Le Mans Full Race Report
Tom Kristensen has made history by claiming his seventh Le Mans 24 Hours victory, going one better than Jacky Ickx whose previous record he'd equalled last year. He shared his Champion Racing Audi R8 with JJ Lehto and Marco Werner
They had to stay calm as the Pescarolos that had dominated qualifying pulled away at as much as five seconds per lap while they themselves struggled even to overtake cars from the GT1 class. However, the French prototypes hit trouble and the American-entered Audi took the lead before many of the spectators had even lit their barbecues for their supper on Saturday evening, and stayed there to the close at 16:00.
Kristensen whipped the hordes of fans waving Danish flags in the grandstands into a frenzy as he waved to them from the podium, but was as modest as ever when he praised everyone but himself and said "the R8 is going to the museum now and I'd be honoured to drive it there."
He also paid particular praise to Lehto, saying "JJ did a brilliant job after the start, having the patience to find the right moments when racing against cars that were faster than him. Marco was as efficient as ever.
"In a funny way, though, once we were in the lead we increased the pressure on us as we realised that we had something big to lose."
It wasn't only a magnificent win for Champion Racing and this trio of drivers, but also a fine send off for Audi's legendary R8, a car that will be superceded by the R10 next year. This was the 67th race an R8 has started and the 54th that it has won.
Audi Motorsport boss Dr Wolfgang Ulrich was delighted, saying: "It was an excellent race to send off the R8, a result that's close to our hearts."
On their near bullet-proof reliability alone, pundits were tipping any of the three Audis to succeed. However, it was always clear that the aerodynamics, fuel tank capacity, air restrictor and weight penalties that they had to accept for running their cars in LMP900 specification, rather than to the revised aerodynamic rules, would leave them short of speed to tackle the Pescarolos, the works Dome and two works Courages.
With one of the Pescarolo Sport entries losing 25 minutes while a faulty paddleshift was fixed and then more time with a puncture, and the other by being delayed after damaging its bodywork after clashing with a GT2 Panoz, their attack was blundered. They still had the speed potential for a fightback, but they knew that it would be one that could take them all the way to the finish as there was so much ground to recover from the famously reliable Audis that seldom trip up.
Nevertheless, the faster of the Pescarolos - the one driven by Jean-Christophe Boullion, Emmanuel Collard and Erik Comas - edged its way back into the reckoning. However, it needed to be clawing back more than five seconds per lap over the final four hours, and this it just couldn't do, especially once it was on the second stint on its tyres and then when it slowed with overheating with an hour and a half go.
It had been a committed challenge, but it was not going to be France's year.
The sister Pescarolo of Soheil Ayari, Eric Helary and World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb wasn't around at the end, though, with Ayari planting it in the tyre wall at the first chicane in the 19th hour after Loeb had slowed its progress with several runs up escape roads and through gravel traps despite team boss Henri Pescarolo having sent him on an intensive course of learning the circuit via a Sony Playstation.
This left the way clear for the second Champion Racing Audi to claim third place, its progress slowed by two off-track excursions, with Emanuele Pirro having clashed with Patrick Bourdais' Panoz at Arnage early on, and then Allan McNish having a spin at Indianapolis when a tyre delaminated on his in-lap at 06:00 on Sunday. The car was repaired, losing three laps, and Frank Biela joined them in taking it to the finish.
Dave Maraj, team director of Champion Racing, was overcome with his one-three result, which isn't surprising as he said before the race how much victory would mean to him: "To score an American team's first victory here since 1967 would be an amazing achievement. And, for me personally, to have one of my cars win would be a lifetime achievement."
After the race, having not had a moment's sleep, he was almost overcome and was also complimentary of his pit crew. "When our other car came in after its crash, the guys jumped on it and it looked like an octopus was on the car."
In GT1, the Aston Martins seemed better on their tyres, with the Corvettes really suffering in the heat on their second stints on any set of rubber. This and the fact that Oliver Gavin suffered a pair of punctures early in the race caused the team to change their tyre choice.
And it was so competitive.
