Fire in the Hole!
Franck Montagny peers into his mirror…………..and sees his (and realistically Peugeot's) chance of winning the 2010 Le Mans 24 Hours disappear. It is 7.00am on Sunday morning and the #2 Peugeot was in cruise mode with a lap or two in hand over the chasing Audis. Then the 908 arrives once again at Terte Rouge, this time the engine lets go and the dream is over. Motorsport can be a cruel past time.
Wind the clock on by 8 hours and Audi led by #9 cross the finish line celebrate a 1-2-3. Even Dr Ulrich would not have dared to forecast that before the race, some in the paddock wondered if an Audi would even make the podium……………….
So how did this extraordinary state of affairs unfold?
The answer to that question lies initially in the early part of Saturday afternoon. This year the ACO have been very keen on new marketing ploys to raise marginal revenues. In some cases this took the form of reviving some of the traditions that had fallen by the wayside. So some bright spark had the idea of re-enacting the famous "Le Mans" start. The drivers were lined up opposite their cars in the hour before the start so that they could run across the track to get strapped into their car. They had a whole seven minutes before firing up the engine and going on the reconnaissance laps. Some drivers took the theatre seriously. some did not. Maybe they were still smarting over the reduction in free tickets down to one per driver. Timo Bernhard who, with Mike Rockenfeller and Romain Dumas, would emerge triumphant the next day, looks as if he is waiting for a bus. If this malarkey continues into next year, expect a rising tide of grumbling from the drivers if they have to stand about in either blistering sunshine or torrential rain. And being Le Mans it could be both.
The homage to the past out of the way, the cars lined up with the seven diesels at the head of the field with the four Peugeots enjoying a clear performance advantage over the Audis. If the French challenge held together it was going to be a very long day for the men from Ingolstadt. They don't do second-best very well……………
It is usually the favourites that carry the burden of expectation but there were several in the Audi camp that were also under extreme pressure to get a result. The #9 crew knew that they had to step up to the plate and match the #7 car's performance, they were fighting for their future careers. Rumours also abounded in the paddock about the senior management at Audi, a comprehensive defeat along the lines of the results from Qualifying could bring out a demand for change. There had been undercurrents detected if you knew where to search, would the new prototype project from the Volkswagen Group come from Audi or Porsche? Maybe it was time to go back to the basics of the brands with Porsche re-inventing itself as a purely performance car company, no more trucks or saloons, a return to "Excellence was Expected". An Audi victory might halt this groundswell, a shellacking at the hands of Peugeot would………..well let's not go there yet, there is a race to run.
Some things in life can be relied upon, as sure as night follows day, Allan McNish will try and jump the Peugeots at the start. These days the French are wise to the tactics of this racecar terrorist, so despite his best efforts the squadron of 908 HDi FAP oil burners volant en escadrille along the pit straight.
Pedro Lamy in #3 jumped into the lead, heading the others and taking advantage of the pole position earned by his team mate, Sebastien Bourdais. The four Peugeots pulled away from McNish, aided in the first hour by a "lucky" deployment of a safety car that pushed the #7 Audi a minute adrift of the the French.
The first set of pit stops saw #2 jump the #3 car for the lead but it was clear that the Peugeots were not flat out, comfortably having the legs of the Audi trio, things looked grim for the R15 gang.
Then the karma started to swing back to Audi…………..the TV screens showed #3, with Lamy still behind the wheel, slowing dramatically at Terte Rouge with what first appeared to be a puncture. By the time he dragged the 908 all the way back to the pits, it was clear that this was more serious than a flat tyre. In fact the suspension had parted company with the monocoque, possibly this was the price to be paid for pole position, as this often occurs if cars are bouncing off the kerbs, whatever, the car was listed as a retirement. A small sliver of doubt crept into the French operation, a crack in their armour had appeared, what would be next?
In fact it was #7 Audi that was next to flinch. Tom Kristensen tripped up over Andy Priaulx in the BMW Art Car that was crawling back to the pits, afflicted with one of the many punctures suffered up and down the field. By the time the Audi had been pulled from the gravel at Porsche Curves and the rear repaired, three laps had been lost and so had any reasonable chance of a win. Priaulx put his hands up, admitting that he had misjudged TK's speed. He showed considerably more class than Audi boss, Dr Ulrich, who stormed down the pit lane to shout at BMW's Charly Lamm. I can think of a few team principals down the years who would have not have endured a similar exhibition so calmly, washing dirty linen in public demeans both parties. It was a confirmation, if any were needed, of the enormous pressure that the normally gracious Audi head honcho was under.
