Three hours to go, and then there were two...
12 June 2011
Appropriately enough for a race that has yo-yoed to-and-fro right from the word 'go', the 2011 Le Mans 24 Hours looks set for a grandstand finish, with the onset of light rain throwing another element of unpredictability into what is already a nail-biting equation.
Although the #2 Audi R18 TDi still holds a fairly handy advantage over the trio of chasing Peugeots behind, its drivers are experiencing all sorts of fun-and-games whenever they come into close proximity with one of the 908s, whether it be in direct battle or to put them a lap down.
Franck Montagny did not make Benoît Tréluyer's life easy, but the most belligerent was undoubtedly Anthony Davidson in the #7 car, which had earlier lost four laps and with that ostensibly all hope of victory when Alex Wurz dumped it out of third place and into the tyre barriers on the exit of Indianapolis with just over five hours to go. Although it was swiftly recovered by the marshals, the 908 then proceeded to spew debris and bodywork all over the track en route back to the pits.
After the car rejoined the fray with Davidson at the wheel, the former Super Aguri F1 star went on to frustrate race leader Tréluyer's efforts to put a further lap on him still. When the Frenchman finally plucked up the courage to have a go into the first Mulsanne Chicane, his adversary chopped brusquely across his nose, very nearly resulting in contact between the pair.
Hammering the kerbs, Tréluyer was clearly pushing hard, and the pole-winner completed a marathon five-stint run before handing over to team-mate André Lotterer, who encountered difficulties of his own in nose-to-tail duels with Sébastien Bourdais, Montagny and Marc Gené, the Spaniard edging the Audi onto the grass as he came up to lap him and finding Lotterer pull straight back in front of him in retaliation after the German had finally forced his way past along the Mulsanne Straight.
With the rain hanging in the air beginning to fall with just over a couple of hours remaining, Lotterer took it more gently than the hard-charging Peugeots behind him, who clearly had less to lose. Nicolas Minassian – whose #8 car had been further delayed by a stop-go penalty for a mechanic's indiscretion – took a gamble in switching to intermediates, whilst Lotterer chanced his hand at staying out on slicks, hoping that the rain would swiftly cease and that he would not concede too much ground in the meantime to his intermediate-shod pursuers.
The precipitation did, however, claim a number of victims. Following an earlier puncture, Loïc Duval later skated off at Indianapolis – much à la Wurz – shedding his Oreca Peugeot's rear bodywork as he rejoined and losing two laps with the necessary repairs. That would have cost the privately-run 908 track position to the Pescarolo behind, were it not for a pit-stop delay and then an error from Emmanuel Collard as the Frenchman went off at the Porsche Curves, doing sufficient damage to the #16 machine as to put the leading petrol runner out of the race.
Others to come a cropper as the weather turned included Raymond Narac in the #76 GTE-Pro IMSA Performance Matmut Porsche, Maxime Martin in the LMP1 Kronos Racing Lola Aston-Martin with a small spin exiting the Ford Chicane, Franck Mailleux on the exit of the PlayStation Chicane – following an earlier puncture for the Signatech Nissan – and Tom Kimber-Smith, who was fortunate to have an eight-lap LMP2 class lead when he dropped the Greaves Motorsport Zytek at the Dunlop Chicane.
Toni Vilander only narrowly avoided coming into contact with the tyre barrier after overshooting at Arnage, whilst the #55 BMW M3 pulled out of GTE-Pro contention, leaving just 28 of the 56 starters – precisely half the field – remaining in play as the 79th edition of the round-the-clock La Sarthe classic builds up towards a thrilling conclusion.
#16 Pescarolo Team Pescarolo-Judd – Accident
#55 BMW Motorsport BMW M3 – Mechanical
#74 Corvette Racing C6 ZR1 – Accident
#81 Flying Lizard Motorsport Porsche 997 GT3 RSR – Mechanical
#48 Team Oreca Matmut 03-Nissan – Accident
#63 Proton Compétition Porsche 997 GT3 RSR – Accident
#13 Rebellion Racing Lola B10/60 Coupé-Toyota – Accident
#61 AF Corse Ferrari F430 – Accident
#59 Luxury Racing Ferrari 458 Italia – Technical
#71 AF Corse Ferrari F430 – Mechanical
#88 Team Felbermayr-Proton Porsche 997 GT3 RSR – Accident
#42 Strakka Racing HPD ARX-01d – Mechanical
#60 Gulf AMR Middle East Aston Martin V8 Vantage – Accident
#39 PeCom Racing Lola B11/40-Judd BMW – Accident
#89 Hankook-Team Farnbacher Ferrari 458 Italia – Engine
#58 Luxury Racing Ferrari 458 Italia – Accident
#64 Lotus JetAlliance Evora – Mechanical
#57 Krohn Racing Ferrari F430 – Mechanical
#24 OAK Racing Pescarolo-Judd – Fire
#1 Audi Sport Team Joest R18 TDI – Accident
#5 Hope Racing Oreca Swiss HY Tech-Hybrid – Mechanical
#62 CRS Racing Ferrari F430 – Accident
#15 OAK Racing Pescarolo Judd – Technical
#79 JOTA Sport Aston Martin Vantage – Engine
#20 Quifel-ASM Zytek 09 SC – Engine
#3 Audi Sport North America R18 TDI – Accident
#007 Aston Martin Racing AMR-One – Mechanical
#009 Aston Martin Racing AMR-One – Mechanical