Heading into Sunday's season-ending Le Mans Series race, Team Peugeot Total was the odds on favorites for taking LM P1 top honors. Wins in all four of the previous races this season gave the French Lions a comfortable margin over their German rivals. The two Peugeot 908 HDi-FAPs had the pace to beat the Audi R10 TDIs, but they instead faltered at the worst possible time. Call it racing or call it luck, but Audi Sport Team Joest pulled through to claim victory in the Silverstone 1000km, also snatching the championship away from Peugeot in dramatic fashion.
Allan McNish and Dindo Capello co-drove their No. 1 Audi to the team's maiden Le Mans Series victory, but how they landed on the top step of the podium was the story of the race. Capello overcame a collision with the Stephane Sarrazin's No. 8 Peugeot in the second hour, rebounding from a two-lap deficit thanks to the misfortunes of others.
"I believe that Dindo and I deserve this victory, and so does everyone in the team," McNish said. "We fought hard this year. For Dindo and me things weren't always going as well as they should have. We had incidents when we were in the position to win races. I think 24 hours ago nobody would have expected Audi to win the race and the manufacturer's and drivers' title."
The first contender to fall by the wayside was the championship-leading No. 7 Peugeot of Nicolas Minassian and Marc Gene. Minassian, who had suffered a spin at the start of the race, worked his way back up to third by the end of the first hour. However, the Frenchman crashed out in a major way only 80 minutes into the race. His car nearly toppled over following contact with a LM GT2 Porsche on the Hangar Straight, a move he admittedly said was his mistake.
Then, just 20 minutes later, Capello and Sarrazin collided while fighting for second place, sending both cars into the gravel trap. While both drivers limped their cars back to the pits for repairs, Sarrazin's Peugeot lost over 13 laps due to damaged suspension pieces, whereas Capello's Audi only needed a fresh set of tires.
The incident dropped Capello two laps down, but he and McNish slowly worked their way back up the leader board during the middle stages of the race. What looked to be a runner-up finish turned into a surprise win when the then-leading No. 2 Audi of Mike Rockenfeller and Alexandre Premat suffered suspension failure with just 23 laps remaining. While Audi's young guns rejoined, they were 5 laps down and out of reach for the win.
Capello was there to pick up the pieces, cruising to a two-lap victory over the second-placed Charouz Racing System Lola B08/60 Aston Martin to take Audi's first Le Mans Series win in three years. It was also he and McNish's first win since their 24 Hours of Le Mans triumph in June.
"After the accident with Stphane Sarrazin, in which I feel - 101 percent - that I was not at fault, I thought that this race was over for us as well," Capello said. "But we never gave up. Seasoned drivers, an experienced team and a great car make for a good combination to win a race which - just like Le Mans - seemed to have been lost already on paper. This race showed that people with a lot of will power and commitment can make the seemingly impossible possible. That's why Allan and I are proud to be part of this fantastic team."
Rockenfeller and Premat rebounded from late-race suspension failure to finish fourth, enough for them to secure the drivers' title. The newly crowned champions didn't win a race this year, but showed that consistency does indeed pay off. Sunday's event was the only time the duo failed to finish on the podium all season.
"I always believed that we could make it - and now it's come true," Rockenfeller. "In a championship you've got to consistently score good points and we did that at the first four races. And today we scored the necessary points as well. Of course we'd have liked to win this race. But I'm extremely happy that our 'sister car' clinched this exploit here for Audi."
On top Rockenfeller and Premat's drivers' title, Audi walked away with the teams' and manufacturers' championships as well, thanks to non-points placing Peugeots. What looked to be a tough fight heading in turned out to be a test of survival for the R10 TDIs.
"We're proud to have won the Le Mans Series straight in our first year against such strong rivals," said Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, head of Audi Motorsport. "Maybe we dreamt that we'd be going home from here with race victory and the championship title but it was hard work. The whole team did a great job. The pit stops and the strategy were very good and the boys drove a constantly fast pace."
The No. 8 Peugeot of Sarrazin and Pedro Lamy finished 19th overall, 11th in P1, whereas the Minassian-driven No. 7 example retired early on. The worst-case scenario indeed came true for Peugeot.
Stefan Mucke and Jan Charouz in the Charouz Racing System Lola Aston Martin recorded their best finish of the year in second, after leading a portion of the early stages. With their second podium finish of the year, the Czech team takes home top gasoline-powered P1 honors, finishing fifth in the championship.
