They had always described the programme as a three-year project, and Peugeot have proven to be every bit as good as their word in the 77th edition of the legendary le Mans 24 Hours this weekend – finally bringing to an end Audi's domination of the race dubbed the 'hardest in the world' with a commanding one-two on home soil at La Sarthe, and a formation finish to-boot.
In a truly historic result, the #9 908 HDi of David Brabham, Alex Wurz and Marc Gené took the chequered flag a lap clear of the sister #8 machine composed of home-grown heroes Sébastien Bourdais, Stéphane Sarrazin and Franck Montagny, with Audi only making the bottom step of the podium this time with the defending race-winning #1 machine of Allan McNish, Rinaldo 'Dindo' Capello and 'Mr Le Mans' Tom Kristensen. McNish had pinpointed the #9 car as the one to watch – and unfortunately for the Scot and his team, he would prove to be right on the money.
The result marked the end of three years' blood, sweat and tears for Peugeot, with the 908 having proven to be the fastest car in both 2007 and 2008, only for costly errors and unreliability woes to open the door to Audi on both occasions. This time around – an early misunderstanding with the #7 car aside – there was to be no such repetition.
The success was particularly sweet for Brabham, coming as it does 16 years on from his brother Geoff's victory in the race – making the pair the first siblings to triumph at Le Mans on separate occasions – and half a century on from his father Jack's maiden Formula 1 World Championship. Gene, too, had special reason to celebrate becoming only the second Spaniard to prevail at La Sarthe, whilst Wurz had said before the race that after a win and a fifth place in his two previous appearances, he wanted to improve his strike rate this time around. He has done that and then some.
There was only a brief threat to Peugeot's joy, when Bourdais began to slow in the last half hour, but whilst fans' hearts may have been palpitating, it swiftly turned out to be merely a piece of planned synchronisation, to bring the three 908s into formation for the run to the flag – and after crossing the line, though he may not have won, the record-breaking multiple former Champ Car king was the first to popularly perform donuts to entertain the spectators on the start-finish straight.
With the brief threat of rain on Sunday morning rapidly subsiding and unable to hold a candle to its French rivals on pure pace – with the new R15s rarely able to get to within two or three seconds a lap of the 908s – Audi knew they would have to pin their hopes of maintaining their incredible winning run on problems for Peugeot, but if anything it was the opposite that transpired.
Whilst the Nicolas Minassian/Pedro Lamy/Christian Klien entry was removed from contention for victory relatively early on, following a second-hour pit-lane collision with the 'sister' Pescarolo-Peugeot of Jean-Christophe Boullion, Simon Pagenaud and Benoît Tréluyer – an incident that also dropped the #17 car some way down the order – Peugeot still had two cars running right up at the sharp end when the chequered flag fell, whereas Audi had only one.
Though the McNish/Kristensen/Capello machine ran relatively without drama, the same could not be said for the #3 car of Alex Prémat, Romain Dumas and Timo Bernhard, with the former going off on only the second lap of the race due to momentary power steering failure at Indianapolis, and later encountering further issues with cooling woes – as a result of sucking up rubbish from the track – turbocharger problems and vibrations that left Prémat with a sore neck and resigned the trio to a 'get-to-the-finish' mentality, which they did, albeit down in a lowly17th place, 49 laps down.
Still, at least that car made it to the end, which could not be said for the #2 entry, after Lucas Luhr suffered a heavy 'off' at the Porsche Curves as night began to fall on Saturday, damaging the car he was sharing with compatriots Mike 'Rocky' Rockenfeller and Marco Werner beyond repair and reducing the Audi threat to Peugeot to just one.
Luhr's accident, however, paled somewhat into insignificance when compared to the one that ultimately claimed the Pescarolo-Peugeot. Having hauled itself back into podium contention in fourth, the car came to a messy end when Tréluyer rolled through the gravel trap and into the tyre wall at Tertre Rouge during the night, necessitating the intervention of the circuit's emergency vehicles to extract him from the vehicle. Thankfully, the Frenchman was not seriously injured in the impact – but his car was destroyed.
The other car implicated in the coming-together that had dropped the Pesca-Peugeot down the order in the first place, the Peugeot #7, by contrast, staged a stirring recovery to fight its way back up the order to sixth place at the chequered flag, with Lamy, Klien and particularly Minassian – who set the fastest lap of the race as the red mist descended, to show what might have been – never once relenting in their efforts as they scythed their way back up through the order. The only car consistently below the 3m30s barrier on Sunday, had it not been for the misunderstanding that saw Lamy released into the path of Boullion scarcely half an hour into proceedings, it could have been a different Peugeot crew standing atop the rostrum at the end of the race – and at the very least a crushing one-two-three.
As it was, the #7 entry was separated from its team-mates in the final reckoning by the #1 Audi, #007 Aston Martin Racing Lola and sole surviving Oreca-Aim of former Monaco Grand Prix winner Olivier Panis, Nicolas Lapierre and Soheil Ayari, the latter two crossing the finish line as the best-placed of the petrol brigade. At one stage, indeed, it looked as though the Stefan Mücke, Tomas Enge and Jan Charouz effort may end up with the final spot on the rostrum after the lead Audi pitted for repairs to the rear axle in the 21st hour and subsequently suffered a brace of minor 'offs' in the hands of Capello.
