It remains an Audi one-two as the end of the 2010 Le Mans 24 Hours nears in the legendary La Sarthe classic this weekend, but with the #8 machine having hit trouble, the #9 entry looks set for a lone run to the chequered flag – though the battle over the runner-up laurels is far from resolved.
With just over 20 seconds between the two R15 Plus TDis for much of the three-hour stint – and Anthony Davidson and Alex Wurz in hot pursuit in the delayed #1 Peugeot in third, setting some scintillating sector times and right on the absolute ragged edge, albeit still not on the same lap as the Ingolstadt duo – the gap only widened right towards the end, when with André Lotterer at the wheel, the #8 car began smoking and went straight on at Arnage, nudging the tyre barriers.
After pitting for a replacement front end, a rapid repair job enabled the German to rejoin still marginally ahead of the storming Wurz, who in his efforts to catch up had set two third sector bests on successive laps as the Austrian former grand prix ace unleashed all of the 908 HDi FAP's potential. All over the back of Lotterer's car come the end of the lap, Wurz seized the advantage next time around on the outside on the approach to the second Mulsanne chicane – and when he subsequently pitted, the 36-year-old's impressive balls-out, on-the-limit commitment was evinced by almost losing it on the entry.
Following the stop, there is now just under a minute between the Audi and Peugeot entering the final three hours of the race, with the #9 looking comfortable out front and set for victory – what would be a first for all three of its drivers. Behind them, the delayed Audi #7 is continuing to stave off the advances of the similarly delayed Oreca Peugeot for fourth, with Nicolas Lapierre and particularly Loïc Duval doing their very damndest to close the gap.
A little further back still, the #007 Lola Aston Martin plummeted down the order with gearbox issues, slipping from seventh place – two laps behind the sister #009 machine – to 14th, a full 21 laps in arrears of its stable mate. The latter, however, was not without dramas of its own, as Juan Barazi beached his car in the gravel trap at the first Mulsanne chicane from sixth place following what appeared to be a failure. Whilst the Dane got back on-track, he would later spin again to add to AMR's woes, but entering the closing stages the #009 car remains in P6.
The #008 machine was similarly in the wars, as Pierre Ragues also went off at the first Mulsanne chicane, scattering debris across the circuit, whilst the #15 Kolles Audi bit the dust when Oliver Jarvis pulled off to the side of the track from seventh position, after team-mate Christian Bakkerud had embedded the car heavily in the Indianapolis gravel trap.
In LMP2, the Strakka Racing HPD continues to lead by the margin of five laps from the chasing OAK Racing Pescarolo, which took over second place after the Highcroft Racing HPD of David Brabham, Marino Franchitti and Marco Werner ran into trouble and has yet to emerge from its pit box.
The GT1 class, meanwhile, is still headed by the runaway Saleen steam train – despite Roland Berville briefly beaching the car in the gravel trap as he got it all wrong at the entry to the pits – whilst there was more drama still in GT2, as the long-time leading Corvette Racing entry of Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Emmanuel Collard was forced to retire as a legacy of the tap it had received from Davidson's Peugeot earlier in the race, coming to an ignominious and smoky end along the Mulsanne straight [see separate story – click here
That promoted the Team Felbermayr-Proton Porsche to the head of the class order, ahead of the Hankook Team Farnbacher Ferrari, after ex-F1 star Giancarlo Fisichella had locked up and gone straight on at Indianapolis, damaging the front end of the AF Corse Ferrari the Italian is sharing with fellow former grand prix-winner Jean Alesi and Finn Toni Vilander and dropping the #95 from second in GT2 to fifth.
Elsewhere in the class, the sole surviving BMW had to endure another lengthy pit-stop as the Bavarian manufacturer's difficulties continued, whilst Niek Hommerson dumped the #75 Prospeed Porsche into the gravel, and not to be outdone, team-mate Louis Machiels did likewise not long after. A puncture shortly after that only served to add insult to injury.