LE MANS, France (AP) — Audi overcame two spectacular crashes and held off a charging Peugeot to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans on Sunday, giving the German carmaker its 10th title at the renowned endurance race.
Andre Lotterer, Marcel Fassler and Benoit Treluyer drove the Audi No. 2 to victory, moving Audi moved into sole possession of second place for most titles at Le Mans behind Porsche with 16. Ferrari is third with nine.
Audi No. 2 completed 355 laps in 24 hours, leading the Peugeot No. 9 driven by Simon Pagenaud, Pedro Lamy and Sebastien Bourdais by 13.854 seconds.
"It's absolutely fantastic to win like this," Treluyer told France 2 television. "You need good opponents to have a great victory. With Peugeot, we had rivals who were really strong."
Stephane Sarrazin, Franck Montagny and Nicolas Minassian finished third in Peugeot No. 8, two laps back. Peugeot No. 7 driven by Marc Gene, Anthony Davidson and Alexander Wurz came in fourth, four laps off the pace.
Olivier Beretta, Tommy Milner and Antonio Garcia completed 314 laps to win the GTE class in their Corvette No. 73, placing 11th overall.
Audi's chances of defending its title took a hit barely 50 minutes after the start Saturday when Allan McNish in Audi No. 3 clipped a Ferrari, lost control and smashed into a tire wall, breaking up in a cloud of debris that sent photographers and track workers scurrying for cover.
Defending champion Mike Rockenfeller crashed about seven hours later when he tried to get past another Ferrari and made contact that sent him sliding off the track into a guardrail.
Both drivers walked away from the crashes and were taken to the hospital.
"There are unfortunately those two racing incidents that have dealt a blow to Audi," Treluyer said. "I spare a thought for (Rockenfeller), who is at the hospital. I'm really sorry for him. I really wish he could be here. All the drivers took part in the development of the car. So it's a victory of the whole team and not just our victory."
Audi took the top three spots last year with its R15 model, while no Peugeot was able to finish the race. The German manufacturer has enjoyed a successful transition at Le Mans with its new R18.
"Last year, we had some problems with the car in terms of speed," Treluyer said. "We had a very reliable car (...) but we lacked a bit of speed. The goal this year was to get a faster car without losing reliability. And we made it."
The No. 7 and No. 9 Peugeots passed the Audi No. 2 overnight, but crashes of the Lola-Toyota No. 13 and Ferrari No. 59 brought out the safety car in the 15th and 16th hours and helped the Audi make up ground.
In the 19th hour, Lotterer clocked the fastest lap in 3 minutes, 25.289 seconds on the 8.5-mile circuit to build a significant lead.
Audi No. 2 managed to adapt to changing conditions when rain started in the 21st hour, forcing drivers to switch tires.
Peugeot No. 9 was slower than Audi No. 2, but the French manufacturer had a strategy based around the lower fuel consumption of its cars.
Although Peugeot No. 9 made only 28 pit stops compared to 31 for the Audi No. 2, the speed differential was significant enough to give victory to the German manufacturer.
Lotterer and Pagenaud made their last pit stops at the same time, but Audi No. 2 came out of the pits ahead of Peugeot No. 9 to keep the lead.
"We were beaten by a competitor stronger than us," Bourdais told the event's website. "Audi has developed a highly reliable and fast car. We chose to work on reliability. The objective is met, but we missed by 13 seconds at the finish."
Audi No. 2 was under heavy pressure from three Peugeots throughout Sunday as Audi's chances of defending its title came to rest on just one car after the two crashes Saturday.
Rockenfeller was in second place in the eighth hour Saturday night when he tried to pass the Ferrari No. 71 driven by Robert Kauffman. Rockenfeller's Audi No. 1 was bumped by the Ferrari and smashed into the guardrail, forcing the deployment of the safety car for the second time in the race.
The German was able to get out of the cockpit on his own before the wrecked car caught fire. He had cuts and grazes but was otherwise unhurt.
McNish was in second place when he attempted an inside pass on the Ferrari No. 58 driven by Anthony Beltoise — who was trailing by two laps. The Ferrari caught the back of the Audi and sent it skittering to the outside of the turn and into the tire wall. The Audi went airborne as it slid along the barrier, ripping off car parts that went flying in all directions.
McNish somehow walked away from the crash. The Scot was taken to a medical center and then to a hospital for more tests.
Meanwhile, the safety car came out to allow crews to clear the debris.
Only 28 of the 56 cars that started the 79th edition of the race finished.