Dindo Capello and Allan McNish took a dominant victory in the 8 Hours of Le Castellet to get Audi 2010 LMP campaign off to the best start as they aim to wrestle the 24 Hours of Le Mans title away from their modern rivals Peugeot.
Capello and McNish took on the race without normal teammate Tom Kristensen after the eight time Le Mans winner still suffering from a heel tendon torn playing badminton earlier in the year . However the pair, who have five La Sarthe victories between them showed no sign of struggling in the race, despite it being over 50% longer by distance than the LMS' standard 1000km event, their Audi R15 'Plus' completing 266 laps of the Paul Ricard circuit, five laps more than their nearest competitor.
“It's fantastic to give the new R15 'Plus' its first victory in its first race,” said McNish after seeing Capello bring the car across the finish line after surviving late rain shower where Audi were the only leading car to pit for wet tyres. “Which follows the Audi tradition of dÃ©but race wins like we achieved with the R8, R10 TDI and R15 TDI – even if this one is a little unexpected – and not many manufacturers can claim this honour.”
McNish started the race from second on the grid, behind the customer ORECA Peugeot 908 and the pair of diesels fought hard, including the slightest of contact, for position through the first complex of corners, allowing the petrol powered Aston Martin-Lola through into the lead, but the superior drive of the diesel engines soon saw the Aston, started by German Stefan Mucke, fall back into third place.
First McNish got past in a forceful move at the end of the 2km long Mistral Straight, all but forcing the Gulf-liveried Aston off the track, then the ORECA car made a similar move, though in slightly more gentlemanly fashion.
That would have seemed to set up the expected diesel battle for the win, however, fans were robbed of a potential classic with less an hour of the race gone when the ORECA team were forced to pit their Peugeot, first removing the rear bodywork, then backing the car into the garage for more extensive work, fixing an air jack.
Though the repair only took 18 minutes it was enough to see the car fall nine laps off the pace, dropping it outside of the to-30 in a race with 41 entries. To the credit of Hughes de Chauncac's squad (and Peugeot) the car ran faultlessly for the remaining seven hours, driver Nicolas Lapierre, Olivier Panis and Stephane Sarrazin able to match the pace of the Audi as they picked off the slower and less reliable runners eventually clawing their way to fourth, behind the three-handed Guy Smith/Jean-Christophe Boullion/Andrea Belicchi Rebellion Racing Lola which took third overall.
A pleasant surprise was LMP2. Known in recent years for being a 'fast but fragile' class often won by not the fastest, but the most reliable car. Less surprising given their astonishing qualifying performance were the winners, the HPD ARX-01 of Strakka Racing.
But the British team had to fight back from spending over ten minutes in the pits for bodywork repairs. The loss of four laps saw the car drop to eighth in class, but was able to make it back to the top of the leaderboard jumping the OAK Racing Pescarolo as the French car made its final pitstop and then clinging on to the lead, driver Danny Watts stretching the fuel mileage for remaining half and hour.
The two OAK Racing cars finished second and fourth overall, sandwiching the Lola-HPD of RML in third, giving HPD (Honda Performance Development) two podium finishers.
Another good battle was in LMGT2, with various Ferraris and Porsches constantly exchanging the top positions for almost the entire race in exactly the manner that was expected in perhaps the most competitive class in modern sportscar racing. At the end of the eight hours it was a 1-2 finish for the blue Team Felbermayr-Proton cars, washing any memory of missing out on pole from the mid of winning drivers Marc Lieb and Richard Lietz who beat their teammates by two laps.
The second 911 GT3 RSR only took second in the dying laps from the AF Corse that saw Jean Alesi and Giancarlo Fisichella with Finn Toni Vilander. The car was in second when Alesi suffered a puncture forcing him to pit, allowing the Porsche through. It was a promising debut for the two F1 veterans, Fisichella at least very willing to get involved in battles for position.
The sub-class of LMP2 for Formula Le Mans cars was won by the Applewood Seven entry of Damien Toulemonde, Ross Zampatti and David Zollinger snatching the lead when the Hope Polevision entry lost time in the late race rain shower, the only victims of the weather. Winners of the class last year, when it was a separate series, DAMS could only get the best of their two cars home in third.
The LMS next races at Spa next month, in an event now used as final preparation for Le Mans, will full works efforts from Audi and Peugeot expected.
Photo Credit: Audi Motorsport