Dalmas flies the flag for McLaren

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Motor racing


reports from Le Mans

Toiling in Formula One, unfancied to stay the course here, McLaren put a new sheen on their battered pride by winning a tense and absorbing Le Mans 24-hour race.

The BMW-powered McLaren F1 GTR driven by Yannick Dalmas, J J Lehto and Masanori Sekiya, the first Japanese driver to achieve this success, resisted the late charge of a Courage Porsche, recovering from Mario Andretti's costly spin on Saturday evening, to claim the most prestigious sports car prize.

McLarens occupied the next three places to confirm their durability, as well as their quality, but the most romantic angle to this story was dashed within two hours of the flag.

It seemed Derek Bell's unshakeable love affair with this event would produce a record equalling sixth victory for the 53-year-old Englishman. Partnering his son, Justin, and Andy Wallace, his car was in front until it encountered one clutch and gearbox problem too many. Third place was scant consolation.

If it was frustrating for Bell senior, it must have been devastating for Wallace, who accepted the lion's share of the work and drove magnificently throughout a race rendered still more demanding by the rain, which relented only in yesterday's latter stages.

Wallace had been embroiled in a pulsating battle with Dalmas's squad when McLaren defied doubts about their reliability and made full use of the fuel handicap system, which restricted the considerably quicker World Sports Car and Prototype contenders.

Bell Snr said: "I never believed McLaren would build a car and do such a good job in the first year. We were just hoping to finish, but might have won it. It's been another marvellous event."

The WSC runners and Prototypes had the opportunity to demonstrate their pace at the start, the two WR Peugeots surging away before being separated by the Courage Porsche. The GT teams had to track and wait, as they knew they would have to. The fuel regulations presented them with a pit stop advantage and soon they were to profit.

Routines, however, were thrown out when, after only 50 minutes, the showers arrived. The drizzle persisted through the evening and the night. Spills and spins were inevitable but only one driver was significantly injured. The Frenchman, Patrick Gonin, went to hospital with broken ribs and concussion after his Peugeot hit a barrier.

Damage to machinery and aspirations was more widespread. Mark Blundell's McLaren spent almost an hour in the pits for repairs after Ray Bellm hit a wall. "It's like ice out there," he said. They had to settle for fourth.

Andretti suffered a similar fate and looked on as the car was patched up and its position plummeted. The American's partner, Bob Wollek, said: "I've never experienced such difficult conditions here."

Franck Lagorce pushed his courage in a valiant, though futile, attempt to stay in the race. Two Porsches somehow managed to collect each other in the mayhem and the list of retirements grew as crippled cars were dragged away.

The fortunate merely had to endure the trials and scares that are all in a day and night's work at Le Mans. John Nielsen decided to put up with poor visibility rather than forfeit half an hour or more to have his faulty windscreen wiper fixed.

The Dalmas car had its share of spins, yet avoided catastrophe and always generated the speed to make amends. It tracked the Bell-Wallace car through the night and into the morning before Dalmas overhauled Justin Bell. Wallace climbed back into the cockpit and regained the lead. As so often here, alas, there was to be a final, cruel twist.

LE MANS 24-HOUR RACE Final positions: 1 Y Dalmas (Fr), J J Lehto (Fin), M Sekiya (Japan) McLaren BMW F1 GTR) 4,055.800 km (168.992kph, 105mph); 2 B Wollek (Fr), M Andretti (US), E Helary (Fr) Courage Porsche C34 +9.461km; 3 A Wallace (GB), J Bell (GB), D Bell (GB) McLaren BMW F1 GTR +1 lap; 4 R Bellm (GB), M Sala (It), M Blundell (GB) McLaren BMW F1 GTR +6; 5 F Giroix (Fr), O Grouillard (Fr), J-D Deletraz (Swit) McLaren BMW F1 GTR +7; 6 H Stuck (Ger), T Boutsen (Bel), C Bouchut (Fr) Porsche K8 +7; 7 Y Terada (Japan), J Downing (US), F Freon (Fr) Mazda DG3 +15; 8 K Takahashi (Japan), K Tsuchiya (Japan), A Iida (Japan) Honda NSX GT +22; 9 J Unser (US), F Jelinski (Ger), E Bertaggia (It) Callaway Chevrolet Corvette +24; 10 H Fukuyama (Japan), M Kondo (Japan), S Kasuya (Japan) Nissan GTR LM +26. 11 R Agusta (It), E O'Brien (GB), R Donnovan (GB) Callaway Chevrolet Corvette +26; 12 M Ferte (Fr), O Thevenin (Fr), C Palau (Sp) Ferrari F40 LM +27; 13 J-L Larribiere (Fr), M Sourd (Fr), H Poulain (Fr) McLaren BMW FI GTR +31; 14 J Krosnoff (US), M Martini (It), M Apicella (It) Toyota GT LM +33; 15 G Kuster (US), K Dolejsi (Cz Rep), P Seikel (Ger) Porsche 911 GT2 +34; 16 E van de Vyver (Bel), D Ortion (Fr), J-F Veroux (Fr) Porsche 911 GT2 +35; 17 R Jones (GB), N Adams (GB), G McQuillan (GB) Porsche 911 GT2 +49; 18 F Mancini (It), M Monti (It), G Ayles (GB) Ferrari F40 +60; 19 W Kaufmann (Ger), Y Hane (Japan), M Ligonnet (Fr) Porsche RSR GT1 +69; 20 P Roussel (Fr), B Santal (Swit), E Sezionale (Fr) Debora Ford +75.

n Mark Blundell will keep his McLaren Mercedes Formula One drive for at least two more races. He will compete at next month's French and British grands grix and hopes to secure the seat for the rest of the season.