The rain finally cleared and sunny conditions greeted participants and fans in Zhuhai today for the start of the ILMC final 1000km race. Peugeot held the top two positions on the grid, followed by the #7 Audi in third, driven by Rolex Testimonee and eight-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen and co-driver Allan McNish.
Ambiance at the track picked up 1000-fold for race day, as fans streamed in, food stands went up and marching bands took to the track grounds to set the stage for the ILMC finale. At the same time as the Michelin man made rounds behind the grandstands, a long Chinese dragon danced along the start line, delighting the fans and wishing good luck to participants in this brand new race, the first endurance event China has ever seen on local grounds. Spectators lined up outside the Porsche stand for free supporter flags, while others snapped pictures of the latest models from Peugeot, on display in the public area. Display cars and live local music were paired with corn on the cob, shish kebabs and even an unexpected European treat: sauerkraut and sausages.
Anticipation for the start built steadily all morning, and once the grid girls had welcomed racers onto the track and the warm up lap began, heart rates doubled for everyone watching. The race was on.
The leading two Peugeots held the lead almost steadily throughout the first half of the race. At just after the halfway point, McNish moved into second and began eating into the lead of the 1st place Peugeot at a rapid pace, cutting the gap down from over 40 seconds to just 21. Then the Peugeots were back in the leading positions.
Tire degradation proved to be a serious issue on the track, something which surprised the teams as qualifications and free practice were on a wet track and today’s dry conditions completely changed all calculations. When Audi changed tactics- deciding to stop double stinting the tires and to change at almost every stop- McNish was given the strong grip he needed to pass the leading Peugeot on the outside with approximately 2 hours left in the race. By 16:30 it was clear that this was to be a race of distance and not time, as the regulations call for 1000km or 6 hours of racing, whichever comes first.
Following a driver change, Rolex Testimonee Tom Kristensen moved into the driver’s seat of the #7 Audi and was leading by lap 183. A collision between Sebastian Bourdais in the Peugeot and the GT2 Porsche driven by Martin Ragginger led to safety car, which narrowed Kristensen’s gap as the leader and contributed to Peugeot retaking the lead again. The suspense was held until the very end when Kristensen, who was just 2 seconds behind the leading car, was held back by a Peugeot ahead that was a few laps down (in fourth overall). This protected the leading Peugeot for just long enough, and by the time Kristensen passed and moved in position behind the leading Peugeot, it was too late to make up the time he needed to take the victory.
Montagny (L) and Sarrazin (R) were the winners
Frank Montagny and Stéphane Sarrazin finished first. “It was very close and the last 20 laps were very hard,” said Sarrazin. “I had problems with my brakes but then I was able to push hard in the end. So it was a good weekend for us.”
“Obviously the safety car was unfortunate for us because we had a lead on our sister car by one minute and more than 30 seconds on one of the Peugeots,” said Kristensen. “This contributed to us losing the race and changed our strategy because our fuel window meant we had to stop earlier than them. We were still in contention up until a few laps from the end and then suddenly there was a Peugeot slowing down in front of me, waiting for me I guess, and I for sure lost some seconds there. Then the other Peugeot came out of the pits and… well, it could have been a fantastic race.” McNish added, “I have to agree with Tom that for such a fantastic season to be determined by what was clearly blocking, well, that was not exactly what we were all hoping for, certainly not us. But I have to congratulate Stéphane and Franck because we have had some great battles with these drivers, some clean battles. But this was not personally the way I would have liked for this to end.”
Rinaldo Capello and Romain Dumas finished third in the #8 Audi and admitted that the dry conditions were a bit of a surprise for everyone. Capello said, “we really didn’t have much time for testing in dry weather so the first stint was really to have an idea about the car and the tires. Unfortunately I pushed a bit too hard and killed the tires, but I have a good teammate and I’m just really happy to be here on the podium thanks to him.”
The GT category was swept in by the Porsche hybrid, driven by Jorg Bergmeister and Patrick Long, which finished a full three laps ahead of all the cars in the GT class and which only had 3 pit stops the entire race, although the win was not considered as part of the classification. Larbre Competition, who lost their only class competitor within the first 10 laps of the race when JLOC had an accident, won the GT1 class. Winner of the GT2 class was BMW Team Schnitzer, followed by Team Felbermayer Proton.
All in all it was a spectacular race and a grand finish to a great new international challenge. Radio Le Mans summed it up perfectly: “We’ve seen everything in this race: we’ve seen what looked like a lost cause in the 1st 1.5 hours for Audi completely turned around by flexibility in changing tactics, we’ve seen wheel to wheel racing of the highest quality in both prototype and GT classes and we’ve seen drivers giving it their all here today.”
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