Audi secures 1-2-3 at Le Mans
Audi took advantage of rival Peugeot's problems to claim a perfect 1-2-3 at Le Mans at the end of a dramatic 24-hour race.
The number nine Audi R15 TDI of Mike Rockenfeller, Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas enjoyed a trouble-free run from fifth place on the grid to secure the German manufacturer's ninth win at La Sarthe in 11 years.
German driver Bernhard crossed the line at the end of 24 gruelling hours to set a new distance record at the event of 397 laps. Second place went to the number eight Audi of Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer while the number seven car of Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello finished third.
Favourites Peugeot had set the pace in practice and qualifying and had a pace advantage over the Audis in front of an expectant home crowd. But mechanical gremlins struck to derail their charge, with all three of the factory 908s each succumbing to problems.
The number three 908 HDi of Pedro Lamy, Sebastien Bourdais and Simon Pagenaud, which started on pole, was the first to retire after sustaining suspension damage while running second. Then, as darkness fell on Saturday night, the number one car of Marc Gene, Alexander Wurz and Anthony Davidson took to the pits with an alternator problem that took four laps rectify and dropped the trio to seventh.
It left the all-French trio of Franck Montagny, Stephane Sarrazin and Nicolas Minassian to carry the fight into the small hours in the number two Peugeot before misfortune struck 16 hours into the race, a fiery engine failure leaving Audi to take over at the front for the first time in the weekend.
Despite its earlier problems, the number one Peugeot remained the class of the field, and after the retirement of the Montagny/Sarrazin/Minassian car it retained an outside chance of victory, with Davidson in particular taking chunks of time out of the leading Audis.
But Peugeot's litany of mechanical woe was destined to have one more entry, with Wurz forced to retire the number one car after after nearly 22 hours of racing. It spelled the end of the French squad's hopes of repeating last year's victory, leaving the Audis to fill the podium.
There will nevertheless be a tinge of disappointment down at Audi after the manufacturer's lead car, driven by 2008 victors McNish, Kristensen and Capello, saw its hopes of victory ended in a costly incident four hours into the race as eight-time Le Mans winner slid off at the Porsche curves trying to pass the ailing BMW 'Art Car' driven by three-time World Touring Car champion Andy Priaulx.
With Priaulx slowed by a damaged wheel but still on the racing line, Kristensen was left with nowhere to go and span out. The car was recovered by the marshals but a stop for repairs dropped them down the order.
Audi recovered from that setback by going on to demonstrate bulletproof reliability as all three R15s came home safe and sound.
"Peugeot looked like they had beaten Audi for the second straight year, but the 908s all suffered failures," said Audi Motorsport boss Dr Wolfgang Ullrich. "At the beginning it was a little unlucky for us, but at the end it all worked fine.
"It's a great reward for all the work that everyone has done. I think this has to be the hardest Le Mans we've ever done."
Britain's Andy Mayrick took an unexpected fourth place for Team Oreca, while the high attrition rate in the LMP1 class meant fifth place overall went to the LMP2 category winners in the number 42 Strakka Racing car, driven by Britons Nick Leventis and Danny Watts and Irishman Johnny Kane.