Team Peugeot Total took a dominating win Sunday in the Spa 1000km, the third round of the Le Mans Series season. The driving trio of Nicolas Minassian, Marc Gene and Jacques Villeneuve outlasted its sister machine and out powered the two Audi R10 TDIs to claim the overall victory, the final duel between the two diesel giants before next month's 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The No. 7 Peugeot 908 HDi-FAP crossed the line after 143 laps and nearly five and a half hours of racing on the historic 4.532-mile Grand Prix circuit, claiming its second victory of the season, also continuing the Lion's undefeated record in the LMS. A close moment though came on lap 35 when Minassian and Allan McNish made contact, forcing both cars through the grass in Combes. The contact resulted in a tire puncture for the Audi.
"I suffered quite badly with oversteer during my first stint but everything returned to normal once new tires were fitted and I had a great scrap with McNish," Minassian said. "I left my braking as late as possible, and he braked even later, and we both end up crossing the grass. It was close, but perfectly fair and square! I spent the rest of the race enjoying the afternoon with my two team-mates."
As a warm-up to the twice-around-the-clock French enduro, Peugeot brought in Villeneuve and Alexander Wurz as third drivers for its cars this weekend. The French Canadian was obviously delighted with the team's decision as he claimed his first win in nearly 11 years, also gaining more experience behind the wheel of the diesel coupe.
"I thoroughly enjoyed the race," Villeneuve said. "We had a good fight and the three of us did a good job together. The weekend was excellent preparation for the Le Mans 24 Hours and it was also very nice to win a race again. My last victory dated back to the 1997 Luxemburg Grand Prix!"
Audi came as close as ever to matching Peugeot's pace in the Series. However, for the third straight race, the German marque was unable to close the deal in the end. Mike Rockenfeller and Alexandre Premat in the No. 2 Audi Sport Team Joest entry are getting used to runner-up finishes, as the duo scored their third straight second-place result. After holding a two-point lead in the drivers' championship following Monza, Rockenfeller and Premat are now tied with Minassian and Gene with 24 points a piece. But with the double finish, Audi takes the lead in the manufacturers' standings.
"We did what we were expected to do and what we'd set out to do: safely bringing the car home," Rockenfeller said. "Now we've finished in second place for the third time in a row and have got the same number of points as the leaders of the standings - if someone had told me that before the start of the season I I'm super happy. I want to thank Alex and the whole team. The car was great in the race and very safe to drive. So I'm satisfied as far as that goes, although I'd have preferred victory of course."
While the No. 7 machine enjoyed a near-flawless run in the Belgian sun, the pole-sitting No. 8 entry of Stephane Sarrazin, Pedro Lamy and Wurz failed to finish. Wurz, in his sports car debut, drove an excellent stint but got collected in an accident involving the No. 85 Snoras Spyker Squadron C8 of Ralf Kelleners and the No. 1 Audi Sport Team Joest R10 TDI of Dindo Capello.
"I was pulling back in front of the Spyker when the rear right of my car hit it, and that sent me into a spin," Wurz explained. "I couldn't avoid hitting the Audi and I would like apologize for that, just as I would like to say sorry to everyone at Peugeot whose excellent work had given us a fantastic car."
Capello, who was running in second, lost three laps in the pits as the team made repairs to his Audi. Despite later losing an additional lap because of a three-minute penalty for a pit infraction, he and co-driver McNish finished fourth overall. But the duo's bad luck spell in the LMS continues.
"I really believed our luck would change for this race," Capello said. "We had a car to challenge for victory again. In each LMS race we have something unexpected happening and we have to recover. We show that our speed is good enough to fight for victory but at the moment just do not get onto the podium."
With trouble striking a Peugeot and Audi, the bottom step of the podium went to the top gasoline-fueled P1 car. The No. 6 Team Oreca Matmut Courage-Oreca LC70 Judd of Olivier Panis and Nicolas Lapierre finished third, three laps behind the winning Peugeot. The Hugues de Chaunac-led effort recovered from a pit lane start that put the French entry one lap down. But more significantly, the team rebounded from their disastrous Monza outing, which saw the sister car of Stephane Ortelli suffer a massive accident.
The No. 16 Pescarolo Sport Judd of Jean-Christophe Boullion and Emmanuel Collard finished fifth overall, 14 seconds behind McNish and Capello's Audi. The once-dominant force of the Series, Pescarolo, has been unable to match the pace of the factory teams over the past two seasons, yet it's been in the hunt for top gasoline-fueled entry honors.
For the second time this season, Van Merksteijn Motorsport celebrated victory in LM P2. The Dutch Porsche RS Spyder of Jos Verstappen and team owner Peter van Merksteijn drove to a 10-second victory over the similarly prepared Horag Racing RS Spyder in second. Verstappen started the car on pole but faced a strong challenge from the Speedy Racing Team Sebah Lola B08/80 Judd of Xavier Pompidou, who swapped the lead with the purple and white Porsche.
