Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Dindo Capello took a magnificent victory for Audi in a truly classic 76th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The drivers of the No.2 R10 TDi put in what must go down as one of the all-time great Le Mans performances to score the eighth win in nine years for the German manufacturer.
The trio successfully fought off the challenge from the three Peugeot 908 HDis to give Kristensen his record-breaking eighth victory, McNish his second (a decade after the first), and Capello his third.
Despite maintaining its pace advantage throughout the race, Peugeot will have to wait at least another year to win the classic race on its home soil. Audi did exactly what they set out to do knowing they were coming into the race as underdogs. They played to their strengths and put the quicker Peugeots under pressure as much as possible.
A mammoth crowd of 260,000 spectators turned out and stuck with the race to its thrilling conclusion as Kristensen held firm against a late charge from Nicolas Minassian in the No.7 Peugeot.
A tremendous duel had raged race-long between the two cars, through changeable weather, reliability niggles, and several off-track moments, before climaxing with a pulsating battle in the final hour.
Peugeot had carried their anticipated greater speed into the race and looked far more likely to triumph by Saturday evening. But Audi are experienced hands at Le Mans, and gathered momentum each time the great race threw something else at its contestants.
The R10's superiority in wet conditions during the night left the No.2 crew with a three-minute advantage over the No.7 Peugeot, which Jacques Villeneuve, Marc Gene, and then Nicolas Minassian took it turns to chip away at throughout the morning.
But their progress was steady at best, thanks mainly to magnificent stints from Allan McNish and Tom Kristensen during the morning. The Peugeot may have been the quicker car, but the Audi's stability in tricky conditions and its veteran drivers' ability to stay consistent under any circumstances made the telling difference.
Kristensen gave his Audi team a big scare a couple of hours from the end when he clashed with Juan Barazi when lapping his LMP2 car and spun. He was fortunate to escape without significant damage and pressed on with protecting his lead.
Audi forced Peugeot to take a desperate gamble in the last hour by sending Minassian out on slicks while it poured with rain over parts of the circuit. Peugeot hoped he would be able to make up significant time on the dry Indianapolis and Porsche sections, but a closing margin of four seconds per lap was no more rapid that it had been when they were evenly shod.
Minassian gave it absolutely everything, though, risking far more than he probably should have in pursuit of a car that was realistically too far ahead. The Frenchman twitched his skittish-looking 908 around La Sarthe lap after lap, flying off the road at the Dunlop and Mulsanne chicanes, and seeming never far from a potentially huge accident.
He was eight seconds quicker at times, but struggled to control the 908 after picking up a left rear puncture, and had to give best in the end. Kristensen's advantage was insurmountable and no matter how hard Minassian tried, he couldn't prevent the popular Dane from taking another record-breaking victory.
It may have come down to a last hour charge, but the turning point of the race was shortly after 3am. The odds were stacked in Peugeot's favour at the time, with the No.7 car maintaining a comfortable two-minute lead over the No.2 Audi. But a sudden downpour changed everything.
Villeneuve, and the other two Peugeots, struggled with poor visibility, while Dindo Capello came into his element. The momentum swung to Audi in a matter of minutes as Villeneuve's two-minute lead was eroded.
The No.7 car was further delayed in the pits as all three Peugeots had to be pulled into the garage at their scheduled stops so the team could attend to their overheating problems.
Kristensen took over behind the wheel of the No.2 car and assumed the lead when Peugeot's slower, closed-roof driver changes hindered their pit stops and Marc Gene rejoined in second place.
Kristensen then hammered home the extent of Audi's advantage in full wet conditions by streaking into a 30-second lead over Gene in just two laps. The Dane drove absolutely flat out for the best part of the next hour to build a lead approaching two minutes.
The rain eased off and the track began to dry, allowing the Peugeot to claw its way back towards the Audi in what was becoming an amazing cat and mouse contest.
But McNish's relentless consistency paid off for Audi in a race that bore a stark resemblance to the Scot's previous Le Mans victory 10 years earlier, when he was able to defeat the Toyotas despite being at a significant disadvantage on raw pace.
The No.7 car closed to within 20 seconds at one point, but a tyre problem forced Gene to pit mid-way through a stint and the gap extended to over a minute again. McNish then stretched the lead out to around one lap and gave the car back to Capello, who was able to marshal the gap to Villeneuve throughout his stint. The margin was even stretched to three minutes before the circuit began to dry and Peugeot were able to mount their final charge in the last hour.
The work of all three aboard the No.2 Audi in the changeable conditions had earned the car a healthy lead, but Kristensen still had to push harder than Audi would have liked to maintain a safe margin on the slippery track at the end.
