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EXPECT A CLASSIC; The stage is set for a thrilling Le Mans.

Byline: Bruce Booth

THE gloves are well and truly off prior to tomorrow's start of the 77th running of the 24-Hours of Le Mans.

Over the years, the normally sleepy French market town has set the scene for many an epic battle between some of the world's finest racing machinery.

And this year's event has the makings of a classic that could well top everything seen so far in the long history of the twiceround-the-clock endurance race.

In the top-flight LMP1 class, Audi have entered three brand-new R15 TDI open-top diesel-powered cars in an attempt to add a ninth Le Mans crown to their impressive record.

Their eight victories have been achieved over the last nine years, with the four-ring marque suffering their only defeat this century at the hands of Bentley back in 2003.

Last year's victorious driver line-up of Scotsman Allan McNish, Dindo Capello (Italy) and"king of Le Mans" Tom Kristensen (Denmark) team up again in an attempt to add to their tally of two, three and eight overall victories respectively.

And Flying Scot McNish is more than happy with his new set of wheels, which the same trio drove to victory on its maiden outing at the famous 12-hour race at Sebring, Florida, in March.

"We were a bit surprised at Sebring, for all the testing we had done prior to the race had been in the cold and wet," the Dumfries-born driver said. "So it really was a pleasant shock that the car ran so well and so reliably in the searing Florida heat."

But Audi know they have a tough time ahead if they are to take the chequered flag on Sunday afternoon. They will have to beat off a strong challenge from the likes of Peugeot, Aston Martin, Oreca and Pescarolo in the 20-strong LMP1 class.

French marque Peugeot have been the German manufacturer's main rivals for the past two years, and they are confident they can go one better this time.

The Peugeot Sport works team are running a trio of 908 HDi FAP closed sports prototypes, while a fourth car has been entrusted to French-based independent team Pescarolo Sport, who will run it along with an open Judd-powered machine.

While Audi have invested in a brand new car for 2009, their French counterparts have spent the time since their defeat last year to further develop their 5.5-litre V12 turbodiesel car.

Alongside specification changes introduced by race organisers the Automobile Club d'Ouest, Peugeot believe changes to the traction control system to make the car more "drivable" - especially should it rain - could well give them the upper hand.

The fact that Michelin have specially designed new tyres to complement the drive characteristics of the car - and that changes to the hubs will reduce the time it takes to change the wheels - also add to Peugeot's hopes for a victory on home soil.

However, this year's event is not going to be a two-horse race by any manner of means.

British car makers Aston Martin are back mixing it with the big boys with no fewer than four V12 petrol-engine prototypes competing for the top honour they won 50 years ago.

Three six-litre works Lola-designed cars, resplendent in their famous blue and orange Gulf Oil livery, will compete alongside Swiss-entered Speedy Racing Sebah team's solo entry.

Aston Martin's top team consists of Brits Darren Turner and former F1 driver Anthony Davidson and Dutchman Jos Verstappen, who competed in more than 100 Grands Prix and who tasted victory in the LMP2 class on his debut at La Sarthe last year in a Porsche RS Spyder.

McNish was quick to dispel any thoughts that the British sports car company were there just to make up the numbers.

He said: "You have to remember that last year the Aston Martin qualified in sixth place, ahead of one of the Audis, so they do have pace.

"Now they are 12 months further down the line and have an aerodynamically-changed car.

"Last year, their car was reliable, but one of their drivers went off early in the race. After that, they had little problems, but they weren't a away and pace million miles wise they weren't far behind."

He added: "One thing is sure: this year's race has the makings of being an absolute cracker.

"Oreca are looking good and Pescarolo have one of the Peugeots - and their petrol car is probably the fastest petrol car over a lap.

"So the general reckoning is that up to a dozen cars could be there or thereabouts."

CAPTION(S):

THIRD TIME LUCKY? Peugeot's 908 HDi FAP could go one better after finishing a close second in the last two races BACK FOR MORE: Last year's winning team, Allan McNish, Dindo Capello and Tom Kristensen, look happy with their new Audi R15 TDI
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jun 12, 2009
Words:802
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