Amazingly, shortly after 11:00, the two Corvettes and the two Astons were all on the same lap. At this stage, if the David Brabham/Stephane Sarrazin/Darren Turner DBR9 hadn't been struck by three stop-go penalties, it would have been a lap or more clear, with its sister car of Tomas Enge, Peter Kox and Pedro Lamy having lost time having a broken splitter changed.
Certainly, the Astons held a slight speed advantage, but the Chevrolets kept in there through reliability and near perfect pit work. Watching the Pratt & Miller crew carry out a pit stop is like art in motion. They may look less than athletic, but they are almost balletic when their cars hit their pit marks.
Works driver Ron Fellows, summed up their input: "The Astons were faster than us, but we had great pit stops. We had great reliability and here we are, one and two." It was the C6.R that he shared with Johnny O'Connell and Max Papis that ended up second in GT1, with class victory going to Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Jan Magnussen in an astonishing fifth overall.
The Aston Martins were only tripped up in the penultimate hour when the overheating in Turner's car nearly cooked the driver. This would at least reach the finish in ninth place after a lengthy stop ended its chase of Gavin, whereas fuel starvation appears to have been the reason for Enge failing to get the sister car back to the pits.
Gavin was delighted: "The Corvette Racing team is absolutely mighty. It's a glorious team that simply never gives up. Prodrive always race us hard wherever we are in the world. It's a pleasure to race them and even more of a pleasure to beat them."
Prodrive boss David Richards was magnanimous in defeat: "Well, I'm pretty pleased as the DBR9 is a new car, Le Mans was only its third race and yet we held our own against the Corvettes until the 23rd hour. We just need a bit more testing to make it reliable and we'll be back again."
Such was the pace of this quartet of GT1 cars that several LMP1 finished in their wake, including the Racing for Holland Dome of John Bosche, Elton Julian and Jan Lammers in seventh, the Alex Frei/Dominik Schwager/Christian Vann works Courage in eighth, and the Sam Hignett/Haruki Kurosawa/John Stack Team Jota-Zytek that had been destined for fifth or sixth overall until it crashed with the end almost in sight, dropping it to an eventual 12th place. However, this was later made a non-classified finisher as it wasn't running at the finish.
The Creation Autosportif DBA shown speed aplenty but had a troubled race, with its worst blow being when it clattered the barriers with Jamie Campbell-Walter at the wheel, letting down his teammates Nicolas Minassian and Andy Wallace. It was classified 15th, two places ahead of Rollcentre Racing's Dallara-Judd that was held back by power steering failure and hub problems, with Joao Barbosa, Vanina Ickx and Martin Short ending up 17th overall.
The GT2 class was a huge success for American teams, with Alex Job Racing winning a race-long battle with White Lightning Racing and Flying Lizard Motorsports putting one over their European rivals as Porsche ruled the roost, after an early challenge from Panoz ended with a broken engine.
Gentleman driver Leo Hindery was absolutely definite about why the Alex Job Racing 911 GT3-RSR he'd shared with Marc Lieb and Mike Rockenfeller was able to finish 10th, a lap ahead on the Jorg Bergmeister/Timo Bernhard/Patrick Long combination: "We figured out the secret of Le Mans," said Hindery. "It's Yokohama tyres and Marc and Mike."
On pace over a single lap, the junior prototype class, LMP2, is faster than any of the closed-roof GT cars, but their mechanical reliability was terrible and the winners placed only 21st overall after a litany of problems.
It had looked as though victory would go to either of the Paul Belmondo Racing Courages, but RML won the day, their Lola piloted by Tommy Erdos, Warren Hughes and Mike Newton recovering from problems that hit as early as the opening hour to get the lead for good in the final hour.
Fortunately, the race was concluded without any serious accidents, something that was particularly poignant as the event marked the 50th anniversary of the truly dreadful accident when the Mercedes 300 SLR driven by "Pierre Levegh" flew into the crowd opposite the pits, killing more than 80 spectators and injuring hundreds more in motor sport's worst ever accident.
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