Le Mans 24 Hrs 2008: Hours 13-15
15 June 2008
Rain over the Circuit de la Sarthe produced the first real change at the head of the field, as Audi finally came into its own in the battle for supremacy with Peugeot with 15 hours in the books.
Having assumed control well before halfway, the #7 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP of Marc Gene, Nicolas Minassian and Jacques Villeneuve continued to lead until almost 5.30am local time but, by then, the much-anticipated showers had arrived over the Loire and caused more than a few shake-ups on track.
Although the #7 was not directly affected, the pace of the Peugeots wasn't a match for the three Audis as the track grew wetter, and the silver machines slowly-but-surely closed the gaps between them. First, Mike Rockenfeller overhauled the #9 Peugeot for third spot as the two leading teams pondered just how hard, and how long, the rain would fall, then the leading #7 and second-placed #2 arrived on pit-lane together.
Peugeot had tried to use its chasing #8 and #9 cars as guinea pigs to test the conditions before the #7 arrived in the pits, but all the experiment showed was that intermediates were not the way to go. Needing to make a second stop to take on the full wets contributed to the #9 losing third to the #3 'junior' team Audi as Rockenfeller continued to atone for his 'rookie' error in 2007. Along with Alex Premat and Lucas Luhr, the German had kept the pressure of the second Peugeot, and 'Rocky' continued to lap faster than almost anyone during the worst of the conditions.
Also going fast, however, was team-mate Tom Kristensen who, having taken over from 'Dindo' Capello maintained the chase of the #7 by lapping several seconds a lap faster than the leader. However, the Dane's pace might have been impressive, but Peugeot was also being hampered by minor overheating worries that had seen all three cars wheeled back into the garage and force-fed dry ice in an effort to bring their temperatures down.
The problem was never enough to threaten the team's continued participation in the race, but helped Audi to close the gap at the front and, when both TK and Jacques Villeneuve arrived on pit-lane for a rare fuel and tyre stop together, it was the seven-time 24 Hour winner who left first, due in part to the Dane taking on only fuel. Kristensen continued to head the race through to the 15-hour mark, opening out a one-lap lead over the 908 by the end of the three-hour segment of the race.
"We had an overheating problem, so we had to get our braking done early and then 'roll' the car into the corners," Villeneuve told Le Mans television, "We solved that, but then it started raining. Our car is difficult - you get the power down coming out of corners and it snaps around, which makes it harder to overtake the slower cars."
With Rockenfeller and the #3 Audi into the running for a podium, the second Peugeot to was relegated to fourth, ahead of the #1 Audi and the seemingly luckless #8 908, which had clawed its way back to sixth after passing the best of the petrol cars.
The battle for 'best of the rest' still rests in the hands of Pescarolo Sport, which now has its two cars running in seventh and eighth overall - equating to first and second in the petrol 'class. The #17 is eleven laps off the pace and now has the #16 sister car on the same lap, the Emmanuel Collard/J-C Boullion/Romain Dumas car having made up a lap since the halfway mark.
Third in class belongs to the remaining Matmut ORECA Courage, but the #5 car is some four laps behind the blue-and-green Pescarolos and has shown signs of running into trouble. Soheil Ayari was among the first to be caught out by the arrival of the rain, and was lucky not to have been collected by any one of the cars following in close proximity as he spun coming out of the Ford Chicane and remained broadside across the racing line, lights not working sufficiently to warn those approaching at speed.
Prior to that incident, the car had been back in the ORECA garage with its engine cover off as the team investigated a gearbox problem that cost twelve minutes and dropped the multi-hued machine behind the second Pescarolo. Since its 'moment', however, the car appears to be running relatively cleanly.
The top ten is rounded out by the steady Rollcentre Racing Pescarolo, which Vanina Ickx, Joao Barbosa and Stephan Gregoire have lifted above the best of the LMP2 runners, having trailed both Porsche RS Spyders at half-distance.
The LMP2 battle continues to be headed by the van Merkesteijn Spyder, despite the distinctive car spending time in the garage after Peter van Merkesteijn's stint in the rain. Up on jacks, the Dutch team checked the floor and front suspension for some time, but released Jos Verstappen back into the fray, the #34 car's four-lap cushion having helped to preserve its lead.
Second place remains with Team Essex despite a misfire and an off for Casper Elgaard at the Playstation chicane. The car was reported to be bearing scars at the rear, but Elgaard, veteran John Nielsen and Porsche factory regular Sascha Maassen continue to keep the pressure on at the head of the class, albeit now six laps adrift and split from the van Merkesteijn car on the road by the LMP1 Lola-Aston Martin.
GT2 is still too hard to call, with the 'factory' Corvettes and Aston Martins going at it hammer-and-tongs. Although the scoreboard shows a lap between the #009 and #63 cars, the reality is closer than that after David Brabham and Antonio Garcia did battle with Ron Fellows and Jan Magnussen through the worst of the conditions.
The earlier electrical problem that beset the #64 Corvette continues to keep it a couple of laps off the pace, but now ahead of the #007 Aston, which spent a lot of time in the AMR garage after failing to restart after a routine stop. Plugging a slave battery and laptop into the car did not have the desired effect and work began to investigate potential onboard battery problems. The best of the Luc Alphand Aventures Corvettes has moved into fourth in class as a result.
Formula Ferrari, or GT2 as it was known at the start of the race on Saturday afternoon, is still being paced by the Risi Competizione 430GT, with Virgo Motorsport dogging every footstep made by Jaime Melo, Mika Salo and Gianmaria Bruni. Less than a lap separates the two cars, which now run in 22nd and 23rd respectively, with BMW Scuderia Italia third in class.
Although no further official retirements have been logged since the twelve-hour update, it is growing increasingly clear that several cars have turned their last laps at La Sarthe this weekend.
Chief among the contenders to join the DNF list is the Speedy Sebah Lola-Judd which crashed coming in to the pits in the height of the rain - and was then collected by one of the Corvettes, inflicting further damage. The front left corner appears to have come off worst, probably so badly so that the team will opt to pack up.
The #32 Barazi Epsilon Zytek ran into driveshaft problems shortly after mid-distance, the #22 Tokei University Courage struggled with overheating brakes and the LMP1 Dome hit the wall at Indianapolis with Daisuke Ito at the wheel before Kristensen took the lead, while the Embassy Racing WF01 was back in its garage receiving more attention as the 15-hour mark ticked by.
The #6 ORECA prototype, which Marcel Fassler crash comprehensively just after the nine-hour point remains listed as a runner and, remarkably, remains ahead of the two Epsilon Euskadi cars, which have both run into myriad problems. While the late entry #21's troubles well documented, the all-Spanish #20 joined it at the tail of the field after Adrian Valles returned it to the pits for attention.
With reliability playing a key role in the battle for overall honours, all six 'works' car remain at the front of the field, albeit with nine laps separating Kristensen from the #8's Alex Wurz, and it could be the weather that provides the difference in the final result. Audi appears better suited to the wet, and Peugeot to the dry. The track is now beginning to dry again.....