When two tribes go to war, one is all you can score…………………………
Well they finally did it, Peugeot won the Big One. The 2009 24 Heures du Mans. The Lion has roared.
The number 9 Peugeot 908 Hdi-FAP driven by Alexander Wurz, Marc Gene and David Brabham covered 382 laps of the 13.629 kilometre circuit, 5206 kliks in total or 3,235 miles. The average speed was a tad under 135 miles per hour, a sobering thought.
The winners were one lap up on their team mates Stephane Sarrazin, Franck Montagny and Sebastien Bourdais and six laps in front of the Audi R15 TDI of Allan McNish, Dindo Capello and Tom Kristensen. Audi were comprehensively beaten.
In 2007 Peugeot had the speed but not the reliablity to win and thereby lost out to the Audi steamroller. Post race, I remember telling the tearful Peugeot press officer, Cecile Estenave, that it was received wisdom that it took three attempts to win a Le Mans 24, and so it came to pass this year. On Sunday she also had tears at the podium ceremony but this time they were joyful.
Peugeot thoroughly deserved their victory in the 2009 Le Mans 24 Hours, leading all but one lap. and generally being the fastest cars on track. Still they had the bitter taste of defeats in 2007 and 2008 to get rid of and they did it in style. I spoke with Allan McNish, Audi’s lead driver, in the run up to the race and we both agreed that the car that would be the real threat to Audi’s supremacy would be the number 9 with the old hands on board.
One of the most important elements in achieving victory in Le Mans is to spend as little time in the pits as possible and that proved to be the difference between the two 908s. Number 9 spent 40 minutes and 2 seconds at rest, whereas number 8 spent a further 8 minutes 20 seconds in the pits. Number 8’s crew were generally faster but they had a transmission issue at around 6 hours costing 3 laps standing time, game over.
One of Peugeot’s biggest weaknesses in previous years has been the amount of time that their pit stops took, especially compared with the Audi. The whole team was re-organised in the wake of defeats in 2008 and they really concentrated on this area. McNish said that they had a film crew shooting every Audi stop at Sebring, he used to wave at them.
Not that you would have thought they learned anything from the past with the first set of pit stops in the race. The lollipop man on car 7 let Pedro Lamy out into the path of the Pescarolo Sport 908 that was inward bound and they made contact, giving the factory car a rear puncture. To compound this mistake Pedro set off on a lap of the track with the tyre flailing away making a nice mess of the rear. His lap took around 8 minutes and then there was the small matter of a 25 minute spell in the box to repair the damage. Pedro got a bollocking from the team manager, Serge Saulnier for not waiting and letting his crew pull him back into his pit area instead of driving on. It would be the only mistake that the efficient French team would make in the pit stops.
As for the mistake, that was blamed on photographers obstructing the view, more accurately it should have been TV crews.
Pescarolo’s Peugeot…….well they might have been in the money seats had the rains come, as they were running the old 2008 downforce set up. The 908 ran in the top six till around 4.00am when Benoit Treluyer had the mother of all accidents, barrel rolling the 908 just down from the Dunlop Bridge. For a while it looked really ugly on the TV screen as the marshals used blankets to stop the cameraman filming the scene. A bit battered, Ben emerged largely unscathed and was released by the medics after a once over. The bits of the car that remained were largely in component form and were just swept up and chucked in the skip.
How strange it is that we gone this far in the report and hardly mentioned Audi. That gives a clue to how ultimately far they were from victory in 2009.
The first problems came when Peugeot protested the legality of the Audi’s front bodywork. Specifically they asserted Article 3.6.2 of the technical regulations is being flouted by the current arrangements. The protest was rejected by the ACO leaving Peugeot the option of appealing to the FIA in Paris. More about this in a later feature.
The distraction of the protest did not aid Audi’s cause but other issues were going to hurt them much more. The cancellation of the Test Day and rain on the first practice day meant that their track time was severly restricted, so getting a balance on the car proved a elusive. During Thursday qualifying a stunning lap from Allan McNish and some smart timing by the Joest crew kept pole from Peugeot right till the last minute but Sarrazin would not be denied. All of this flattered to deceive.
There was a lack of mechanical grip on the R15’s front end which no amount of McNish bravado could compensate for. During the race this problem was attacked by the engineers fitting new nose assemblies to each of the cars but until the cool of the night it had little effect. These woes were compounded by dust getting onto the turbo intercoolers and cooking them after about 5 laps at full boost. Turning things down to cool off meant that sub 3:30 laps were not possible and the Peugeots were able to romp away. Audi’s new car and lack of racing in 2009 really left them exposed to these kinds of issues. It was most un-Audi like………..we all agreed.
As if these issues were not enough the drivers decided to press the self destruct button. Alexander Premat led this disastrous process, spinning at Indianapolis a few laps into the race, damaging the front and the ensuing repairs cost the 3 car a lap. Later a fuel pressure problem led to a lengthy stop to replace a high pressure diesel pump. Over three hours were spent in the pits and 17th overall, some 49 laps down on the winner was the sum total of this effort.
At least they finished………….six and half hours into the race Lucas Luhr lost control of his R15 TDI in the first part of the Porsche Curves, destroying the rear end. Audi blamed driver error but I am not totally convinced. I had been out at that spot some 20 minutes earlier and Lucas was genuinely scary through the corner. The rear of the Audi would bottom out, sparking furiously, and LL caught the car both times I witnessed this. I was with Marshall Pruett (SpeedTV.com) and Wouter Melissen (UltimateCarPage.com)., we all agreed that this sort of high wire act would end in tears and it did. Of course it never occured to Lucas to lift at this point, but then he is a racer………
So Audi were down to one car, the Old Guard of McNish, Kristensen and Capello struggled on as best they could, here is an early nose change. But the Peugeots held the whip hand and would not easily let go of their advantage, it certainly felt like it was finally their year.
Another supreme effort from McNish during the early hours kept the number 1 car in touch with the leading pair. The soft Michelin rubber gave the car some sort of balance back and he could fly along at near 908 pace.
However, the race was effectively decided around the 13 hour mark when Capello was forced to make two pit stops to clean sand and grit from the intercooler, a lap was lost and that was that. The car had further issues with the rear suspension and an electrical problem in the dashboard…………not what we have come to expect from Audi. They will head back to Ingolstadt to conduct an inquest into the shortcomings of the campaign, expect them to return stronger.
Next up we’ll look at the best of the rest and the GT classes.
Photography by John Brooks and David Lister