Sunday, June 14, 2009

Spain's Gene and Peugeot end Audi's run at 24 Hours of Le Mans

(by the Accociated Press si.com 6-14-09)

LE MANS, France (AP) -- Peugeot driver Marc Gene of Spain won the 24 Hours of Le Mans on Sunday, ending Audi's five-year domination.

The diesel-powered Peugeot No. 9 was one of the few cars to enjoy a trouble-free run in the world's most famous endurance race.

"To win such a race is the nicest thing I've enjoyed in my life," Gene said. "I was really emotional on the last lap. I've never had such a feeling in a race. Tears were coming to my eyes on the last lap."

Gene and supporting drivers David Brabham of Britain and Alexander Wurz of Austria completed 382 laps in 24 hours, one lap more than the Peugeot No. 8 driven by French trio Sebastien Bourdais, Franck Montagny and Stephane Sarrazin.

It was the second victory at Le Mans for Wurz, who won in a Porsche in 1996.

The two Peugeots were challenged by Audi's No. 1 car until the 21st hour. The Audi car had to pit twice within the space of a few minutes, first by Allan McNish of Britain to change a steering wheel and then by Rinaldo Capello of Italy to fix an engine problem.

Defending champions McNish, Capello and Tom Kristensen of Denmark finished third, six laps behind.

Peugeot has made efforts to improve the reliability of its cars this season while Audi has developed a faster model, the R15, to replace the aging R10. But the change did not pay off for the German manufacturer.

"The Peugeot cars were more consistent," said Wolfgang Ullrich, the head of Audi Sport. "They did not have any big problem. We didn't really manage to find a good rhythm in the first hours of the race."

Stefan Mucke of Germany and Czech drivers Jan Charouz and Thomas Enge came in fourth, nine laps off the pace, but their Lola Aston Martin No. 007 was the best gasoline car as the Peugeots and Audis are powered by diesel.

Audi and Peugeot had their share of problems throughout the race.

The Peugeot No. 8 led from the start until the sixth hour when a transmission problem forced Bourdais -- the former four-time Champ Car series winner and now Formula One driver -- to pit and change the left rear axle. Wurz took advantage of Bourdais' lengthy pit stop to take the lead.

Pedro Lamy of Portugal lost 24 minutes for repairs after his Peugeot No. 7 collided in the pitlane with Jean-Christophe Boullion's Pescarolo No. 17 in the first hour. But Nicolas Minassian then clocked the fastest lap in 3 minutes, 24.352 seconds on the 13.629-kilometer (8.45-mile) circuit to put the car back into sixth place, 13 laps behind Gene.

"Our team was so much criticized last year that it's a nice revenge," said Olivier Quesnel, the head of Peugeot Sport. "I'm very proud of my team today."

Audi's hopes were seriously dented on the third lap when Alexandre Premat's No. 3 car veered off the track to go into the gravel trap. The car became unstable after that and quickly fell out of contention. In the seventh hour, Lucas Luhr's Audi No. 2, running third, smashed into the tire barrier and he had to retire.

McNish also wasted time in the pits after damaging his nosecone in the second hour. His Audi No. 1 suffered from turbo overheating later on Sunday morning.

McNish put pressure on the pole-sitting Peugeot No. 8 in the rolling start, but Montagny held off the charge at the first curve to keep the lead.

The Corvette No. 63, driven by Jan Magnussen of Denmark, Antonio Garcia of Spain and Johnny O'Connell of the United States, completed 342 laps to finish 15th overall but first in the GT1 class.

A total of 55 cars started the 77th edition of the French endurance race, but 21 failed to finish.

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