Peugeot once again proved the outright pace of their car as a dry line emerged in the closing moments, but they will have to improve their all round package if they are to defeat Audi over 24 hours. The almost bulletproof reliability and wet weather driveability of the R10 mean it is still a dominant force by the chequered flag.
The No.8 Peugeot was the quicker of the quickest cars, and would certainly have been able to challenge the Audi, but it seemed attract all the misfortune. Its hopes of victory were dashed after just hours when a gearbox problem lost it six laps, but Stephane Sarrazin, Pedro Lamy and Alexander Wurz pressed on regardless and dragged the car back into the top six time and again.
It lost another 12 minutes when it needed a battery change during the night, and was delayed yet again when Lamy spun into the tyres at Arnage and had to limp back for a new rear wing.
But the car still made it home in fifth place, with a lap in hand over the No.1 Audi R10, which lost five laps with a clutch problem this morning and was delayed further when Frank Biela spun at the first chicane during the last hour's frenetic downpour.
The No.17 works Pescarolo of Harold Primat/Benoit Treluyer/Christophe Tinseau fought off the charge of the closed-roof newcomers to come home first in the unofficial petrol class.
The Lola Aston Martin would have been a sure contender for the honours on pace alone, but Jan Charouz had a big crash at the Dunlop chicane less than two hours into the race and ended the car's hopes.
But Stefan Mucke, Tomas Enge, and Charouz charged on undeterred for the remaining 22 hours and earned a well-deserved top 10 finish on the car's debut.
The Dome also showed inspired speed and future potential in the early stages, but a string of problems during the night delayed the car before engine trouble finally put pay to its hopes of a strong finish.
The No.16 Pescarolo had set the pace for the non-diesels for the much of the race, but also dropped out this morning with engine trouble, while the No.5 Courage Oreca retired with a heavy crash on Saturday evening, after which Marcel Fassler was taken to hospital.
The LMP2 class finally produced a competitive battle for the category win thanks to the presence of the Van Merksteijn and Team Essex Porsche RS Spyders.
The two cars exchanged the lead during Saturday afternoon as Casper Elgaard continually ran down the No.34 car. The Dane seemed to have the legs of Jeroen Bleekemolen at the time, but could never quite establish the Essex car at the head of the class for long.
It lost out to the Van Merksteijn time and again in the pits and had to settle for chasing from a distance from the evening onwards. The pair remained no more than a lap apart up until the early hours of the morning, when the Essex car developed a persistent misfire and lost several laps as the team attempted to locate its cause at each of the scheduled pit stops.
The strength in depth of the class was, unfortunately, traditionally thin, and the Saulnier Pescarolo completed the class podium, despite being over 20 laps behind the Van Merksteijn car.
The Quifel Lola was the only other car still running competitively at the end of the race, following the demise of Barazi Epsilon which stopped out on track after picking up a puncture on the Mulsanne Straight, and the Speedy Racing Lola, which was delayed by an electrical problem.
Aston Martin may have been perceived as the underdog by some in its fight with Corvette, but it triumphed over its American rival for the second year in a row, with the No.009 car again coming out on top of a close, race-long battle.
The factory Corvettes looked the stronger package in the early stages of the race, but rapid evening stints from Darren Turner and David Brabham lifted the Aston into lead during the evening.
But they, and third driver Antonio Garcia, struggled to build a strong lead during the night as they struggled with traffic and did not make the best of their tyres while the circuit was wet.
It narrowed to a two-car fight, with the No.63 Corvette of Jan Magnussen/Johnny O'Connell/Ron Fellows, during the night as each team's second car hit trouble.
The No.64 Corvette fell off the lead lap with an alternator problem on Saturday evening and never really recovered. The No.007 Aston of Karl Wendlinger/Andrea Piccini/Heinz-Harald Frentzen was in touch with the lead pair until the early hours of the morning when a similar problem dropped it out of the hunt.
The Larbre Saleen had hoped to take the fight to Aston Martin and Corvette, but its hopes were dashed early on when Christophe Bouchut lost a wheel and spun into the gravel at the Dunlop Curve. The car was still circulating at the end, but 40 laps behind the class leaders.
Risi Competizione gave Ferrari its first victory at Le Mans in five years in a race of attrition in the GT2 class.
The billed battle between Ferrari and Porsche never quite materialised as every one of the Porsches hit trouble and fell away before presenting a sustained challenge to Risi's lead.
The Flying Lizards Porsche rivalled the Risi car in the early stages, before clashing with the IMSA Porsche, which made its way through the field after starting from the back.
The Felbermayr Porsche took up the challenge and swapped the class lead with the No.82 Risi car between pit stops. It eventually ran into trouble and lost 12 laps with a gearbox problem, leaving only Ferraris to contest the victory.
