Saturday, October 20, 2012

Audi legacy at Petit Le Mans

By Tarek Ramchani and Johan Laubscher 

For the first time since the year 2000, Audi won't compete in the famous Petit Le Mans endurance race at Road Atlanta. The 1000 miles/10 hour race is not included in the FIA World Endurance Championship calendar this year. Petit is also scheduled close to the last two WEC races, between Fuji and Shanghai. This sadly pushed Audi Sport to a painful decision, not enter the American endurance classic. Of course this is a very sad situation for all the Audi and sportscar fans, and we all hope that the German brand will be back next year for what will be the final big race for LMP1 cars in the ALMS before 2014 with the merger of the ALMS and Grand-Am. In twelve appearances, Audi has won overall no less than eight times, eight straight victories from 2000 to 2008. Here is a complete round up of the Audi legacy at Petit Le Mans.

2000, the Audi R8 beat BMW and Panoz

2000 marked the second year for the Audi sportscar program. The 1999 Audi R8R and Audi R8C were dropped for a brand new Audi R8. The car won Le Mans and was able to do the same at Road Atlanta by beating strong rivals from BMW and Panoz. A nice 1-2 victory for Audi Sport North America (run by Joest Racing). The #77 R8 of Dindo Capello, Allan McNish and the late Michele Alboreto ahead of the sister #78 shared by Frank Biela, Emanule Pirro and Tom Kristensen.

2001, Audi privateers arrived and 1-2-3 for the R8

During 2001, in addition to the factory Joest team,  two customer Audi teams debuted in the American Le Mans Series. Champion Racing from Florida and the Arena run Team Johansson Motorsport Gulf backed car. BMW had already left the series but the Audis again faced strong opposition from Panoz and the improving Cadillac effort. In the end the Audis were able to achieve a 1-2-3 win at Petit. Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro won overall with their #2 Audi R8.

2002, 1-2 victory and Tom Kristensen ALMS champion

The 2002 edition was the season finale of the ALMS season that year. A great and fair battle all race long between the factory Joest team and the customer Champion Racing. In the end the #2 Audi R8 of Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello won ahead of the #38 Champion's R8 of Johnny Herbert and Stefan Johansson. Kristensen was crowned ALMS champion.

2003, Champion Racing time

By the year 2003, the Audi R8 was run only by privateers. Audi has stopped its full factory efforts with the car. This meant equal chances between Joest Racing, who had run the works effort the last three years with the R8, and team Champion Racing. At Road Atlanta, the American team finally did it after two years of trying to beat the factory team. Victory went to Johnny Herbert and JJ Lehto. The Joest's car faced some issue and finished third overall behind a privateer Panoz, but the Joest crew of Werner and Biela did win the championship.

2004, double act from Champion Racing 

The 2004 Petit Le Mans saw Champion Racing’s first official two car entry with Audis. The regular crew of Lehto and Werner in the #38 car were joined by Herbet and Kaffer in the #2 Audi. The race was won by the #38 car after a faultless drive from the 2004 champions leading home a Champion Racing 1-2.

2005, Champion Racing ends off a victorious year

2005 again saw Champion Racing fielding two cars. After winning Le Mans in June the team was ready for their last endurance event of the season. The championship battle cam down to the two Champion driving crews. An accident in the first corner which removed the top three cars on the grid unfortunately included the #1 Audi R8, effectively taking them out of the title hunt. Biela and Pirro successfully guided the #2 Audi R8 through the race to win Champion Racing’s third successive Petit Le Mans and the championship title. This was also the last entry and victory at Petit for the Audi R8.

2006, the dawn of the Diesel era

The Audi R10 TDI debuted during 2006 by winning every race it entered. The list of victories included the Sebring 12 Hours, Le Mans, all the entered ALMS races and the Petit Le Mans. The #2 crew of Capello and McNish crossed the finish line taking Audi’s sixth straight Petit Le Mans win and their first with Diesel Power.

2007, Diesel makes it a double

Audi returned with the Audi R10 TDI in 2007. Drama befell the Audi team as Pirro suffered a heavy crash during practice and was not cleared to race by the medical team. At the last minute Lucas Luhr, a factory Audi driver who was competing at Petit in the GT class for another team, was asked to step in and replace Pirro on race day. The race itself was won by the #1 Audi crew of McNish and Capello, which was some conciliation for the two drivers after they lost a wheel at Le Mans earlier in June.

2008, Germany vs France into the night

Peugeot arrived at Petit Le Mans for the first time in 2008. After a titanic duel at Le Mans, which was won by Audi in the wet, the battle was set to continue. Drama at the start as McNish crashed the Audi R10 TDI on the way to the grid. The team raced against time and got the car out losing only two laps. The crew of McNish, Pirro and Capello completed a tremendous comeback drive to get back onto the lead lap and win in the dark after some of the most exciting duals ever seen at Petit. This triumph marked the last Audi Petit Le Mans victory to date.

2009, a dream rained away

The 2009 season had become one to forget for Audi. After winning at Sebring the new Audi R15 TDI suffered at Le Mans. Petit was only Audi’s third, and also last sportscar event of that season. The team were determined and held their own in the race. Severe rain hampered the race and unlucky timing resulted in a pitstop for both Audis dropping them behind the Peugeots, just before the race was stopped due to the rain. The rain did not relent and the race was not restarted, thus Peugeot claimed the win. A win many Audi fans believed would have gone to Audi if the race had continued.

2010, the second defeat at Petit

The edition in 2010 was set to be another duel between Audi and Peugeot. The race also marked a new era as it was the first of two Petit Le Mans to be part on the new Intercontinental Le Mans Cup. The Audi R15 TDI plus was effective during the race but various issues which included contact and punctures had dropped the cars back as Peugeot took their second Petit Le Mans victory.

2011, the Audi challenge ended in the wall

The Audi R18 TDI made its Petit debute in 2011 and looked to be in contention. The #2 Audi retired after issues resulting from multiple contact situations. The race turned into a duel between the #1 Audi and the #8 Peugeot. A tricky situation in traffic involving both cars resulted in the #1 Audi ending its race in the wall, as Peugeot continued onto victory. It was a sad way to end the race, and if Audi does not return to Petit it will be a tragic final moment for Audi at Petit Le Mans. The 2011 event also marked one of the only sportscar races ever that none of the entered Audis finished.

Despite the results from 2011 the Audi Petit Le Mans legacy is unmistakable. Audi is the most successful brand ever at the Petit Le Mans with a staggering eight overall victories. The absence of Audi at Petit 2012 is tragic for Audi fans who have followed this race affectionately for over a decade. The 2012 race will be another exiting Petit Le Mans as it always is, even without the Audi team, and we certainly hope Audi will be back in 2013 for the last LMP1 Petit Le Mans.