What makes a 12 hour drive to Atlanta and weathering a gas shortage worth it? Simple, the opportunity to witness the 2008 Petit Le Mans trackside. Perfect weather, one of the most amazing circuits and the latest in sportscar technology again combined to produce yet another racing classic. Thanks to Allan McNish, spending a day on the red Georgia clay couldn’t have been any better.
The titanic struggle between Audi and Peugeot resumed on our side of the pond for the second time in 2008. This time it didn’t fail to disappoint on the track. Firing the first first bullet on Friday, the No. 07 Peugeot of Minassian, Klien and Sarrazin uncorked the 908 HDi FAP to put it on pole in stunning fashion over the McNish led No.1 and Werner led No. 2 Audi R10 TDI’s. We were all left wondering if Audi Sport NA had anything for the lone Pug. Hope for Audi fans took a major hit on raceday as McNish shunted his R10 during morning warm-up hopelessly relegating the #1 to the garage for serious repairs. At 11:15AM Minassian brought the field down for the green, with McNish finally emerging from the paddock onto the hot pit two and a half laps down. It was the #2 Audi that shadowed the Peugeot throughout the early stages, even managing to log laps in the overall lead as they both conservatively controlled the pace.
Meanwhile, the savvy spectators had their eyes on McNish blitzing the field, carving his way back into contention ripping through traffic. Watching from the back straight bridge, it was magical to watch the No. 1 weaving left and right lap after lap overhauling everyone and everything at 195mph. At the end of his first stint McNish managed to get one of their laps back and Capello and Pirro managed to chip away thanks to timely safety car periods and perfect pit strategy. While the spotlight was on the 07 Peugeot and No. 2 Audi, the McNish, Capello and Pirro trio finally found themselves on level ground as the sun began to set, storming their way back and positioning themselves for the unthinkable.
After 8+ hours of running, Werner, Klien and McNish were 1-2-3 in the queue behind the safety car readying for a 40 minute trophy dash as the electricity began to build and became palpable throughout the race. It didn’t take much time for Klien to take advantage of the the big Peugeot topend to get by Werner in what a lot of us thought was the race. Desperate, McNish squeezed his way by the team car and set his sights squarely on the HDi FAP 908. Making full use of his fresher tires McNish aggressively made use of the traffic to pull up to No. 07’s rear wing, flashing his lights and filling his mirrors as he tried to break Klien’s rhythm hustling the R10 for all its worth. On full-kill, McNish forced his way through like a bulldog, capturing the head of the field for the first time slicing to the inside of turn 6 giving Klien no choice but to relent. With all eyes in the turn 10 complex switching from the big screen to the track, sure enough it was McNish in the No. 1 into the 10A brake zone first. He was through after 9 hours!
Klien, as expected, regrouped and chased the Audi as McNish made the R10 as wide as possible and even squeezed the Pug to the grass at nearly 200mph. In full darkness, the nearly silent trio came slashing down into the 10A brake zone lap after tense lap. Then as if the last to first drive wasn’t amazing enough, somehow McNish dug even deeper and started to gap the supposedly superior 908, he was putting on a clinic and the crowd loved it, cheering him on as the gap grew larger. A record 11th caution flag gathering up the field wouldn’t derail McNish’s quest. As if he was shot out from a cannon, McNish stomped out any anxiety as he took the race by the throat on a monster of a restart. Screaming to the 1000 mile mark in commanding fashion, McNish slammed the door and capped the most epic drives in recent memory. From 2.5 laps down to the Peugeot, the No. 1 Audi had done it.
After such a monumental finish, I’m not sure how one could top this year’s running of Petit Le Mans, but I thought the same thing last year after Audi and Porsche slugged it out. Given this event’s history of one upping itself every year, RFD won’t miss 2009 for the world. We suggest any racecar fan to do the same!