Le Mans record for Kristensen as British miss out

The three Britons responded to the acclaim as hordes of their countrymen swarmed on to the track at the end, but their collective frustration was palpable.

The three Britons responded to the acclaim as hordes of their countrymen swarmed on to the track at the end, but their collective frustration was palpable.

All through the night and into a sunlit morning, an historic win had seemed destined for Johnny Herbert, Jamie Davies and Guy Smith as they attempted to become the first victorious all-British line-up at the Le Mans 24 hour race for 47 years.

But a nagging suspension problem forced their Audi UK R8 into the pits and the seven minutes subsequently forfeited for repairs changed the course of the contest. The initiative was seized by the Japanese Audi, securing Denmark's Tom Kristensen a fifth win in succession and a record-equalling sixth in all at this sports car classic. His joyous partners were Italy's Rinaldo Capello and Seiji Ara, only the second Japanese to win here.

The American champion Racing Audi completed a clean sweep of the rostrum places by the German Marque, despite an accident which resulted in a lengthy visit to the pits for Finland's JJ Lehto. Lehto was caught out by a mixture of oil and water spilled by another car less than two hours into the race. He hit a barrier, moments after Britain's Allan McNish had come to grief in his Audi UK R8 at the same spot. The Scot's car was even more severely damaged. He spent an hour and a quarter in the pits and dropped to 46th place, but still finished fifth.

However, McNish, briefly knocked unconscious by the impact, was not allowed to continue, so his German partners, Frank Biela and Pierre Kaffer shared the driving. McNish was taken to hospital for a scan, which showed no serious injury.

Audi's fourth win in five years, was expected, but the race was characteristically unpredictable. Davies fended off McNish to lead the opening stint and when the sister car crashed, the English crew had a one lap cushion. Kristensen and company took up the chase, but suffered punctures.

Davies and Smith then reported handling problems and, with nine hours left, Team Veloqx, running the Audi UK operation, brought the car in. As Herbert and his colleagues worked at closing up the one lap deficit, Davies registered the fastest time. The gap closed to around a minute when a flash fire delayed the Japanese Audi after a pit stop.

Herbert, the winner in 1991, kept up the pressure in the final stint but shot across a chicane as he pushed to catch Ara. He had reduced the gap to 27 seconds but for the third consecutive year, had to settle for second place. Britain's Justin Wilson impressed in his Dome Judd but his partner, Ralph Firman, then crashed, costing them a top 10 placing.

Colin McRae, making his debut in this race at the wheel of a Prodrive Ferrari 550 Maranello, finished ninth overall, third in the GTS class. Oliver Gavin was a member of the winning Corvette crew.

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