15th - 16th June
In free practice Montagny's 3m 20.034s in the fastest Peugeot looked worryingly easy. Three more Peugeots followed, the top three covered by less than 1.5 seconds with the Greca version in third splitting the works cars.
The three works Audis, led by McNish, Kristensen and Cap ello in number 7, were between 3.9 and 4.7 seconds adrift of the fastest Peugeot. Audi knew it had work to do, but they had seen superfast Peugeots in qualifying before and somehow found the race pace to keep them honest. Today's question was, could they do it again; it was a big ask. Dr Ullrich suggested it wasn't a complete surprise, and said Audi had used the same tyres throughout the session to understand how far they could ask them to go. He also said that being on pole wasn't Audi's main concern: "It's a 24 hour race" . He did say, though, that there would be a bit less fue! in the car for qualifying.
Peugeot then threw down the gauntlet with a thought-provoking 3m 19.7 - three and a bit seconds under last year's pole, but again looking fairly easy. Six tenths behind, Peugeot's other two works cars were separated by a hundredth of a second. The fourth (Greca) was also within a second and a half of provisional pole.
Audi expected a gap, but not the 3.867 seconds to the fastest R15-plus, number 9 of Rockenfeller, Bernhard and Dumas, followed by Tre!uyer, Lotterer and Fassler in 8, with McNish, Kristensen and Capello an unaccustomed third in 7. After the session ended, McNish observed wryly, 'It was a bit of a surprise seeing a 3-19. That's not what we'd expected. We won't be challenging that, whatever the weather does."We know we'll be a lot closer on race pace, but we'll be sitting down to some more thinking before tomorrow. . .'
While the Peugeots never went faster than Bourdais' flier, Audi chipped away, mostly near the start of the final shootout, heading towards midnight with the long-expected rain starting to sprinkle rather than just threaten, but quickly petering out. The first two hours had been damp and slippery, after torrential rain in the afternoon, so there were few significant changes, and none in the top dozen. Half an hour into the final two hours, McNish did what he does, jumping to the front of the Audi queue and usefully nearer the Peugeots. 2.5 seconds off the fastest looked a lot better than nearIy four. With barely 20 minutes left, Rockenfeller edged that, and the gap was 2.27. Less than 10 to go and Bourdais gave a little reminder that Peugeot was still there, with the fastest time of the session in 3m 20.212.
So qualifying lacked the usual last-gasp dramas, but quietly offered a glimmer of hope. Finally, the fastest Audi was less than eight tenths shy of the slowest Peugeot, and only 1.6 behind the second fastest. The top-l0 order was four Peugeots, three Audis, two Astons, and the petrol Oreca. Audi knew they still had a mountain to climb, but a sIightly smaller one now than 24 hours ago. As one Audi insider said, 'It's the 24 Hours of Le Mans, not the 3 minutes 19 seconds of Le Mans'. Only the race would now tell.
From the start, McNish made his usual banzai charge in 7, but where Iast year he had been wheel-to-wheel for the lead, this year it was for fourth, the car was the Oreca Peugeot, and the Bourish was over almost as soon as it had started, as aIl four Peugeots began to ease away from the three Audis just as they started to drop the petrol Astons.
But this was to be a classic hare and hounds Le Mans, with Audi reIying on patience and stealth, a return to their organisational and strategic best, and a bit of luck. Knowing that if Peugeot could maintain the pace they could demonstrably shown, they would win, Audi opted to rattle off laps preciseIy caIculated to pressure Peugeot's reliability without compromising their own. For Audi it was uncharacteristically conservative and would rely on elements beyond Audi's control - Peugeot's race-management and reliability; but in the circumstances there weren't too many alternatives. There was always a suspicion within Audi, though, that the Peugeots might not be as durable under pressure as they were quick. . .
