Peugeot leads the way after the opening three hours of the 2009 Le Mans 24 Hours with the diesel-powered 908 HDis occupying the top two positions, but it has been far from a trouble-free start for either the home heroes or arch-rivals and defending race-winners Audi.
Franck Montagny in the #8 car leads Marc Gene in the sister #9 entry by more than half a lap approaching 6pm in France and is inexorably pulling away, but disaster befell the third of the Lion's challengers less than an hour into the race, when – after shadowing Montagny closely in the initial laps – Pedro Lamy was released from his first pit-stop by his Peugeot crew directly into the path of the Pescarolo-Peugeot of Jean-Christophe Boullion, who was entering his own pit box just in front from a strong fourth place.
As the two came together, the #17 machine tagged the left rear of the #7, and shortly into his 'out' lap it transpired that Lamy had a puncture. With a full twelve kilometres to cover before being able to regain the pit-lane, the flailing rubber proceeded to rip the rear end of the car quite literally apart, depositing bodywork debris and carbon fibre shards right across the track. Somehow, the ex-Formula 1 ace managed to drag the car back to the pits – but the subsequent repair work cost 24 minutes and seven laps, leaving the car down in 51st position of the 55 starters.
Pescarolo, too, ended up paying a heavy price, with Boullion's car requiring a new nose and dropping down outside the top 20, and if it was an embarrassing misunderstanding for Peugeot, the devastating raw pace of the 908 was underlined by 'JCB' proceedings to scythe his way back up the order and firmly back into the top ten. Minassian, too, is making impressive progress, setting the fastest lap of the race thus far as the red mist inside the Frenchman's helmet sets the scene for a stirring comeback drive.
Audi's woes were somewhat less serious, with Alex Premat in the #3 machine suffered what appeared to be a power steering failure mid-corner at Indianapolis, that sent him skating into the gravel trap on only lap two. Though less time was lost, the third of the Ingolstadt marque's diesel-powered challengers still lies outside the top ten an eighth of the way into proceedings.
Lapping an average of two-to-three seconds a lap slower than the leading Peugeots, Audi nonetheless has the comfort of knowing that its other two cars are occupying third and fourth positions in the hands of Allan McNish and Marco Werner respectively. The Scot briefly ran second early on before being overhauled by Lamy and Alex Wurz, and he would lose further time following a nose change two hours in.
Also very much in the mix are two of the three Aston Martin Racing entries, with Tomas Enge and Jos Vertsappen respectively behind the wheel of the #007 and #008 cars that have run like clockwork so far. The two Gulf-liveried cars even briefly tussled it out with the Audis in the wake of the early safety car period – and remain firmly in contention for a rostrum finish. There have been troubles, by contrast, for the #009 machine, with pulley issues and a subsequent stop-go penalty.
The recovering Pescarolo-Peugeot is now seventh overall, ahead of the two closely-matched Kolles Audis, though the second of them currently piloted by ex-GP2 Series ace Christian Bakkerud, lost time with a confused early pit-stop for a nose change and is unexpectedly without a third driver after Narain Karthikeyan dislocated his shoulder for a second time shortly before the start of the race and remains a question mark for the remainder of proceedings.
The leading Oreca of former Monaco Grand Prix winner Olivier Panis, Nicolas Lapierre and Soheil Ayari is on the verges of the top ten despite grappling with early braking and accelerating concerns, but there were major dramas for the sister entry, when Stephane Ortelli put a rear wheel onto the grass and spun into the wall at Tertre Rouge, losing his rear wings and causing significant damage and dropping the car he shares with F1 aspirant Bruno Senna and Tiago Monteiro well down the order. Having missed the race last year following his ankle-breaking accident at Monza, the Frenchman is keen to make amends this time around in his 13th start – what already appears to be an unlucky number for the experienced sportscar star.