Audi's Difficult Petit Le Mans

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It all went wrong for the Audi team at this year's Petit Le Mans 1000-mile race.  With two R18 TDI coupes entered for the first time in this American endurance competition, the Audi Sport Team Joest-entered team had visions of vanquishing rival Peugeot once again this year, after using their new car to win this year's 24 Heures du Mans in dramatic fashion.

The No. 2 Audi TDI hit trouble only 50 minutes after starting fourth in the capacity 53-car race that began at 11:30AM Saturday morning on the Road Atlanta 1.54-mile road course.  With Dane Tom Kristensen at the helm, there was contact with a slower GT car in the Esses, an off-track excursion and an unscheduled stop at the pits to fix the front nose bodywork and a punctured left tire.  

The No. 2 dropped to 41st place after that problem yet Allan McNish took over with nearly two hours in the books and recovered to sixth place in only 50 minutes of balls-to-the-wall driving.  Even that magic dive would come to naught when a slower car nerved him under braking, pushing the 3.7-liter V-engined Audi R18 into another race car.

That incident meant another call to the pits - actually two - to change the right rear suspension, the clutch and to repair right sidepod damage.  Dindo Capello got into the car after more than an hour's worth of work by the Audi mechanics - in 44th place!

Repeated calls on the pits and, ultimately, steering issues (due to the earlier contacts), caused the No. 2 Audi's ultimate retirement with about an hour remaining in the contest, listed in 40th place.

"There were many cars on track here and we knew that the traffic would cause problems," McNish noted.  "We were ultimately forced to retire because after all these hits which the poor car had to take in this race, we had problems with the steering.  It was a bit disappointing for Tom, Dindo and me.  We had the feeling that we had a wel-balanced car that we could have been in contention for victory with."

The front-row starting No. 1 car kept pace with the brace of Peugeot cars throughout the first seven hours of the endurance contest with Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Le Mans winner Marcel Fassler at the helm.  Fassler passed the pole-winning Peugeot to second within eight laps and their battle seesawed throughout the day and into night.

Remembering to keep clear of slower GT traffic and driving with great caution, the three No. 1 Audi drivers at various times had nearly a full lap's advantage over their French rivals.  By the seventh hour, Dumas launched an attack on the No. 8 Peugeot 908 being driven by Franck Montagny.  The duo brushed side-by-side before the start/finish line and Dumas lost five seconds.  

Only a few laps later the Frenchman caught his countryman a second time and, when the Peugeot nipped a GT car Dumas was able to move alongside, only to be squeezed out by Montagny as they accelerated up the hill into the Esses.

While trying to avoid contact with the Peugeot, Dumas brushed another GT Porsche entry and smacked the wall on driver's left, riding half a straightaway after the impact.  Audi No. 1's day was suddenly done, with the car classified 41st, just behind its teammate.

"Right from the start we had a well-balanced car," Dumas admitted.  "We knew that we had to avoid accidents despite the heavy traffic and that worked out well.  I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity because Franck knew I was going to pass him; he deliberately drove on my line.  Maybe I was too nice because I steered to the left in order to avoid a collision and hit the slower Porsche in the process.  A very stupid maneuver on Montagny's part," Dumas said.

Because of their problems at this race, compounded by poor racing luck throughout the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup season, the championship is out of reach for Audi this year, as they've ceded that honor to Peugeot's heavier and more powerful 908 coupe.  Now, they can only say wait 'til next year.  "We congratulate Peugeot on their victory and the ILMC title.  Nevertheless," said Dr Wolfgang Ullich, head of Audi Motorsport, "there is an aftertaste which is not so pleasant."

© 2011 Anne Proffit

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