Tuesday, July 16, 2013

ALMS 2000: Audi arrived in America and beats BMW and Panoz

By Tarek Ramchani

As 2014 is approaching with a new era in North American sportscar racing, with the birth of the United SportsCar Racing, we at the Audi Motorsport Blog start a series of  posts about Audi's era of dominance in the ALMS. A fully detailed review, year by year, of the Ingolstadt brand's successes in the American Le Mans Series. We will cover the period between the years 2000 and 2008, thus meaning only the seasons when Audi took part in the ALMS as a full-season competitor. A great era it was in the US, with multiple championship titles and prestigious race victories.

Audi's legacy in the ALMS started in 1999. Audi Sport Team Joest debuted the new Audi R8R at the 12 Hours of Sebring, the first ever race in the history of the newly formed American Le Mans Series. A two-car effort from Audi with fine third and fifth overall place finishes. Audi would not continue in the ALMS during 1999, Sebring was only a big test preparing for the upcoming Le Mans 24 Hours. BMW won the race outright with their BMW V12 LMR and did the same at La Sarthe later. However things would change in the winter break.

A year later Audi joined the ALMS for the full season and with a brand new weapon: The Audi R8. A car that would dominate sportscar racing for the next six years. The 2000 ALMS season consisted of a 12-race calendar across the United States, Canada and even beyond North America with races in Europe and the finale in Australia.

The great debut of the Audi R8 was set at Sebring. Audi was challenged by arch rivals from BMW Motorsport and the strong Panoz Motorsports effort. In the end Audi scored a fantastic 1-2 victory with the win going to drivers Frank Biela, Emanuele Pirro and the newcomer to Audi...Tom Kristensen.

After Sebring and the successful shakedown of the Audi R8, Audi would not use the car again in North America until after Le Mans. The team took the cars back to Europe to prepare for Le Mans in June. Team Joest switched to the old Audi R8R for the next two ALMS races. The R8R was quick but was beaten by BMW twice at Charlotte and Silverstone. After Le Mans the R8 returned and debuted at home in Germany, at the Nürburgring. The Audi R8 was beaten by the surprising Panoz LMP-1 Roadster S. That would be the only defeat for the Audi R8 that year.

After Le Mans and the magical 1-2-3 victory in the French classic, the Audi R8 was back in America with a two-car effort. The #77 Audi R8 with Allan McNish and Dindo Capello, and the sister #78 car was driven by Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro. BMW and Panoz were strong challengers, as epic battles took place all season long. Despite the competition, the Audi R8 was simply too strong for their rivals. Audi won all eight of the American races post Le Mans.

At Sears Point Allan McNish and Dindo Capello were victorious. Up to Canada the two drivers did it again after a breathtaking battle to the finish line with the BMW V12 LMR of Jörg Müller and JJ Lehto. Moving to Texas Speedway, Audi veterans Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro scored their second victory of the season. At Portland Allan McNish and Dindo Capello were back to victory lane. The same story at Road Atlanta, McNish and Capello, joined by the late Michele Alboreto, dominated the Road Atlanta Petit Le Mans race. Allan McNish and Dindo Capello won a third straight race at Laguna Seca. At Las Vegas, the final American race of the season, Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro were victorious. The season finale was a very special event. The ALMS moved Down Under, with a race at Adelaide on new year's eve, the event called the "Race of a Thousand Years". A very special livery was used for car #77, the "Crocodile" Audi R8. That car won the race with Allan McNish and Dindo Capello.

Audi simply dominated the 2000 American Le Mans Series season. Allan McNish alone won the driver's title ahead of teammate Dindo Capello in second. Audi Sport North America, which was in fact run by Audi Sport Team Joest, won the team's title. Audi won the manufacturer's title as well. BMW Motorsport and their all-conquering V12 LMR were beaten and they decided to leave the LMP900 class at the end of the season. For the year 2001 Audi would come back to defend their titles, with privateers Audi teams joining the field and the ever growing Panoz effort as well.

Photo credit: Audi Media