The 76th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans will go down in the history books as the battle of the diesels. And it went right down to the dramatic rain-soaked final hour. In the end, Audi Sport Team Joest pulled through to score their third...
The 76th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans will go down in the history books as the battle of the diesels. And it went right down to the dramatic rain-soaked final hour. In the end, Audi Sport Team Joest pulled through to score their third straight Le Mans victory with the venerable R10 TDI. The No. 2 machine of Tom Kristensen, Dindo Capello and Allan McNish shined in the wet, defeating the strong challenge put forth by the Peugeot 908 HDi-FAPs.
The turning point in the twice-around-the-clock French classic came in the early morning hours when rain began to fall around the 8.5-mile Circuit de La Sarthe. Up until then, the No. 7 Team Peugeot Total Peugeot 908 HDi-FAP of Nicolas Minassian, Marc Gene and Jacques Villeneuve had been the pacesetters, holding a one-lap lead over the No. 2 Audi. However, as the rain fell in the 14th hour, the Peugeots began to slip back and the Audis started to shine. One hour later, Kristensen was out in front.
"We had the weather forecast and were making the right calls, which was always giving us a little bit more, especially during the night," Kristensen said. "It was really when we took the lead. That was very important to put more pressure on. And then later on as well, taking the right calls on the tires and gaining some seconds. I'm sure that was tiring on our competitors."
The battle for the lead intensified in the closing hours as the track dried up, giving the Peugeot the advantage. But with an hour remaining, the race was thrown upside down with the return of the rain, spicing up the strategy with the two leading contenders. With only about one-third of the circuit wet, Minassian opted to stay on slicks while the Kristensen took on intermediates. The two-minute gap between the two rivals began to shrink, but Minassian later pitted for rain tires, ten minutes before Kristensen's final stop for rains as well.
However, Minassian's set of tires appeared to be unbalanced and he was forced to make an additional stop for a new set, dropping him one lap down. Once on track in the closing laps, Minassian gained his lap back, but it was all too late as Kristensen crossed the line, completing 368 laps and winning his record eighth 24 Hours of Le Mans crown.
While "Mr. Le Mans" celebrated another career milestone, co-drivers Allan McNish and Dindo Capello were just as thrilled with their victories. For McNish, it was his second Le Mans triumph, the first coming ten years ago, driving a Porsche 911 GT1-98.
"It's very different to the first, but also very similar," McNish said, comparing his two Le Mans victories. "In 1998 we didn't have the fastest car, but we had a very good team, good reliability and we had to fight 100 percent to win the race. It was also very similar because it was also only one hour before the end that was finally decided. But I have to say that this one probably the hardest race I've every lived through. The competition was strong. We knew we couldn't make a mistake. We knew that if we had any technical problem, we'd be out. Also in the pit stops and the driving and everything just had to be perfect or we didn't have a chance."
Sunday's win was Capello's third in the "Grand Prix of Endurance," after victorious with Bentley in 2003 and Audi Sport Team Goh in 2004. But this year's success had broken a superstition that has haunted many teams and drivers in the past.
"Our theory before this race was that the car in the [official event] poster never wins the race," Capello said. "This time, fortunately, this theory is broken. In 2004, Mr. Goh paid a lot of money to have his car on the main poster of the event. Tom [Kristensen] and myself thought, 'hmm, the car on the poster never wins the race.' So [Mr. Goh] decided not to take it. We won in 2004 and from that moment, we really believed in this theory. And today this theory is broken. Now we'd like to be on the poster again next year."
Audi Sport Team Joest has now achieved a hat trick of victories for the second time, the first coming in 2000-2002 with the legendary Audi R8. History keeps on rewriting itself, now with the three-peat with the diesel-powered Audi R10 TDI.
"The 2008 Le Mans 24 Hour race will become part of history as a unique race," said Audi Head of Motorsport Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich. "It was a tense race for the whole duration of 24 hours. We didn't enter the race as the favorite, but our success was the result of good performances and a faultless showing - and we achieved that against strong opponent."
Peugeot entered the race as favorites, and Kristensen even admitted that if it had been a dry race, he probably wouldn't have won. Audi had focused on setting up its three cars to suit dry and wet conditions, unlike the Peugeots, which excelled only in the dry. But the Michel Barge-led team scored a double podium with the No. 7 car of Minassian, Gene and Villeneuve coming home second and the Franck Montagny, Christian Klien and Ricardo Zonta in third.
"We knew it would be difficult, but I'm disappointed not to have won," Minassian said. "It has to be said, though, that our opponents did a remarkable job. At the very end of the race, we did everything we could to catch them. We stayed out on slicks in the rain and then gambled on rain tires because we were still some way back and we had to try something. We will now have to analyze everything that happened this weekend to come back even stronger than ever."
