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Spa 2008: Peugeot Spa-rkles again

11 May 2008

Peugeot maintained its 100 per cent Le Mans Series record with a third win of the 2008 endurance season at Spa-Francorchamps, setting the French squad up for its assault on the 24 Hours in June.

After Stephane Sarrazin and Pedro Lamy claimed the spoils at Monza a fortnight ago, it was the turn of Nicolas Minassian and Marc Gene - along with Le Mans co-driver Jacques Villeneuve - to win at Spa, the two regular drivers drawing themselves level with Audi's Alex Premat and Mike Rockenfeller at the head of the points table as a result.

Once again, it was the 'junior' Audi that provided the closest opposition, but only after the German marque's number one machine had been involved in an incident with the Sarrazin/Lamy Peugeot, which left both cars badly damaged.

The two doomed machines had set the early pace, with Lamy leading Allan McNish by as much as five seconds, but came together during the middle stint of the race, after Peugeot addition Alex Wurz had taken over from Lamy. The Austrian, aiming for Le Mans success after being ousted from Formula One, clipped Ralf Kelleners' Spyker - forcing the German into the barriers - before careering into the Audi, now with Rinaldo Capello at the wheel, approaching Les Combes. Wurz was out on the spot, his car too badly maimed to continue, while the Audi lost a lot of time - and any hope of victory - being repaired in the pits.

"It all happened so quickly," Wurz explained, "I was pulling back in front of the Spyker when the rear right of my car hit it, and that sent me into a spin. I couldn't avoid hitting the Audi and I would like apologise for that, just as I would like to say sorry to everyone at Peugeot whose excellent work had given us a fantastic car."

"I just didn't know what had happened, but it was a big impact," Capello countered, "Then I saw the Peugeot, but I still do not know exactly what occurred."

As a result, the two main contenders were left in a direct head to head with their remaining entries as the #7 Peugeot battled the #2 Audi. In the end, as had been the case at Monza, Peugeot's superior pace told, with the Gene/Minassian/Villeneuve combination eking out more than a minute over their rivals before a late safety car created an artificially close run to the chequered flag.

"I suffered quite badly with oversteer during my first stint, but everything returned to normal once new tyres were fitted and I had a great scrap with McNish," Minassian reported, "I left my braking as late as possible, and he braked even later, and we both end up crossing the grass. It was close, but perfectly fair and square! I spent the rest of the race enjoying the afternoon with my two team-mates."

McNish and Capello made their way back through the pack to finish fourth, albeit four laps adrift, with the Italian securing the position four laps from the flag after passing the Pescarolo of Jean-Christophe Boullion and Emmanuel Collard. The gap to the final podium place, however, was probably out of reach, even without the added delay caused by a stop-go penalty for Capello missing the red light at the pit-lane exit.

"I didn't see the red light at my pit-stop," the Italian admitted, "I really believed our luck would change for this race, and we had a car to challenge for victory again but, in each LMS race, we have something unexpected happening and we have to recover. We show that our speed is good enough to fight for victory but, at the moment, we just do not get onto the podium."

Nicolas Lapierre put in a magnificent drive to claim the third step of the podium in the Team ORECA Matmut Courage. The Frenchman started from the pit-lane after suffering a suspension failure in qualifying, but worked his way through the pack, moving into third place mid-way through the third hour to secure an unexpected podium appearance for himself and co-driver Olivier Panis.

"It was a terrific race," team president Hugues de Chaunac enthused, "We started from the pit-lane – and therefore last – but our drivers fought their way back up through the field to finish on the podium! We ended up splitting the two Audis, which is the best possible message we could have given to Stéphane Ortelli who was watching the race on TV!

"After our difficult start to the season, today's result is a fabulous morale booster for the team as we turn our attention to Le Mans. It also speaks volumes for our ambitions for 2009. I would also like to thank Michelin because their tyres obviously played a role in our result today. We were able to double-stint from the start and that clearly permitted us to catch the leading group. Everybody was surprised by the consistency and strength of our medium compound tyres - they were exceptional."

Peter van Merksteijn and Jos Verstappen took sixth on the road and duly collected their second win of the year in LMP2, despite losing six minutes replacing a nose section on the van Merksteijn Motorsport Porsche RS Spyder. The pair enjoyed a race-long battle with the Speedy Racing Team Sebah Lola-Judd that was only decided in the final hour, when the Lola stopped with an alternator belt problem.

The retirement did not mean a cruise to the finish for Verstappen, however, for fellow countryman Jan Lammers crossed the line just ten seconds adrift in the Horag Porsche he shared with Didier Theys, after Fredy Lienhard decided against driving because of a back problem. The team gambled on not taking new tyres at its final pit-stop in an effort to retain the class lead but it was not enough.

"We had a very good race," Theys said afterwards, "Fredy didn't want to take any chances with his back, so he decided to just watch this one, and we were first for more than two hours. Jan started the race and had a good stint, then I got in and also had a good stint. Then Jan got in at the end too and, again, we had no problems. We had no contact with anybody, and the pit-stops were perfect, but the car that won was a little faster than we were."

With the second Pescarolo Sport LMP1 entry claiming eighth, ninth fell to Team Essex, winners in Monza two weeks ago. Spa, however, proved to be an altogether different race for the Danish team, with Casper Elgaard involved in an accident before the green flag - which caused the retirement of the Embassy car of Joey Foster - as he tried to warm his brakes and tyres. Elgaard, who lost time in the pits as the team repaired the nose of the blue Porsche, admitted the mistake, apologised to the Embassy Racing team, and accepted his three-minute penalty without question.

The Saulnier Racing Pescarolo Judd of Pierre Ragues and Matthieu Lahaye was fourth in LMP2, and eleventh overall, splitting the Creation-AIM and Epsilon-Euskadi entries.

A fantastic drive from the Frenchman Guillaume Moreau helped Luc Alphand Aventures take its second win of the season in GT1, the World Series by Renault regular overhauling the IPB Spartak Racing Lamborghini, which led for much of the second half of the race before the bonnet detached and left Roman Rusinov unsighted for much of the lap.

Moreau had earlier battled for two hours with the pole-winning Team Modena Aston Martin before the British car succumbed to a long stop to fix an alternator belt problem. Antonio Garcia and Tomas Enge recovered to finish third, albeit three laps down on the winning Corvette, while the Strakka Racing Aston Martin took fourth in class on its LMS debut.

The identity of the winners in GT2 remained uncertain until the very end, with Virgo Motorsport's Rob Bell eventually holding off a charging Marc Lieb to take the honours by just 0.184secs.

The Ferrari had held the advantage for much of the race, but Lieb and Australian co-driver Alex Davison kept up the pressure and looked set to benefit when Bell, having taken over from Gianmaria Bruni, was hit by the Saulnier Racing Pescarolo-Judd. The Briton soldiered on with damaged rear suspension, however, and just managed to hold off Porsche factory star Lieb at the end.

The Felbermayr Proton team also claimed third in class.


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