|Ascari At Le Mans|
It was an extraordinary start to the 69th Le Mans 24 Hours as a violent rain storm deposited itself on the far side of the circuit on lap 3, causing many cars to go off and retire from the race. Prior to that, Xavier Pompidou got a flying start and passed five cars on the first lap, including team mate Wener Lupberger, starting in #20.
The fired up Frenchman was certainly the man on the move in the very brief dry exchanges and sprinted up to 15th place.
"I was just quicker than the other cars", said the nonchalant Frenchman. "When the rain came it was impossible to drive the car, so I asked for full wets because it was so dangerous."
Both Team Ascari cars survived the storm and they immediately came in to the pits. The number 20 car of Lupberger took intermediates, while Xavier opted for those full wets when the Safety Car came out after a multi-car shunt at the Porsche Curves.
Of those chaotic early laps, Werner later said, "I had a small problem on the very first lap when a warning light came on in the cockpit saying 'Crankcase Pressure' and it distracted me a little so I lost some places. But the team radioed through to me and insisted that it was just a false alarm so then I started to settle."
And what of the lap when the heavens opened ?
"It was so dangerous that I was aquaplaning at 35kph, it was that bad I was at walking pace and it was still all over the place."
At the first actual scheduled stops, both cars came in and just took on fuel as the damp conditions made team manager Ian Dawson play it safe and keep the intermediates that Werner was revelling in. The Goodyear intermediates have developed a reputation as superior to other tyres, and Werner set about confirming it as he immediately set the fastest lap of the race with a sensational 4:05.398s, some 1.3 seconds quicker than race leader Martin Brundle in the Bentley!
At this stage the flying 'Springbok' was in 19th and gaining on the rest hand over fist. The track was drying thoroughly and the team decided to call the 21 car in and give Xavier slick tyres. It was another shrewd choice, as Xavier took a leaf out of Werner's book and set some scorching laps as the track dried by the lap. Whilst this was good news for Xavier it (the drying track) undermined Werner's pace a little, but at the one and a half hour mark he was up to 13th place and on the same lap as the leader.
At the second scheduled stops Werner took on some much needed slicks and stayed out for an unscheduled triple stint. Ian Dawson explained that, "we kept it flexible as the conditions were so extraordinary and Werner was setting a good pace." He was indeed. Setting lap times between 3:47s and 3:52s quite consistently and creeping in to the top 12 until he brought the car in after 2 hours and 10 minutes to hand over to Ben Collins.
The Briton's stint was a brief one however, as he came in after just three laps, his racing suit covered in fuel. The breather pipe had splashed fuel on to his neck and Ben hopped out for a shower, Harri Toivonen taking over at short notice. As soon as he did that, the heavens opened once more and Harri was immediately in for full wets.
Just 10 minutes before this, Xavier brought his car in without the front bodywork. It was the legacy of an incident with a Porsche as he was lining up to overtake the Emmanuele Clerico-driven Courage. The contact was slight but enough to dislodge the whole front section and necessitate a pit visit two laps earlier than a scheduled stop.
"I was trying to take the Courage of Clerico but a Porsche chopped across me from nowhere and loosened the nose section. It came off in the pits but the team were really slick and we had a new one on straight away," said Xavier as he towelled down after his stint.
With the rain once again becoming torrential, the Safety Car was deployed and at three hours, the Klaas Zwart car was 16th...
...and three laps behind the leader with the sister car of Harri Toivonen in 21st, after that long stop for the fuel leak problem and a quick spin at the second Mulsanne chicane. Harri just completed one stint and handed back over to the refreshed Collins, who then began a tremendous double stint that saw him lap 4m 40s, which was at the same pace as the leading Audis.
The conditions were now monsoon like and Harri, being the tallest of the drivers, was getting a true soaking: "The amount of water coming in to the car was just incredible. It was like somebody just throwing buckets in to the cockpit," said the Finn
The second car was running well in truly horrible conditions with Klaas holding 16th position, despite an uncomfortable problem towards the end of his stint: "My glasses were steaming up and I could barely see and when I got out of the car I caught the fire extinguisher and it went off, but it wasn't really a problem."
Toronto's Scott Maxwell took over for his first stint and lapped consistently, until losing the car on standing water at Arnage. The QR-4U backed car waltzed straight on up the escape road and came to rest mere metres from the tyre wall.
At five hours, the number 20 chassis was a fine 13th, five laps behind the dominant Audis. Werner had taken up the reigns from Ben, and immediately set about a steady pace in the early 4m30s, which was inching him up to the 12th placed car of Kelly Collins' (a GTS Corvette).
(Our Ben) Collins was enjoying his first Le Mans to the full, despite the ever worsening conditions: "I really enjoyed that," said the 26 year old. "The tyres went away towards the end, but generally the Goodyears are very good and I was lapping just off the leader's pace, which feels fantastic."
At the handover to Collins, the car was pushed back in to the garage and for a brief moment, things looked ominous - but team manager Ian Dawson explained why: "The sheer mass of water getting in to the car means that we have lost radio contact and some telemetry data, so when we stop the guys from PI Research just need to get some information out of the car."
Just after 21.10 and barely ten minutes after that excursion at Arnage, Scott Maxwell was unfortunately in the wall at the entry to the Forest Esses, with the left side heavily damaged. Race engineer Roger Griffiths lost radio contact with Scott shortly after he began the stint, so a mechanic was despatched to see if anything could be done.
"We think it is clutch / gearbox related, because Scott radioed through that he was losing the clutch before the water got in the system and we lost contact," said Griffiths: "From the monitors it looks as the car's left handside is very badly damaged so it could well be all over."
Sadly it was, but at least the team had the number 20 car to focus on now and Werner Lupberger was consolidating that 13th position with some sensible lappery on a track that had standing water at many of the corners. Soon, Werner really made people sit up and take notice with laps that were on a par with the leading Audis, including Johnny Herbert's Champion car that the ex F1 ace was lapping just a fraction quicker than Werner. The combination of Goodyear tyres, Werner's reflex skills and the Ascari's handling was looking likely to break in to the top 10 as we approached 22.00.
It hasn't been all good, and poor Klaas is out of Le Mans - but the prospects for the #20 car look much brighter than the weather.
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