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Audi snatch win in ALMS thriller

6 March 2001

The dominant Audi Sport North America outfit continued their dominance of the American Le Mans Series with another 1-2 result in the Leather Centre Grand Prix of Texas at the Texas Motor Speedway but they were run extremely close by both factory Panoz' in what was a thrilling 2hr 45min race.

Rinaldo Capello an Tom Kristensen came home with just seven and a half seconds to spare over their Audi Sport North America team-mates Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro in the opening round of the 2001 American Le Mans Series at he 2.324-mile combined oval/road course at the Texas Motor Speedway as the top four LMP900 machines came home less than 40 seconds apart in a race where fortunes swayed between Audi and their factory rivals Panoz.

It was pole-sitter Capello who shot into an early lead ahead of Klaus Graf in last years Panoz Roadster S as Jan Magnussen in the howling new Four litre Panoz LMP07 dropped to third ahead of Andy Wallace in the Champion Racing Audi R8 and the top quartet stayed in close contact for the first 15 laps.

However it was the stunning progress of Frank Biela from 22nd and last one the grid that really captured the imagination as the former BTCC Champion scythed his way through the mid-field men, losing just twelve seconds on the leaders en-route to fifth place, ahead of the Jay Cochran/Richard Dean Panoz, on lap Four!

It took the German driver another 20 laps to pass Wallace for third, by which time Capello had opened up a six second lead over Magnussen and ten seconds in front the plucky Graf who now had his mirrors full of the second factory Audi R8. Biela didn't have to try and work his way past the two Panoz' for on lap 32, after just 42 minutes of racing, Magnussen brought the LMP07 down-pit lane for its first scheduled fuel and tyres stop with Graf following him in two laps later.

The obvious thirst of the American machines compared to their German rivals was a major concern for the Panoz team and both Magnussen and Graf stayed aboard, Graf electing to stay on the same set of Michelins in an effort to negate the disadvantage to the Audi's.

It wasn't until lap 37 when Capello finally rolled onto pit-road leaving Biela leading as the finale of a stunning last-to-first drive. Wallace also assumed top spot for a lap when Biela pitted but the pace of the German driver was such that he led Capello and Graf when the pit-stop shuffle worked itself out.

When the caution flag waved just past the one-hour mark, Audi elected to bring Biela and Capello in for their driver changes leaving Pirro and Kristensen behind the wheel until the end while Magnussen gave up the controls of the Panoz in favour of David Brabham. Graf stayed out and therefore moved into the lead when the green flag fell on lap 50 and the German superbly staved off the close attentions of Pirro for a full eight laps until finally surrendering his position.

Another caution flag on the 100 minute mark for Kelly Collins' nasty bump with the wall in Turn Four of the oval course finally brought Graf in for a driver change and a new set of tyres with Gualter Salles aiming to run the final one hour and five minutes on a single tank of fuel. The caution period also saved Pirro from losing a stack of time when he came together with the No.44 American Viper Racing Chrysler Viper of Joe Ellis and Tom Weickardt on the in-field section causing a harmless spin.

Pirro's spin was enough to promote Kristensen into the lead when the green flag fell with one hour to go although the Dane, the Italian, Brabham, Salles and Dorsey Schroeder in the Champion Audi were all within 20 seconds of one another and all five were capable of winning. Whatever the first round of the 2001 ALMS Championship lacked numerically it certainly made up for in excitement.

The two Audi's were able to circulate just a few seconds apart once racing resumed with Brabham roughly 15 seconds in arrears and plainly trying to save fuel. Salles and Schroeder fell more than half a minute off the leaders but both were looking to run until the end without another stop. The main question was not if, but when would the Audi's come in.

The answer came with exactly half an hour to go when both Silver machines rumbled onto pit road for a final top-up and the crowd roared as Brabham screamed across the start-finish line to take the lead. Kristensen scrambled out in second but Pirro was caught behind Schroeder and was stuck in fourth still less than 30 seconds off the lead such was the closeness of the scrap for overall honours.

Kristensen was quick to make in-roads into Brabham's ten-second advantage at the front as the race passed the 100-lap mark but the ex-Simtek Formula One driver managed to stabilise the gap at around eight seconds as he fought on. Pirro by this stage had found a way past Schroeder but was over ten seconds behind Kristensen and out of contention.

