Seiji Ara withstood the best that Johnny Herbert and Audi Sport UK Team Veloqx could throw at him during a wonderfully tense finish to the 72nd Le Mans 24 Hours as Tom Kristensen earned his record equalling sixth overall victory at La Sarthe.

With Herbert driving the wheels off the #88 Veloqx Audi R8 throughout his final triple stint, Ara had to keep a cool head as the Englishman whittled his lead away to just half a minute with an hour to go.

However Herbert had been forced to use the best of his tyres and as the minutes wound down, his lap-by-lap gains on the leading Audi Sport Japan Team Goh shrunk. The Briton never gave-up though, and proved how hard he was trying by rattling across the gravel trap at the second Mulsanne chicane on the penultimate lap.

But it will be Ara, Kristensen and Rinaldo Capello who will go down in the history books as the winning driver combination of Le Mans 2004 with Kristensen making history by becoming the first driver to ever win five straight Le Mans.

Ara becomes just the second Japanese driver to climb the very top step of the Le Mans podium following Masanori Sekiya's 1995 triumph and the first Japanese driver to win for a Japanese team while Capello takes his second win in two years at La Sarthe.

JJ Lehto, Emanuele Pirro and Marco Werner guided the Champion Audi R8 to third place overall, eleven laps behind the winners and seven laps clear of the #18 Pescarolo Sport Pescarolo driven by Erik Comas, Soheil Ayari and Benoit Treluyer who crossed the line in fourth place.

From 45th on the timesheets at the three-hour mark, Frank Biela and Pierre Kaffer brought the #8 Veloqx Audi home in an unlikely fifth position, eleven laps behind the Pescarolo and 29 behind the winner. Allan McNish was released from the medical centre last night and was in good health considering the impact he took at the two-hour mark.

After the Prodrive Ferrari challenge died three hours from home when the Alain Menu/Peter Kox/Tomas Enge machine made a lengthy stop to fix a damaged left front corner, the factory Corvette team took a 1-2 finish in GTS with Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Jan Magnussen finishing sixth overall, eleven laps ahead of its sister machine. The Enge/Kox/Menu Ferrari survived to take fourth in class behind the Colin McRae/Darren Turner/Rickard Rydell Prodrive Ferrari, McRae taking a podium finish on his Le Mans debut.

An incurable engine problem for Freisinger Motorsport saw their GT challenge collapse in the closing hours, handing a relatively easy win to the Jorg Bergmeister/Patrick Long/Sascha Maassen crewed Peterson/White Lightning Porsche.

Unable to sort the problem without retiring the car altogether, Freisinger's Stephane Ortelli, Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas could only watch helplessly as the Japanese-crew Choroq Sport Porsche passed them in the closing stages to take second place in class, five laps behind the Peterson car.

As expected the LMP2 class fell apart early in proceedings, although Jean Marc Gounon and Sam Hancock revelled in their giant-killing roll until their factory Courage gave up the ghost.

The elderly Intersport Racing Lola-Judd B2K/40 didn't prove to be as reliable as many had predicted although it was reliable enough to outlast the surviving Welter Racing WR-Peugeot. At one point Clint Field, Bill Binnie and Rick Sutherland had a 20 lap lead over their nearest rivals although a very careful final couple of hours saw the Yojiro Terada, Patrice Roussel, Olivier Porta driven WR close to within eight laps at the finish.

No less than 28 cars were running at the finish, although the Ralph Firman/Justin Wilson/Tom Coronel Racing for Holland Dome didn't see much of the track in the final hour after Firman hit the tyres at the first Mulsanne chicane. Jan Lammers brought the other chequered Dome home in seventh place overall, sixth in LMP1.