Five American-based teams headed overseas to do battle on foreign grounds. For some of America’s best, the famed Circuit de La Sarthe circuit was a new adventure, while others returned for unfinished business. The 24 Hours of Le Mans is a race that everyone dreams of winning, and two American teams stood atop the podium at the conclusion of the twice-around-the-clock marathon.
The battle for LMP1 honors came down, as expected, to the two diesel juggernauts: Audi and Peugeot. In the end, the No. 2 Audi Sport North America entry of Allan McNish, Dindo Capello and Tom Kristensen took top honors, out smarting the faster – but slower in the wet – No. 7 Team Peugeot Total 908 HDi-FAP of Nicolas Minassian, Marc Gene and Jacques Villeneuve. As rain hit the 8.5-mile circuit in the early morning hours, the Audi kicked into gear in the damp weather and cruised to a four-minute win over the French Lion.
“The competition was strong,” McNish said after the race. “We knew we couldn’t make a mistake. We knew that if we had any technical problem, we’d be out. Also in the pit stops and the driving and everything just had to be perfect or we didn’t have a chance.”
McNish stood atop the podium in 1998 after claiming his first overall victory at Le Mans, driving a Porsche 911 GT1-98. Ten years, later the Scotsman repeated the effort in very similar conditions.
“It’s very different to the first, but also very similar,” he said. “In 1998 we didn’t have the fastest car, but we had a very good team, good reliability and we had to fight 100 percent to win the race. It was also very similar because it was also only one hour before the end that was finally decided. But I have to say that this one probably the hardest race I’ve every lived through.”
Indeed, this year’s race proved to be a challenge for all competitors, including the two other American-entered prototypes. Team Cytosport made its maiden voyage to compete in the French classic, fulfilling a life-long dream of team owner/driver Greg Pickett. The Trans-Am veteran started the car from the 12th position overall but had early setbacks, including a few spins by co-driver Klaus Graf. However, the Jim Dunford-led crew rallied back into the top-20 overall just before the 10-hour mark when serious trouble hit. Jan Lammers, the team’s third driver for the race, was at the wheel at the time while under the safety car.
“We were driving behind the pace car, and then as I went to the Esses, the throttle stuck wide open,” Lammers explained. “That was a bit of a fright, but I could manage with the shift and braking against the throttle. So I was able to make it through half a lap. But then as I wiggled the throttle again, it was okay. But it had apparently swallowed a valve.
“From there on, it didn’t sound right, but because you’re running behind the pace car you couldn’t put a good diagnosis on it. So we came in and checked everything and still looked ok. But as the light turned green, I started racing with the others and immediately noticed.”
Lammers brought the Muscle Milk-sponsored Lola B07/14 Judd into the pits with high oil temperatures, resulting in an engine failure for the usually very reliable Judd powerplants. Despite the disappointment, the team will return to the American Le Mans Series starting at the Acura Sports Car Challenge at Mid-Ohio next month.
The other American privateer in the P1 class, Autocon Motorsports, also had to call it quits early after suspected engine-related problems as well. The Mike Lewis-led crew was seen frequently in and out of the garage with the rear engine cover off the car. The No. 23 Creation CA07 Judd of Lewis, Bryan Willman and Chris McMurry retired in the 18th hour.
While Aston Martin Racing charged onto its second consecutive GT1 class victory, the two Corvette Racing C6.Rs pocketed a second and third place finish in the highly competitive category. The No. 63 Compuware machine of Ron Fellows, Johnny O’Connell and Jan Magnussen finished on the lead lap to the class-winning Aston Martin of David Brabham, Antonio Garcia and Darren Turner.
“Once again, we saw one of the epic battles in all of sports car racing,” said Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan. “When you can take two cars, run them for 24 hours, and have them finish just minutes apart, it’s an incredible achievement for both teams. We had a brake issue with the No. 63 Corvette and overcame a problem with the alternator in the No. 64 Corvette, and both cars finished on the podium. When we look at Corvette Racing’s overall record and performance here at Le Mans, Chevrolet can be proud.”
All four factory cars raced neck-and-neck with each other in the opening hours, trading the lead multiple times. The first car to take a bullet was the No. 64 Corvette of Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Max Papis, which suffered a broken alternator connection, taking six minutes to repair. Then, the Pratt & Miller crew had to replace the engine compartment undertray, costing more time.
Corvette’s sister car of Fellows, O’Connell and Magnussen also faced a setback, when the team had to replace its right front brake pads. Although it only cost them 90 seconds in the pits, it took them out of contention in the end.
“The effort that Chevrolet and Corvette Racing put into this event is gigantic,” O’Connell said. “Ninety-nine percent of teams would be ecstatic to finish second at Le Mans two years in a row, but we have high expectations and lofty goals at Corvette Racing. Had the weather not gone the way it did, with our strategy of going 14 laps on a fuel stint, the race might have gone our way. The spectators saw the two best teams in sports car racing go toe-to-toe today, and I’m very proud of the effort that everyone put forth.”
After years of trying, Risi Competizione finally claimed the class victory in GT2, outpacing and outlasting the armada of other Ferrari F430 GTs. The Houston-based team led a prancing horse 1-2-3-4 after two of the contesting Porsche 911 GT3 RSRs took each other out in the early hours. This left the No. 82 machine of Mika Salo, Jamie Melo and Gianmaria Bruni with a comfortable advantage, facing no other strong contenders in the remainder of the race.
“It’s a lifetime achievement, especially to do it with Ferrari, and if you are a professional in the automotive world, there is no greater achievement. I can’t say enough about it,” said team owner and technical director Giuseppe Risi. “To me, winning Le Mans is worth winning a whole championship. One talks about Le Mans in very light terms but until you come here and have to grind through the night, hoping that the car holds together, racing against other people you respect and who are highly qualified to come here…and you see drivers who are top level but who have accidents and fall by the wayside.”
Risi pocketed his second class win at Le Mans, but the first on his own. In 1998, Doyle-Risi Racing won the P1 class with its Ferrari 333SP. Like McNish’s triumph, ten years seems to be the charm for the second time. It’s also extra special considering how much of a rough start the team got off to this season. The defending American Le Mans Series GT2 drivers’ and teams’ champions only have one point on the board with the Salo/Melo car, a complete contrast to its undefeated season this time last year in the ALMS. With the historic win, the momentum will hopefully follow the team as it now tries to turn its ALMS season around.
“This means a lot to me,” Melo said of the Le Mans win. “The team did a very good job and fortunately we didn’t have any problems during the race. We just kept safe and consistent and made no mistakes, and this was one of the most important points to winning the race.”
Risi’s other car, run in conjunction with Krohn Racing, crashed out in the second hour with Tracy Krohn at the wheel. The No. 83 Ferrari which finished runner-up here last year was the race’s first retirement this time around.
Risi’s ALMS rival, Flying Lizard Motorsports, was one of the two Porsche teams that suffered early race crash damage. Driver and team principal Seth Neiman made contact with the No. 76 IMSA Performance Matmut Porsche of Patrick Long in the third hour, sending both cars into the gravel trap. Long was unable to continue, but Neiman limped the car back to the pits for repairs.
The No. 80 car of Neiman, Jorg Bergmeister and Johannes van Overbeek endured more setbacks throughout the race but finished sixth in class, albeit it many laps down from the class winner. But the never-give-up attitude from the Lizards crew made some heads turn in the paddock – showing that the team is indeed a championship contending effort in the ALMS.
With the 76th running of the French classic now in the books, teams turn their focus back to the American Le Mans Series. The Northeast Grand Prix at Lime Rock Park on July 11-12 is next up, set to provide excitement of its own on North American soil.