Nothing Petit about Audi victory
13 October 2002
The fifth running of the Petit Le Mans provided all the drama and excitement expected from such a high quality field and although a factory Audi emerged victorious, Tom Kristensen and Rinaldo Capello had to fight every inch of the way.
The 2.54-mile, twelve turn Road Atlanta circuit has rarely seen a race like the 2002 edition of the Petit Le Mans, which saw newly crowned LMP900 Driver's Champion Tom Kristensen and his co-driver Rinaldo Capello eke out a hard fought, if somewhat fortuitous victory.
The two factory Audi drivers completed the required 394 laps in a shade under nine and a half hours aboard their #2 R8 despite starting the 1000-mile event with a car that was suffering from vicious oversteer.
The race boiled down to a straight duel between the #2 factory Audi and the #38 privateer Champion Racing Audi of former Formula One duo Johnny Herbert and Stefan Johansson. Following the fiery demise of the superb Dyson Racing MG/Lola, which James Weaver had running as high as second in the opening hour and three lengthy delays for the pole winning Frank Biela/Emanuele Pirro Audi, the two remaining Audi's had the large Road Atlanta crowd enthralled as they repeatedly traded top spot.
Capello first took the lead for his team right on the two-hour mark when Biela was called into the pits for a penalty after he shoved one of Franz Konrad's Saleen's onto the grass. In the Champion car Herbert's usual mammoth first stint lasted a full 2hrs 30mins as the #38 team used the full course caution periods to top up their fuel and remain on the lead lap.
Johansson and Kristensen stepped in at the same time with Champion's quicker pit stop allowing the Swedish driver to leave the pits some seven seconds ahead of his fellow Scandinavian. Then just minutes later Biela pitted from the lead and a chink appeared in Audi's armoury.
The headlights of the #1 Audi had been flickering wildly since the word go and this had an adverse affect on the battery. When Pirro turned the switch to begin his stint there was nothing. The rear bodywork was swiftly removed as the Joest crew swarmed over the mechanicals of the car, losing the defending Champions four laps.
Another extended stop to swap batteries and rectify the headlight problem cost the defending Petit Le Mans Champions more time but worse was to come at the 3hrs 30min mark when Pirro was following the fifth placed Dyson Racing MG/Lola being driven by Andy Wallace.
Accelerating at full pelt on the run out of turn seven, Wallace's MG/Lola suddenly burst into flames when a mixture of hot oil and leaking fuel ignited. With nowhere to go Pirro rammed the rear of the little LMP675 machine and was left with fairly serious front-end damage. The Dyson machine was out altogether although Wallace was uninjured while Pirro was able to limp back to the pits for repairs after one of his most testing single driving stints ever.
While all this was going on, Johansson was grimly clinging to his slender lead as Kristensen made slightly better work of the almost constant slower traffic. However it took the factory driver until the next round of fuel stops, which for Kristensen coincided with the Wallace/Pirro Safety Car period, to retake the lead as suddenly Johansson found himself at the tail of the lead lap after making his stop under green.
Another spirited charge from Stefan paid off just shy of the five-hour mark when the safety car returned and he was able to make a full fuel/tyre and driver change under caution. With Herbert back behind the wheel he and Kristensen once again quickened the pace at the front as the gap between the two stabilised at around half a minute.
Another intervention from the safety car brought Herbert to within two seconds of Kristensen and as the evening drew in, the two drivers put on a mesmerising show. Still dicing through heavy traffic, Kristensen held off Herbert by less than a second for a good 20 minutes before Herbert found a way through and the situation was reversed. Herbert kept his lead, never more than two seconds, until 7hrs 15mins were on the clock and both team headed for the pits.
Whereas Kristensen handed the controls of the #2 Audi to Capello, Herbert stayed in the Champion car and the time he saved in the pits translated into a 25-second lead as night fell.
But Capello fought back and halved the deficit as Herbert overcame several very close calls with slower machinery before he headed to the pits at the eight-hour mark to hand back to Johansson. It was hear that the race was more or less decided for just two laps after the Swedish driver took the wheel, Mike Hezemans slammed hard into the turn six tyre barriers in the remaining American Viperacing Viper to bring out the safety car and allow Capello to pit under caution.
