By: Tom Haapanen and Tony DiZinno, Sports Car Correspondents
- McNish survives heavy early-race crash
- Corvette rises in GTE Pro class
Two surviving Audis ahead of Peugeot squad
The Audi team, starting first, second and fifth, flexed its muscles in the early going at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, with polesitter Benoît Tréluyer and Timo Bernhard pulling away from their Peugeot rivals. Allan McNish, starting fifth, pulled abreast of fourth-placed Franck Montagny as the leaders went through the Porsche Curves but could not get through immediately.
It didn’t take long, though, and on lap 7 McNish, running his 12th 24H, slipped out from behind third-placed Sébastien Bourdais on the Mulsanne Straight, and passed the Frenchman’s Peugeot 908 through the chicane.
The Audis stopped a lap earlier than the Peugeots, on laps 9 and 10, and through the pits Bernhard and McNish slipped past Treluyer into the leading position. The French team was able to stay out a lap longer, temporarily taking the lead, but by the time they exited the pits, Montagny, in the leading Peugeot, was some 15 seconds behind the Audis.
But just four laps later disaster struck for McNish. The Scot made a move on his teammate Bernhard passing through the Dunlop Bridge, but as he made his way past the other Audi, he immediately encountered Anthony Beltoise in the Luxury Racing Ferrari 458.
It looked as if McNish had not seen Beltoise’s Ferrari before making the move for the lead – and Beltoise was not aware of the second Audi as he moved back to the right-hand side of the track. The two cars barely touched, but it was enough to send McNish’s Audi skimming sideways across a gravel trap and then into the barriers. It landed on its roof, with bits of bodywork flying all around.
"Timo (Bernhard) was in the lead, and he slid wide coming out of the Dunlop Bridge," McNish recounted later. "I stayed inside, and then went inside the Ferrari. Next thing I knew, I was spinning toward the barriers."
I was just a passenger ...
It was a scary moment, with a sharp collective intake of breath heard throughout the media centre. However, after the marshals uprighted the car, McNish got out of the car and walked away on his own, and initial reports from the hospital were very positive. And Beltoise? He suffered just a puncture and was able to continue the race.
As the safety car period stretched out to a full hour to repair the Armco and tire barriers, the Montagny brought in the No. 8 Peugeot for a lengthy stop: the brake balance on the car had become stuck in the rearmost position, and after Stéphane Sarrazin stepped into the cockpit, the team underwent a furious but lengthy investigation to correct the problem.
The team appeared to get the problem sorted out, but by the time the Audis and the remaining Peugeots pitted, Montagny and Sarrazin had effectively lost another 25 seconds to the leading Audis.
Behind the diesel-powered leaders, Jeroen Bleekemolen (Rebellion Racing) and Olivier Pla (Greaves Motorsport) benefited from the safety car period to take a substantial lead over the Pescarolo of Christophe Tinseau, but Tinseau was quickly making up the gap.
Alexandre Premat held a 45-second lead in the No. 48 Oreca-Nissan at the head of the LM P2 field, and was also lapping substantially faster than his immediate challengers. Oreca Matmut and Oak Racing have battled for the lead in LM P2 as the polesitting Signatech Nissan slowed on track with an apparent left rear tire puncture 34 minutes into the race; Franck Mailleux was the driver aboard Signatech’s Oreca 03. The HPD-powered cars with entries from Strakka, RML and Level 5 look to move up as well despite their relative gap in performance.
Corvette takes over from BMW out front in GTE
In GTE Pro, BMW has had the measure of the field on outright pace in Wednesday and Thursday’s earlier practice and qualifying sessions. But jumped from the start in class, neither one of the BMWs has had the advantage in the race.
Gianmaria Bruni in the No. 51 Ferrari F458 Italia and Oliver Gavin in the No. 74 Corvette C6.R got around the polesitting No. 55 BMW M3 driven by Augusto Farfus right after the green flag dropped.
Although neither Gavin nor Olivier Beretta in the sister No. 73 Corvette have had the fuel mileage of their competitors, having to stop several minutes earlier for the first round of pit stops, they do seem to have the pace to stack up to the field.
Felbermayr-Proton’s No. 88 Porsche also has shown strongly to this point, running as high as second with drivers Nick Tandy, Bryce Miller and Abdulaziz Al Faisal. Tandy started the car.
The biggest story in GTE of course is the No. 58 Luxury Ferrari which was the lapped car McNish collided with when trying to overtake entering Tertre Rouge. Beltoise, who was driving, was able to resume following the accident with minimal damage to his own F458.
It’s doubtful that Beltoise would have never had a chance to see and react. The concern then came for McNish and the corner workers, photographers, and fans stationed in that section past Dunlop Curves.
AF Corse also set the early mark in GTE Am with its previous generation Ferrari F430 GT. The polesitting car got out to a big lead with Marco Cioci behind the wheel; the Italian co-drives with Piergiuseppe Perazzini and Sean Paul Breslin.
Corvette is pacing the American teams competing here in the early stages. Flying Lizard’s No. 80 GTE Pro class Porsche came into the pits unexpectedly only 15 minutes into the race, with a left rear tire puncture. At two hours and seven minutes it came in for a chassis change as well, to fix the roll bar. The older GTE Am entry has run in the top three in its class.
David Murry made good progress in the Robertson Racing Doran Ford GT-R GTE Am entry from the start of the race. The car ran out of fuel on a practice run in the morning warm-up, hence why it was brought back on a flatbed.