LE MANS, France (Reuters) - Denmark’s Tom Kristensen won the Le Mans 24 Hours race for a record eighth time on Sunday, leading Audi to a thrilling victory over favourites Peugeot in the battle of the diesels.
Kristensen, who was already the only driver with seven victories in the endurance classic, celebrated with team-mates Dindo Capello of Italy and Britain’s Allan McNish in the number two Audi.
The trio completed 381 laps and won by four minutes 31 seconds from the number seven Peugeot driven by Frenchman Nicolas Minassian, Marc Gene of Spain and Canada’s 1997 Formula One world champion Jacques Villeneuve.
France’s Franck Montagny brought home the number nine Peugeot in third place, and two laps down, as Audi claimed an eighth win in the last nine years and a hat-trick of victories in a diesel powered car.
Asked how the victory compared to his previous seven, 40-year-old Kristensen told a news conference: ”It’s the best.
“I am extremely proud to get the eighth, but this is not about the eighth. This is about a team that gave us a perfect car and did Le Mans without any problems. That is unique.”
Peugeot started the race as hot favourites after filling the first three places in qualifying and having beaten Audi in the first three Le Mans Series (LMS) races this year.
The French car manufacturer dominated the first half of the race, despite some technical problems, as the 258,000-strong crowd enjoyed the sunshine.
But the outcome of the 76th running of Le Mans turned when rain hit the La Sarthe track during the night leaving the 13.629km-long circuit in a treacherous state.
Kristensen, with the conditions better suited to his R10, overturned a 40-seconds deficit to Villeneuve while the Peugeots struggled with visibility problems.
The winning trio suffered the agony last year of dominating the race for 17 hours only for Capello to crash out when a wheelnut worked loose while they were three laps clear.
McNish, 38, who won with Porsche 10 years ago, hailed another magic moment in his career.
“We were the underdogs. I am very pleased and very proud as we did this with our backs to the wall. We did not expect to be here at the end of the race,” he said.
“Everything had to be perfect. We had one chance when it rained and we took it very well.”
Capello, 44, said of his third victory: “Last year we had the fastest car and lost. This year we had no chance to win but with Audi you never know. With Audi the impossible sometimes happens.”
Kristensen survived a scare two hours from the finish when he collided with fellow Dane Juan Barazi who was 29th for Team Barazi, but was able to continue without pitting for repairs.
Peugeot made a final gamble just one hour from the finish when they opted to keep Minassian on slick tyres as Audi switched to intermediates with rain again hitting the track.
Minassian spun soon after and just missed hitting another car but he could not make a serious impact on the lead enjoyed by Kristensen.
The 35-year-old Frenchman said: ”It was a gamble but we had to try it because we were a long way behind.
“It is bitterly disappointing not to win. It might have been different if it had not rained, we don’t know, but we have to come back again next year and fight again.”
The second place finish thwarted Villeneuve’s hopes of becoming the only man alive, and second after Britain’s late Graham Hill, to win the F1 title, the Indy 500 and Le Mans.
“We had a few problems with the car and obviously we have got to work on the way we get the car working in the wet as well as the dry,” said the Canadian.
“Le Mans is a one-off race and if you don’t win it’s very disappointing. That was the aim but I would like to come back again.”
Editing by Alan Baldwin