|Ascari At Le Mans|
Team Ascari exceeded all expectations during the night here at Le Mans with a sensational performance from all three drivers in #20 to climb up the leaderboard to a stunning fifth place by 3.00am.
Ben Collins had started the charge with a dramatic double stint to reach the outer reaches of the top ten by 22.30. The 26 year old was loving the challenge of Le Mans at night in the wet, and was regularly matching the leading Audis for pace: "It was fantastic out there, a real challenge and I found a nice rhythm that I could stick too. The night racing is fine now, I was a bit apprehensive at first but now I'm really enjoying it."
Werner then continued the excellent work and matched Ben's pace, and then started trading fastest laps with ex Formula One driver Johnny Herbert: "I wasn't even pushing that hard," said the South African, "everything looks to be running nicely, but I keep reminding myself that we are not even at halfway yet," he said, immediately after his double stint - in truly dreadful conditions.
Harri Toivonen's run, as Saturday night turned in to Sunday morning, was interrupted briefly by a longer than scheduled stop to monitor a very slight misfire. He continued without any more dramas, and handed over to the outstanding Collins - who picked up where he left off and lapped just three to four seconds off the leading Audi's pace, heading for that brilliant fifth overall.
If there was joy for the number 20 car, then there was disappointment for the sister A410, when Canadian Scott Maxwell crashed heavily just after the Dunlop Bridge. The team sent a delegation of mechanics to the scene but Scott managed to get the car back to the pits where it was decided to rebuild the car and send it out again.
A suspected gearbox failure was thought to be the reason for the shunt as Scott had previously radioed through that the clutch was slipping. Team boss Ian Dawson explained what needed to be replaced: "It is mainly bodywork and wing damage, but we will also change the gearbox as we think that is why Scott lost it."
Between 1.30 and 4.00 a fierce battle raged between the leading GTS Corvette, the Cadillac of Wayne Taylor and Ben's Ascari. Changing places after pit stops, the three emerged as a threesome at 3.30, with Ben blasting by both of them to regain the fifth place that he had held briefly during the pit stops. Now he pulled out a gap of six seconds on the Caddy and was yet again the third fastest car on the track after the two Audis.
Suddenly though, just after 04.00 came tragedy. Ben was spotted parked at the side of the road on the inside at Arnage, and what made it worse was that radio communication was once again down. For race engineer Brian Ireland this was as frustrating as it was heartbreaking. One minute a comfortable fifth, the next nothing at all. "The telemetry signal is very weak out there but Ben didn't give any indication that anything was wrong. It is impossible to say at this stage what it could be," said Brian.
Almost immediately, a group of electronic engineers were instructed to find Ben through the forest at Arnage and yours truly was hot on their heels on the team scooter, only to be cruelly refuted at the Indianapolis / Arnage marshal's entrance after scrambling through the woods in vain.
Eventually Ben was found, but seemingly nothing could be done to fire up the engine. A desperately disappointed team turned their attentions to the 21 car that was still being worked on, on the other side of the pit.
Team boss Ian Dawson was concerned that the re-built car could be showing symptoms of what befell the Collins car just minutes before. Xavier Pompidou sat impatiently in the cockpit, but the car would just not fire up. A desperately disappointed Klaas Zwart looked forlornly at the monitors as Ben peered in to the back of the car. Werner Lupberger was devastated, after having hauled his car in to a top five position: "I can't believe it," said a dejected Werner, "it was all looking so good, I hope we can get the car back to the pits, but it doesn't look good."
Now at 5.30am the team's fortunes are not looking rosy at all. Ben's car is simply refusing to start and the re-built car is doing likewise. Klaas Zwart is still in a positive frame of mind however. "We'll still go out," says the team principal,"we know we won't be classified but it is still good to race on in the morning at Le Mans."
05.45 and Ben Collins arrives back from his Arnage adventure. Wet and muddy, he amazingly still has a sense of humour: "It was like 'Challenge Ben' out there," he said, "I had to delve in to the emergency tool box and try to work on it myself. I got absolutely soaked and am pretty gutted that we were up to fifth place when it happened. We're pretty sure that the fuel pump went. There was no warning and I just had to pull off as the engine cut instantly."
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