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Red Earth, Red Mist, Red Line.................

“Was that the best drive you have ever seen?” asked Marino Franchitti on the train home from Gatwick following Allan McNish’s Petit Le Mans. My answer was ‘no’. The wee Scot didn’t win the race on his own and was very nearly the villain of the piece when he crashed on his way to the grid, but what followed was, admittedly, awe-inspiring. Emanuele Pirro drove well, too, but Rinaldo Capello was slow, suffering from an ill-fitting seat and mid-race, the Italian had to back off to save the engine as the radiators filled with debris. That made the recovery from two laps down all the harder.

The speed came from McNish, so did the aggression as he put Christian Klien’s Peugeot on the grass at 180mph. None expected any different, given the Audi driver’s mood. Marco Werner had led the race two caution periods from home, followed by Klien, with McNish. The Peugeot was faster, particularly in a straight line, and lost little time dispensing of the ALMS champion as racing resumed. McNish had to fight his way past his team- mate too, on new tyres and fuelled to the end of the race as for the first time Werner considered his strategy, previously thought to be perfect by the German, flawed. Then McNish had to deal with the faster car ahead.

Tactically, putting Klien in the car for the final stint was not Peugeot’s best decision. It wasn’t their worst this year either, though. The Austrian had breath-taking speed, but that was not all that was needed. He had a weakness that was perfectly identified by McNish. In traffic, he knew who was driving which car, what they would do, and where they would leave the gap. As the inexperienced Peugeot driver was held up, briefly, McNish not so much slipped down the inside as fired his R10 TDI into a gap that would have been too small for most. He made it, and put another car between himself and the black Peugeot before the straight. Klien fought back, and used the straight line speed to good effect but McNish took a very wide line into Turn 10 A, with Klien on the grass, as he completed his mission.

There were other stars at Atlanta, including Romain Dumas and Jaime Melo. Dumas had another stunning qualifying session. Once again, Turn 1 was the place to watch. The Frenchman came through there with a different style to 2007, not surprisingly given that the lap times improved by two seconds on a 2.54 mile track. His trajectory through the daunting corner involved a lift, a flick of the gearshift, and flat on the power. He was stunning, and two-tenths of a second faster than his team-mates through that turn alone. Maassen and Briscoe had tried to take it without lifting, but the former had a big wobble up the hill and visually was slower than Dumas. McNish followed Dumas and worked out what had just happened ahead. He tried the same method; a lift, a flick, and floor it. First time he, too, had a big wobble up the hill. Second time with the tyres a little warmer, he succeeded. Werner’s lift was far, far longer. He was out of it.

Then the Acuras arrived. They started not very well, looking moderately interesting, but then they started to turn up the wick, and one, I think de Ferran, took it throttle wide open from Turn 10B to Turn 2. I wasn’t sure who did it, because I was so surprised that anyone could try. Then the other Acuras piled in with the same trick. They made the Peugeot look shockingly slow through the corner, yet it was Stephane Sarrazin who was on the overall pole. Pedro Lamy struggled to understand the Acura ability. “They arrive at a lower speed then us…” he said, before tailing off. He couldn’t imagine it in anything. Not in an Aston Martin, not in a Ferrari, Peugeot. Nothing he has driven would do that.

There was another hero of mine in action at Petit Le Mans. Years ago in 2006 I watched the dawn stint of one F. Montagny. And mesmerising it was, too, seconds faster than anyone else the Frenchman was awesome in the literal sense of the word rather than the American. Even Henri Pescarolo had to admit that the drive was exceptional, despite the fact that he shared his Pescarolo with the darling of France, Sebastien Loeb. Montagny quietly got on with the job, and did so again for Peugeot at Le Mans this year. While Jacques Villeneueve and Dindo Capello were lapping in 3m27s, Montagny was sometimes seven seconds faster each lap. Regardless of the traffic, he had the ability to maintain consistent lap times while others around him fluctuated wildly. From the comfort of the Audi hospitality we watched as he hauled the 908 HDI FAP into contention, and then into the lead before Klien dumped it into the gravel.

That put a damper on my estimations of the Austrian, but he changed my mind in Atlanta. He was fast, but still has a lot to learn about driving in traffic. If he does become a full Peugeot driver next year, he will learn those lessons and could be a great driver. Certainly Peugeot believes in him, as Audi did with Lucas Luhr after his epic at Atlanta in 2007.

Who will drive for Peugeot next year? If they take their minds off this mentality of hiring super stars they will do far better. The driver pairings at Atlanta were interesting; Sarrazin, Minassian and Klien, with Lamy as the back up driver. Not Gene, not Wurz, not Villeneuve, Helary, Zonta. They lost Montagny, which was a pity. Who else? Antonio Garcia would make an interesting choice. He didn’t have the heart for touring cars, but is a very quick GT driver. Would he have the balls to defend as McNish did from Klien? Not sure, but probably if his job depended on it. Dumas? Yes. Stefan Mucke? Yes. Jaime Melo? Ask Jorg Bergmeister. As a wild card, why not consider Oliver Gavin, a gifted, intelligent and fast racer?

Franchitti opined that some drivers have a desire which burns stronger than others, and I am inclined to agree. McNish is one, David Brabham another. I would include Montagny, Sarrazin who was also mighty at the Spa 24 hours, and Minassian, whose desire will burn stronger than ever next year having messed up at Silverstone. Porsche director of motorsport Hartmut Kristen congratulated Dumas on his restraint having set his time in qualifying, parked his car, and saved his tyres while the others pounded round and went a little faster. It was not well received from a man who has that desire to beat the world. “You are learning!” said Kristen. “I just want to be fastest,” was the reply.

The best drive? Le Mans 2008. Given the above list, I am ready to see even that surpassed.

Andrew Cotton, October 2008