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JUNE 14, 1999

Williams wins Le Mans but cancels sportscar program

WILLIAMS GRAND PRIX ENGINEERING won the Le Mans 24 Hours last weekend with one of its BMW sportscars, driven by Yannick Dalmas, Pierluigi Martini and Joachim Winkelhock. The team led most of the event and looked set for a 1-2 finish when the leading car, driven by JJ Lehto, Jorg Muller and Tom Kristensen suffered a sticking throttle and crashed.

The second car continued without drama while its opposition stumbled. The factory Toyota cars were handicapped by tire failures - Martin Brundle and Thierry Boutsen both going out in sizeable accidents, while Ukyo Katayama's challenge in the closing hours of the race was ruined with a similar problem.

The factory Mercedes team had even more troubles. Australian Mark Webber was the victim of two separate cartwheeling accidents in practice for the event and then in the race Scotsman Peter Dumbreck fell victim to a third such crash, the car cartwheeling five times before going into trees beside the track. Incredibly Dumbreck emerged unhurt and Mercedes wisely withdrew its one surviving car.

The BMW victory marks the end of the Munich company's Le Mans adventure, although BMW Motorsport boss GerhardÊBerger said after the race that no decision has been taken about the future. This is strange as the Williams crew have all been told that the program is over and 25 of them will transfer to the F1 team shortly, including chief engineer John Russell. Our spies at Williams tell us that the BMW facility will be turned into the team museum, while the current museum will become part of an expanded drawing office.

Russell is expected to be back with the F1 team at the French GP. He first made his name as Damon Hill's engineer in the early 1990s and then, tiring of travelling, moved to the Williams British Touring Car Championship team before becoming chief engineer with the BMW sportscar project.