Motor racing: Alboreto pilots Porsche through fiery finish

A fire in the leading factory Porsche with little more than two hours left gave a Porsche-powered prototype designed in Britain and driven by a 40-year-old Italian victory in the Le Mans 24 Hours race yesterday.

The Porsche with Michele Alboreto at the wheel gave the German sportscar makers a record 15th Le Mans win and a second successive triumph for the Reinhold Joest team, whose TWR prototype was designed by Tom Walkinshaw. The Reinhold Joest team also won in 1984 and 1985.

Alboreto, partnered by Stefan Johansson of Sweden and the Dane Tom Kristensen, used his Formula One experience to secure his first victory in the legendary endurance race which saw the track lapped at 135mph.

"This race was run at grand prix speed for 22 hours," said Alboreto, who won five out of 194 races in Formula One. "The last two hours of the race were more relaxed. I've had a dream for a long time of winning this race and now it has come true." His car's winning distance was 361 laps, toalling 3,052 miles (4,911.4km).

McLaren F1 GTRs occupied second and third positions. The second-placed car was driven by the Frenchmen Jean-Marc Gounon and Pierre-Henri Raphanel, and Anders Olofsson of Sweden, the other by the Dutchman Peter Kox, Roberto Ravaglia of Italy and France's Eric Helary. The French veteran Henri Pescarolo, competing in a record 31st Le Mans, was seventh in his Courage C36, while only one of the three Nissan R390s which started the race with high hopes, made it to the end in 12th place. Of the 48 starters, 17 finished -eight fewer than last year.

Alboreto and his co-drivers stayed behind the top factory Porsches for nearly 20 hours, suddenly gaining the lead when the leaders caught fire with 2hr 15min to go. A McLaren driven by Britain's Andrew Scott also burst into flames 20 minutes later at the same spot after the Mulsanne rise when in fifth place.

"At first I thought, `Great, we gained a spot'," said Johansson, reliving the moment when the lead was there for the taking. "But then you worry about the driver. I was kind of happy to see the driver [Ralf Kelleners] jump out."

Fire also claimed the Chrysler Viper of Japan's Soheil Ayari and Briton Perry McCarthy's Pangoz GTR after they had spun off early in the contest.

The factory-backed Porsches were one-two for most of the race. The first Porsche led for nearly 14 hours before it went off the road, giving the lead to the second Porsche for the next four hours. However, the Joest Porsche was always right behind.

"We had to drive as quick as we could to put as much pressure on them as possible," Johansson said.

"I think we started a little history with this car," Ralf Juettner, the team's manager, said. "It takes a lot of work and a lot of help from a lot of people. It was a good car and a great team."

Mario Andretti, seeking the only major international title he has yet to win, faltered again with problems plaguing his Porche almost from the start. His race ended early yesterday when the car ran off the road.

"The first time out, the rear wing broke and I spun off," Andretti said. "Then down the Mulsanne straight the left front tyre came off." He got the car back to the pits but to no avail.

Andretti finished second two years ago, three minutes behind the winner, after losing half an hour in the pits following a spin four hours into the race. Last year he managed 13th place.

Alboreto had the best qualifying time of 3min 41.581sec, averaging 137.32mph. Kristensen had the fastest lap of 3:45.068, with a speed of 135.20mph (217.534kph).

Cloudy skies greeted drivers at the start. The sun came out briefly on Saturday afternoon, but the threat of rain continued through the night before the sun returned yesterday morning to warm what proved to be a fiery finish.

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