The Audi team looked on pensively as the minutes wound down, anxiously looking for movement amongst the Panoz ranks as Brabham somehow resisted Kristensen's challenge. With just under 15-minutes to go a Panoz peeled off into the pits for a late stop and as Richard Dean took some late fuel for the sixth placed car, it became clear that Panoz were in trouble and sure enough, less than a minute later Brabham was in as another roar erupted from the crowd.

After taking on the bare minimum in fuel, Brabham blasted back out on the track on new Michelin's but he was more than 20 seconds down on the new leader. Tom Kristensen. Spurred on by the threat of a fully charged up Antipodean, the Audi boys soon got a hurry up and proceeded to recorded some of the race's fastest laps as they broke Panoz hearts and kept Brabham firmly at bay.

And so once again Audi monopolised the podium after a smooth and calculated performance and all four drivers, Biela in particular, deserve credit for aggressive, yet controlled drives but the relief visible on the faces of all four told the real story for on its first really competitive appearance (discounting Adelaide last year), the new Panoz LMP07 was a real force and will continue to improve in the coming weeks. Andy Wallace and Dorsey Schroeder were almost on the pace of the leaders but offered less of a threat over an entire race distance still came home a worthy fourth 40 seconds off the lead while Salles finally fell off the lead lap when he too had to make a late stop.

All six LMP900 cars that started the race finished with the Westward Racing Panoz coming home a lonely sixth, four laps down in what was a valuable experience for both Jay Cochran, Richard Dean and the entire team, currently running under the factory banner.

GTS honours unsurprisingly fell to the remaining factory Corvette of Ron Fellows and Johnny O'Connell once their team-mates departed in such dramatic fashion, Kelly Collins suffering nothing more than a bruised knee. However it was not all plain sailing for the eventual victors, who came home seventh just nine laps adrift, as O'Connell lost a wheel during the opening stint and then served a drive through penalty for attempting to get through with the repairs a little too hastily. Despite failing a lap off the class lead, O'Connell and Fellows were ale to work their way back into the lead when Collins crashed on lap 61.

The Erik Messley/Terry Borcheller Dodge Viper came home second in class, two laps behind the 'Vette in 15th overall after staying out of trouble while team-mates Weickardt and Ellis finished 19th and last after their altercation with Pirro.

The lack of sufficient GTS competition meant that GT Class winners Lucas Luhr and Sascha Maassen were classified eighth overall in their Alex Job Racing Porsche 911 GT3R and although the duo led almost all the way from start to finish, the battle that raged behind them throughout the race was the real highlight of the day. Comprising the sister Alex Job entry of Randy Pobst/Christian Menzel, the factory BMW E46 M3 of JJ Lehto/Jorg Muller, the two Prototype Technology Group BMW's of Boris Said/Hans Stuck and Bill Auberlen/Niclas Jonsson, the Kelly-Moss Motorsports Porsche of Christophe Bouchut/Anthony Lazzaro and the Peterson Motorsports Porsche of Johnny Mowlem/Bob Wollek/Michael Peterson, all six cars remained on the same lap until the dying minutes when Jonsson suffered a blow-out and Lazzaro spun.

The all-important ninth place eventually fell to Pobst/Menzel after Wollek, who had been Menzel's closest challenger in the closing stages, was pushed off by Jorg Muller leaving Hans Stuck in prime position to capitalise and take third in class. Wollek recovered to take fourth in class and eleventh overall ahead of the factory BMW, Lazzaro and the remaining BMW.

In the sparsely populated LMP675 class, the lone entry from the Roock-Knighthawk outfit only had to complete 20 laps to be classified as the winners but drivers Mel Hawkins and Steven Knight struggled even to do that in their Lola B2K-Nissan after suffering chronic overheating problems early in the race. After a number of stops, the duo completed 23 laps before calling it a day.

And so that was the start of the 2001 ALMS and while the race didn't really represent the series in its true colours as many teams are keeping themselves under wraps until Sebring in two weeks time, those present at Texas certainly did their bit in keeping the crowds happy.


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