Motoracing: Le Mans driver's miraculous escape

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The Independent Online
THE BRITISH driver Peter Dumbreck, 21, was counting his fortune when he escaped unhurt after somersaulting his Mercedes-Benz into the trees during the Le Mans 24-hour endurance classic last night.

Dumbreck's accident was almost a mirror image of similar incidents which befell the Mercedes driver Mark Webber during practice, and then again during the pre-race warm-up. Despite the aerodynamic instability of the CLR-LM, which is capable of reaching speeds of 250 mph, Mercedes decided to continue their racing campaign.

Dumbreck's somersault came during the race's sixth hour when his car lost front-end downforce while challenging Thierry Boutsen's Toyota for second place. At about 185mph, he flipped five times and travelled through the air before landing in the trees at the Indianapolis corner, where the Swedish F1 driver Jo Bonnier was killed during the 1972 race.

Mercedes said that Dumbreck was not injured, but they immediately withdrew their other CLR, driven by Bernd Schneider of Germany, Portugal's Pedro Lamy and Franck Lagorce of France. The race carried on behind the safety car as debris was cleared from the track. Meanwhile, Dumbreck was extracting himself from the wreckage and being taken away from the crash in an ambulance to be examined at the trackside hospital.

The incident comes as a blow to Mercedes, who had started the race well, with two cars in the top six. The German constructors were looking for their first Le Mans win since 1989.

It was almost 44 years to the day since Le Mans was the scene of motor racing's worst accident when a Mercedes driven by Frenchman Pierre Levegh ploughed into a packed spectator enclosure on 11 June 1955, killing Levegh and more than 82 spectators. The German team withdrew from that race immediately and did not officially return until 1980.

Finland's JJ Lehto took BMW into the lead and the French night as dusk and rain fell on the circuit. Lehto, a winner on the Sarthe course in a McLaren in 1995, spent much of his first stint behind the wheel battling with last year's winner Allan McNish, until the Briton's Toyota was forced into the pits with a minor electrical problem. The unexpected stop provided Lehto and co-drivers Tom Kristensen and Joerg Mueller with a 32-second advantage over McNish.

Just minutes after McNish returned to the track, the number one Toyota of Briton Martin Brundle, which started the race on pole, entered the garage with a hydraulic leak. The Toyota, by now more than 10 laps off the pace, remained there as mechanics worked on it. Brundle did rejoin the race but eventually went out after crashing into the guard rail.