Six and out for Brundle on Bentley's glorious return

The French call Le Mans "La Ronde Infernale" – the Infernal Circle. They are not alone. Less than 20 minutes after the 4pm start of this weekend's endurance classic most of the 48 drivers – and their co-drivers and pit crews – were cursing it, too.

Hours before, during the colourful pageantry and time-honoured traditions that are such a part of the race's appeal, the heavens opened. Scantily clad promotional girls (freezing cold) mixed with the racing cars (pristine), the drivers and their crews (nervous) and the hordes of hangers-on (hanging on) as the drawn-out countdown to the start began in front of the pit garages.

But such is the capricious nature of the weather in this area of France that the road was dry by start time, persuading everyone to start on slick tyres. Laurent Aiello blasted his Audi R8 into a comfortable lead on the first lap, leaving the Bentleys of Martin Brundle and Andy Wallace to fight over second place with the energetically-driven Japanese Dome of the Dutchman Jan Lammers and the Audis of Germany's Frank Biela and Sweden's Stefan Johansson.

So far so good, then. But Le Mans is like Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. It can be dry on one part of the track, and wet on another, as when the rain returned on the long Mulsanne Straight, rendering it a skating rink.

Johansson was the first to suffer, spinning his Audi into the gravel, removing its nose. Emmanuel Collard spun his Cadillac in the super-fast Porsche Curves. Then a four-car accident among the lesser lights prompted a full-course yellow, closing the field up behind safety cars for the next 25 minutes.

At a stroke, carefully calculated race strategies had to be re-thought, for most teams opt for a set-up somewhere in between tortoise and hare. You don't want to run too fast, too soon, but equally you don't want to run too slowly and then discover too late that a more adventurous rival is too far ahead. The delays were hurtful to Audi, whose works cars are said to have a direct fuel injection system that gives them 30 bhp more than their privately-run counterparts, such as Johansson's or the Briton Johnny Herbert's, and the Audi-derived Bentleys. Audi's strategy called for fast initial runs to eke out sufficient advantage to overcome the Bentleys' aerodynamic benefit of their closed-roof coupé bodywork.

At the end of the first hour Brundle led for Bentley, in a glorious return to the Sarthe circuit for the ancient marque that won five times in the Twenties and Thirties. Two hours later, the British team had surrendered the advantage to the fleet works Audis of Aiello/Rinaldo Capello/Christian Pescatori and Biela/Tom Kristensen/Emanuele Pirro, and the private Herbert/Ralf Kelleners/Didier Theys vehicle, but the green coupés were still in the hunt.

Sadly Brundle's car dropped out during the sixth hour, stuck in sixth gear while his fellow countryman Guy Smith was at the wheel, leaving Herbert and Wallace as the sole challengers to the works Audis.

Quick, too, had been the raucous front-engined Panoz driven by Klaus Graf, Gary Formato and the Briton Jamie Davies. But a long stop delayed its chase of the lead after an hour, and later Davies was fortunate to have made the sanctuary of the pit lane just as the left rear wheel parted company with his car and bounced on to the track only inches behind the equally delayed Dome.

While the Bentleys have won the hearts of the British fans who have flocked here in their thousands on their annual pilgrimage, the British MGs have also played their part. The former F1 racers Mark Blundell and Julian Bailey, together with the F3000 driver Kevin McGarrity, lay as high as third amid all the pit stops of the second hour, and were still comfortably in the top 10 after three hours. But their solid run in an untried machine was a stark contrast to that of their team-mates, the touring car ace Anthony Reid, the IndyLights driver Jonny Kane and the perennially unlucky Briton Warren Hughes.

The latter's name may mean little to the majority, but mention it to Jacques Villeneuve, the Indianapolis 500 winner, CART IndyCar champion, and 1997 Formula One world champion, and hemight acknowledge what insiders in the sport have known for a long time. Hughes is another of those British racers who burst on to the scene and show all the flair and skill that it takes to get to the top, but never quite get the breaks. The man who missed out on F1 has a new lifeline with MG's new programme, but his car's retirement after only 18 laps epitomised the cruel nature of this car-breaking epic.

"This is an awesome place," Hughes said. "It's beyond anything I've ever experienced. You hold the throttle open so much longer and the proximity of buildings as you flash by at 200mph is unbelievable."

Such is life at the one race in the world that can rival the charisma of Monaco or Indianapolis.

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