by: Tom Haapanen, Sports Car Correspondent
- Rockenfeller climbs out of demolished car
- Audi still holds the lead with remaining R18
- Corvette Racing atop the LM GTE Pro category
Second Audi succumbs after contact with GTE competitor
After the destruction of the No. 3 Audi in Allan McNish’s heavy accident in early-race action at Le Mans, And Romain Dumas’ delay after he made contact with a lapped GTE car in his No. 1 Audi, the pace-setting Audi R18s were reduced to first and fifth places, with second through fourth filled by the rival Peugeot 908s.
As the sun was nearing the horizon, though, Mike Rockenfeller took over the reins of the No. 1 car, and began a determined effort to make up ground on the Peugeots ahead of him. In less than two hours, he made up nearly two minutes on the track, and took over second place from Marc Gene, pressuring him into a mistake at Arnage. As the Spaniard slid into the runoff area, Rockenfeller accelerated away and into second.
Minutes later, though, Rockenfeller made contact with Rob Kauffman in the No. 71 as he was lapping Kauffman’s No. 71 Ferrari on the straight between the Mulsanne and Indianapolis corners. At some 300 km/h, the relatively light contact with the GTE-class Ferrari sent the Audi rapidly into the Armco, destroying the car even more thoroughly than the McNish accident.
Amazingly, the R18’s carbon fibre monocoque and cockpit safety cell were still intact: Rockenfeller was able to open the door, get out of the car and climb over the Armco barrier and off the racing circuit.
A testament to the R18 construction and safety, to be certain, but two accidents of this severity in a single race does make one question the massive speed differential between the LM P1 prototypes and the GTE cars. Should the prototypes be slowed even more – or do the experience requirements for amateur drivers need to be increased? Kauffman, a co-owner of Michael Waltrip’s NASCAR team, only had a grand total of ten racing starts under his belt before getting in the car at Le Mans.
The safety cars – three are used at Le Mans – spent nearly two and a half hours leading the field while the barriers were repaired, racing finally resuming shortly after 1 AM local time. All the leading prototypes completed pit stops, including a swap for new tires, during the safety car period.
As the track went green, Benoit Treluyer – who took over the No. 2 Audi during the safety-car pit stop – held a lead of over two minutes, but was being chased by a pack of Peugeots: Franck Montagny in the No. 8, Sebastien Bourdais in the No. 9 and Alexander Wurz in the No. 7.
Pescarolo’s Christophe Tinseau, meanwhile, was engaged in a fierce battle with Nicolas Prost of Rebellion Racing for the “petrol division” honours, the two cars separated by less than a second. Andrea Belicchi in the second Rebellion Lola-Toyota followed some two-and-a-half minutes behind.
Alexandre Premat was leading the LM P2 category in the Oreca-Nissan.
After some 12 hours of racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, albeit three and a half of those behind safety cars, the LM GTE class battles are as open as they were when FIA president Jean Todt dropped the flag to signal the start of the race.
After the leading pair of BMWs fell back, Corvette Racing took up the challenge for the LM GTE Pro class, and has now led most of the race. However, the team’s lead is steadily shrinking, as Jan Magnussen is unable to match the lap times being set by Toni Vilander in the AF Corse Ferrari 458. The Finn is currently less than 70 seconds away from the class lead, and eating into that gap at the rate of several seconds a lap.
But Vilander is not the only threat: Frédéric Makowiecki (Luxury Racing Ferrari 458) and Corvette Racing’s Tommy Milner are also on the lead lap for the class, and lapping faster than Magnussen. Jaap Van Lagen (ProSpeed Competition Porsche 911 RSR) is one lap down, and ready to attack should any of the class leaders encounter trouble.
The race has just passed the half-distance mark.