The French Lions didn't walk away with problems of their own ,though. The team's quickest car, the No. 8 of Stephane Sarrazin, Pedro Lamy and Alexander Wurz, turned out to be the one with the most issues. It soldered home to a 5th place finish overall, but 13 laps back on the winning Audi. Early gearbox problems coupled with frequent trips in and out of the garage prevented it from improving. Yet, Sarrazin has been credited with the race's fastest lap time, a 3:19.394 run on Saturday evening.
"We go away with much that was positive, too," said Peugeot Sport Director Michel Barge. "We came exceedingly close to pulling off an exploit and I believe we produced a first class overall performance. It was towards the end of the night that we lost all chance of winning but we managed to finish hard on the heels of a very worthy opponent. That's something I won't forget in a long time."
The other two Audis also faced setbacks, as the No. 3 machine of Lucas Luhr, Mike Rockenfeller and Alexandre Premat finished seven laps back in fourth after having to replace the oil filter with two hours remaining. Defending race winners Marco Werner, Emanuele Pirro and Frank Biela lost a clutch late in the race as well as other issues, finishing 14 laps down in sixth.
"Our race was okay, but we lost some time at the beginning," Luhr said. "At the end we had to come twice into the garage ending our battle with the No. 9 Peugeot prematurely. We just missed the podium with our fourth place. But we have the chance for improvements next year."
Harold Primat, Christophe Tinseau and Benoit Treluyer in the No. 17 Pescarolo Sport Judd came out as best of the gasoline-powered runners, finishing seventh overall.
"This is a great day for us because we knew there were two races within the LMP1 class, one for the diesels and one for the petrol cars," team owner Henri Pescarolo said. "We have been victorious in the latter against Lola, Oreca, Creation and Dome which is a great achievement. The three drivers were fantastic because the conditions have been so difficult. They have all driven perfectly and I am absolutely delighted for them."
Team Oreca Matmut's No. 5 Courage-Oreca LC70 Judd driven by Soheil Ayari, Laurent Groppi and Loic Duval finished eighth. The No. 10 Charouz Racing System Lola B08/60 Aston Martin of Stefan Mucke, Jan Charouz and Tomas Enge made a great recovery following an early race accident to finish ninth overall and in the LM P1 class.
Van Merksteijn Motorsport celebrated the LM P2 class victory, bringing its Porsche RS Spyder home in 10th overall. The trio of Jos Verstappen, Jeroen Bleekamolen and Peter van Merksteijn led a remarkable 90 percent of the race while battling for the lead with the similarly prepared No. 31 Team Essex Porsche RS Spyder of John Nielsen, Casper Elgaard and Porsche factory driver Sascha Maassen.
The only major difference between the two RS Spyders was its tires. The Van Merksteijn example ran on Michelins whereas Team Essex had Dunlops. The Danish-entered Porsche led early but suffered two punctures and an electrical problem, dropping it seven laps behind the Dutch entry. The problems for Nielsen and company cost them cost them valuable time, eliminating the exciting duel seen early in the race.
"In the beginning, the Essex team was very strong," van Merksteijn said. "We had the strategy for Jos to drive four stints and that kept a little bit of pressure on those guys. Jos has sometimes driven even better than Audi and Peugeot drivers and you saw it in the rain and dry. It's unbelievable what he's done and it just put more pressure on the team."
Verstappen, who made his Le Mans debut, was delighted with his maiden win. The former Formula One veteran said most of the advantage was gained in the nighttime hours and also when the rain came in the morning.
"It's important for the team," Verstappen said. "This was our main goal this year, and the LMS races of course to prepare everything. The team is new to long distance racing. We have a fantastic car; otherwise it's hard to have a result like this. It's important to win this, especially for Peter who set the team up in such a professional way. We have fantastic support from Porsche. That's why we can do something like this."
In its first 24-hour race, Porsche's RS Spyder successfully made it to the finish line with both of its cars, a feat some thought wouldn't have been possible considering the car's past lack of reliability in endurance races. Instead, the Weissach brand proved naysayers wrong, with claiming an impressive 1-2 in class.
"The car is just brilliant to drive. It's a lot of fun," Bleekamolen said. "It's easy to drive and doesn't take a lot of energy. It's really fantastic for long distance racing. Of course we have to thank Porsche for this win because they built this car to be able to do this."
The Team Essex RS Spyder finished 13 laps ahead of the third-placed No. 35 Saulnier Racing Pescarolo Judd of Pierre Ragues, Mathieu Lahaye and Cong fu Cheng, the first-ever Chinese driver to start a Le Mans, yet alone finish on the podium.