14 June 2009
Third time lucky as Peugeot break Le Mans curse
They had always described the programme as a three-year project, and Peugeot have proven to be every bit as good as their word in the 77th edition of the legendary le Mans 24 Hours this weekend – finally bringing to an end Audi's domination of the race dubbed the 'hardest in the world' with a commanding one-two on home soil at La Sarthe, and a formation finish to-boot.
In a truly historic result, the #9 908 HDi of David Brabham, Alex Wurz and Marc Gené took the chequered flag a lap clear of the sister #8 machine composed of home-grown heroes Sébastien Bourdais, Stéphane Sarrazin and Franck Montagny, with Audi only making the bottom step of the podium this time with the defending race-winning #1 machine of Allan McNish, Rinaldo 'Dindo' Capello and 'Mr Le Mans' Tom Kristensen. McNish had pinpointed the #9 car as the one to watch – and unfortunately for the Scot and his team, he would prove to be right on the money.
The result marked the end of three years' blood, sweat and tears for Peugeot, with the 908 having proven to be the fastest car in both 2007 and 2008, only for costly errors and unreliability woes to open the door to Audi on both occasions. This time around – an early misunderstanding with the #7 car aside – there was to be no such repetition.
The success was particularly sweet for Brabham, coming as it does 16 years on from his brother Geoff's victory in the race – making the pair the first siblings to triumph at Le Mans on separate occasions – and half a century on from his father Jack's maiden Formula 1 World Championship. Gene, too, had special reason to celebrate becoming only the second Spaniard to prevail at La Sarthe, whilst Wurz had said before the race that after a win and a fifth place in his two previous appearances, he wanted to improve his strike rate this time around. He has done that and then some.
There was only a brief threat to Peugeot's joy, when Bourdais began to slow in the last half hour, but whilst fans' hearts may have been palpitating, it swiftly turned out to be merely a piece of planned synchronisation, to bring the three 908s into formation for the run to the flag – and after crossing the line, though he may not have won, the record-breaking multiple former Champ Car king was the first to popularly perform donuts to entertain the spectators on the start-finish straight.
With the brief threat of rain on Sunday morning rapidly subsiding and unable to hold a candle to its French rivals on pure pace – with the new R15s rarely able to get to within two or three seconds a lap of the 908s – Audi knew they would have to pin their hopes of maintaining their incredible winning run on problems for Peugeot, but if anything it was the opposite that transpired.
Whilst the Nicolas Minassian/Pedro Lamy/Christian Klien entry was removed from contention for victory relatively early on, following a second-hour pit-lane collision with the 'sister' Pescarolo-Peugeot of Jean-Christophe Boullion, Simon Pagenaud and Benoît Tréluyer – an incident that also dropped the #17 car some way down the order – Peugeot still had two cars running right up at the sharp end when the chequered flag fell, whereas Audi had only one.
Though the McNish/Kristensen/Capello machine ran relatively without drama, the same could not be said for the #3 car of Alex Prémat, Romain Dumas and Timo Bernhard, with the former going off on only the second lap of the race due to momentary power steering failure at Indianapolis, and later encountering further issues with cooling woes – as a result of sucking up rubbish from the track – turbocharger problems and vibrations that left Prémat with a sore neck and resigned the trio to a 'get-to-the-finish' mentality, which they did, albeit down in a lowly17th place, 49 laps down.
Still, at least that car made it to the end, which could not be said for the #2 entry, after Lucas Luhr suffered a heavy 'off' at the Porsche Curves as night began to fall on Saturday, damaging the car he was sharing with compatriots Mike 'Rocky' Rockenfeller and Marco Werner beyond repair and reducing the Audi threat to Peugeot to just one.
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