French manufacturer Peugeot ended a run of German-powered victories stretching back to 1993 by claiming glory at the 77th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours.
The win comes on Peugoet's third attempt on the race with their diesel-engine 908 prototype, as they finally beat German marque Audi, campaigning their own diesel in the new R15 design.
Victory went, by a single lap of the 8-mile Circuit de la Sarthe, to the No. 9 car shared between former F1 drivers Marc Gene, Alexander Wurz and David Brabham, whose older brother Geoff was at the wheel of last non-German winner, another Peugeot, the 905. The No. 9 team also completed a single lap more than last year's victors
Second was taken by the No. 8 Peugeot team of Frenchmen Stephane Sarrazin, Franck Montagny and current Toro Rosso driver Sebastien Bourdais, who were followed by, rounding out the overall podium the defending champions in the No. 1 Audi, a further five laps back.
In fourth place overall, and fourth in the top LMP1 class was the No. 007 AMR Eastern Europe entered Lola Aston Martin car which, while being the only one of the three new design cars entered not to experience major problem, also claimed the small victory of being the leading petrol driven car.
In the lower class it was a race of attrition again in LMP2 as through a combination of accidents and mechanical gremlins only four cars remained in the race after the 24 hours. Victory, and a revenge of sorts, was taken by last year's runners-up Team Essex as they took their Porsche RS Spyder to class victory by a commanding 15 laps over the Speedy Racing Team Sebah Judd powered Lola with the podium being rounded off by a the surprise success of the No. 24 OAK Racing car, with a driving squad that included two gentlemen drivers.
An even greater attrition rate was to be found in LMGT1 as an already small field of six cars was halved by the time the chequered flag went out, led by the No. 63 works Corvette, in it's last ever race, driven by Jan Magnussen, Johnny O'Connell and Antonio Garcia.
LMGT2 was a story of the two manufacturers who provided the bulk of the entry. The winner, too was not a complete surprise with defending champions Risi Competitzione's No.82 car taking the spoils to give drivers Mika Salo and Jamie Melo back-to-back class victories. Risi's second car, appearing in the green and blue of Krohn Racing finished third in the class, rubber stamping the outfit's quality, leaving the two American entered car to sandwich the Italian entered BMS Ferrari, giving the slightly less prestigious back-to-back second places for the team and their three drivers. However, while Ferrari swept the podium only one of the five Porsche 997s entered finished, with only the Endurance Team Asia finishing the race, albeit 196 laps behind the winner, and so falling into the limbo of a non-classified finisher.
GT2 was surprising in exactly how many, and what cars finished with the normally sickly Spyker C8 lasting the duration to finish fifth in class while the Aston Martin Vantage survived to the finish as the Racing for Children charity car of Patrick Dempsey finished 30th overall, completing 301 laps for which donations will be collected and given to the Seattle Children's Hospital.
However, it all started 24 hours earlier (or actually about 25 if you're Narain Karthikeyan).
The former Jordan Formula One driver listed to drive the No. 14 Kolles entered Audi R10 jumped the pit wall during the pre-race ceremonies, only to fall and dislocate his shoulder, leaving him unfit to drive the car for the entire race, although he was later deemed fit by the team doctors, though not by the all important ACO. That was an early set back to an already unfancied car, with just two drivers—Andre Lotterer and Charles Zwollsman left to drive the car. The pair would sucessfully complete the race, finishing seventh overall, and beating their team-mates (with a full complement of drivers) by nine laps.
However, once the race got underway it didn't take long for the first retirement to be posted in the least surprising way, with the JLOC Lamborghini pulling into the pits after completing just one lap on its way to becoming the first official "abandon" of the race with that one lap managing to better their 2007 performance of two laps.
However, the next name that was to appear on the list of retirements would be a name that many (including myself) thought would figure in the class results. That car was the No.77 Felbermayr-Proton car which was shown stopped in the pit lane entrance, reportedly with a feul pump problem, leaving the car unable to travel even the short distance into the pits, resulting in a retirement.
