14 June 2009
Le Mans 24 Hours 2009: Hours 7-9.
As it had from the start of the race, Peugeot continued to pace the Le Mans 24 Hours into the night, but the race was not without drama for the French marque or its main rivals.
While the #8 car dropped out of the lead as the six-hour mark approached, Peugeot's problems were nothing compared to those of Audi just half an hour later. Having been promoted to second and third - and, crucially, back onto the lead lap - Audi's two-pronged assault on the steady #9 908 HDi-FAP was halved when Lucas Luhr went off at the Porsche Curves.
On-board footage suggested either a puncture or suspension failure, as the #2 machine snaked into - and over - the gravel trap before making heavy contact with the tyre wall. If the initial problem had been on the left-rear corner, the greatest damage was sustained on the opposite side, with the wheel folded at right- angles to the rest of the car and the rear wing removed. Smoke from the gearbox casing also suggested that it was far from healthy, but Luhr - who later suggested he may have been at fault - was determined to try and drag the carcass back to the pits until the race director ruled against it.
With the #3 Audi still garaged with a mix of cooling and fuel pressure problems, it was left to reigning champions Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen and Rinaldo Capello to take the fight to the supposed 'tortoise' Peugeot of veterans David Brabham, Alex Wurz and Marc Gene, with the #8 steadily closing the gap on the lead pair. Indeed, Peugeot briefly returned to 1-2 status when the #1 was wheeled back into the pits and spent three laps being seen to by the Audi team, but it appears that the stop was a mere precaution, with the air ducts a priority given the overheating problems on its sisters.
There was some good news for Audi when the #3 eventually rejoined but, underlining how much time had been lost while a new fuel pump - amongst other remedies - was fitted, the car remained one place and a full lap behind the wrecked #2....
The #9 Peugeot had completed 144 laps as the ninth hour - and midnight - passed at La Sarthe, with the #1 Audi running one lap adrift after regaining second from the #8 when the latter required a new nose after Sebastien Bourdais tagged Patrick Pilet's GT2 Porsche. The second of the 908s was on the same lap as the remaining German challenger, however, and poised to capitalise on any further drama.
The leading trio enjoyed at least a lap in hand over fourth place, as the battle for a potential podium finish was opened up to the chasing masses, with the Pescarolo Peugeot in charge at the nine-hour mark, despite its pit-lane altercation with the other works car in the opening stages of the race. The Jean-Christophe Boullion/Simon Pagenaud/Benoit Treluyer machine was looking solid as it opened up a cushion over the leading Aston Martin Racing entries in the seventh hour, and ended the three-hour window with a lap in hand over the rebuilt #007 of Stefan Mucke, Tomas Enge and Jan Charouz, which largely continued to escape the frustrations that beset its team-mates until a puncture at Hunaudières proved enough to drop it behind the privateer Peugeot.
While the #009 endured a catalogue of misfortunes, including various electrical woes and contact with the #26 LMP2 machine before being forced to overshoot its pit box by a group of photographers waiting in pit-lane, that left it down in 32nd spot, the #008 of Jos Verstappen/Darren Turner/Anthony Davidson lost eleven minutes to a front hub change that separated it from the #007.
Aston's problems allowed the Kolles Audis to continue their climb up the order, ending the ninth hour in sixth and eighth respectively, with late call-up Andre Lotterer starring with some rapid laps as the #14 edged closer to the top five, but also picked up one of several pit-lane speeding penalties to be handed out. Seventh, and dividing the two proven Audi R10s, was the Judd-powered Pescarolo, while the #11 ORECA and #13 Speedy-Sebah Lola completed the top ten.
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