Audi pummelled French favourites Peugeot into submission in the 78th running of the world’s most gruelling endurance race, the Le Mans 24-Hours, as the German manufacturer stunned its rivals with a 1-2-3 finish.
But while the trio of Frenchman Romain Dumas and Germans Timo Bernhard and Mike Rockenfeller clinched their maiden Le Mans victories, fellow Audi driver Allan McNish was again left frustrated despite finishing on the podium in third place.
Right from the start of the 24-hour epic the 40-year-old from Dumfries, a past winner at Le Mans with Porsche and Audi, had chased down the four Peugeots which filled the front four slots on the grid.
But within 17 minutes Audi’s assault looked to have been derailed when the multiple safety car system operated by the French organisers separated the chasing Audi from the four Peugeots following a crash which ended Nigel Mansell’s debut in the event.
“It’s the way they do things here,” explained a disappointed McNish who, partnered by eight-time winner Tom Kristensen and Italian Dindo Capello, eventually finished third.
“Suddenly, through no fault of our own we found ourselves almost half-a-lap behind the leaders, and that’s a long way on a circuit which is more than eight-and-a-half miles long.”
The experienced trio though slowly started hunting down the Peugeots but their charge was halted when Kristensen collided with the BMW of England’s Andy Priaulx who was limping back to the pits with a puncture.
The collision pitched the Dane backwards into a tyre wall at the Porsche Curves and though Kristensen nursed the car back to the pits, the repairs dropped the car three laps behind the leaders, and two laps behind the other two Audis.
But as the pace increased, so to did the attrition levels with first the Peugeot of polesitter Sebastian Bourdais retiring after three hours with suspension failure when it was leading. The same fate befell the second Peugeot of Franck Montagny, Stephane Sarrazin and Nicolas Minassian early yesterday morning.
That left the Audi filling the top two slots, with the No8 car of Andre Lotterer, Marcel Fassler and Benoit Treluyer holding second, a place they held to the finish.
But just as Peugeot looked to have salvaged at least a podium finish, the final French works car of England’s Anthony Davidson, Austrian Alex Wurz and German Marc Gene was forced out with a blown engine with just two hours remaining.
“Of course no one wants to see their rivals suffer through misfortune,” McNish admitted afterwards, “but we always knew our approach to the race was based on solidity and reliability.
“We were lapping around two-seconds a lap slower than the Peugeots at the beginning of the race, but as everyone knows, to finish first, first you have to finish. We’ve proved again that when it comes to reliability and dependability, Audi comes out on top.”
But while McNish shared in the celebrations in the Audi camp, there was nothing but abject disappointment for fellow Scot Marino Franchitti.
The 31-year-old from Bathgate, making his debut in the event behind the wheel of a prototype car, had been favourite to win the LMP2 class in his Patron Highcroft car, alongside multiple winners, Aussie David Brabham and German Marco Werner.
But despite showing impressive pace, their challenge frittered out when the Honda-backed HPD ARX-01c suffered water system problems which required two hours’ repair before it reappeared to complete the final two laps of the race.
“Obviously it’s not the way we wanted to finish Highcroft’s first appearance at Le Mans,” Franchitti, two weeks to the day since his brother Dario dominated the Indy500, said after being listed as 25th in the results, “but we showed we have the pace to be competitive. Hopefully we can come back next year and take the win.”
Highcroft’s late problems cleared the way for the English trio of Danny Watts, Jonny Kane and Nick Leventis to take the LMP2 class win, and fifth overall, in the Silverstone-based Strakka Team’s HPD ARX-01c.