Prior to the 78th edition of the Le Mans 24-hour, Tom Kristensen said drivers would have to "expect the unexpected." When the eight-time Le Mans winner encountered Andy Priaulx nursing a flat tire on his BMW M3 in the racing line at the high-speed Porsche Curves in the fifth hour, the unexpected roadblock left Audi's quickest R15 TDI in the gravel trap.
Kristensen made a valiant effort to slow his prototype after sliding it sideways on the curbs, but his momentum carried the No. 7 machine into the barriers.
Although usually lapping two seconds slower than the leading Peugeot 908's, the new R15 "plus" retains the Audi tradition of durability. Despite crumpling the rear bodywork, Kristensen resumed after being pulled out of the gravel trap for the relatively short trip to the pits.
With new rear bodywork in place, Dindo Capello replaced Kristensen and returned to the track, the car having dropped from fourth place to eighth. A lap down at the time of the accident after an earlier safety car period setback, the No. 7 Audi shared with Allan McNish re-entered three laps behind the leader.
Wolfgang Ulrich, Audi's motorsports director, walked down to the pits of BMW's Schnitzer team and expressed his displeasure about the crippled car occupying the racing line. But the fact Priaulx had a flat left front tire may have left him little option.
By the end of the sixth hour and with safety cars on the circuit for the removal of the crippled Aston Martin Vantage of JMW Motorsport, the three leading Peugeots were in a lap by themselves, led by Alexander Wurz in the No. 1 Peugeot HDi FAP.
The leading Audi, the No. 9 entry, lost ground in fourth place when it had a long pit stop to repair the right side driver's mirror early in the sixth hour. Unless there would be a push in the works by Audi, it was going to be a long night for the German manufacturer, which had the No. 9 and No. 8 Audi R15's one lap down and the No. 7 unable to improve on its three-lap-down status, although it passed the No. 009 Aston Martin Racing to move up one position to seventh.
In a race-long duel in LMP2, Highcroft Racing briefly assumed the lead from the other HPD ARX-01c entry of Strakka Racing. The lead change resulted from the match-up of Highcroft's Marco Werner versus Nick Leventis in the No. 42 of Strakka. But Werner suffered one of the many cut tires occurring this year due to sharp rocks from the gravel traps. After pitting for new tires, Werner was 1:12 behind in second place, the only other car on the class's lead lap.
"We're trying to pay attention to our own race," said Highcroft owner Duncan Dayton of the decision to bring Werner into the pits with what was apparently a slow leak. "They (Strakka Racing) obviously know what they're doing, but right now we're only six hours into the race."
The closest battle, not surprisingly, was found in GT2. After failing a post-qualifying inspection and starting at the rear of the 55-car field, the Risi Competizione Ferrari used speed and fuel mileage to climb to the top of the charts.
For much of the sixth hour, Pierre Kaffer had Corvette C6.R driver Emmanuel Collard on his gearbox, but maintained a half-second lead until the safety car period.
"The Ferrari is getting 15 laps (per tank) to our 14," said Oliver Gavin of the Risi Ferrari. "We knew it was a possibility, but it is a surprise." Those two cars, which battled each other in qualifying, remained the class of the field.
Another of the ALMS regulars, Flying Lizard Motorsports, was forced into retirement when Darren Law ran through a gravel trap 30 minutes into the fifth hour. The team tried to repair the resulting radiator damage, but subsequently problems with oil and water pressure forced the retirement.
In GT1, only two cars remained on the lead lap. The Matech Competition Ford GT led the Luc Alphand Adventures Corvette by three minutes. The Match Ford GT with an all-female driving line-up suffered an apparent fire in the engine bay in the sixth hour, but was not yet officially retired. The pole-winning Young Driver Aston Martin that had tire problems in the opening hour lost an hour with a drive shaft replacement.
Retirements included two LMP2 entries: the Racing Box Lola-Judd(front suspension) and the Norma-Judd of Pegasus Racing (gearbox).