Bentley power to first 24-hour victory in seven decades

The two British Racing Green cars could not choreograph a grand finale, but they flaunted their absolute superiority all day and all night, to the rapturous approval of those who crossed the Channel anticipating nothing less.

Bentley dominated this Le Mans 24-hour race with an irresistible combination of pace, reliability and efficiency, and Audi's "customer'' teams were unable to match them. Denmark's Ton Kristensen, lured from Audi's treble-winning line-up to lead Bentley's decisive push, duly completed a record fourth consecutive success, in partnership with Rinaldo Capello, of Italy, and the little-known Briton Guy Smith.

The more experienced and renowned British drivers, Johnny Herbert and Mark Blundell, along with the Australian David Brabham, in the other Bentley, were inhibited by minor glitches, gradually lost contact and had to settle for second place, two laps down.

The American Audi entry was third, a further three laps adrift, with the Japan-backed Audi fourth. The UK Sport Audi retired in ignominious circumstances after less than two hours. Germany's Frank Biela, another member of the treble-winning team, was left stranded on the circuit, out of fuel, after missing the turn-off for the pit lane.

Third place was the best Biela to which could have aspired on this occasion. It was, from the start, Bentley's race and the privilege of taking the winning car to the finish line, as planned, was handed to Smith, at 28 the youngest driver in the team. "Those were the longest two hours of my life, doing that final stint," he said. "I'm just so grateful Bentley put their faith in me, but I've been able to repay them. I know I'm not one of their high-profile drivers, but I hope I'll get some attention now."

This victory provided the perfect climax to Bentley's three-year campaign. They withdrew the factory effort after their previous win, 73 years ago, and are widely expected to bow out at the top again. The official line is that they will consider their future when they return to base. However, they have no programme in place beyond this race and mission has been emphatically accomplished. Perhaps it will be another 70 years before they return.

Bentley, like Audi, are part of the Volkswagen group and the corporate strategy may be to divert resources back into another works venture for the German marque. Audi are designing a new sports car and appear to have abandoned any thoughts of embarking on a Formula One project.

Another Briton, Anthony Davidson, had a sore head to take away from his Le Mans experience. Davidson, who competed in two Grands Prix for Minardi last season, lost control of his GTS-category Ferrari at 150mph when a wheel bearing failed. The car spun, smashed into a barrier, banging Davidson's head against the door. He was taken to hospital for a brain scan, but later returned to the circuit.

Estimates of the British contingent here ran as high as 70,000, their tents and motor homes pitched in every nook and cranny. Not that all the pilgrims found their way to their temporary homes on Saturday night; many merely curled up where they dropped, still clutching drinking vessels.

They awoke to find the Bentleys grinding remorselessly ahead, with the surviving Audis in full-on pursuit. The Davidson crash apart, the race was mercifully devoid of serious incident, but also produced little in the way of drama. The pattern at the business end was settled on Saturday afternoon.

Herbert briefly steered his Bentley ahead of the sister car, but the other crew led for all but a handful of laps and battery changes in the second half of the race effectively scuppered the challenge of Herbert, Blundell and Brabham.

Audi were conscious the hares had to stumble to open the way to them. Their prospects were further undermined when Biela overshot the entrance to the pit lane as he attempted to negotiate another car. He tried to complete an additional lap, but the tank of the R8 ran dry. He had to abandon the car and prepare his apologies to his colleagues.

LE MANS 24-HOURS RACE: 1 G Smith (GB), R Capello (It), T Kristensen (Den), Bentley, 377 laps; 2 D Brabham (Aus), J Herbert (GB) M Blundell (GB), Bentley, +2 laps; 3 E Pirro (It) S Johansson (Swe), J J Lehto (Fin) Champion Racing, +5 laps; 4 S Ara (Japan) M Werner (Ger), J Magnussen (Denmark), Audi Sport Japan, +7 laps; 5 G Jeanette (US) M Papis (It), O Beretta (Mon), JML Team Panoz, +17 laps; 6 J Lammers (Neth) J Bosch (Neth), A Wallace (GB) Racing For Holland, +17 laps; 7 J-M Gounon (Fr) S Gregoire (Fr), J Cochet (Fr) Courage Competition, +17 laps; 8 S Sarrazin (Fr) J-C Bouillon (Fr), F Lagorce (Fr) Pescarolo Sport, +21 laps; 9 S Ayari (Fr) N Minassian (Fr), E Helary (Fr) Pescarolo Sport, +25 laps; 10 J Davies (GB) T Enge (Cz Rep), P Kox (Neth), Veloxq Prodrive, +41 laps.

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