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For a brief few laps at Monza, the story of Le Mans 2008 was clearly spelled out. Like the précis of a book the outline of the plot was revealed, and Audi will take plenty of heart from the performance of their R10 TDI in the hands of Mike Rockenfeller,  against the Peugeot of Pedro Lamy. After Stephane Ortelliís monumental accident in the ORECA Courage, the safety car was deployed, bunching up the field. Rockenfeller was in the pits as the safety car emerged, Lamy had his final pit stop, but unlike Rockenfeller he didnít change tyres, and it was a clear run to the flag.

After dominating the pace in each practice session and claiming pole position by 1.7s, the Peugeots clearly had the faster car of the two. This was not a surprise given the speed of the 908 Hdi FAP in the Sebring test, race, and at Barcelona. In the Monza race, Peugeot set the fastest lap, a 1m32.124 for the Gene/Minassian car, compared to 1m33.746 for Allan McNish and Dindo Capello. The second cars were classed 1m33.375 for Lamy and Sarrazinís Peugeot, 1m34.839 for Premat and Rockenfeller in the second placed Audi. Both of the Audis qualified in the 1m33s, the Peugeots in the 1m31s.

Yet in those last ten laps of the race, the Audi was able to negotiate the traffic at least as well as the Peugeot, was able to pull out something of a gap between the two, and Lamy looked under pressure. A stupid mistake, overtaking a GT2 Spyker under yellows, almost caused carnage as he narrowly missed a truck picking up the stranded Embassy Racing car. Pedro is a professional, and would have seen the white flags, yellow flags, and the truck on the entry to the second chicane.

If not, never mind. As he ducked out, the large object in front of him would have been clear, yet he made the move and didnít slow to recognise the fact that he had made such a mistake. His eyes were firmly on the Audi, and he couldnít afford to let it go. In race trim, he had neither the pace, nor the fuel economy, to give anything away. He picked up a stop and go penalty, which should have meant a comfortable Audi win. Yet there was confusion on the radio and Rocky continued to race.

The Portuguese slipped past the Audi at the first chicane, went wide, and led, at which point the officials posted the stop and go penalty message. Pedro slowed, let the Audi back past and was right on his tail, able to attack immediately. This was Rockyís reason for continuing to race the Peugeot but I donít buy it. The message came up immediately, no time for discussion of the officials and no time for Pedro to make a now customary amendment and allow Rocky back through. This he did, thus avoiding another stop and go penalty. The Peugeot sat right on the tail of the Audi in preparation for another attack at the first chicane, Pedro tried the outside, the pair touched, the Audi punctured a front tyre.  But now the Peugeot led by enough of a margin that Lamy was able to take his penalty, and exit the pits before Rocky made it round to change his tyre. For me, it was clear that the penalty was for overtaking under yellows but Audi was not risking that; Rocky continued to race the Peugeot, and in so doing took an even bigger risk. Why?

The puncture meant that the race was over and Audi was not happy. They went to see the officials, who waved them away. This is Le Mans, not the World Touring Car Championship. Protests are not part of the post race procedure. I cannot ever remember a fine being issued for a technical infringement, unlike the FIA model. Pedro will have been awarded the racing equivalent of the yellow card but the ACO does not do things publicly. Punch a policeman at Le Mans, and you will not be invited to race at Le Mans the next year, as one FIA Champion team discovered. Upset them, and you will not be invited to play with their ball again. This is a French club, and membership is exclusive.

One observer commented that it seemed unjust that John Nielsen should have a minute stop and go penalty for a team member touching the Team Essex Porsche during a pit stop and having narrowly avoided a truck, Pedro was allowed to go immediately. I agree. Not that Pedro was entirely to blame. The touch was innocuous, the puncture unfortunate, and Peugeotís team manager Serge Saulnier was right to point out; do you want racing, or you want the same as last year? The incident showed how close the diesels are to each other in performance, how high the stakes are for Le Mans. One thing to consider; starting from the pit lane, the Audiís overall race time would have been around a minute faster than that of the Peugeot. Even with the puncture, the gap between the two was 47s.

While Porsche is contesting overall wins in the US, in Europe the story is different. Though the RS Spyder filled the LMP2 podium at Monza, the Speedy Racing Sebah Lola has the pace and the strategic acumen to challenge, and I do expect it to win a race this year. The GT1 class is clearly dying. Though Aston Martin and Corvette put on a fine show, finishing 12 seconds apart, with only four cars, five in Spa, it is harder and harder to justify it. There are so many cars sitting in garages and collections, including Ferraris, Aston Martins, Maseratis, Corvettes and Saleens, yet they are not being raced. In GT2, the IMSA Porsche won, was excluded due to a data logging cable coming loose, and the decision is under appeal. A GT2 story will be coming later in May.

For now, the race had international appeal. Broadcast on Radio Le Mans, it attracted 89,000 listeners on race day through the internet, more than 110,000 people over the weekend from in excess of 40 countries. At Spa we will have the added attraction of Jacques Villeneueve and Alexander Wurz, completing the Le Mans line-up for Peugeot. Oddly, with three drivers in each car at Spa, Peugeot says this will weaken their race chances. I reckon on pure race pace and economy, Audi would have run them close regardless.

Andrew Cotton, May 2008