Another high profile effort that was an early casuality was that of Beechdean Mansell with the former World Champion, Nigel, crashing out on lap 5, bringing the headlines out in the UK tabloid pack.
Certainly "Our Nige" drew the crowds whenever he appeared but the result was somewhat ignominious, considering all the pre-race ballyhoo and the amount of money spent.
Three laps lost was also the cost of the next problem to hit a front runner. #1 had an altenator fail after the sun went down, sending the 908 from 1st to 7th.
Failure of this sort of simple component had become a thing of the past in front runners at Le Mans, again it showed that the French team, despite their apparent insouciance, were racing every bit as hard as the Germans. As the clock ticked into a new day it was Peugeot 1-2 with the #9 and #8 Audis a lap down but keeping the pressure on. This was realistically the only hope that Audi had, to harry the fast but maybe fragile 908s into problems. It is not the way that Audi normally go racing but you have to play the cards as they are dealt.
Just after the halway point, the Peugeot camp suffered another reverse when the ORECA car pitted for attention, losing second place to the Audi pair. This was getting serious.
Then came the pivotal moment, #2's engine exploding and now, for the first time since the Tricolour was waved, an Audi was in the lead.
Could they snatch a famous victory against all the odds? It certainly seemed that way.
The last obstacle that Audi had to surmount was the recovering #1 Peugoet, absolutely flying along in the hands of Alexander Wurz and Anthony Davidson. It was just two laps down and consistantly five seconds a lap faster than the Audis in front of it. Could it redeem Peugeot's race?
Every pantomime needs a villain and at Le Mans, Davidson was to take on that role. Under orders to drive flat out he was taking more than a few risks. So when he happened upon Emmanuel Collard in the #64 Corvette, leading GT2 at that point, in the Porsche Curves, he dived for a tiny gap. There was no contact between the two cars but the Vette was pushed off line and hit the Armco heavily. This effectively ended the race for Corvette. The forum warriors and some of the TV and radio commentators worked themselves up into a frenzy, censuring Davidson, to the point at which he received threats. A truly sporting and proportionate response to a racing incident. Maybe everyone was a little cranky after a night of no sleep.
That incident and one or two similar happenings meant that the #9 could just about maintain the gap and retain the lead. All the time the clock ticked. However Peugeot were to suffer even more agonies, first #1 and then #4 had their engines explode in the manner that had afflicted #2 at dawn. Olivier Quesnel maintained a terse "No Comment" when questioned about the root of the problem. In the paddock a whisper of piston broke took hold. It could explain as to how the cars were faster despite a 5% reduction in restrictor size over 2009. Whatever, Peugeot's dream was now a nightmare.
For Audi the result could not have been better, let's hope it secures their future participation in the forthcoming InterContinental Challenge, a world championship by any other name.
Fourth overall and winners of the LMP1 petrol class was the ORECA 01-AIM, some small comfort for the great Hugues de Chaunac's team after their disappointments with the Peugeot.
Aston Martin Racing did their usual professional job but had one car retire with gearbox failure. George Howard-Chappel might have done better to kidnap the real Allan McNish before the race.
An amazing fifth overall and winners in the LMP2 class was Strakka Racing and the HPD ARX 01.
They saw off challenges from the well funded, virtual factory Honda entry of Highcroft Racing. Johnny Kane and Danny Watts backed up by team owner, Nic Leventis, had the measure of the Americans from the flag. Watts in particular was mighty on almost every lap, Dr. Ulrich, please take note, this guy could be another McNish if given the chance.
In the final analysis Peugeot shot temselves in the foot, failing to take a victory that seemed at one stage theirs alone. Credit must be given to Audi for never giving up and building a car that ran without fault, a true Le Mans virtue. #9 spent only 36 minutes in the pits during the race. Another goal that it scored and one that may never be surpassed, was the distance record. #9 completed 397 laps or 3,362 miles, an average speed of just over 140 miles per hour. The previous record had stood since 1971…………
This was the last year of the big speeds, the ACO is determined to get the lap speed back over the 3:30 mark, rather than the 3:19.074 that Nicolas Lapierre set in his Peugeot during the race.
The word on the street is that Audi are evaluating a closed diesel car (R18) with some form of KERS. More surprisingly Peugeot is also looking at KERS but this time with a petrol driven engine.
No matter, as the 2010 edition proved, the Le Mans 24 Hours is the greatest race of them all, roll on 2011.
I will look at the GT battle this weekend.