From the start, it looked unlikely. The three works versions looked invulnerable, and when Nigel Mansell's spectacular exit brought out the first of several safety cars,Audi didn't get the breaks - in fact slipped a little further back. Thereafter, four Peugeots pulled relentlessly away from three Audis, in turn dropping the Aston Martins which again led the petrol chase.
But on race pace, the Audis weren't hugely outrun, and at almost exactly four hours, the first Peugeot was gone, after its suspension pulled out of the chassis - a very significant failure. Soon after, though, Audi had a nightmare of their own - albeit their only one of the race as it would turn out. Tom Kristensen, sharing 7 with McNish and Dindo Capello, tripped over BMW's limping 'Art Car', lost three laps recovering to the garage where the 7 R15-plus was checked over and declared fit again, and rejoined the chase in fifth.It was a dramatic episode. The BMW was being driven by Andy Priaulx multiple World Touring Car champion making his Le Mans debut, but massively respected by pretty much everybody. The Art Car had already had many problems and Priaulx was going slowly when Kristensen came upon him, unfortunately on the racing line, in the Porsche Curves, with no option but to take to the gravel. Fortunately the"damage was limited to the nose, and a reasonably quick-fix once TK had also crawled back to the pits.
The multi-milIion-dollar rolling artwork had escaped intact. But there was short term political fallout, too, as Dr Ullrich, clearly blazing with anger, headed for the BMW garage, where he had what political commentators sometimes calI 'a fulI and frank discussion' with his BMW counterpart Charly Lamm - which at one point looked as though it might have gone several rounds. Kristensen was more conciliatory: Priaulx was distraught and quick to apologise. TK accepted the apology and put it down as 'tough-things happen'. But 7's chances of winning were effectively over, if never giving up the chase.
Then the 1 Peugeot pitted, from the lead with eIectrical problems, losing three laps, six places, and (barring miracles) its own hopes of winning. The 8 and 9 Audis were third and fourth. The hares were faltering. The Oreca Peugeot lost time with unscheduled pit stops: 8 and 9 (sometimes 9 and 8) were second and third by midrace, at three in the morning. Then just after dawn, the 1 Peugeot, back in the lead, expired in flames, its engine in pieces.
Now it was Peugeot's turn to chase Audi, and of course, they still had the outright speed. Into the last four hours they also had just about the time. It was poised on a knife edge. But Audi now had more reason to believe the hope of Peugeot's fragility, and even more so when number 2 emulated l's fiery exit. So, all three works Peugeots were gone, the three Audis were in control, and the Oreca car was about to expire with Peugeot's third, catastrophic engine failure while chasing a face-saving" Dodium Peugeot's weekend had started by looking like a stroll in the park, but ended in chaos, with all four cars breaking. Audi's had started with all the looks of a lost cause, but ultimate!y vindicated the make-or-break strategy of patience and reliability over outright speed. It was one of the great Le Mans confrontations, and both sides acknowledged that. The winners were Audi's 'young' squad, Rockenfeller, Dumas and Bernhard. Lotterer, Treluyer and Eissler were second, the delayed Kristensen, McNish and Capello third.
The winning R15-plus set an all-time race-distance record, finallybeating the mark that had stood since 1971, before chicanes and many other speed-limiting reshapings. In spite of several safety car periods, they covered 397 laps, 3,362 miles (5,410.7km) at an average of 140.1 mph (225.4 kph). Showingjust what Audi had been up against, the fastest lap, by the 4 Peugeot, was 153.6 mph (246.5 kph) - also the fastest ever race lap.
The winning car averaged 6.5 mpg (43.43 litres/100km) which is remarkable for a 140 mph 24-hour average. It pitted 33 times, every one scheduled, and its total time in the pits was barely 20 minutes.
DISTANCE & RECORDS :
The overall distance and speed records were Rockenfeller, Dumas and Bernhard who covered a distance of 5,410.7 Km at 225.4 km/h. In the practice the Peugeots managed a lap 3' 19.6' In the race the Peugeots managed a lap at an average of 246.5 kph
Sports Car Races