After spending most of the previous four hours attempting to regain their lost ground as a result of the last time they were caught out in the pits, Champion Racing and Stefan Johansson could do little but shake their heads in despair. Although Johansson was still on the same lap as the leading Audi he was more than a minute behind when the green flag flew again and had just 40 laps to turn the situation around.
Bravely Johansson gave his cause everything he had with Capello not only stuck in heavy traffic but also trying to conserve fuel in order to avoid another fuel stop. On lap 382 of 394 Johansson had reduced Capello's lead to just 27 seconds and was recording his fastest laps of the race despite the fact he was driving at night. But just as the already hyped crowd were beginning to think that a major shock was on the cards, Johansson brought the multi coloured #38 machine onto pit road for a late splash of fuel and that was that as far as the overall result was concerned.
Capello duly reeled off the final dozen laps without hassle to bring the factory Audi team a fifth successive victory in what could be the final hurrah for the team in its current guise. Factory participation from Audi next year is still far from certain as Kristensen was confirmed as LMP900 Champion and for the third straight year, the silver R8's dominated the season virtually from the word go.
Even the single lap margin of victory did not do the deflated Champion Audi team justice after another hugely spirited performance and they can now but wait for next March and the Sebring 12 Hours for another crack at taking a long awaited ALMS victory.
Four and five laps respectively behind the winners, Max Angelelli/JJ Lehto/Christophe Tinseau and their factory Cadillac teammates Emmanuel Collard/Eric Bernard/Wayne Taylor brought the two Northstar LMP-02's home in a deserved third and fourth overall in heir final appearance while Bryan Herta/Bill Auberlen/Gunnar Jeannette completed the top five in the first of the Panoz's.
Pirro and Biela recovered to take sixth overall, 18 laps behind their teammates while the Brabham/Magnussen/Donohue Panoz was all set for a remarkable top five until gear selection problems dropped them to seventh in the closing 90 minutes.
Following the dramatic demise of the Dyson MG, LMP675 looked to be heading the way of KnightHawk Racing's similar machine only for it to suffer engine problems and a similar, but far less dramatic fire while in the pits. This left the door open for the third of the MG/Lola EX257's, the Intersport Racing example, to take class honours and eighth overall. That result also confirmed long-time Intersport boss Jon Field of the LMP675 driver's title that his hard trying team justly deserved.
The GTS battle provided a stirring show from start to finish with the Prodrive Ferrari leading most of the way only to fall behind the Ron Fellows/Oliver Gavin/Johnny O'Connell Corvette during the final caution period when a loose nut in the front suspension cost Alan Menu valuable time. During the final stint Czech driver Tomas Enge fought back and sliced into what was a full lap deficit and retook the lead when Fellows pitted for fuel and tyres.
The newly crowned GTS drivers Champion used his new tyres to good effect as he put the pressure squarely back on Enge, forcing the Ferrari driver to drive quicker than he would have liked. As the minutes wound down so did the gap between the two cars until with just five laps to go just three seconds separated Fellows from an unlikely class win.
Just three laps from home the two were together and as they came up to Carlos de Quesada's GT class BMW, Enge clipped the slower machine with enough force to puncture his left front tyre and hand Fellows the victory. The crestfallen Prodrive squad completed the necessary pit stop and finished second with the second factory Corvette third in class.
IN GT, Alex Job Racing succeeded in their task of ensuring Lucas Luhr and Sascha Maassen finished joint top of the GT class driver standings but failed in their bid to do the same for Timo Bernhard and Jorg Bergmeister for second place overall. Bernhard and Bergmeister suffered a rare Porsche engine failure and retired while the winning duo also had a scare when their car began overheating and smoking in the final stages.
Despite this, Maassen brought the ailing #23 Porsche home to score a two-lap victory over the Peterson Motorsports Porsche of Johnny Mowlem/Randy Pobst/Mike Peterson and the Anthony Lazzaro/Ralf Kelleners Risi Competizione Ferrari 360 Modena.