At one point on Saturday morning, two hours into the start of the 24 Hours of LeMans, I turned to my brother and said: “There’s been more entertainment bang for our buck in two hours of this than in all other auto racing so far this season combined”. He had no quarrel with that assertion.
From the moment the green flag waved (well, in fact, it was a French flag – gotta love the French!), Peugeot and Audi went at it – hard. Peugeot had won the pole position with one of its three entries in P1 (Prototype 1 class). Audi were right there with them at the front of the grid.
Flying past the Start/Finish line, Scotsman Allan McNish weaved his Audi this way and that trying to get past the No. 9 Peugeot driven by Stéphane Sarrazin, who would have none of it. On a few occasions on that first lap, the two left their audience and team members holding their breath – crashing a car on the first lap of a 24 hour race is not recommended. Peugeot stayed ahead, however, and never relinquished the lead (albeit not with the same car).
During the first pit stop, Peugeot’s No. 7 car driven by Pedro Lamy pulled in and everything was looking good. The lollypop operator (that’s the guy who tells the driver when it’s safe to pull back into the race) gave the all-clear and Lamy gassed it and turned left. Unfortunately, the car whose pit lane was directly in front of him, the 17 Pescarolo Sport, was trying to get into his pit and instead slammed into the left rear of the Peugeot. It looked like a hard nudge (video below), but it was enough to pierce a hole in the Peugeot’s tire. Lamy continued on his way with fingers surely crossed, but once he got onto the track it became clear that disaster had struck. Smoke was emanating from the tire well and within a few seconds the tire had torn itself apart, whipping the side of the car and destroying the chassis. This went on for all 14 kilometers left between he and a return to the pits. So much debris was being spewed onto the track from the Peugeot that a full course yellow had to be instituted.
When I first saw the tire explode right outside the exit of pit lane I told my brother there was no way he could make it back. Defying the odds, the Peugeot chugged along on three wheels all the way back to pit lane, got pulled into the garage and spent 35 minutes getting the left and rear of its chassis rebuilt – a truly remarkable job by the pit crew. The No. 7′s chances of winning were now infinitesimal, but it carried on nonetheless.
One of Audi’s P1 entries also had an adventure early on. Alexandre Prémat, driving the No. 3 Audi, somehow lost control in a chicane and spun the car into the gravel trap. At LeMans the rule is that if you can keep your motor running, the stewards will come out and push you back onto the track, which is what happened here. Losing ten minutes while stationary in a gravel trap is no way to go about winning a race, mind you.
That left two Audis and two Peugeots battling out for the rest of the race. As the sun was setting in France, German Lucas Luhr lost control of the No. 2 Audi and smashed into a tire barrier, completely destroying the back end of the car and forcing it to retire (video follows). You could sense the Audi team deflate at that moment (kinda like what happens to the Blue Jays when Roy Halladay goes down with an injury). With only one competitive car left on the track (and on this day, the ability of the Audi to compete with the Peugeots was debatable), the sense of doom in the Audi pits had taken hold.
The Peugeot team, with the pride of France resting on their shoulders, had not won at LeMans in 16 years. They were favoured for the last few years but Audi, with technically inferior cars, had found a way to race the perfect race. 2009 was to be Peugeot’s year, but not without some drama near the end.
With only a few minutes left, the No. 8 of Sébastien Bourdais (yes, that Sébastien Bourdais), who was then running in 2nd place, slowed to a crawl. The announcers started going crazy, wondering what kind of mechanical issues could be arising, and whether or not the 1st place No.9 car could be experiencing the same problems.
Turns out the Peugeot team were so far ahead of the third place car that they could afford to let the No. 7 Peugeot catch up to them (albeit still many laps down) so they could all cross the finish line at the same time – the perfect Peugeot photo-op, a rare luxury for teams to indulge.
Peugeot weren’t the only ones to take advantage of a huge lead at the end to partake in some photogenic posturing. Corvette, in their final race in GT1, brought their car into the garage, polished it up and made it all pretty for the finish. It was quite a risk to take, as rules state that cars in the pits have to be turned off and then restart on their own before heading back out onto the track. After 23 1/2 hours racing, you’re tempting fate by playing such esthetic games, but fortunately for them the good ol’ C6.R powered up without a problem. A high point for General Motors this year, wouldn’t you agree?
In GT2, what was billed as an epic battle between Porsche and Ferrari turned into a Maranello whitewash, as the F430 took the first four spots in class. Of note, the two Ferrari teams that came over from the American LeMans series ended up on the podium. The Risi Competizione team out of Houston beat all European contenders to take the top step on the podium. Well done, and it has me pondering a trip to Lime Rock, Connecticut on July 16th so I can see these cars for myself. Only a 6 hour drive and free camping with your race ticket. My girlfriend and I had planned a trip to Mosport the weekend of August 21st to do so, but with a good friend getting married, well…Lime Rock you lookin’ good right now, baby!
All in all I was completely satisfied with this year’s LeMans. Thrills, and spills, great battles and drama, the teams I was cheering for won and I was left looking forward with great anticipation to next year’s edition. If anything was lacking it was the company of both my brothers to watch it with me – I’ll have to twist some arms between now and next year’s race to make it happen.