Nicolas Minassian and Marc Gene stormed to a convincing victory in the Catalunya 1000km, giving Peugeot a first round win in the Le Mans Series. The weather was good, glorious Spanish sunshine, as the field of 46 entrants lined up on the 20km track, north of Barcelona.
"It's been a great day. The team is progressing all the time and is extremely reactive," Minassian said. "We pushed as hard as we could and the car proved both quick and reliable. It was quite an easy win at the end of the day."
The first battle had already been won by Team Peugeot Total. They made the best possible start in their title defense by putting both LMP1 Peugeot 908 HDi FAPs on the front row of the grid. Now they just had to stay there for 215 laps.
The 2007 title winning driver lineup of Stephane Sarrazin and Pedro Lamy started at position one, but the Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R10 TDI starting driver Alan McNish was confident, explaining that the qualifying performance was not a concern.
"Unfortunately I had to overtake a slower car into Turn 1, losing two or three tenths, plus another two cars on that lap but that didn't cost me the 1.3secs to the pole Peugeot," said McNish. "We know from experience the Audi R10 TDI is better in race conditions than qualifying so I'm very hopeful for the race."
The Larbre Competition Saleen S7R was fortunately back on the track after an engine change, a result of the mechanical problems before qualifying. There was however, some more bad luck to be handed out before the race was able to start.
This time it was the turn of the No. 94 Speedy Racing LM GT2 Spyker C8 Spyder GT2R which lost a wheel and ended up in a gravel trap before making it back to the grid, the car would eventually start, but not before it lost a lot of time.
Once the race started it was clear the Peugeots would have to work hard for the win. Pedro Lamy in No.8 Peugeot pole winning car held the lead while McNish made good on his prediction by getting the No.1 Audi up to second place at the first corner. Nicolas Minassian in the No.7 Peugeot lost out not only to McNish but also Stefan Mucke in the Charouz Racing System Lola B08/60 Aston Martin, thus putting Minassian back in 4th.
"Pedro's acceleration at the start took me by surprise," commented Minassian. "He was on the throttle very quickly and I found myself back in fourth place."
By the 5th lap the leading cars had already started lapping the LM GT2 competitors and Minassian was already on a fight back, challenging NcNish for 2nd. The battle would last some time with Minassian overtaking McNish only to have the Scot retake the position three corners later. Eventually superb pass by Minassian in the Peugeot enabled him to keep 2nd and pull away from the Audi. Minassian then set about challenging the sister No.8 Peugeot for the lead.
The number one Audi took the lead at the first pit stop after McNish elected to double stint, while both Peugeots decided to take a longer pit stop with a driver change.
The No.7 Peugeot now with Marc Gene at the wheel got ahead of Stephane Sarrazin in the No.8 car and was soon attacking McNish. Meanwhile, Sarrazin was right behind and overtook Gene as they both passed either side of a JMB Ferrari.
Sarrazin was destined to loose 2nd, he had to pit after a collision with Tomas Enge in the Team Modena Aston Martin DBR9. The Peugeot would later rejoin the race in 41st place, nine laps down from the leaders.
"I didn't really understand McNish's move," stressed Stephane. "For a moment, I thought he had a problem because he braked hard in an unusual place. I hit my brakes, too, but Enge wasn't able to avoid me with his Aston Martin."
It started to look like Peugeot were going to have a bad day when Gene was also involved in an incident hitting a kerb hard. Gene, however, recovered well, getting back into the lead when the Audi had a long pit stop. The mechanics frantically worked on the Audi to reattach the alternator belt. The No.1 R10 would eventually rejoin with Rinaldo Capello driving, but back in 18th.
The lead battle was then between Minassian in the No.7 Peugeot and Mike Rockenfeller in the No.2 Audi, which had fought back into contention. Minassian, however, in the faster car, soon pulled out a big gap.
Meanwhile the No.8 Peugeot sister car was back in the wars, colliding with the IPB Spartak Racing Lamborghini Murcielago R-GT. The incident put the Peugeot in the gravel trap but Lamy did manage to recover the car to the pits and continue.
The No.7 Peugeot then cruised to a clear victory with Minassian crossing the line to win the 1000km of Catalunya for Peugeot and teammate Gene.
"This is a great day for me," said Gene. "There were just two bad moments, one was just when I had to avoid a car and went on a kerb. "I hit the kerb very hard and I thought the car was damaged, but the Peugeot is so strong. Then at the end of the race I had a cramp and my foot was getting numb so I decided to stop early. Apart from that the car was perfect!"
Alexandre Premat took the flag and second place for Audi, two laps adrift of the lead Peugeot. The Charouz Lola Aston Martin proved to be both fast and reliable taking third on its debut race.
Fourth was taken by the No.16 Pescarolo of Emmanuel Collard and Jean-Christophe Boullion, the pair encountered persistent traction control problems, but still stayed ahead of the recovering Audi of NcNish and Capello.
Peter van Merksteijn crossed the line and took top spot in LMP2. A debut win for both Van Merksteijn Motorsport and the Porsche RS Spyder in the Le Mans Series. Speedy Racing Team Sebah takes the Lola to second in class on its debut with Essex securing a third in class.
Luc Alphand Aventures wins GT1 with the No.72 Corvette and Virgo Motorsport won LM GT2 in their Ferrari F430 GT with drivers Robert Bell and Gianmaria Bruni.