The car, loaded with the Porsche works drivers Richard Leitz, Marc Leib and Wolf Henzler was fighting for the class lead at the time, and as the lead Porsche entrant was expected to do so for the duration of the race.
And the 77 car would not be the only high profile casualty of the first half of the race, which saw the battling diesel stables both suffer problems early on. The No. 7 Peugeot was the first major car to suffer a problem, after making slight contact with the Pescarolo entered Peugeot in the pits half and hour into the race.
While the damage looked minimal, with Pedro Lamy at the wheel, the left-rear wheel was soon flat and while trying to make it back to the pits down the Mulsanne straight the tyre shredded, destroying the rear quarter of the car and spreading it across the track, and while some marshalls were brave (or stupid) enough to try and retrieve the debris while the race continued unabated the Safety Car soon appeared so the track could be cleared of the bits of car.
Both cars were able to continue, the Pescarolo car after a nose change, while the additional damage to the works entry left it being repaired in the garage for long enough to rule it out of overall victory.
Up front the tone for the race was being set, with Franck Montagny leading from pole (despite a broken leg) and setting a terrific pace over the opening hours, running his No.8 car out to a commanding early lead over the eventual winners.
The petrol-powered P1 cars were not immune to accidents though, with the No. 10 ORECA car, driven by Stephane Ortelli putting a wheel on the grass though Tetre Rough and backing it into the tyre wall, knocking the rear wing off. However, the rear wing appeared to be the only damage, as the car was soon off to tour back to the pits, where the team simply unclipped the rear bodywork section, clipped on a new one and sent the car on its way, with Bruno Senna in the car.
Far worse a fate was to befall the cars involved in the accident that caused the next safety car, when the No. 009 Aston Martin squeezed the P2 class Radical into the wall, with the latter bouncing off the tyre wall seriously damaging the rear end of the car. Thankfully the incident happened only metres from the pit lane entrance meaning Radical driver Tim Greaves was able to drag the crippled car back, where it would eventually be repaired, to re-appear in the early hours of the morning, before eventually retiring with another problem.
However, the fate of the No. 009, and its driver Stuart Hall, looks set to be one of the talking points of the race. At approximately the same time the Radical was being readied for a return the ACO deemed the accident Hall's fault (some TV pictures show his car in turn was tapped by a works Audi) and excluded him from the remainder of the race, with no case for appeal, leaving another with only two drivers to share duties, this time Harold Primat and Peter Kox.
As the dark hours drew near LMP1 had its first high profile retirement as the right-hander on the entrance to the Porsche Curves claimed its first, of eventually three, victim. The unlucky driver and team were Lucas Luhr and the No. 2 Audi squad. With little or no warning his R15 snapped round as he entered the corner, spinning round, skipping over the gravel trap and hitting the tyre wall rear first, in a similar manner to Dindo Capello's 2007 crash at Indianapolis corner.
While it initially looked as if the damage was cosmetic with both Luhr and the Audi team in the pits hopeful of the car getting back to the pits as he was towed out the gravel it was soon clear that the car would struggle to return. One rear wheel was at right angles to the way it should have been pointing and seemingly integral parts of the rear assembly were missing. The final nail in the coffin for the car's hopes was the decision that the possibility of fluids leaking from the car in the gathering gloom through the sweeping bends that make up the close of the Le Mans lap was too dangerous, and Luhr was out of the car, the sign of an official retirement out on track.
Exactly what caused the accident is unknown, some people saying the car had a puncture, others that the suspension failed as the loaded the outside round the bend, while Audi themselves have said that driver failure cannot be ruled out.
Soon after the corner took its second victim with the Luc Alphand Corvette going straight into the same tyre wall, with the same result, a DNF.
As the dark descended the incidents slowed and the race settled into a rhythm, with the No.8 Peugeot, its early leading pace having been slowed by problems, in a cat and mouse chase with the No. 1 Audi in second place at the time. At the end of every stint the Peugeot would close to the rear of the Audi, before promptly pitting. Finally after a few hours the Peugeot finally managed to pass the Audi, and the 1-2-3 positions were not to change for the rest of the race.
