15 June 2008
Le Mans 24 Hrs 2008: Hours 10-12.
Peugeot continued to fly out front as the Le Mans 24 Hours entered the witching hour, holding a steady advantage over the best of the Audis which provides its closest opposition.
Half-distance in the world's most famous endurance sportscar race came and went with the #7 908 HDi FAP holding a gap of around a lap back to the #2 Audi of Rinaldo Capello, Allan McNish and Tom Kristensen, which found itself caught out by the one and only safety car of the race to date.
The pace was slowed in order to facilitate the recovery and treatment of former DTM favourite Marcel Fassler, who crashed the lead Team Matmut ORECA Courage heavily at the Porsche Curves. Although the Swiss driver was eventually extracted unhurt, but taken to the circuit's medical facility as a precaution, the rescue effort caused the safety car to remain on track for just over half an hour.
Instead of being able to close up on the leading Peugeot, however, McNish found himself caught behind the second of two pace cars on track - necessitated by the length of the Circuit de la Sarthe - and was helpless to prevent the gap between them increasing. Even with the Audi making fewer pit-stops than its French opponent, McNish and co were unable to reduce the margin by which they trailed, although the gap is still slim enough that the leading Peugeot cannot afford to make a serious mistake.
It was fortunate, therefore, that the car's only slip-up came and went in the blink of an eye, as Nicolas Minassian spun the #7 - which he shares with Jacques Villeneuve and Marc Gene - after taking too much kerb on the entry to the start-finish straight. A quick rotation later - in which he avoided making contact with walls or opponents and ended up facing the right way - the Frenchman was quickly on his way. Villeneuve was at the wheel as the clock ticked through half-distance, the #7 just a handful of laps shy of reaching the 200 mark.
The lead Audi was proving equally reliable but, despite its lower number of fuel stops (16-19 at the last count), was unable to make inroads into Peugeot's advantage as the 908 continued to lap faster than the venerable R10.
Peugeot and Audi dominate the top five, with the French marque's #9 occupying the final podium spot at the halfway mark. Like its pace-setting sister, the car has recovered from Christian Klien's error - which saw the car in the gravel and out of top spot - to run a lap off the lead, while the two other Audis follow at similar distances , with the 'junior' car of Alex Premat, Mike Rockenfeller and Lucas Luhr heading veterans Frank Biela, Emanuele Pirro and Marco Werner.
As expected, Pescarolo holds sway in the petrol 'class', with the Harold Primat/Christophe Tinseau/Benoit Treluyer car filling sixth place, albeit five laps off the pace of the Audi immediately ahead. That puts the #17 machine a place ahead of the remaining Peugeot, which ran into further problems during the three-hour stint but refuses to give up completely. Shortly after 1am local time, the #8 was pushed back into the garage after failing to get away from a routine pit-stop. What appeared at first sight to be a gearbox problem, possibly related to hydraulic issues from earlier in the race, was eventually diagnosed as an electrical short-circuit, but the polewinner remains nine laps off the lead and seems to be attracting the bulk of Peugeot's problems.
The remaining ORECA entry, with Soheil Ayari at the wheel, occupies eighth, with the second Pescarolo car ninth as LMP1 machines fill the leading positions, but LMP2 is gradually beginning to make headway into the top ten, with the leading Porsche RS Spyder of van Merksteijn Motorsport holding the upper hand in the class.
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