As predicted, the 76th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans came down to a battle of the diesels. Audi and Peugeot each fielded three teams, and the battle ensued until the very end as weather proved to be a factor that contributed greatly to end-of-race strategy.
With the No. 2 Audi of Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Dindo Capello leading and on the same lap as the No. 7 Peugeot of Nic Minassian, Jacques Villeneuve and Marc Gene, and with rain infiltrating the 8.48-mile storied race course, Audi Sport Technical Director Ralf Juttner chose to switch Kristensen from Michelin slicks to intermediates with slightly more than an hour remaining. Peugeot, meanwhile, chose to remain on slicks, a decision commentators speculated was influenced by driver Minassian. The call proved to be correct for Juttner as Audi widened its lead to win by slightly more than four and a half minutes.
American Le Mans Series’ teams and drivers fared extremely well in the other classes with Risi Competizione’s No. 82 Ferrari F430 GT capturing the GT2 title. In all, Series competitors recorded 14 podium positions
Audi’s victory was its eighth in the last nine years and firmly established Kristensen as the greatest driver in the history of the hallowed endurance classic as he extended his record Le Mans wins to eight. For teammate McNish, it was the second Le Mans win for the heralded Scot, the first coming 10 years ago in a Porsche. The victory was Capello’s third.
“It was one of the toughest races we have had here,” said Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, Head of Audi Motorsport. “But we proved that we are a really strong team and have the technology. That’s what we are here for.”
McNish agreed. “This was probably one of the hardest races I’ve ever been involved in. The Peugeot guys put us under a lot of pressure. We put them under a lot of pressure. But finally we got it.”
Defending Series GT2 champions Mika Salo and Jamie Melo have had a disastrous start to their season in the American Le Mans Series, but came to Le Mans along with teammate Gianmaria Bruni dedicated to redeeming themselves and the Risi squad.
“This was an excellent job by everyone,” said Melo. “The Michelin tires were very consistent. It wasn’t easy especially through the night with the weather. A great job by my teammates. It was a fantastic Ferrari performance.”
Ferraris held the top four positions and won for the first time at Le Mans since a 2003 GTS victory.
In GT1 David Brabham, who drives during the regular season for Patrón Highcroft Racing’s Acura LMP2 team, guided his Aston Martin DBR9 along with teammates Darren Turner and Antonio Garcia to victory over a pair of Corvette Racing Corvette C6.Rs from the American Le Mans Series. It was Brabham’s second consecutive win at La Sarthe.
The Corvette No. 63 team of Jan Magnussen, Johnny O’Connell – the Series GT1 championship leaders – and Ron Fellows finished second. Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Max Papis finished third in the No. 64 Corvette.
“We have nothing to be ashamed of,” said O’Connell. “Corvette Racing did a great job. Losing two years in a row but being on same lap is tough to take. We’re going to come back and fight.”
“This was a lot harder than last year,” said Brabham’s teammate Turner. “Weather was such a factor throughout the night. It’s always a great battle with the Corvettes.”
In LMP2, Penske Racing driver Sascha Maassen, driving for Team Essex in a Porsche RS Spyder with teammates John Nielsen and Casper Elgaard, finished second in class.
The next round of the American Le Mans Series is the American Le Mans Northeast Grand Prix. The race is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET on Saturday, July 12 at Lime Rock Park. SPEED will televise the race from noon to 3 p.m. ET on Sunday, July 13. XM Satellite Radio will air the event live on XM Sports Nation Channel 144. Additional live coverage from American Le Mans Radio and IMSA’s Live Timing & Scoring also will be available at americanlemans.com.