"It was by no means easy," Verstappen said. "There was a lot of action in this race and we had to remain focused all the time in order to avoid mistakes in the dense traffic. All the support from the Dutch fans with their banners opposite our pit box was a big motivation boost as well. You really notice that LMS racing is becoming more and more popular in The Netherlands."
The drive of the race though came from van Merksteijn himself, who drove the middle two hours, keeping up with the then-leading Porsche of Didier Theys. Known as a gentleman driver, van Merksteijn showed his muscle as he helped put his team back out in the championship lead.
"It was a spectacular race, a real classic in the best tradition of the Spa 1000 Kilometres," van Merksteijn said. "Once again, our car was perfect and the team did a tremendous job. Now, we are looking forward to Le Mans!"
Horag Racing came close to claiming its first win of the year following a strong race for Theys and co-driver Jan Lammers. Theys led the middle portion of the race and looked to have a win in the books. However, a slow up on the final pit stop cost the Swiss team valuable seconds, giving Verstappen the lead. Thanks to a late-race caution though, Lammers closed the gap to Vertappen, but came up 10 seconds short of victory.
"We were first for more than two hours," Theys said. "Jan [Lammers] started the race and had a good stint, then I got in and also had a good stint. Then Jan got in at the end too, and again, we had no problems. We had a good set-up. Neither Jan nor I had contact with anybody. It was a very nice and clean race for us, without any drama. The pit stops were perfect; everybody did a very good job."
Team Essex overcame a number of obstacles to give Porsche another 1-2-3 sweep of the podium in P2. The Danish team had a rough race, even before the start. Casper Elgaard ran into the back of the No. 46 Embassy Racing WF01 of Joey Foster before the green flag, causing the race to start under the yellow. This incident caused front bodywork damage to the RS Spyder, but also resulted in a three-minute stop-and-hold penalty later in the race. Elgaard and co-driver John Neilsen rebounded from the setbacks to make a late-race charge up the leaderboard to secure third place in class.
One team that looked to have a podium sealed up, if not the race win, was Speedy Racing Team Sebah. The Swiss-branded Lola B08/80 Judd of Xavier Pompidou, Andrea Belicchi and Steve Zacchia led portions of the race and took charge of the second half before mechanical gremlins struck the Lola coupe. The Hugh Hayden-led team finished sixth in class.
The fight for the LM GT1 crown looked to go in favor of a raging bull for the very first time, but a familiar French effort with a thundering American muscle car took top honors yet again. Luc Alphand Aventures' No. 72 Corvette C6.R of Guillaume Moreau, Patrice Goueslard and Luc Alphand claimed their second win of the year, edging out the unlucky IPB Spartak Racing Lamborghini Murcielago R-GT of Peter Kox and Roman Rusinov.
The Reiter Engineering-supported Lamborghini took control of the race until late when Rusinov was hit by a prototype under braking. This caused the Lamborghini's front bodywork to come loose and fly up into the windshield. Rusinov was forced to pit for a replacement piece, thus losing the lead to Moreau.
However, the Russian-backed entry finished second, two laps ahead of Monza winners Team Modena, which crawled to the line in third with drivers Tomas Enge and Antonio Garcia. The British Aston Martin DBR9 suffered a broken alternator belt, dropping them out of contention.
Without a doubt, LM GT2 provided one of the most exciting finishes in Series history. Virgo Motorsport's Rob Bell held off a hard-charging Marc Lieb by 0.184 seconds at the checkered flag to take the class win. Bell nursed his Dunlop-shod Ferrari F430 GT in the closing laps after getting punted off course by the Saulnier Racing Pescarolo. Instead of pitting for fresh tires and most likely throwing away the win, Bell elected to stay on course and defend his position over Lieb in the No. 77 Team Felbermayr-Proton Porsche 997 GT3 RSR.
"It was fantastic for everyone," Bell said of the fight. "We fought with the No. 77 car for most of the race and it was fun and fair."
Bell used the most of his Ferrari, running wide on many occasions and even over-braking a corner. But he and co-driver Gianmaria Bruni tasted the victory champaign, their second of the season.
Lieb and co-driver Alex Davison finished second, with the team car of Christian Reid and father-and-son pairing Horst Felbermayr Sr. and Jr. finishing third, a popular podium finish for the gentleman drivers.
After three races in a six-week period, the Le Mans Series competitors take a three-month break before reconvening at the Nurburgring on August 15-17 for another 1000kms of racing. However, for most of these teams, the next stop will be Le Mans, for the "Grand Prix of Endurance" on June 14-15. With Peugeot 3-0 over Audi on European soil this year, could they pull off the historic 24 Hour win next month? Stay tuned...