McNish rides luck to rain on Peugeot's parade

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The Independent Online

The heavens bestowed blessings on Allan McNish at last, and the relief was as palpable as the jubilation. Victory at the Le Mans 24 Hours was never more deserved or precious.

McNish had endured four years of frustration in the Audi, but this time the gods gave the British driver and his colleagues, Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello, the conditions to defy the pace of Peugeot.

The Audi was tracking the leading French car, driven by Jacques Villeneuve, just after half distance when a cloudburst changed the dynamics of perhaps the most enthralling race here in recent times.

Villeneuve struggled to chart his course through the rain-and-grease-splattered windscreen of the Peugeot, while the Audi drivers, in the open-top R10, saw their chance to seize the initiative. Kristensen took the lead and McNish built what proved a decisive advantage.

McNish, who led his crew to a three-lap lead 12 months ago, only for a wheel to come adrift as he ate his muesli and watched Capello go off, looked on from the pits this time as Kristensen negotiated the slippery hazards of a tense finale to secure success. Subdued Peugeot had to be content with second and third.

It was Audi's eighth win in nine years, a record eighth for Denmark's Kristensen, a third for the Italian Capello, but no one savoured the triumph, his second, a decade on from his first, more than 30-year-old McNish.

Audi knew they would have to counter the greater speed of Peugeot, with better reliability, superior teamwork and opportunism. Which is precisely how this sports car classic unfolded, beguiling a 258,500 crowd.

McNish said: "It was a magical moment. I'm so pleased and proud. We did it with our backs to the wall because Peugeot had the quicker car. I didn't have the faster car in 1998 either, but this was probably the hardest race I've ever lived through.

"The competition was strong, we couldn't make a mistake. We had one chance, when it rained, and we took it. It was really slippery and greasy and you had to concentrate so hard or you were off. It was difficult for them because they were getting a lot of oil on their windscreens, which is a problem we don't have.

"We knew we had a good car for the race and had to be very aggressive. We put pressure on Peugeot, hoping they would make mistakes. All the drivers did long stints in the car to make sure we were in position when the chance arose. I just hope it's not another 10 years before I win here again!"

The gremlins got to work on Peugeot just after the two-hour mark, and suddenly their dominance went down like a pack of cards. They recovered their composure and advantage through the comparative tranquillity of darkness.

Then, as dawn broke over La Sarthe, the rain came too, and suddenly the balance of power shifted. Villeneuve, never the most comfortable of drivers in the wet, simply couldn't resist Audi's attack, and he was savaged. Kristensen turned a 42-second deficit into a half-minute lead, and McNish, consistently lapping five seconds quicker than the Peugeot, opened the gap to three minutes.

The track eventually began to dry inside the final four hours, only for another hard shower to test the nerve of the teams in the last act. Kristensen had to resist the charging Peugeot, survive a collision and contend with the capricious elements. But he delivered.

Kristensen said: "It was an incredible experience, and with the rain and everything, so difficult. The whole team did a fantastic job because we didn't have the quickest car – it is unique. This is not about my eighth win, it's about this team and what they did here."

Villeneuve reflected the dismay and grudging admiration in the Peugeot camp. The French Canadian said: "There was not much we could do when the rain came and they went ahead of us. We were here to try and win, and finishing second doesn't do much. But the opposition did an amazing job and deserved their win."