0

Peugoet Take 1-2 In Rained-Off Petit Le Mans

The diesel powered Peugeot 908s scored a fortunate 1-2 finish as the 12th running of Petit Le Mans was cut short by torrential rain.

Throughout the week leading up to the race, rain had stalked the track affecting many of the practice and testing sessions, and although Friday's qualifying was conducted in sweltering heat, the rain returned with a vengeance for the 11am start on Saturday.

The change in conditions forced many team to opt to start from the pit lane, joining the Patron Highcroft Acura at the tail of the field after Duncan Dayton's team completely rebuilt the car after Scott Sharp's massive accident on Thursday.

However, the battling Peugeots and Audis kept their places at the front of the pack for the start, and from the very first corner it was Allan McNish (presumably taking advantage of familiarity with the typically Scottish weather) who jumped the front row starting 908s (whose low downforce set-up was mismatched with the low grip conditions) and took the lead. And by a lap later Marco Werner in the second Audi, which was clearly faster in the wet conditions, had made it past the lead Peugeot for an early 1-2.

In the other classes the order was also shuffled early. In GT2, which saw a surprising front row of the Robertson Ford GT and LG Corvette, both cars found themselves falling back quickly. The LG Corvette had a dose of off track action very early, being forced to return to the pits for the team to check for damage and clear radiators not once, but twice after the car bounced over the gravel trap at turn 10. The Robertson Ford, on the other hand, remained controlled but found itself out paced by the freight train of Corvettes, Porsches, Ferraris and BMWs it had beaten in qualifying so memorably.

In the small P2 class one of the many cars that had elected to start from the pitlane – the Cytosport Porsche RS Spyder – was on a charge in the hands of Klaus Graf. Within 10 minutes of the green flag the car had taken the class lead, aided by problems with the Fernandez Acura and #20 Dyson Lola it was against. Soon the car had a full lap on its competitors, but kept pushing. In scenes familiar from when Penske originally fielded the RS Spyder Graf started hassling and passing the P1 cars.

First the debuting Drayson Lola-Judd, the #08 Peugeot of Stephane Sarrazin, then finally the pole-sitting  #07 car. The car eventually settled into third, behind only the leading Audis and the de Ferran Acura.

As pitstops started teams had a decision to make. The track was drying, but was still wet off of the very narrow racing line. Sarrazin's Peugeot blinked first, electing to stay on wets. Then the #4 Corvette came in, being the first to change to slicks. The floodgates (no pun intended) opened as more and more teams elected for slicks. First the #07 Peugeot, then the charging Porsche Spyder.

The signs were not good from the beginning, with Graf missing his pit marks, the car having to be pushed back into the range of the fuel hose. Then things got worse, on the new set of slick tyres the German lost control at turn 3 and while he missed the wall, he ended up on the still soaking grass, devoid of any grip the car floundered before finally getting going, only to slowly tour round and retreat to the paddock for repairs.

While the track remained green for Graf's spin when the yellow did emerge for the first time, for the Ford GT losing its rear bodywork, it was crucial. Allan McNish, still leading was seconds away from lapping Lamy in the #07 Peugeot, and the caution left the Portuguese still on the lead lap.

Just.

But that was after the hopes of the de Ferran Acura had been dealt a huge blow at turn 10. Coming down into the left hander the Intersport Lola made a (very) optimistic move up the inside from so far back as to never be in view from the forward facing camera on the Acura. The end result was two cars spinning through the grass and gravel, and while the Lola escaped damage (although not a two minute penalty for avoidable contact) the Acura was forced to pit for repairs to its rear suspension, the ailment betrayed by the car crabbing down pit lane towards the paddock.

Incredibly the car emerged just 13 minutes later, only to soon be off again, this time in the wall at turn 5 after Indycar racer Scott Dixon caught the bump and fishtailed into the wall, wiping most of the front bodywork from the car and being told by the team to bring the car “straight to the tent” for more lengthy repairs to exhaust and electrical systems that had been damaged in the turn 10 contact, Gil de Ferran later berating Jon Field for “ruining” the #66 car's race.

A fractured few hours followed.

Offs from the Drayson Lola at turn seven, after losing a wheel, and the bigger off from the Autocon P1 car, putting that car into retirement, both led to caution periods, as did a spin, under yellow, for the #20 Dyson car.

Then things got silly.

Shortly before the half way point the torrential rain returned. Lamy bumped through the turn 10 gravel on slick tyres as the track got wetter and wetter. Even the Audis, which had switched to wets were not safe. The #1 car was another victim of Turn 10, and Allan McNish span behind the safety car at turn 5. He didn't hit anything, but with both Peugeots on the same lap as the leading Scotsman it was enough to shuffle him down to third overall.

The rain kept coming, the repaired Drayson car managed to spin in a straight line on the front straight, demolishing one of the Mazda 6 sponsor boards and lightly touching the wall, before the a works Corvette exited stage left at the final turn into the gravel.

What followed was a scene more reminiscent of NASCAR than sportscars, as the field filed onto pitlane under a red flag for rain, before being shrouded under tarpaulins as teams and driver retreated to the dry.

While the race of attrition for teams was stopped (although the #1 Audi managed to gain a lap after the team successfully lobbied that they had never been more than one lap down) the race of attrition for fans began

The ALMS promised regular updates, although it was Mother Nature making the decisions. A 7:30 call for drivers to return to their cars came and went with little movement, except the water running across the track, and at 8pm the chequered flag was finally waved, sending its own cloud of spray into the night sky.

Petit Le Mans had been cut short for the first time though full points were awarded, extending Highcroft Racing's championship lead over de Ferran as the Patron car finished sixth and McNish's turn 5 spin had given away Audis perfect record at Road Atlanta.

“It feels great to have won the mini Le Mans!” said Franck Montagny. “It all feels very weird, but I think the organisers were right to stop the race, because the conditions really were dangerous.”

Peugoet were victorious, the #20 car took P2 honours (though the experimental fuel running, unclassified #16 car was the class of the category, nine laps clear of Ben Devlin when the red flag flew) and the Risi Ferrari continued its dominance of major sportscar events, adding another Petit crown to their Le Mans and Sebring victories.

Petit Le Mans was in the books, though it may be joined by an asterisk.