Peugeot continues to hold the high ground as the 2009 Le Mans 24 Hours prepares to head into the night, but what was a commanding one-two for the home favourites fell apart just under six hours in, when the long-time leader ran into problems that have cost it three laps and five positions.
With the fans' favourite entry piloted by home-grown heroes Franck Montagny, Stephane Sarrazin and Sebastien Bourdais having established a one-lap lead over the pursuing #9 machine of David Brabham, Alex Wurz and Marc Gene, all was looking rosy for the Lion – and then disaster struck.
Following a minor 'off', Scuderia Toro Rosso Formula 1 star Bourdais returned to his pit box complaining of a problem at the left rear of the car, and three necessary repair work cost the Frenchman three laps and five positions – and possibly all chance of victory. Ironically, the delay has perhaps re-ignited the spark somewhat after Peugeot had called the duel off between its leading two contenders for the sake of avoiding any more errors.
That has left the 'tortoise' 908 in the lead in the hands of former winner Wurz, pursued by the two remaining front-running Audis, with Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen and the flying Rinaldo 'Dindo' Capello in the #1 machine still narrowly holding the upper hand over the #2 entry of Mike 'Rocky' Rockenfeller, Lucas Luhr and Marco Werner 15 seconds further in arrears.
Behind the leading trio, there is a battle royale going on between the #007 and #008 Aston Martin Racing machines and the recovering Pescarolo-Peugeot of Jean-Christophe Boullion, Simon Pagenaud and Benoit Treluyer, still fighting its way back to the front following its earlier collision with the #7 Peugeot. The latter, for its part – referred to as 'the hare' by Peugeot sporting director Olivier Quesnel – is still immersed in a stirring fight back, and having dropped back as far as 51st in the immediate aftermath of the coming-together, the Nicolas Minassian/Pedro Lamy/Christian Klien machine is now up into 13th.
Its fortunes, indeed, have been somewhat in contrast to those of the similarly-delayed Audi #3, with cooling woes – as a result of sucking up rubbish from the track – turbocharger problems and vibration issues leaving Alex Premat with a sore neck and costing the Frenchman and co-drivers Romain Dumas and Timo Bernhard a long way down the order, undoing all the good work the trio had put in to climb back up to eighth following Premat's lap two power steering failure-induced 'off'.
Behind the AMR-Pescarolo scrap, the two Kolles Audis remain eighth and ninth, with the leading Oreca of Frenchmen Olivier Panis, Nicolas Lapierre and Soheil Ayari completing the top ten. There was impressive progress, meanwhile, by Danny Watts in the Strakka Racing Ginetta-Zytek, as the Englishman hauled the car up the timing screens – but there were difficulties for the Signature-Plus Courage-Oreca, with Didier Andre stopping on the pit straight.
There has only been further misery, too, for the troubled #009 Aston Martin, which after suffering alternator problems came together with the Bruichladdich Radical at the entrance to the pit-lane. Turning into the Ford Chicane after putting a lap on Tim Greaves in the LMP2 class machine, Stuart Hall moved across too soon and shoved the #26 car off into the wall, causing a considerable degree of damage and prompting the second safety car period of the race barely four-and-a-half hours in.
Elsewhere in LMP2, Migeul Amaral dropped the Quifel-ASM Ginetta/Zytek down the running order with an accident that left one of the rear wheels hanging off the car, but up at the sharp end of proceedings the class lead changed hands for the first time five hours in, with Keisuke Kunimoto in the Navi Team Goh Porsche RS Spyder getting the better of Kristian Poulsen in the Team Essex car that Emmanuel Collard had dragged clear of anyone in his opening stint. This is one scrap that looks set to run and run.
In GT1, with the JLOC Lamborghini out and the Jetallianec Aston severely delayed, the Corvette supremacy looks set to remain unchallenged, with a titanic duel shaping up at the head of the class order as the #64 machine takes the fight to the #63 sister car, and the two Luc Alphand machines waiting to pick up the pieces in third and fourth.
In GT2, finally, it is now Ferrari to the fore, with the Jaime Melo/Pierre Kaffer/Mika Salo Risi Competizione entry having regained its early advantage, and the Tim Sugden/Andrew Kirkaldy/Rob Bell JMW Motorsport 430 GT having moved up to second place ahead of the #76 Imsa Performance Matmut Porsche, the sole interloper in a Ferrari one-two-four as the 2009 Le Mans 24 Hours heads into the night...