Le Mans » 15 June 2008
Le Mans 24 Hrs 2008: Hours 13-15.
Rain over the Circuit de la Sarthe produced the first real change at the head of the field, as Audi finally came into its own in the battle for supremacy with Peugeot with 15 hours in the books.
Having assumed control well before halfway, the #7 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP of Marc Gene, Nicolas Minassian and Jacques Villeneuve continued to lead until almost 5.30am local time but, by then, the much-anticipated showers had arrived over the Loire and caused more than a few shake-ups on track.
Although the #7 was not directly affected, the pace of the Peugeots wasn't a match for the three Audis as the track grew wetter, and the silver machines slowly-but-surely closed the gaps between them. First, Mike Rockenfeller overhauled the #9 Peugeot for third spot as the two leading teams pondered just how hard, and how long, the rain would fall, then the leading #7 and second-placed #2 arrived on pit-lane together.
Peugeot had tried to use its chasing #8 and #9 cars as guinea pigs to test the conditions before the #7 arrived in the pits, but all the experiment showed was that intermediates were not the way to go. Needing to make a second stop to take on the full wets contributed to the #9 losing third to the #3 'junior' team Audi as Rockenfeller continued to atone for his 'rookie' error in 2007. Along with Alex Premat and Lucas Luhr, the German had kept the pressure of the second Peugeot, and 'Rocky' continued to lap faster than almost anyone during the worst of the conditions.
Also going fast, however, was team-mate Tom Kristensen who, having taken over from 'Dindo' Capello maintained the chase of the #7 by lapping several seconds a lap faster than the leader. However, the Dane's pace might have been impressive, but Peugeot was also being hampered by minor overheating worries that had seen all three cars wheeled back into the garage and force-fed dry ice in an effort to bring their temperatures down.
The problem was never enough to threaten the team's continued participation in the race, but helped Audi to close the gap at the front and, when both TK and Jacques Villeneuve arrived on pit-lane for a rare fuel and tyre stop together, it was the seven-time 24 Hour winner who left first, due in part to the Dane taking on only fuel. Kristensen continued to head the race through to the 15-hour mark, opening out a one-lap lead over the 908 by the end of the three-hour segment of the race.
"We had an overheating problem, so we had to get our braking done early and then 'roll' the car into the corners," Villeneuve told Le Mans television, "We solved that, but then it started raining. Our car is difficult - you get the power down coming out of corners and it snaps around, which makes it harder to overtake the slower cars."
With Rockenfeller and the #3 Audi into the running for a podium, the second Peugeot to was relegated to fourth, ahead of the #1 Audi and the seemingly luckless #8 908, which had clawed its way back to sixth after passing the best of the petrol cars.
The battle for 'best of the rest' still rests in the hands of Pescarolo Sport, which now has its two cars running in seventh and eighth overall - equating to first and second in the petrol 'class. The #17 is eleven laps off the pace and now has the #16 sister car on the same lap, the Emmanuel Collard/J-C Boullion/Romain Dumas car having made up a lap since the halfway mark.
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