Le Mans 24 Hrs 2008: Audi defends title
15 June 2008
For the second successive year, Audi held off the challenge of Peugeot to secure victory in the Le Mans 24 Hours despite another late rain shower in the final three hours that threatened to put a spanner in the works.
Tom Kristensen brought the #2 R10 successfully to the finish to continue his love affair with the French classic as the 'Great Dane' took his eighth win, while team-mate Allan McNish took the crown ten years after his previous win with Porsche.
Heading into the final three hours of the race, Kristensen led the way ahead of the Peugeot of Marc Gene but the Dane suffered a scare in the 22nd hour when he was involved in contact with the LMP2 Barazi-Epsilon Zytek of Juan Barazi at the Dunlop chicane. Luckily for the team, Kristensen was able to keep going without the need to return to the pits for any repairs and maintained his advantage of a lap over the Peugeot.
Nicolas Minassian took over at the wheel of the #7 Peugeot for the final two hours while Audi elected to leave Kristensen at the wheel of the Audi for the run to the flag and the Frenchman set about trying to close the gap to the leader.
Minassian got himself back onto the lead lap but at the conclusion of the 23rd hour, heavy rain started to fall at La Sarthe with the teams then facing a tough call over which was to go with tyres with part of the circuit being wet but the other half being dry.
Audi pitted Kristensen from the lead and put the R10 onto cut intermediate tyres but when the Peugeot pitted, Minassian was unable to pull straight into his pit box and the team had to quickly get the car straightened up before completing its stop. However, in what looked like a huge gamble, the team decided not to change the tyres on the 908 and send Minassian back onto the circuit on slick rubber.
Minassian soon appeared to be struggling for grip around the Porsche Curves and then suffered a lurid spin at the Dunlop Curve where he was lucky not to be collected by the GT2 Porsche of Seth Neiman.
The gap started to come down however as Minassian pushed, while Kristensen lost some time when he was baulked behind the GT1 Lamborghini while making his way through traffic.
Although the gap came down to under 2mins 30secs, Minassian wasn't taking enough time out of the Audi to take the win and on his final stop, the team put the car onto full wets with the chances of victory having seemingly passed. That wasn't the end of the drama for the car however as on his out lap, Minassian was clearly struggling – with the rear of the car clearly not keen to go in the same direction as the front.
Minassian nursed the car back to the pits to make another change as Kristensen himself pitted for the final time having put a lap on the Peugeot and although the Frenchman unlapped himself on the final tour as Kristensen slowed on the run to the flag, it was the Dane who took the flag as the 24 hours ticked down to give the R10 another La Sarthe win.
Had it not been for extra time spent in the pits during the race, Peugeot may well have been able to celebrate victory, but second for Minassian, Gene and Pedro Lamy was still a fine result while the #9 Peugeot of Franck Montagny, Christian Klien and Ricardo Zonta ensured there would be two 908s on the podium at the finish.
Audi's young guns Alex Premat, Mike Rockenfeller and Lucas Luhr were unable to match the pace of the front-runners and had to settle for fourth place ahead of the third of the Peugeots, which seemed to suffer the majority of problems to befall the team en-route to fifth place – the one consolation being the quickest lap of the race for pole-man Stephane Sarrazin.
The #1 Audi of Frank Biela, Emanuele Pirro and Marco Werner finished in sixth place, losing time on Sunday morning with a clutch issue but, like the #3 car, being unable to challenge the pace of the front-runners through the race itself.
Petrol honours, in the so called second LMP1 class, went the way of Pescarolo with the #17 car of Harald Primat, Benoit Treluyer and Christophe Tinseau finishing well ahead of the Team ORECA-Matmut entry of Soheil Ayari, Laurent Groppi and Loic Duval.
A stunning recovery drive, not too dissimilar to that of the #8 Audi, saw the Charouz Lola Aston Martin take a top ten finish despite a huge accident for Jan Charouz in the early hours that looked like it could have put the car into retirement, while the top ten was completed by the leading LMP2 car, the van Merksteijn Motorsport Porsche RS Spyder.
Elsewhere amongst the LMP1 teams, Rollcentre Racing just missed out on the top ten as its Pescarolo took the flag in eleventh place, while the Creation AIM team finish 24th and the Saulnier Racing squad took 26th. The Japanese Dome Racing squad had run well inside the top ten on Saturday before suffering a range of mechanical issues and a number of trips off track but the team worked hard to ensure the car was on to take the flag in 33rd place while the Terramos Courage was also running at the flag but failed to be classified as a finisher having not completed 70 per cent of the race distance.
The LMP2 win for van Merksteijn capped a fine Le Mans debut for the Porsche and came after the Dutch team had been involved in the battle for class honours throughout with the similar car of John Nielsen's Team Essex Unfortunately, the Danish car would be hit by a misfire during the second half of the race which saw it gradually slip back and it finished seven laps behind the van Merksteijn in twelfth overall.
Despite an incident in the final three hours when Matheu Lahaye suffered a spin and collected a GT2 Ferrari, the Saulnier Racing team secured the final place on the podium making Frankie Cheng the first Chinese driver to stand on the La Sarthe podium in his debut in the race.
As per usual, the LMP2 race was one of attrition and the Quifel-ASM, Barazi-Epsilon and Bruichladdich Radical teams were the only other three to be running at the finish.
As was the case in the overall standings, GT1 saw the successful defence of a 2007 race win as Antonio Garcia, David Brabham and Darren Turner brought the #009 Aston Martin DBR9 home first in class in 13th overall after another race long battle with big rivals Corvette.
Although not quicker than the C6.R in qualifying, the DBR9 had the race pace to fight its way to the front and after getting into the lead, the new look Gulf-liveried Aston took the GT1 title ahead of the #63 Corvette of Ron Fellows, Jan Magnussen and Johnny O'Connell. An alternator issue delayed the #64 Corvette but it rebounded to take third in class after a battery problem sent the #007 Aston Martin of Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Andrea Piccini and Karl Wendlinger into the garage for repairs with the second works car taking the flag in fourth place.
Elsewhere in the class, the #72 Luc Alphand Corvette was fifth ahead of the sister car, while the Larbre Saleen, the Team Modena Aston Martin and the IPB Spartak Lamborghini all made it to the finish – although only just in the case of the latter as it completed exactly 70 per cent of the race distance.
GT2 was a Ferrari celebration after a race that just didn't go to plan for rivals Porsche.
Putting its disappointing ALMS form to one side, Risi Competizione led for much of the race after an early collision for the IMSA Performance and Flying Lizards Porsches and the late demise of the Virgo Motorsports Ferrari meant that Jaime Melo, Gimmi Bruni and Mika Salo were comfortable winners ahead of the BMS Scuderia Italia and Farnbacher Racing teams.
JMB Racing took fourth, while the two Porsches to make it to the finish were well off the pace after Felbermayr-Proton and the Lizards were left with long stops to make repairs to their respective cars.