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McNish back to his best to land title

31 December 2000

Allan McNish overcame a sore back to cruise to the American Le Mans Series drivers' championship as he and Audi team-mate Rinaldo Capello scored a dominant victory in the Race of a Thousand Years.

The Audi R8 of McNish and Capello finished 21 laps clear of the second-place Konrad Motorsport Lola in the six-hour endurance event, with the Scot, who had injured his back a few days before the race, starting the race and also driving the final stints on the 2.4-mile circuit.

Audi's plan had originally been to put McNish in the car for the opening shift, in order to rack up enough laps for him to qualify for points and become champion, but McNish said that he felt comfortable to return to the fray later on, and also took the chequered flag for the team.

In front of a crowd estimated at more than 130,000, McNish ceded Capello's hard-earned pole position to Audi team-mate Frank Biela at the first turn, but wasted little time in re-passing the German to ensure that he was in front at the all-important 25-lap mark when he clinched the championship.

From that point on, the #77 Audi, resplendent in its crocodile livery, was never headed, as McNish eased away from Biela despite the tight confines of the street circuit, establishing enough of a cushion to ensure Capello inherited the lead after the first driver change. The Italian then added to both the advantage and his own reputation by piling on the pressure and extending the gap back to fellow countryman Emanuele Pirro, who took over from Biela at one-third distance.

The pace finally told on the #78 Audi, as Pirro suffered a mechanical problem and was forced to pull over at the side of the road to effect repairs. The red-and-silver machine had earlier been involved in a collision with one of the GT class Porsches and, although Pirro eventually managed to make it roadworthy again, fell so far off the pace that it could only finish a lowly 16th.

''The car was very good all day,'' said McNish, who will be honoured at an awards banquet Monday night in Adelaide, ''and I am very relieved. I didn't feel as though I could finish 25 laps yesterday, let alone two stints and the end of the race, but we did the hard work at the beginning, and, hopefully, tomorrow will be an easier day.

''Dindo was great in getting us the pole and, although I let Frank slip through at the first corner, it meant that I could keep my head down and concentrate on the race. Winning is a great painkiller, and I guess a couple of whiskies tonight will help as well!''

The second-place finisher was something of a surprise, with the Lola-Ford B2K of Franz Konrad, Charlie Slater and Alan Heath beating the cream of the ALMS field to take to the podium.

For some time, it looked as though both Lolas in the line-up would make it into the top three, but Gabriele Rafanelli's persistent bad luck struck with less than an hour remaining, stranding Didier de Radigues at the end of the Brabham Straight with gearbox failure and dropping the Olive Garden car to the lower reaches of the top 15.

The Konrad entry was more fortunate, having seemingly used up its quota of misfortune on Friday, when Slater dismantled the Lola against one of the unforgiving concrete walls. An overnight rebuild, ironically aided by the Rafanelli crew, was rewarded with a trouble-free run to the flag on Sunday, as those around them fell by the wayside.

''I am really happy for my team and the other drivers,'' said Franz Konrad, ''Everyone did a great job and, most importantly, we had luck with the car.''

Among those falling away were the three Panoz entries - one of which did not make it as far as the third lap.

Jan Magnussen admitted before the start of the race that he and co-driver Klaus Graf would have to be gentle with the new-for-2001 LMP07, following problems throughout the first two days, but the Dane could not have expected a recurrence of an alternator problem which would force him into the pits and out of the race on lap two.

The other two red cars, both of 2000 specification, ran well in the opening stages and occupied top four places behind the two Audis with David Brabham and Johnny O'Connell at the wheel.

The American's LMP-1 was the first to hit trouble, when the brake pedal went soft shortly after he handed over to team-mate Hiroki Katoh. The #2 car was then a regular pit visitor as the Dave Price-run team attempted to keep it on the road. The persistent delays naturally dropped it down the order, and further damage to its recovery was done when Graf swapped from the #1 entry and promptly put the car in the wall during the closing stages. Thirteenth place was poor reward for a difficult afternoon.

