Peugeot recovered from a poor qualifying session on Friday to win the 1000km of Spa and put the pressure on Audi. The race at Spa had great significance for all the teams as it was part of the Le Mans Series and the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup competitions. It was also the last competitive outing before the big one; the Le Mans 24 hours.
The 3 Peugeots began the race in amongst the back markers after they failed to set a fast lap time as qualifying was curtailed by a red flag. However the dominance of the diesel engines over their petrol powered rivals saw all the diesels at the head of the field within 20 minutes of the start. Peugeot’s dramatic recovery was helped by Allan McNish spinning the no.3 Audi R18 on the first lap. Although there was no damage to the car it left him down amongst the GT cars.
Alexander Wurz had an amazing start and quickly got his Peugeot amongst the Audis. His rise was helped by good fortune in amongst the traffic as the Audis were blocked and the Peugeot sailed by. Just before the first round of pit stops Wurz completed the comeback by passing Andre Lotterer’s Audi to take the race lead. Audi were now on the back foot.
The Oreca-Matmut run Peugeot, that was victorious in the first round of the ILMC at Sebring, had been comfortably following the race leaders. Although they were never really challenging their race was effectively ended when they had to return to their garage to replace a fuel pump. Although they were able to return the leaders were out of sight.
More problems also returned to Audi as the No. 1 car collided with a slower Formula Le Mans car causing the car to return to the pit lane to replace its engine cover. More bizarrely the Audi also lost their third position when Dindo Capello accidentally witched on the pit lane limiter when on the pit straight. After a bit of quick thinking and a computer re-set he was able to continue unhindered but more ground had been lost. Finally approaching half way in to the race the No.2 Audi had to pit early after visiting the gravel giving the Peugeots a rather unexpected 1-2-3.
Elsewhere in the LMP1 category the Level 5 Racing Lola had a major crash and became stuck under the tyre wall forcing a safety car. The driver, Christophe Bouchut, could do little as the car suffered suspension failure at high speed and was fortunate to walk away from the badly damaged car. The car looked even worse minutes late as the recovery truck managed to break more off the car as it tried to remove it from the tyres.
One of the best battles in the race came in the GTE Pro class where the Ferraris of AF Corse and JMW Motorsport were often wheel to wheel. The fight came to a head around 4 hours in to the race when Rob Bell in the bright yellow Ferrari ran wide while chasing down the red Ferrari in front. Bell’s car crossed the gravel and clipped the tyre wall before returning to the track just ahead of Fisichella in the 2nd AF Corse Ferrari. Unfortunately the damage had been done and Bell had to return to the pit with a pierced radiator and some bent bodywork. The JMW challenge was over.
At the front Peugeot appeared to be cruising, with Audi settling for testing fuel consumption and tyre wear on their new car. However, shortly after pitting following another minor collision and bodywork repair, Tom Kristensen in the No. 3 Audi picked up the pace and set the fastest lap of the race, putting a little pressure back on the Peugeots. It was then that the No 9 Peugeot has some trouble. First the car pitted to replace its nose cone that had been damaged out on track. Then the same car suffered a suspension failure lifting Kristensen’s Audi back in to the top three.
Shortly before the end of the race Simon Pagenaud managed to claim the fastest lap of the race and with fuel levels dropping Audi chose to refuel their R18s with just a few laps remaining. It was perhaps fitting that the man that drove so well at the start, Alexander Wurz, returned to the leading Peugeot for the last stint and brought home his car for the win. The No 8 Peugeot crossed the line not far behind in 2nd place with the No. 3 Audi further back in 3rd.
There was a three way battle in the LMP2 class that went right to the chequered flag. Boutsen Energy Racing were leading coming in to the last hour, but as they came in for their last pit stop they were overtaken by TDS Racing and Strakka Racing. However, after Jonny Kane brought the Strakka car in for its last stop it rejoined in third behind the Boutsen Energy car in 2nd. This was how it finished with TDS racing taking the class win, but the drama gripped the Strakka Racing team as their car stalled just metres from the finish line. Fortunately Jonny Kane managed to fire the car back in to life enough to creep over the line, take 3rd place and then park up alongside the pit wall.
The GTE Pro class had been a close battle all race, but it looked to be a 1-2 for the Ferraris of AF Corse going in to the last hour. However, the No.71 AF Corse suffered damage in a collision with the Larbre Competition Corvette, ruining both their challenges as they had to retire from the race. The remaining No 51 AF Corse Ferrari 458 continued out of trouble to win the class ahead of the Hankook Farnbacher Ferrari and the BMW Motorsport M3 in third.
In contrast the winners of the GTE Am class had all their problems early on at Spa. The IMSA Performance Matmut Porsche 997 GT3 RSR had gone off at the start of the race, but managed to lap consistently quickly throughout the race to battle their way back up the field. Drivers Nicolas Armindo and Raymond Narac managed to retake the lead with some impressive lap times that rivaled the Pro class and then held on to give Porsche something to smile about at last.
So with the Le Mans Series and ILMC round at Spa completed Peugeot Sport have claimed the bragging rights over Audi with a solid performance. Audi know they have the speed to match the Peugeots, but will need better luck to finish ahead.
Next is the big one as we all head to Le Mans for the 24 hours.
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