Motor Racing: Brabham steers Peugeot to their place in the sun: Japanese challenge suffers a total eclipse by the French at sunrise as Le Mans brings down the curtain on the era of the prototypes

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The Independent Online
IT WAS stirring stuff while it lasted but, by the time the sun had risen with perverse symbolism over Sarthe, the Japanese challenge was crumbling and Peugeot were inexorably on course for a consummate Le Mans 24- hour victory. Toyota solemnly collected the pieces as the French wallowed in a clean sweep of the first three places.

The collision of the old dinosaurs had provided an appropriate final spectacle and fanfare to the era of the 3.5-litre atmospheric prototypes, and their passing will be lamented by those who watched and listened to their screaming progress around this 8.45-mile circuit.

Ultimately, Peugeot had too much expertise and reliability, and Toyota too little fortune to prolong the contest into the closing hours. There were, of course, the inevitable late anxieties, including a door flying off a Peugeot, yet all three of the 905Bs were there at the end, the cavalcade led, improbably, by Geoff Brabham and his relatively unknown French partners, Christophe Bouchut and Eric Helary. Toyota had their surviving category one cars in fourth and eighth places, and retrieved some semblance of consolation with first place in category two, the car finishing fifth overall.

The Brabham family's success was completed by David Brabham's part in Jaguar's GT class win. The not-so- Big Cat, also occupied by Denmark's John Nielsen and Scotland's David Coulthard, left a string of Porsches in its wake, perhaps heralding the start of tomorrow's sportscar racing. Looking on, savouring the double achievement, was Sir Jack Brabham, the three-times world champion.

At the sharp end of this race, the pace was as hot as the sun that sent them out on Saturday afternoon and accompanied them back in yesterday. The duel between Thierry Boutsen's Peugeot and Geoff Lees's Toyota was stunning, the pair carving through the back-markers in the process.

That Toyota, alas, was effectively put out of contention when, in the hands of Juan Manuel Fangio, nephew of the great man, it was hit by a Lotus and consigned to a lengthy stop for repairs. Lees captured the disappointment many will have sympathy with when he said: 'I really wanted it and really thought we'd win it. I told my friends to put money on me. It just bugs me it's got away from me.'

Four hours from the end, the remnants of Toyota's hopes were swept away for good. Their leading car, then running third, coasted into the pits with a broken clutch. Eddie Irvine had driven heroically and he, like Lees, was frustratingly left to make up the numbers.

Boutsen, in second place, harboured thoughts of victory up to the final hour, only to be told to hold station. The script for the closing scene had been written. The first two cars, though separated by a lap in race distance, concluded the formalities in nose to tail formation, to unbridled Gallic fervour.

It was a magnificent curtain call for Peugeot and their director, Jean Todt, who now confronts possibly the most daunting task of all, to resurrect the Ferrari Formula One team. He stood, dewy-eyed, as the crowd sang the 'Marseillaise'. Geoff Brabham , more used to podium presentations on the other side of the Atlantic, said: 'This is the most fantastic team I've driven for and I can't believe all this. It was like a sprint out there and we had to work for it.'

The Jaguar trio were given a similarly ecstatic reception and Coulthard said: 'I'm speechless. I was even frightened just to stand up there. I didn't know what to expect this weekend, but it's been a fantastic experience, I've enjoyed every minute of it.'

This year's race demonstrated, above all, that variety is the essence of Le Mans. Most coped admirably with the problems presented by the speed disparity and a mix of Jaguars, Porsches and Lotuses (the Ferrari was withdrawn after crashing in the warm-up) brought a welcome dimension to the event. Two Jaguars fell by the wayside yet the remaining XJ220 lived up to the expectations of the TWR camp.

Le Mans officials are eager to retain a version of the prototypes, with the support of many here. Andy Wallace, who parked his Toyota with gearbox trouble, said: 'GTs have their place and having different cars is part of Le Mans. But more than anything, the beauty and attraction is the high- speed prototypes.'

LE MANS 24-HOUR RACE Leading final standings: 1 G Brabham (Aus), C Bouchut (Fr), E Helary (Fr), Peugeot 905, 375 laps (5,100.00km, ave speed 213.358kph); 2 Y Dalmas (Fr), T Boutsen (Bel), T Fabi (It) Peugeot 905, 374 laps; 3 P Alliot (Fr), M Baldi (It), J-P Jabouille (Fr) Peugeot 905, 367; 4 M Sekiya, T Suzuki (both Japan), E Irvine (GB) Toyota TS010, 364; 5 R Ratzenberger (Aut), N Nagasaka (Japan), M Martini (It), Toyota RV 92, 363; 6 S Andskar (Swe), G Fouche (SA), E Elgh (Swe) Toyota RV92 Turbo Nisso, 358; 7 J Oppermann, O Altenbach (both Ger), L Kessel (Swit) Porsche 962-155 Obermaier, 355; 8 G Lees (GB), J Lammers (Neth), JM Fangio III (Arg) Toyota TS010, 353; 9 B Wollek, H Pescarolo (both Fr), R Meixneir (US), Porsche 962-013 Joest, 351; 10 L Robert, P Fabre (both Fr), D Bell (GB), Cougar C30LM Porsche, 347.