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Les Parapluies du Mans

Did it really, finally happen? Allan McNish was able to get to the top step of the podium at Le Mans in his sophomore outing but since 1998, Nishy at La Sarthe has taken on all the aspects of a Kurosawa film. The season so far has had all the elements of a production gone wrong. Even the unflappable Dindo Capello has wondered what it was all about. The Dane, his majesty Tom Kristensen, in between his seven crowns, DTM and the constant schedule of the man with the records, there was also the question of the Audi R10 being able to keep pace with le lion of Peugeot. There has been little secret that the Lord of the Rings best hope for the year lay in their state of the art knowledge of what it takes to win les 24 heures. In heads up in the previous rounds of the LMS against the lion Audi has proved to be a tamer without a whip. Out of the cage and roaming free, taming the lions would require a monumental effort from the boys from Ingolstadt.

Even the insiders expected the R10 to be closer to the 908 at La Sarthe, however, the cheetah like run of the lion in qualifying was somewhat of a surprise. No, it was simply shocking. Surely all three Peugeots couldnít maintain a pace consistently with such a wide gap. So, for the first time since 1999, Audi came in as the underdog. Sweet Polly Purebread.

I wanted to be there, as baby C pointed out, historically the years of 8 and 9 have produced some of the greatest runs. My initial excursion to La Sarthe came in 1978 and I still recall the drama between Porsche and Renault, a great race is forever. The start of this yearís round the houses (Maison Blanche) recalled a furious scrap from 1999 when Schneiderís Mercedes CLK went right after the Toyota GT-Oneís of Martin Brundle and Thierry Boutsen. A certain Mr. McNish was part of the Toyota armada back then and his major protagonist during part of the race was a Mr. Tom Kristensen aboard a BMW LMR. Thatís another story for another time.

Nishy wanted to send a message to Peugeot that Audi was in the game and pulled a neat inside out move on Nicís lioncat and briefly got in to third until the sheer grunt of the 908 dispatched the R10 on Mulsanne and the train of Peugeots motored on for that all important first completed lap. The wee Scot wasnít going to go away and pulled a stint that went on for what seemed like a couple of days. Audi pitwork was game on and more polished than the lions.

Unlike Nishy I wasnít going anywhere at all. A bunch of stitches made a journey from the kitchen to the couch an adventure, that and milkshakes made with rum, a good way to watch the coverage on the box. There was no question that the best hope of Ingolstadt was in the trio piloting the #2 R10. No disrespect intended for #1 and # 3 and there is little doubt that Luhr has the fire, this just isnít his moment. The combination of the experience between TK, Dindo and McNish was the class of the field and may rate as one of the best ever on balance. The images of Tom Kristensen waiting in the garage for his stint, quiet but focused, like a pool shark watching a game. When it is his turn, out comes the custom made cue and he proceeds to run the table. There was no rah-rah, cheerleading, simply three men who when the time came, went to work.

Dindo Capello drove fast, steady, stayed out of trouble and put the demons of the current LMS season behind him. After the experience of leading handily last year only to be robbed by a loose wheel nut and a harrowing crash, you couldnít blame Dindo if he backed off a bit. But that style isnít in his playbook and he complimented brilliantly between Nishy and TK.

There are those who will claim that Audi won because of the change in the weather. Nice try, Audi won because they were the better prepared team and knew how to make disadvantages work to their advantage. Unlike Peugeot, Ullrich and company were able to improvise when needed and still pull it off as if it was scripted.

Can there be any doubt to just how skilled Tom Kristensen is in the rain. TK was the hunter in the heart of darkness and he effectively cornered the lion. As dawn broke, the drama continued as only it can during Le Mans but the aura around the #2 R10 just gave off the vibe that it was their race. The normally unflappable Dr. Ullrich showed the rare emotion as he knew that his team finally had real competition and this race was only matched in importance to that initial overall win in 2000.

However, the podium moment belonged to Allan McNish. He drove a race fueled by passion and each lap was a mission statement. After the disappointments since winning ten years ago, he has learned that nothing is certain and he takes very little for granted. From that move he made on that first lap some 24 hours earlier, McNish made the race his own.

Kerry Morse, June 2008

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Features and pieces by Kerry Morse