As daylight faded into night, the best duel at the 24 Hours of Le Mans belonged to the red Risi Competizione Ferrari and the No. 64 yellow C6.R of Corvette Racing. Midway in the seventh hour, the two GT2 combatants familiar to fans of the American Le Mans Series raced like they were back home in a sprint race.
Unfortunately, the ultimate result may be why team managers are shy about their cars dicing in long endurance races. One hour after Jaime Melo and Oliver Gavin exchanged the lead twice in the chicanes on the Mulsanne on the same lap, Melo made an unscheduled stop in the Risi pits with a gearbox problem that would end a two-year winning streak at the Circuit de la Sarthe.
Having started at the rear of the field due to its time being disallowed after failing the inspection of the rear wing, the Risi team also may have demonstrated that avoiding all those early race passing maneuvers among the backmarkers might also help sustain the equipment for the distance.
The remarkable mastery of the longer events will not necessarily end for Risi, which won the Sebring 12-hour earlier this year.
The unscheduled stop elevated into first place the Corvette of Gavin, who won the pole upon the demotion of the Risi machine, and moved the No. 63 Corvette Racing entry shared by Jan Magnussen, Johnny O'Connell and Antonio Garcia into second, albeit one lap down.
On the same lap with the No. 63 Corvette were the Felbermyr-Proton Porsche 911 GT3R shared by Richard Lietz, Marc Lieb and Wolf Henzler and the AF Corse SRL Ferrari of Jean Alesi, Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Velander. But as temperatures cooled, it was the Corvettes that kept posting the sub-four minute lap times.
After pushing the speed limit from the drop of the "tricolore" drapeau, another Peugeot ran into problems shortly before the eight-hour mark. The first-placed No. 1 car was wheeled into the garage for an alternator change. By time Marc Gene resumed, the car had lost 14 minutes and dropped to seventh place behind all three Audi Sport factory entries and the 007 Aston Martin shared by Stefan Mucke, Adrian Fernandez and Harold Primat.
The No. 2 Peugeot in the hands of Franc Montagny was elevated to first, followed by the ORECA-run Peugeot of Nicolas LaPierre, in for relief of Olivier Panis. "For the most part we are doing very well," said Panis, a winner in F1 at Monaco and now a regular at Le Mans.
The Frenchman was asked about the numerous close calls and contact in an event where rookies and gentlemen drivers have grown in numbers. "Nobody," he said, "cares about anybody."
The bond at Highcroft Racing and Strakka is fairly amiable, given their joint association with Honda Performance Development. But on the track, the teams have pushed the limit whenever possible. Marco Werner's stint briefly brought Highcroft into first, but slow leaks in tires hampered the effort, allowing Johnny Kane to reclaim the top spot for Strakka in its HPD ARX-01c.
Werner said his stints were "quite OK. I guess I'm supposed to say now that this car is my baby. But I'm still learning. My first test at Sebring was only three months ago."
The Strakka team has had the advantage of racing the low downforce version of the ARX-01c in races at Le Castellet and Spa prior to Le Mans. But the team gives up experience with Nick Leventis at the wheel versus open-wheel veterans Danny Watts and Johnny Kane.
In GT1, the Labre Cometition Saleen S7R shared by Roland Berville, Gabriele Gardel and Julien Canal moved onto the same lap with the Matech Competition Ford GT and the Luc Alphand Corvette. The Matech entry for Rahel Frey, Cyndie Allemann and Natacha Gachnang was officially retired due to an engine fire.