BMW Powers To LeMans Victory

BMW, racing for only the second time under its name, captured the Le Mans 24 Hour race on Sunday after a tense finish with Toyota.

Pierluigi Martini of Italy held off a late challenge to give BMW its first victory in the famed endurance race. Martini, Yannick Dalmas of France and Joachim Winkelhock of Germany completed 365 laps, one more than Toyota.

"I knew we had a chance to be in the top three," Winkelhock said. "But the last few hours were so close that I nearly had a heart attack."

Dalmas won for the fourth time at Le Mans, following wins in 1992 with Peugeot, in 1994 in a Porsche and in 1995 with McLaren. Only Belgium's Jacky Ickx (six) and Britain's Derek Bell (five) have more wins.

"We had absolutely no problems with the car," Dalmas said.

The all-Japanese Toyota team of Ukyo Katayama, Keiichi Tsuchiya and Toshio Suzuki had a strong chance to win until a tire burst 55 minutes from the end.

Katayama drove excellently to keep the car on the circuit. Toyota needed 4 minutes, 41 seconds in the pits to repair the damage, and the chance for a first victory by an all-Japanese team vanished.

Katayama said he had been trying to avoid a trailing BMW and went onto a curb.

"I didn't realize what had happened until I got back to the pits," he said.

Audi finished third in its first Le Mans, with its team of Emmanuel Pirro of Italy, Franck Biela of Germany and Didier Theys of Belgium.

BMW appeared headed for an easy victory until Jyrki Lehto hit barriers with a four-lap lead.

The German constructor's second-placed car, led by Dalmas, took the lead and held it during a stirring two-car race against the Japanese drivers.

In the final two hours, the Japanese team got within 22 seconds of BMW.

With 75 minutes left, Katayama produced the race's fastest lap, 3 minutes, 35.032 seconds. At that stage the German car had a 1:48.783 lead, but needed an extra visit to the pits, making a close finish likely.

"Toward the end of the race I was telling myself that I have waited so long for this moment, so I must really push," Italy's Martini said.

But thanks to Toyota's tire explosion, BMW's win was assured. BMW also benefited from trouble to Mercedes, another favorite.

Mercedes pulled out its two remaining cars after less than five hours when Peter Dumbreck crashed.

Thierry Boutsen crashed his Toyota halfway through the race, and Toyota's other main hope retired after seven hours when Martin Brundle hit a barrier, ruining the car's rear suspension.

That cleared the way for BMW and Dalmas.

"In the beginning we decided to go with less force, then between six and eight hours things really improved," Dalmas said. "To win this race for the fourth time is very special."

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