"We not only confirmed the fact that we are fastest petrol car today but we also beat three turbo diesels, they did various mistakes," Charouz said. "We put in consistent lap times with Stefan and it was very important. One slower car damaged the bodywork when I was overtaking him but fortunately it was not a serious problem. It was one of the biggest races for me and I am very happy that we pleased Czech fans with such result."
The No. 16 Pescarolo Sport Judd of Jean-Christophe Boullion and Romain Dumas completed the podium in third, holding off the championship-winning No. 2 Audi in the closing laps. It marked the French privateer's first podium finish of the season.
Van Merksteijn Motorsport capped off a dominating season in LM P2 with another class win, its fourth of the season. Jos Verstappen and Peter van Merksteijn drove their No. 34 Porsche RS Spyder to a fifth place overall result, coming home four laps ahead of the competition.
"From the beginning onward, the car felt really good," Verstappen said. "There were no problems at all. We were able to do very quick lap times. For me, it was a really challenging race and track. It's a shame the season is over because the car is so much fun to drive. It's been fantastic."
The Dutch team, though, didn't have everything go their way this weekend. On Friday, Verstappen crashed the RS Spyder, requiring a rebuild overnight. But the very next day, the ex-Formula One driver put the purple and white machine on pole. And in the race, he put in another impressive drive.
"Jos drove so fast, I was able to sleep a little when I got in the car!" van Merksteijn joked. "I drove a little bit cautious because we had such a large gap. We won, and I'm really happy. The team is really good and one of the best in the field. The car is one of the best too. You can see that by the difference between the LM P2 and LM P1 cars, as we're right up there."
The No. 27 Horag Racing Porsche of Didier Theys, Fredy Lienhard and Jan Lammers came home second, matching their best finish of the year at Spa. The Swiss team also earned the season-long Michelin Energy Endurance Challenge, which awards an automatic entry to next year's 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Lienhard, though, will not be part of the action next year, as the veteran Swiss racer announced his retirement from racing this weekend. He topped off an impressive 40-plus year run in motorsports with a runner-up finish today.
"It's been a long time, 40 years," Lienhard said. "I've had so many good experiences and challenges. The present I got on my birthday today from my teammates and the Horag team couldn't be more valuable. I'm so happy and I would like to thank everyone who is engaged in this beautiful series and track."
Tomas Enge and Antonio Garcia drove their Team Modena Aston Martin DBR9 to victory in LM GT1, outpacing the pole-sitting IPB Spartak Lamborghini Murcielago of Peter Kox and Roman Rusinov throughout the 1000km enduro. It was the British team's third victory of the season, but still not enough to claim the class championship.
"As we had said before the start our aim was to win and then wait for result of our biggest competitors," Enge said. "They scored points so we did not get the title. Three wins out of five races is pleasant, especially today's one. Team Modena is based in Silverstone and it is always great to win at home."
The championship went to Luc Alphand Aventures' Guillaume Moreau and Patrice Goueslard, who steered the team's No. 72 Corvette C6.R to a third place finish in the race. With their win today, Enge and Garcia wound up runner-up in the standings.
LM GT2 honors went to Rob Bell and Jamie Melo in the Virgo Motorsport Ferrari F430 GT. It was the small British team's fourth victory of the season and second consecutive class championship. Bell once again celebrates as sole GT2 drivers' champion, as regular co-driver Gianmaria Bruni had other driving commitments this weekend and did not score points.
"Its not just the result today, it's the culmination of two years hard work," Bell said. "For sure we have the best tires at the moment in Dunlop, but it's not happened overnight. It's been two years development to lead to a good consistent tire that can produce a good lap time. Everyone at Virgo has worked towards that."
Runner-ups, both in the race and standings, was the No. 77 Team Felbermayr-Proton Porsche 997 GT3 RSR of Marc Lieb and Alex Davsion. Pierre Ehret, Pierre Kaffer and Anthony Beltoise in the No. 90 Farnbacher Racing Ferrari rounded out the podium Sunday, finishing third.
While the Le Mans Series season comes to another memorable close, it won't be the end of the year for many competitors. A number of European teams will be making the trip to the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta in October for the 1000-mile/10-hour American Le Mans Series enduro. The likes of Peugeot and others will be crossing the pond to take on America's finest, in what's rapidly becoming a classic event on the international sports car racing scene.