2003: Bentley wins Le Mans

In a display of supremacy more reminiscent of a lost era of British racing, a Bentley saw off the Audis for a historic return to the Le Mans winners' circle

2003: Bentley wins Le Mans

Tom Kristensen had done it all in sportscar racing, or so we thought. The Bentley driver had already won Le Mans four times and he'd notched up a brace of victories at Sebring and one at Petit Le Mans. But on closer inspection there was, until last Thursday, one thing missing from the curriculum vitae of the world's most successful active sportscar driver - pole position for the Le Mans 24 Hours. There was no surprise that he put that right this year.

As the nominated qualifying driver in the number 7 Bentley Speed 8, the 35-year-old Dane had a roughly 50-50 chance of claiming the pole. What was surprising was the manner in which he filled the hole on his CV. In fact Kristensen put in three laps good enough for pole and left Johnny Herbert and David Brabham, who both ran on qualifiers in the other Speed 8, trailing in his wake.

"Pole means a lot to me," said Kristensen. "A number of times I've been the qualifying driver here and I haven't done it. For the past two years I've been fastest on the first day, only to be beaten by Dindo Capello."

Kristensen set a best time of 3m32.843s on the first day to claim provisional pole by two and a half seconds. Brabham was next up and blamed himself for failing to make the most of his first set of qualifiers and an errant slower car for the second. It was Kristensen's turn to lay the finger of blame at traffic after failing to improve in the much cooler, and therefore faster, Thursday sessions. He set a lap three-tenths shy of his pole mark on his first run on quallies and was nine-tenths ahead of his Wednesday mark as he entered the Porsche Curves on his second. At this point he came upon slower cars and was forced to abandon the lap.

Herbert improved the number 8 car's best to a 3m35.098s and reckoned he could have got close to Kristensen's 3m32s but for traffic. Whether he could have matched the pole winner's projected 3m31s lap was less clear.

At this stage, Herbert, Brabham and Blundell were not yet happy with the handling of their mount. It was interesting, therefore, to see the last-named set a 3m36s lap on race tyres in complete darkness late on Thursday. An improvement had clearly been made and Herbert was able to lap within three-tenths of his qualifying time in the race day warm-up.

Best of the rest in both sessions was Frank Biela in the Arena Motorsport-run Audi Sport UK car. The three-time Le Mans winner failed to make the most of his qualifiers on Wednesday after suffering from brake problems in the opening session, but the German found 1.3sec on Thursday. Even so, he wasn't happy. "I went too fast on my out-lap," said Biela, "and I was losing grip at the end of my fast lap."

Jan Lammers qualified fourth in his self-run Dome, the second time in three years he had made row two. "It was a nice lap," said the Dutchman. "I'm pleased because in three years with Dome the worst we've been is fifth."

John Nielsen's DBA4 was fastest in LMP675, though the team owner's Wednesday time on qualifiers was almost eclipsed by team-mate Casper Elgaard on race tyres on day two. Lola-MG driver Jon Field came within two seconds of the Zytek-powered car inside four laps after two engine failures on Wednesday.

Tomas Enge set two laps good enough for the GTS pole in the best of the Veloqx Prodrive Racing Ferraris on the Wednesday. "They weren't pretty laps," he said, "but I was happy with my time."

Darren Turner made it a one-two for the British set-up on Thursday after trailing his team-mate by three seconds on the first day. A change to a new set of shock absorbers - "I think we had a rogue set," he said - made a dramatic improvement and the former McLaren Autosport BRDC Award winner ended up only a second down on his team-mate. Turner's second day time leapfrogged him ahead of fellow Briton Oliver Gavin in the best of the Chevrolet Corvettes. His 3m55.613s, set on Wednesday, was a full three seconds up on Johnny O'Connell's best in the second car.

Lucas Luhr claimed pole position in GT for the Petersen/Alex Job Racing Porsche. The Job car was in battle with The Racer's Group Porsche right through the eight hours of qualifying. Sascha Maassen just pipped Jorg Bergmeister on the opening day and then Luhr ended up just a tenth clear of Timo Bernhard on Thursday. Bernhard, who was amazingly running on qualifying tyres for the first time in his career, reckoned pole should have been his had he not encountered traffic.

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 no 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.

This 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 number 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.

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 number 7 Bentley after Capello took over from Kristensen, and then fell further behind when he returned to the pits a couple of laps later - the door headrest had worked loose and was dangling disconcertingly in the cockpit.

The number 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 number 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 that 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 number 7 shortly after the yellow-flag period. He got a new set of Michelins, which allowed Blundell to close to within lm40s of the leader. The former Champ Car race winner men 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 number 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.

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 lm40s 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 number 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 could trace on the telemetry."

Equally, there was nothing the drivers of the number 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 number 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 number 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 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 right 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-01 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 moment 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 problem.

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 brake caliper 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 failure 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 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 speed 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 the cock-up. After all, it was probably its only mistake over the course of 24 history-making 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 squad'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 LM P675 in qualifying and the race, but owner/driver John Nielsen, Hayanari Shimoda and Casper Elgaard endured even more problems than the Reynard drivers and were little more than walking wounded at 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.

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 & 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 730am.

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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