Nonetheless, fourth – despite a harmless, if momentarily heart-stopping spin for Enge in the Dunlop Chicane late on – was still an excellent result for Aston's return to La Sarthe at the highest level, and made up for the delays suffered by the Darren Turner/Jos Verstappen/Anthony Davidson, which after closely shadowing the sister machine in the opening stages, slipped well down the order with clutch and engine issues, a stop-go penalty for the incident in which a tap from Turner had knocked the #72 Luc Alphand Aventures Corvette out of the reckoning and a loss of 45 minutes to rectify a gearbox problem. The car was finally classified a perhaps apt 13th, 40 laps down.
The third of the three AMR machines, the #009 piloted by Stuart Hall, Peter Kox and Harold Primat, was arguably the unluckiest in all the race, with the former being excluded for colliding heavily with the LMP2 Bruichladdich Radical at the entrance to the pit-lane. As he turned into the Ford Chicane after putting a lap on Tim Greaves in the LMP2 class machine, Hall moved across too soon and shoved the #26 car off into the wall, providing the catalyst for the second safety car period. Alternator problems amongst a variety of other issues also meant the car spent maybe as much time in the pits as out on the track, and a hefty crash for Primat at the Porsche Curves during the night saw to its eventual demise.
On the Oreca side, fifth place was an impressive achievement and accomplished by dint of a flawless, error-free drive from the all-French trio inside the cockpit – and in much the same way as the result for the AMR #007 helped to atone for disappointment elsewhere within the team, the Panis/Lapierre/Ayari effort put the smile back on the faces of Hugues de Chaunac's crew after Stéphane Ortelli clipped a kerb in the sister #10 entry and put it into the wall early on. Following successful repairs, the car finally came to grief after a series of further incidents left the team lacking sufficient spares to be able to continue.
The top LMP1 runners at the end were completed by the 'traditional' Pescarolo entry of Christophe Tinseau, Joao Barbosa and Bruce Jouanny – which lost time in the closing stages – sandwiched between the two solid Kolles-run Audi R10 TDis, both of which ran fairly reliably throughout barring gearbox issues for the #14 and simultaneous suspension woes for the #15. Notably, however, the latter also suffered an 'off' in the hands of Christian Bakkerud when the Dane hit the wall along the Mulsanne Straight, and the former was reduced to just two drivers in the form of André Lotterer and Charles Zwolsman, after Narain Karthikeyan was ruled out of competition after dislocating his shoulder when he jumped over the pit wall shortly before the start.
In LMP2, the Team Essex Porsche RS Spyder swept to glory and a top ten finish outright in the hands of Emmanuel Collard, Casper Elgaard and Kristian Poulsen following a relatively untroubled run. Second place and twelfth overall went the way of the Speedy Racing Team Sebah of Jonny Kane, Xavier Pompidou and Benjamin Leuenberger, albeit 14 laps adrift, with the final class podium position falling to the Oak Racing Pescarolo Mazda of Richard Hein, Jacques Nicolet and Jean-François Yvon, a further 18 laps in arrears.
There was late drama, however, for the Navi Team Goh Porsche RS Spyder, which lying second in class and twelfth outright, came to grief at the chicane along the Mulsanne Straight with Seiji Ara at the wheel, as the Japanese ace – a former overall winner at La Sarthe with Kristensen and Capello at Audi Team Goh in 2004 – lost control under braking and swiped the wall before demolishing the tyre barriers...and the Porsche itself. There was heartbreak, too, for the KSM Lola of Hideki Noda, Matthew Marsh and Jean de Pourtales, which encountered myriad problems throughout both qualifying and the race and ultimately saw its ill-fated bid curtailed by a fire with less than an hour to go.
The GT1 laurels – and 15th overall – went the way of the yellow Corvette Racing of Jan Magnussen, Johnny O'Connell and Antonio Garcia in the American muscle car manufacturer's final official appearance in the iconic round-the-clock event for the time being. Indeed, for the majority of proceedings it had looked like being a 'Vette one-two, but the sister machine of Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Marcel Fässler – which had shadowed the #63 car throughout – departed the fray shortly before midday on Sunday with transmission woes, dashing what had looked like being a hammer-and-tongs duel to the flag and promoting the surviving Luc Alphand Aventures entry of Julien Jousse, Xavier Maassen and Yann Clairay to the runner-up spot and the Jetalliance Aston Martin, the only other GT1 finisher despite a series of difficulties, to the bottom step of the rostrum.
In GT2, finally, a tremendous tussle saw Ferrari ultimately prevail over Porsche, with the Scuderia
locking out nine of the final top ten places as the Risi Competizione entry of Jaime Melo, Pierre Kaffer and ex-F1 ace Mika Salo crossed the line two laps clear of the chasing #97 BMS Scuderia Italia piloted by Fabio Babini, Matteo Malucelli and Paolo Ruberti. Third place went to the second Risi effort of Tracy Krohn, Nic Jönsson and Eric van de Poele.
To see the result in full, click here