Davies raises hope of first all-British win in 47 years

British drivers were on course for a landmark victory at the Le Mans 24-hour race last night after a compatriot and Audi UK team-mate, Allan McNish, crashed into a barrier and was briefly knocked unconscious.

British drivers were on course for a landmark victory at the Le Mans 24-hour race last night after a compatriot and Audi UK team-mate, Allan McNish, crashed into a barrier and was briefly knocked unconscious.

Johnny Herbert, Jamie Davies and Guy Smith strengthened their prospects of becoming the first all-British driver line-up to win this sports car classic for 47 years as McNish was taken to the medical centre for checks.

McNish, running second, lost control of the R8 on oil dumped by another car. Moments later the third-placed Champion Audi, driven by Finland's JJ Lehto, came to grief at the same point. The two drivers managed to coax their battered machines back to the pits and both were repaired to resume the race, well down the field. However, McNish slumped in distress and was seen by two doctors. They confirmed no serious injury but sent him to the medical centre for observation.

A team spokesman said: "Allan was stunned and groggy when he came in. He was knocked unconscious for a short while when he crashed. He will have to stay at the medical centre for at least four hours. He should be OK but it looks as though he won't be allowed to drive again in this race."

Lehto, like McNish a former Formula One driver, was unhurt. He said: "It was just like an ice rink. There was oil all over the place and no oil flags, no warning at all. Allan and I had no chance. We lost everything." The misfortune suffered by McNish and Lehto left the English trio of Herbert, Davies and Smith a lap clear of the Japanese Audi, driven by Tom Kristensen, Rinaldo Capello and Seiji Ara.

Herbert, the senior partner in his crew, had put the car on pole, but was content for Davies to take the first stint rather than dice with McNish, the main man in the other Audi UK car.

McNish suggested there may have been concerns that a clash of ambitions might have resulted in an embarrassing accident. Herbert said: "There was no point getting involved in a scrap at the start. You never win a race then. The plan was to try and pull out time later. In any case, Jamie is quick, as he has shown again. He gave us a great start." Davies drove with pace and maturity, fending off McNish's initial challenge and gradually putting distance between his car and the Scot's.

"It went very well for me," Davies said. "It was a bit close with Allan at the start but I managed to stay in front and the car was good. We put ourselves into a good position."

Kristensen, seeking a record-equalling sixth win at Le Mans, made ground on Smith but the English crew remained content. Herbert said: "We're trying not to take any unnecessary risks. There's still a long way to go and we've seen already what can happen here. We're looking strong and I'd love to win my second Le Mans. It's been 13 years since the last one. But it would also be great for an all-British team to win for the first time since 1957."

Justin Wilson, discarded by Formula One at the end of last season, reminded the racing fraternity of his talent with an impressive stint at the wheel of a Dome Judd, guiding the car into the top three until gremlins struck the gearbox and almost plunged him into the wall.

Colin McRae, the former world rally champion, made his debut driving a Prodrive Ferrari 550 Maranello, and in his first stint ran eighth overall. But later he blotted his copy book, spinning, damaging the clutch and losing 30 minutes in the pits.

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