''It wasn't an easy race,'' O'Connell admitted, ''and, to cap it all, I think I trapped a nerve in my back which was giving me lots of pain. Unfortunately, it wasn't the finish to the year that I was looking for!''

Brabham's car - the self-dubbed 'crocodile hunters' line-up including antipodeans Jason Bright and Greg Murphy - looked set for a podium finish while the former F1 driver was at the wheel, but dropped own the order as problems beset his less experienced partners.

Murphy was still holding a comfortable third place when he ran into brake caliper problems and was forced off the road. Initially walking away from the dented Panoz, the New Zealander was persuaded to return and, after much coaxing, finally got the car back to the pits. There, the team set to work and finally got Bright out on track for the last two stints of the event.

The Australian was not without problems of his own, however, and, having hauled the car back into the top ten, was sent sliding off the road by oil dropped by the Rafanelli Lola. The only full-course caution of the day ensued, providing Bright with the chance to accept assistance and return the car to the pits where, once again, the mechanics got to work. The team was rewarded with ninth overall, and third in class, but it was a frustrating day for all concerned.

''I'm privileged to work with a very special team and they all deserve a great deal of praise to work like they do and put the car back together time after time,'' Brabham said afterwards, ''There was a fantastic atmosphere here today from the Aussie fans, and it was great to hear the crowd cheering - not just for us local drivers, but also for the mechanics each time they pushed a car out of the pit garage.''

With both DAMS Cadillacs succumbing to mechanical failures while running solidly, it fell to the leading GTS and GT class runners to complete the top five.

Reigning GTS-class champion Olivier Beretta shared his ORECA Dodge Viper with regular co-drivers Karl Wendlinger and Dominique Dupuy en route to third overall, allowing the Monegasque to wrap up his second consecutive driving title. It was not easy for the team, however, as the reserve crew of Ni Amorim and Jean-Phillipe Belloc pushed them hard all the way.

''I am very happy for this last race with the Viper,'' Beretta revealed afterwards, ''We had no choice but to come here and win because we wanted to finish in the best way possible for the car. It was a hard race, but we had to win.''

The two red-and-white cars were followed across the line by the Porsche 911 GT3-R of German Dirk Muller, who added the class crown to his race win after a tense, come-from-behind, struggle with Dick Barbour team-mate Sascha Maassen. Muller knew that his fellow countryman held the upper hand going into the race but, as problems struck the #51 car that Maassen shared with French veteran Bob Wollek, realised that he only had to finish in the top three in GT to clinch the crown.

Maassen held the early upper hand, but was soon passed by Muller's team-mate Lucas Luhr. While holding second would still have been enough to give him the title, Maassen then ran into problems, picking up a puncture and suspension problems before succumbing to a necessary gearbox change at half-distance, which dropped him off the pace and out of championship contention.

In his place, American Randy Pobst briefly threatened Muller's chances, but was later delayed by a series of niggling problems that afflicted his Petersen/White Lightning entry.

''I really like Adelaide,'' an emotional Muller revealed on the podium, ''It is unbelievable. I can't believe that I am the champion, and I have to say that I couldn't have done it without Lucas - I really love him too, starting from this moment!''

The top ten was rounded out by the second of the three Barbour cars, with fellow GT entries from the PTG BMW team in seventh and tenth. Splitting the two black-and-white cars, Steve Watson partnered Milka Duno and local Ray Lintott to third in GTS and eight overall, one place ahead of the unfortunate #12 Panoz.

As the ALMS continues to go from strength to strength, it three new champions will each move on to pastures new next season. McNish's performances with the Audi have led him to a works Toyota F1 seat, albeit for testing in 2001, while Beretta moves from ORECA's GTS entry to its new prototype assault. Muller also has plans, thought to include either the Schnitzer or PTG BMW GT teams, although he was reluctant to confirm these in Australia.

Don Panoz can be proud of the world he has created.


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