The Audi team of Allan McNish, Rinaldo Capello and Michele Alboreto dominated and won the third running of the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta last night, but there was action aplenty in their wake.

The winning team completed 1000 miles around the 2.54-mile, 12-turn, road course in just over nine hours to take another pair of back-to-back victories in the American Le Mans Series, leaving McNish at the top of the standings as the championship race moves on to Laguna Seca in California in two weeks time.

The second Audi of Frank Biela, Emanuele Pirro and Tom Kristensen finished second, followed by the Panoz team of David Brabham and Jan Magnussen, but the results listing did not do justice to the fraught final laps where German faced Dane in a battle for the second step of the podium.

There was a similarly tense finish in the GTS class, where the Corvette team led by ex-pat Brit Andy Pilgrim pulled off a stunning late race move to deprive the first of the ORECA Vipers of victory. The GT class was won by Bob Wollek and Sascha Maassen in a Dick Barbour-run Porsche, who finished 15th overall.

McNish led away as the scheduled ten-hour odyssey got underway just after lunch in Georgia, and quickly pulled out an advantage over the rest of the field. What followed was one of the Scot's now customary blistering opening stints, in which quickly pulled away from the rest of the field, setting fastest laps along the way, and demoralising the opposition.

The soon-to-be Toyota F1 test driver combined endurance with his pace, however, and could not be prised from the seat of the R8 for nigh on three hours. This allowed the team to enjoy the luxury of a one lap advantage by the time he finally handed over to Capello, while the rest scrapped for crumbs in his wake.

The early going did not show signs of producing an Audi 1-2, however, as the unfortunate Pirro missed a crucial yellow flag, and received a stop-go penalty for his pains. Dropping to fifth position on the road, the Italian then had to battle to claim back both time and places, which would see him scrapping with the two Panozs and the Lehto/Muller BMW for much of his stint.

Pirro's task was made slightly easier when the #1 Panoz of 1999 winner David Brabham and team-mate Jan Magnussen clashed with one of the GT classes Porsches, dropping back to fifth as the Dane pitted for flying repairs. As a result, it was the venerable BMW that posed the early threat to McNish's apparent dominance, although both of the 'art car's' drivers later admitted that they were praying for unreliability on the Ingolstadt camp if they were to get a shot at winning the race.

The clashes between GT and prototype machinery littered the event with its fair share of full course yellow flag periods and, while these were normally used sensibly by the teams to effect repairs and driver changes, slowly changed the complexion of the lead battle.

Although McNish had left his partners with a one-lap advantage by the time his marathon shift came to an end, conservative stints from both Capello and the veteran Alboreto, combined with poor timing by the caution periods, gradually allowed the #78 sister car to unwind its deficit and end up on the last lap. With Biela handing over to a fired-up Tom Kristensen during the fifth five-hour, the event quickly distilled into a battle of the two R8s, in which the Dane managed to seize the upper hand with a battling display that saw him dispose of both the BMW and Alboreto in short succession.

Just when it appeared that the red-hued Audi may be on course to add Petit Le Mans to its previous successes at Sebring and La Sarthe, however, its chances were hampered after a rude assault by Magnussen's Panoz. In his haste not to fall too many more laps behind the leaders, the Dane crashed heavily into the back of the Audi, carrying enough force to damage the rear diffuser and severely hamper the #78's progress thereafter.

Pit-stops for repairs eventually led to the damaged part being removed altogether, leaving final driver Biela to battle on without an important piece of his aerodynamic armoury. With the #77 retaking the lead as its sister sat in pit-lane, it was all that the German could do to hang on to second, setting up one of the most exciting finishes of the season.

Despite having to receive attention of its own, the Brabham/Magnussen Panoz was back in the top three as the race drew to a close, courtesy of another full course yellow when the remaining PTG BMW's engine expired, and gained rapidly on the ailing Audi as the pace car controlled the field. Just as it seemed that the 'home' team may be able to take an unopposed second, however, Audi played a trick card, using leader Capello - who was sitting on a four-lap lead - to play rear-gunner to Biela as the red Roadster closed in.

For lap after lap, the two combatants were split by the #77 until, with two laps left, the German team decided that Biela had enough of an advantage to hang on to the second spot. At the first opportunity, however, Magnussen was past Capello and charging after the German driver, closing the gap once again as Biela struggled with an ill-handling car.

