string of problems that could be traced back to an engine failure during the warm-up. The team's efforts ended with a serious fire after 16 hours.
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Gary Watkins has, for reasons best known to himself, devoted all his working life to covering sportscar racing. This season is his 25th as a motorsport journalist, during which time he has reported on major long-distance events on four continents and approaching 60 24-hour races. He reckons a degree in political philosophy makes him well qualified for covering the sometimes Machiavellian world of international sportscars.
Gary, who also writes for RACER, Autoweek, Motor Sport, Autocourse and others, lives in Surbiton but spends more time on the road than at home for most of the year.