In the end, the Peugeot 908 HDi FAP proved to be fast but fragile compared to the Audi R15 TDI "plus" that added another victory for the German manufacturer from Ingolstadt at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
When the valiant, hectoring chase of Alexander Wurz ended with a puff of smoke from the engine of the No. 1 Peugeot with two and a half hours remaining, the last hopes for a final victory from the always fast, often vulnerable 908 evaporated, too.
That moved the No. 8 and No. 7 Audis up behind the winning No. 9 Audi of Mike Rockenfeller, Romain Dumas and Timo Bernhard for a one-two-three finish, if not a 9-8-7. The winners covered a record distance on the current course of 397 laps, beating the old mark of 382 handily despite several safety car periods using the new "three safety" car method.
"This truly is unbelievable!" said Rockenfeller, who crashed at Tertre Rouge in his first appearance at Le Mans with Audi in the early laps. "I've been here once before on the podium of the GT class and since then it has been my dream to score a overall win at Le Mans. Last year I drove here the worst race of my life and now I'm here on top of the podium with Audi. As a team we should be very proud on this, it's truly a team effort. Before the race, we knew we could do it if we wouldn't make any mistakes."
As if to add insult to injury, the fourth and final Peugeot, entered by longtime French team owner Hugues de Chaunac, blew up while running fourth and chasing down third place with just over an hour remaining, leaving de Chaunac with hands grabbing his mane of grey hair in grief.
Shortly afterward, the three Audis had a rendez-vous on the pit road for a leisurely final pit stop for fuel and to coordinate a photo finish. At least de Chaunac had the saving grace of seeing his Oreca-01-AIM finish fourth.
The victory gives Audi three out of four wins in the "diesel" wars versus Peugeot. And the Audi brand's R8, R10 and R15 "plus" have won nine of the French 24-hours since 2000. Only last year's win by the Peugeot 908 and the Bentley victory (very much associated with Audi) in 2003 interupted the string.
Last year's original R15 that went down to defeat to Peugeot was the only car from Audi not to win at Le Mans since the original R8R prototype first appeared in 1999.
The winning drivers are all new to the top step of the podium. Rockenfeller, who set the fastest lap in qualfying among the Audis, was joined by two Porsche factory drivers on loan: Dumas and Bernhard.
The only problem the relatively young, veteran drivers encountered was a sideview mirror broken when a video cameraman was clouted with it as the car exited the pits. That sent the still unidentified shooter, who was a local hire by Speed TV, to the medical center and added extra time to a later pit stop to repair the mirror.
The veteran squad of Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Dindo Capello lost three laps when Kristensen was waylaid by a crippled BMW M3 entry in the Porsche Curves, which cost three laps for the No. 7 Audi.
"Early in the race I made a misadjustment when Andy Priaulx crossed the track," said Kristensen. "I know racing at Le Mans is new for him and that he's a good driver, but this incident had a big impact on our results. He told me he was sorry and I've got a lot of respect for that. These things can happen and you should always expect the unexpected. But this incident is in the past, that's part of Le Mans -- triumph or tragedy, that's the legend of Le Mans."
Andre Lotterer almost threw away the sweep when he took the No. 8 Audi straight off at Arnage with three and a half hours remaining. Otherwise the car shared by Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler ran trouble-free versus the three Peugeots that blew up and the pole winner, which retired during Pedro Lamy's opening stint with a broken suspension.
As demonstrated by the comeback efforts of the No. 1 Peugeot, which lost 14 minutes in the eighth hour with an alternator exchange, and the No. 4 Oreca Peugeot, which suffered a rear suspension problem that also cost it 14 minutes in "the box" for repairs, the Peugeots were consistently faster by two seconds in lap times.
The familiar face was that of Wolfgang Ullrich, the sometimes elfin-faced, but often deadpan director of Audi's motorsports department. Before the race, Ullrich praised the intense development process for the R15 "plus" that was required to catch up to the low downforce set-up of the Peugeot as well as to re-work the nose area of the car, where some bodywork was judged to be an illegal aeodynamic device after a formal complaint by Peugeot.
He referred to Peugeot's untouchable lap times in qualifying as "special" and downplayed Audi's chances beyond saying that the intense development program for the new car had gone well. Perhaps those comments were a sly competitor's belief that endurance would ultimately prove more important than outright speed. In any event, Audi's best speed was a reliable one.
The R15 "plus" is also considered an interim step toward the next evolution of prototype to be called the R18 that will meet the new generation of rules from the Automobile Club de l'Ouest in 2011. For now, it can enter this year's Intercontinental Le Mans Cup at Silverstone, Petit Le Mans and China's Zhuhai with some confidence -- although the shorter length of those events would tend to favor the fast but fragile Peugeot 908, currently the winner of 15 races in 22 starts but only one at the track for which it was built.
In LMP 2, the only mechanical problem the HPD ARX-01c of Strakka Racing encountered was the need to top its 3.4-liter, V-8 engine off with some oil. A prospective power plant for next year's new rules that fits the maximum displacement for overhead cam, four-valve V-8's, the engine built by Honda Performance Development proved worthy. Also proving worthy was the low downforce bodywork of Wirth Research developed for the Sarthe event.
Although drivers Johnny Kane and Danny Watts both are deep in single seater experience, Nick Leventis held his own in the winning effort with the exception of one bobble. After Strakka traded fastest lap times with ARX-01c of Highcroft Racing on the second day of qualifying, those two teams were the only leaders in the well-subscribed LMP2 category.
"This really has been an unbelievable week," said Kane. "From the first day we've had a fantastic car and actually never had any problems. We've only got a small team and this makes these achievements a lot of fun."
Strakka's biggest problem was a spin under a safety car period by Leventis that sent him into a gravel trap. That helped Highcroft get into the lead. But three separate tire punctures cost the American Le Mans Series regulars time.
Unfortunately, the Highcroft engine needed more than oil early on Sunday morning while running two laps down following a puncture early in one of Marino Franchitti's laps proved costly. The team had to begin adding cooling fluid to the car shared by David Brabham and former Audi works driver Marco Werner on each stop after a nine-minute hiatus starting shortly before the 20th hour. That took it out of contention with Strakka for the victory.
"It is a very tough event but the team showed how serious Highcroft Racing is," said Brabham, who co-drove the winning Peugeot at Le Mans last year. "We ran in the top two throughout the entire race and it was a very good effort overall. "Unfortunately, we had a problem towards the end but the team has learned a hell of a lot."
With an almost trouble-free run, the OAK Racing Pescarolo-Judd co-driven by Gillaume Moreau, Mathieu LaHaye and Jan Charouz finished a distant second to Strakka after overcoming a seven-minute stop to replace an ECU. Relying on consistency over pace, the Lola B08/80-HPD entered by Ray Mallock took the third step on the podium in the hands of Mike Newton, Thomas Erdos and Andy Wallace.