First run through the French countryside in 1923, only stopping for WW2, the event is the most arduous race for man and machine, and thus the most prestigious. As a result, the world's largest car manufacturers and race teams clamor to get their drivers on the top step of the podium. And with the race divided into prototype and GT classes, there's competition throughout the field.This year's event promised to be a humdinger, with Audi vs Peugeot in the LMP1 prototype class, Corvette vs Aston Martin in GT1 and Porsche vs Ferrari in GT2. And the 2008 race lived up to the hype.
Thanks to extensive coverage on Speed TV we were able to follow most of the race, with almost half the race shown live.
Audi had returned with its all-conquering turbocharged V12 diesel-powered R10 LMP1 prototypes to attempt to defend its crown and take an eighth win at the historic circuit. However, the French Peugeot team had entered a trio of its 906 HDI FAP prototypes and they promised to push Audi very hard.
Having won several races ahead of the Le Mans race, Audi knew it wouldn't have everything its own way, and a Peugeot front row confirmed that at the start of the 24 Hour event.When the flag dropped, six almost silent turbo-diesels from Peugeot and Audi headed into the countryside. The 8.47 mile circuit uses long stretches of public roads, hitting 230mph down the fastest Mulsanne straight. Within 10mins of the start, two leading Peugeots were pulling away and starting to lap the slower GT cars.
The closed cockpits of the Peugeot prototypes was thought to give them an aerodynamic advantage over the open Audis. Boasting almost 800hp and running on a bio-diesel fuel brewed by Shell from wood pulp, the Audi and Peugeot diesels diced throughout the night. Each car suffered minor problems but all six finished. However, the experienced Audi team and drivers combined with the R10's dogged reliability saw them take the lead at 5am. They never relinquished it until the 3pm finish, but the leading Peugeot in second place was rarely far behind, finally finishing 4mins behind the winner - not bad after 24 hours of racing!
Such was the pace set by the Peugeots, forcing Audi to push equally hard, that the 76th running of the Le Man 24 Hour race entered the history books as one of the fastest ever - the winning R10 (#2 driven by Dindo Capello (Italy), Tom Kristensen (Denmark) and Allan McNish (Scotland) covered 381 laps, or 3227 miles (5193km) at an average speed of 134mph.
The Peugeot 908 HDI FAP finished in second, third and fifth, with the remaining R10s in fourth and sixth.The LMP2 class was won by the Van Merksteijn Motorsport Porsche RS Spyder.
The GT1 class went to #009 Aston Martin DBR9 of David Brabham, Antonio Garcia and Darren Turner. This was the team's second victory, taking the same class win at its first attempt in 2007. This time resplendent on iconic Gulf Racing livery, the 009 car was shadowed closely by the #63 Corvette. At one point there was only 4sec between the teams, and less than 5mins at the end. The #007 Aston finished fourth in class.
In GT2, the victory went to the Ferrari F430 GT entered by Risi Competizione from the USA. The class was billed as a battle between the F430 and Porsche 911 GT3 RSR but on the day, Ferrari took the top four places in class.
While 24 hour races have the ability to be tedious affairs, the 76th Le Mans was an epic battle between the giants of Europe and provided thrilling action throughout the course of the entire event and throughout the entire field of 55 cars. The race was watched by TV audiences around the world and by 258,500 spectators at the circuit.