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Le Mans 24 Hrs 2008: Hours 16-18

15 June 2008

Little changed at the head of the field as a damp dawn greeted the remaining runners at Le Mans, with Audi continuing to best Peugeot and the rain continuing to come and go, hampering the French team's efforts to regain the lead.

The #2 Audi R10 TDi, which took the lead shortly after 4am, completed four hours at the front of the pack with Allan McNish replacing Tom Kristensen behind the wheel and underlining the car's prowess in the wet conditions. The #7 Peugeot, which had led for so long through the middle part of the race, remained in contention, but only managed to eat into the Audi's advantage when the track began to show a drying line.

At 18 hours, the Audi, with McNish doing multiple stints, led by a shade under a lap, as the frontrunning pair opened out two laps on the third-placed car. Countering the belief that Audi now held the upper hand, however, the #9 Peugeot had retaken the final podium spot during the various pit-stops during the 17th hour. Lucas Luhr's attempts to get the car back on terms were dented, however, when the #3 R10 had to take to the escape road at the second Mulsanne chicane, losing valuable time as the German weaved through the tyre bales.

Luhr wasn't the only leader to suffer, however, as Pedro Lamy twice rotated the recovering #8 as he pressed on in an attempt to close the yawning gap between himself and the top five. The polesitting car had lost a lot of time early in the race and currently circulates ten laps off the overall lead. Between the #8, which ended the three-hour segment with fastest man Stephane Sarrazin at the wheel after a nose change and spin for Pedro Lamy, and the #3 Audi, the German marque's veteran trio kept the #1 machine running solidly, albeit three laps off the pace.

Although the rain continues to fall in waves, the track surface remains treacherous, keeping all drivers on their toes - particularly in traffic - but maintaining Audi's slim advantage.

Best of the rest continues to be Pescarolo Sport, but the French outfit's challenge has been halved after the #16 fell by the wayside early in the 16th hour. The car was parked in the garage, with little visible effort to refettle it. The apparent retirement left the #17 sister car comfortably out front - despite a trip down the escape road for Benoit Treluyer - with 'second in class' Matmut Team ORECA now six laps adrift after various minor incidents.

The LMP2 class has a solid fingerhold on a place in the top ten as the van Merkesteijn Porsche RS Spyder continues to run strongly and has climbed to ninth place. The Dutch machine now enjoys a nine-lap cushion back to second in class, but the Porsche 1-2 had been broken by problems for the Team Essex car that have dropped it to third in the junior prototype category, with the #35 Saulnier Pescarolo coming up to P2 in the hands of Pierre Ragues, Franky Cheng and Mathieu Lahaye.

Team Essex currently runs two places behind the French entry, in 15th overall, with Rollcentre Racing occupying the final top ten slot and the Charouz Lola-Aston eleventh. The leading GT1 car, the #009 Aston Martin of Brabham/Garcia/Turner is now nestled among the various prototypes having enjoyed a solid and reliable run throughout the night. With Brabham and Garcia putting in rapid stints during the worst of the conditions, the Gulf-coloured car is now a lap to the good in class, with the #63 Corvette also having suffered a rare off-course excursion in the hands of veteran Ron Fellows.

“The conditions were changing every lap," the Canadian revealed, "There were dry areas in the Porsche Curves and then heavy rain in the front straight and in Dunlop. I got caught out by a shower in Mulsanne, had to back up and lost maybe 30 seconds. At that point, I think we'd spent too much time in semi-dry conditions, and then, when it turned wet again, we'd built up too much tyre pressure. It's incredibly difficult because the track changes every lap."

The second works Aston ran into problems with its electrics during the night, and now runs fourth in class behind the second Corvette, which suffered its own maladies very early on and has been trying to get back on terms with the leaders ever since. The pair run two and five laps adrift of the #009 respectively, with the lead Luc Alphand Aventures Corvette threatening the Aston's fourth in class.

GT2 continues to be the domain of Ferrari and Risi Competition, as it has for almost the entire distance. The US-owned Ferrari has risen to 20th overall in the hands of Mika Salo, Jaime Melo and Gianmaria Bruni and now holds a one-lap lead over closest challenger Virgo Motorsport, which has proven almost inseparable for 18 hours, dogging the Risi car's position on the leaderboard throughout.

"It was okay - really okay, in fact," Bruni reported after a night stint, " When you are in the car in the dark, you can get into a rhythm and it's not so difficult to do nearly three hours. I didn't have any problems at all, and it just started to rain in Indianapolis as I came through there on my way to the pits, so I was lucky. It is Jaime who is not so lucky to have to drive in the wet!”

Third in class - and fourth and fifth for that matter - are all still held by Ferraris, although BMS Scuderia Italia has dropped a couple of laps behind Virgo, with JMB Racing and Farnbacher Racing both three laps further adrift. The best of the remaining Porsches is the Felbermeyer-Proton entry, 31st overall and eleven laps behind the fifth 430GT.

The run into dawn has claimed a few notable victims, with the Embassy car starting the ball rolling when Joey Foster spun into the barriers at the chicanes while running fourth in LMP2. The Cornishman managed to limp the WF01 back to the pits, but the crew decided that the damage was terminal. The Epsilon Euskadi LMP1 cars continue to endure fraught debuts at La Sarthe and a re frequent pit visitors as they suffer teething troubles. Neither crew wants to give up, however, despite running 38th and 40th of the remaining 40 cars.

The Matmut ORECA Courage crashed in hour ten has officially joined the DNF list after being sidelined in pieces after Marcel Fassler's major shunt at the Porsche Curves, but others continue to struggle on in the face of adversity. The #4 Saulnier entry lost valuable time after Richard Hein spun and couldn't get the car turned back onto track, while the #23 Autocon Creation suffered a puncture that forced Brian Willman to limp back to the pits. The conditions prompted spins for both the Tokai University, Quifel ASM, Terramos and Bruichladdich Radical, while the #10 Charouz Lola Coupe spent time in the garage before returning to fight for a top ten spot overall.


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