The Risi car then had to fight off the charge of the Virgo Motorsport F430 throughout the night, but the sheer speed of Gianmaria Bruni, Mika Salo, and Jaime Melo meant they were always in control at the front.
The Virgo car retired with engine problems in the last three hours, leaving the BMS Scuderia Italia Ferrari and the similar Farnbacher car to complete the podium. The Farnbacher car completed a spirited comeback drive to secure a place on the podium after multiple incidents earlier in the race dropped it way behind the class leaders.
76th 24 Hours of Le Mans - CLASSIFIED:
|Audi Sport North America||Audi R10||381 Laps|
|Team Peugeot Total||Peugeot 908||+ 4:31.094|
|Peugeot Sport Total||Peugeot 908||+ 2 Laps|
|Audi Sport Team Joest||Audi R10||+ 7 Laps|
|Team Peugeot Total||Peugeot 908||+ 13 Laps|
|Audi Sport North America||Audi R10||+ 14 Laps|
|Pescarolo Sport||Pescarolo Judd||+ 19 Laps|
|Team Oreca Matmut||Courage-Oreca Judd||+ 24 Laps|
|Charouz Racing System||Lola Aston Martin||+ 27 Laps|
|10||LM P2||Van Merksteijn
|Van Merksteijn Motorsport||Porsche RS Spyder||+ 2:26.516|
|Rollcentre Racing||Pescarolo Judd||+ 29 Laps|
|Team Essex||Porsche RS Spyder||+ 34 Laps|
|Aston Martin Racing||Aston Martin DBR9||+ 37 Laps|
|Corvette Racing||Corvette C6.R||+ 4:23.843|
|Corvette Racing||Corvette C6.R||+ 40 Laps|
|Aston Martin Racing||Aston Martin DBR9||+ 42 Laps|
|Luc Alphand Aventures||Corvette C6.R||+ 46 Laps|
|Saulnier Racing||Pescarolo Judd||+ 48 Laps|
|Risi Competizione||Ferrari F 430 GT||+ 55 Laps|
|Quifel - ASM Team||Lola AER B05 - 40||+ 56 Laps|
|Luc Alphand Aventures||Corvette C6.R||+ 1:23.008|
|BMS Scuderia Italia Spa||Ferrari F 430 GT||+ 63 Laps|
|Farnbacher Racing||Ferrari F 430 GT||+ 64 Laps|
|Creation Autosportif Ltd||Creation AIM Ca07||+ 65 Laps|
|JMB Racing||Ferrari F 430 GT||+ 69 Laps|
|Saulnier Racing||Pescarolo Judd||+ 70 Laps|
|Team Felbermayr-Proton||Porsche 911 GT3 RSR||+ 72 Laps|
|Larbre Competition||Saleen S7R||+ 75 Laps|
|Barazi Epsilon||Zytek 07S||+ 77 Laps|
|Team Modena||Aston Martin DBR9||+ 79 Laps|
|Team Bruichladdich Radical||Radical AER SR9||+ 84 Laps|
|Flying Lizard Motorsports||Porsche 911 GT3 RSR||+ 92 Laps|
|Dome Racing Team||Dome Judd S102||+ 109 Laps|
|Interprogressbank Spartak||Lamborghini Murcielago||+ 115 Laps|
76th 24 Hours of Le Mans - NOT CLASSIFIED / RETIREMENTS:
|Virgo Motorsport||Ferrari F 430 GT||289|
|Pescarolo Sport||Pescarolo Judd||238|
|Embassy Racing||Embassy Zytek||213|
|Speedy Racing Team Sebah||Lola Judd||194|
|Epsilon Euskadi||Epsilon Euskadi Judd||189|
|Tokai University - Ygk Power||Courage-Oreca Ygk||185|
|Epsilon Euskadi||Epsilon Euskadi Judd||158|
|Team Oreca Matmut||Courage-Oreca Judd||147|
|LM P2||De Pourtales
|Kruse Schiller Motorsport||Lola Mazda||147|
|Charouz Racing System||Lola Judd||146|
|Af Corse SRL||Ferrari F 430 GT||111|
|RML||Lola MG B05 - 40||100|
|Chamberlain - Synergy||Lola Aer B06 - 10||87|
|Vitaphone Racing Team||Aston Martin DBR9||82|
|Speedy Racing Team||Spyker C8 Laviolette||72|
|Spyker Squadron B.V.||Spyker C8 Laviolette||43|
|Imsa Performance Matmut||Porsche 911 GT3 RSR||26|
|Trading Performance||Zytek 07S||22|
Van De Poele
|Risi Competizione||Ferrari F 430 GT||12|