With the French newspaper headlines demanding "Now go win Le Mans" after Team Peugeot won the pole at the Le Mans 24 Hours on Thursday, it was clear that the pressure was on, with the entire country expecting the French team to win the race over its arch-rival Audi this year, the third of its Le Mans program.
There would be no disappointment this time. David Brabham, Marc Gene and Alexander Wurz drove a strong race in the #9 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP, with Marc Gene crossing the finish line to lead a 1-2 victory for the French marque, its third victory in the June endurance classic, and the first since the Peugeot 905B took the spoils in 1992 and 1993.
"We won, but (the #8 car) deserved it just as much as we did," said Gene. "I felt terribly emotional over the closing laps, like I have felt never before. Personally, I was expecting a little bit more opposition from Audi, but mechanically, with a new car I did expect them to have some problems".
The all-French teaming in the #8 sister car -- Sebastien Bourdais, Franck Montagny and Stephane Sarrazin -- seemed to be the initial favourite, and certainly the local one, having started from the pole position. The trio of drivers demonstrated their speed, building a substantial lead after passing Allan McNish's Audi in the opening minutes of the race. However, a problem with loosened components in the left-rear brakes caused a 10-minute delay in the pits for the #8, allowing Wurz to slip by and take the lead. Bourdais would eventually take the chequered flag second, one lap down to his teammate.
"It's a great day Peugeot, we had a double," said Bourdais. "And if it hadn't been for a rather stupid mistake in the pits, it would have been a triple."
The #9 may not have been the absolutely fastest of the three works Peugeots, but it suffered neither a mechanical problem nor a driver error in its clean 24-hour run to the chequered flag. Le Mans demands respect and requires reliability, clean driving and a bit of luck, and the Brabham-Gene-Wurz trio cam up with all three to take the honours -- the first for Brabham and Gene, and the second for Wurz, who already had a victory from 1996, when he won with Joest Porsche.
Meanwhile, the #8 suffered from the brake problem, and the third team car, the #7 fell back first after the pit lane collision that Bourdais referred to, in the first hour of the race, as the team released Pedro Lamy from the pit box while Team Pescarolo's customer Peugeot was driving by. Extensive repairs were just the start of a bad day, and in spite of its speed, the #7 finished the race in only sixth place, 13 laps adrift of the winners.
Team Pescarolo's 908, factory-supported but privately run, was a threat for the podium for much of the race, in spite of the early damage from the pit lane incident. However, the team's hopes were extinguished when Benoit Treluyer crashed heavily into the barriers in the Esses, after losing control on the downhill segment.
For Audi, this was the German marque's first defeat at La Sarthe, surely a huge disappointment for motorsports chief Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, who was present to oversee the drive for a ninth victory, along with team principal Reinhold Joest. However, the team's most experienced driver combination, McNish, Rinaldo Capello and Tom Kristensen in the #1 R15 TDI, was only able to finish third, seven laps down.
Kristensen, an eight-time Le Mans winner in his own right, Capello and McNish drove a clean, incident-free race, but lost ground rapidly to the Peugeots in the early going, and then fell victim to mechanical delays in the second half of the race.
"Peugeot have raised their game, there is no doubt that," said Kristensen. " We had some issues, we were not happy with the balance of the car, especially in hot conditions. "
In general, the race pace of the marque's new R15 disappointed, after the brief flicker of hope lit by McNish's strong qualifying performance on Thursday night. The car appeared to suffer from poor handling and driveability, limited testing opportunities possibly hampering its development.
"We agreed to cancel the test day, and it was the same for everybody," Dr. Ullrich summarized the issues with limited track time for the R15. "And if we couldn't make the best of it, it's in our hands."
It was only after the installation of some new front bodywork in the night-time hours that the Audi drivers were able to post competitive lap times. By then, the two top Peugeots had taken a decisive lead -- and multiple subsequent visits for the #1 car to the team's garage to cool it down put paid to any hope of catching the 908s.
Adding to the lack of outright speed were the handling problems: experienced drivers Alexandre Premat and Lucas Luhr both had spins, the latter writing off the #2 Audi in a heavy shunt at the Porsche Curves. Premat, Romain Dumas and Timo Bernhard fought on in the #3, but extended repairs in the pits dropped the car way back; it eventually finished 18th overall, 50 laps behind the winners.
With only a single Audi in contention, and the single Pescarolo Peugeot eliminated, the door was open for the petrol-powered cars to make a move. Aston Martin Racing did exactly that: its lead driver combination of Jan Charouz, Stefan Mucke and Tomas Enge hustled the Lola B09/60-Aston Martin combination with speed and care throughout the 24 hours to cross the line fourth, nine laps off the pace of the winning Peugeot.
"If we can finish in the three it will be a dream result, but top five would be great as well," Enge summed up the team's hopes prior to the race. "We'll try to beat as many diesels as possible and be the first petrol car."
Behind Aston Martin, notable was the achievement of Team Kolles. Running a pair of year-old ex-works Audi R10s with limited factory support and a team of six Le Mans rookie drivers, the German team was going into the race with a tall mountain to climb. Things got worse when Narain Karthikeyan sprained his shoulder on the grid, leaving the #15 with just two drivers. Charles Zwolsman and Andre Lotterer did yeoman work to bring the #14 home in seventh place, having driven about twelve hours each in their first Le Mans appearances.
"It's funny I haven't spoken to (Lotterer) but I can just tell he's doing well," said Zwolsman an hour before the end of the race. "Always when Andre is in the car, I'm not and vice versa!"
In the LM P2 category, the Porsche RS Spyders were unmatched in terms of performance, and it looked like a 1-2 Porsche finish was in the offing for most of the race. Team Essex, with drivers Casper Elgaard, Kristian Poulsen and Emmanuel Collard, did go on to win the class, 10th overall and 24 laps behind the overall winners.
"It's perhaps better to win in a category (rather than overall), as (a category win) is very much for the driver," said Collard. "This year Porsche asked me to drive for Essex, and I know I would be driving for a class win. For a driver it is always motivating to drive for victory!"
The victory is the first at Le Mans for each of the three Team Essex drivers, Collard finally making it to the top step of the podium in his 15th consecutive year at Le Mans. Poulsen, on the other hand, already takes home the silverware in his first attempt.
However, the other RS Spyder, that of NAVI Team Goh just barely failed to make it to the 23-hour mark, with Seiji Ara losing control of the car at the second chicane on the world-famous high-speed Mulsanne Straight, and destroying much of the car running into the barriers.
Instead, the joint Swiss-British effort, Speedy Racing Team Sebah, took second in class with the Lola B08/80-Judd, with Jonny Kane, Benjamin Leuenberger and Xavier Pompidou driving a steady race. The team could not match the pace of the works-supported Porsches, but they were easily fastest of the non-Porsche brigade.
With the attrition at the front, the French OAK Racing team moved up into a podium position with their #24 Pescarolo 01-Mazda. They were 11 laps behind the second-placed Lola, but it was a remarkable result for the small team nevertheless.
"It's superb to finish in third," said Yvon. "I work in wood, oak is strong and solid, and we have a great team, solid, in OAK Racing!"
The third-place class finish was actually the second in a row for the team: before being renamed OAK Racing this year, they finished third in P2 in 2008 as Saulnier Racing, with drivers Cong Fu Cheng, Mathieu Lahaye and Pierre Ragues.
This time it was a team of three gentlemen drivers though: company president Jacques Nicolet, Richard Hein and Jean-Francois Yvon, all over 50 years old.
"Even if these gentlemen are not in their first flush of youth, we have really achieved something special," Richard Hein summed up.