Motor Racing: Stirring effort from Martini secures victory

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BMW WON their first Le Mans yesterday following an incident-packed race. Italy's Pierluigi Martini held off a late charge from Toyota's Ukyo Katayama to secure victory after the Japanese driver suffered a blown tyre 55 minutes from the finish.

"Toward the end of the race I was telling myself that I have waited so long for this moment, so I must really push," Martini said, while Katayama said his accident occurred when he was trying to avoid a trailing BMW and went on to a curb.

"I was pushing hard to catch him [Martini] and then suddenly went on to the curb," he said. "I didn't realise what had happened till I got back to the pits."

Martini was partnered by two other former Formula One drivers, Germany's Joachim Winkelhock and Yannick Dalmas. It was the Frenchman's fourth victory after winning with Peugeot in 1992, Porsche in 1994 and McLaren in 1995.

"I knew we had a chance to be in the top three," Winkelhock said. "But the last few hours were so close that I nearly had a heart attack."

Only Belgium's Jacky Ickx, with six wins, and Britain's Derek Bell, with five, have a better record than Dalmas.

"We had absolutely no problems with the car," Dalmas said. "In the beginning we decided to go with less force, then between six and eight hours things really improved. To win this race for the fourth time is very special."

Katayama's downfall came at the same Indianapolis straight where Scotland's Peter Dumbreck had suffered a horrifying 185mph smash just a few hours into the race.

The nose of Dumbreck's Mercedes lifted into the air without warning, with the car then somersaulting several times before landing in trees which lined the track, although miraculously the 25-year-old Scot escaped unhurt.

Katayama, meanwhile, partnered by his fellow Japanese drivers Keiichi Tsuchyiya and Toshio Suzuki, had performed brilliantly to keep the car on the circuit and limp to the pits, where the impending tyre- change cost them the race.

Another major casualty was the second Mercedes driven by Thierry Boutsen in the early hours of yesterday morning after he crashed in the Dunlop chicane, ending up in a sand pit.

Rescue teams took 30 minutes to extricate Boutsen from the cockpit and take him to hospital, with the Belgian complaining of back pains, while he was also feared to have broken a collarbone.

The Dalmas-Martini-Winkelhock car took the lead when JJ Lehto slammed his BMW into a restraining wall less than four hours from the finish.

Lehto suffered minor leg injuries in the crash, which saw the car lose its bonnet, forcing the Finn and team-mates Thomas Kristensen of Denmark and Germany's Jorg Muller out at a point when they held a three-lap lead. Behind the BMW and the Toyota came the Audi of Emanuele Pirro, Frank Biela of Germany, and Belgium's Didier Theys.

Britain's Martin Brundle, who started on pole position in the No1 Mercedes, spun out after seven and a quarter hours with suspension problems after hitting a barrier at a chicane.

LE MANS 24 HOURS RACE (Le Mans, France) Leading results: 1 J Winkelhock (Ger)/P Martini (It)/Y Dalmas (Fr) BMW V12 LMR, 365 laps completed; 2 U Katayama/K Tsuchiya/T Suzuki (Japan) Toyota GT One, one lap behind; 3 E Pirro (It)/F Biela (Ger)/Didier Theys (Bel) Audi R8R, +5; 4 M Alboreto (It)/R Capello (It)/L Aiello (Fr) Audi R8R, +19; 5 T Bscher (Ger)/B Auberlen (US)/S Soper (GB) BMW V12 LM +20; 6 A Montermini/A Caffi/D Schiattarella (It) Courage C52 Nissan +23; 7 D Brabham (Aus)/E Bernard (Fr)/B Leitzinger (US) Panoz LMP +29; 8 D Cottaz (Fr)/M Goossens (Bel)/F Ekblom (Swe) Nissan C52 +31; 9 H Pescarolo/M Ferte/P Gay (Fr) Courage C51 Porsche +38; 10 O Beretta (Fr)/K Wendlinger (Aut)/D Dupuy (Fr) Chrysler Viper GTS-R +40.