Small mistakes and accidents continued through the night, the No. 12 P1 Courage and the Modena Ferrari ending up in the Dunlop Curve gravel together at one point.
However, the night hours were not without their big casualties.
Firstly, and unfortunately out of sight of the television cameras which are largely turned off at night, the Pescarolo Peugeot, having what appears to be huge accident at the hands of Benoit Treluyer, that resulted in another safety car deployment and a report on the Frenchman as "injured but conscious". With pictures of the car showing little more than a bare tub with engine and gearbox protruding backwards, the No.16 was retired, having run fourth before the crash.
The next casualty was another of the top running GT2 Porsches, this time the Flying Lizard entry, which, unseen by television cameras, which are largely turned off round the track at night, overshoot the first of the two chicanes along the Mulsanne with spectacular results - to paraphrase the ACO press release the tyre walls were spread across the track - and spectacular enough damage to make the car join the No. 77 and 70 (which had stopped out on track after cars as Porsche retirements. In the closing hours of the race the second IMSA car, the No. 76 would join them after the team gave up hope on repairing the gearbox.
As dawn turned to daylight one of the cars reduced to two drivers became the third victim of the Porsche Curves tyre wall, with Primat spinning the No. 009 car into the gravel, heavily damaging the right side of the car and giving Aston its only DNF of the race.
Through the remainder of the race it was the classes that had been relatively incident, or at least accident free, to cause more work for the marshalling teams. First LMP2, with the NAVI Team Goh car.
While the early hours of the race had seen the NAVI and the Essex RS Spyder in lock step, pitting together, running together, swapping the lead out on track it was the NAVI car that was the first to have the problems, in the shape of several problems that forced the team to pull the car back into the pits for some repair work. While remaining in second place due to problems for other cars, notably the RML and Racing Box Lola coupes, the car had lost contact with the class leader, and soon lost contact with important parts of the car.
At the same chicane that claimed the Flying Lizards the No. 5 car slewed towards the wall under braking, possibly due to a parts failure, impacting first the wall, then the tyre bundles in the escape road, dislodging bodywork and damaging the car beyond repair and leaving the Essex Porsche unchallenged to the flag.
In GT2 the predicted works Corvette domination had materialised, with the cars seldom more than a lap apart at any time normally with the No. 63 car ahead, with the remaining Luc Alphand Aventures car some way adrift, and the Jetalliance Aston even further back having been hampered by spins and mechanical problems since the opening hours of the race, often looking to be headed to retirement, only to venture back out on the track.
Soon the Aston's persistence was to be rewarded as the second works Corvette, the No. 64, was forced to retire due to a gearbox failure, handing the third step on the podium to Jetalliance, despite them being some 40 laps adrift of the class' top two.
In a similar vein was the eventual finish of the No. 4 Creation car, which in the small hours of the morning seemed to spend more time in the pits than on track, again often having the look of a team fighting a losing battle with an army of gremlins. However, while never figuring in any battles of class honours, eventually finishing 24th overall it was a worthwhile 2009 debut for the team, that has moved from Europe to the US, ahead of hopefully running some American Le Mans Series races.
In GT2 another fairly tale story was denied as the yellow JWM Ferrari hit problems late, that saw it fall out of the podium positions. The team, effectively a renamed Virgo team from last year with Robert Bell and Tim Sugden included, saw a promising 2008 result slip by after a engine failure, and although the culprit this year was more mundane, with a wheel hub failure dropping them from the lead group, the result, or lack of it is still the same.
As the P1 race drew to a close a 15 minute pitstop for the Audi allowed the two leading 908's to pull out a gap that allowed them to ease off slightly, saving the car, and highlighting the kind of race that it had been in P1.
Where in previous years it has been the Peugeots with the problems and need to pit for running repairs, this year it was the turn of the new Audi R15s to lose the most time in the pits. Were Audi ruing the decision to run such a limited race schedule before Le Mans?
But they won't say anything