Going into the final tour, the Dane was right under the rear wing of the R8, ducking left and right at every corner in a desperate attempt to find a way through. Biela was having none of it, though, and maintained a clam defence right to the flag. Had either car been required to go the full 394-lap maximum, the order would almost certainly have changed but, at the flag, the Audi still held the slimmest of advantages.

The second Panoz, crewed by marque test driver Klaus Graf, American Johnny O'Connell and the rapid Hiroki Katoh took fourth, having looked the more likely of the two red cars to take a podium finish while Brabham and Magnussen went through their early tribulations. Graf, in particular, excelled behind the wheel, but solid stints from both his co-drivers kept the car in contention for trophies right to the end .

BMW, which had seen an almost certain win disappear in the closing stages last season, had an eventful race right from the start in 2000. Whilst JJ Lehto was attempting to get to grips with the fleeing McNish, team-mate Bill Auberlen was trying to do likewise with the Panoz pair. Shortly into the second hour, however, the American's race took an unexpected turn when the V12LMR took off over the infamous Road Atlanta crest and flipped in mid-air, much as Yannick Dalmas' Porsche had done in the inaugural event two years before.

Fortunately for Auberlen, the BMW landed on its wheels, but he was powerless to prevent it careering into the barriers and scattering debris over a wide area. The incident also took out the following Skea GT Porsche, which went off on the remains of the BMW's bodywork, but the Munich marque opted to keep the Lehto/Muller car in the race, believing that it the accident had been a freak. Auberlen suffered nothing more than a bruised shoulder, but the car was beyond repair, leaving team-mate Jean-Marc Gounon without a ride.

The #42 car maintained its second place until the mid-race charges of Kristensen and Magnussen dropped it down the order, and Jorg Muller's 1999 nightmare came back to haunt him again. Running on the fringes of the top three heading into the late stages, the BMW snapped around and backed itself into the barriers as the German made the slightest of mistakes. Minus its rear wing, and sporting further damage to the rear, the car was stationary in the pits for well over 15 minutes, restricting it to a disappointing fifth place finish, and robbing Muller of his points lead.

It was followed home by a phalanx of Cadillacs, headed by the remarkably reliable, if slightly underpowered, DAMS car of Eric Bernard and Emmanuel Collard. The French pairing hardly put a foot wrong all afternoon, and were duly rewarded with the car's best finish of the year. It also headed the two works machines of Angelelli/Taylor/van de Poele and Wallace/Leitzinger/Lagorce. The former had another relatively straightforward run, but the Wallace car had to battle back from early problems that left it languishing among the ranks of the GT entries for a long time.

The rest of the prototype field suffered mixed fortunes, with the second DAMS car struggling to 13th after early problems for Christophe Tinseau and Marc Goossens, and none of the Lolas making it to the chequered flag. First to go was the Konrad/Slater car, which lasted less than thirty laps before crying enough, although the other two entries soldiered on for a third of the race before following suit.

The Rafanelli car looked set for its best performance for some time, before its customary bad luck returned with a vengeance, and saw it removed in an incident with one of the GT runners. The Intersport/Banana Joe's car went the same way, but not before Jon Field had hauled it into the top six, and Britain's Olly Gavin had put in a strong showing on his Road Atlanta debut. Sadly for the former F3 champion, however, he was to take out the race's most celebrated competitor - Paul Newman - in an accident which would end both cars' participation before half distance.

If the battle for second in the prototypes class was something to behold, it did not hold as much at stake as a similar last ditch scrap for the spoils in GTS. As expected the battle came down to a straight fight between Viper and Corvette, although the players were not the anticipated lead crews from either camp.

While the Olivier Beretta and Ron Fellows crews suffered various niggling problems that were not enough to rule them out of a frantic four-way fight, but sufficient to prevent either challenging for the win, the sister cars led by Tommy Archer and Andy Pilgrim duelled right the way to the flag.

Archer, joined for the event by Patrick Huisman and Boris Derichebourg, looked to be on the way to a famous victory before Pilgrim closed onto his rear bumper with just two laps to go. Try as he might to hold the Corvette off, Archer was not prepared for Pilgrim's do-or-die effort into Turn One and, after running wide in the aftermath, had to be content with second place.

The Fellows/Bell/Kneifel C5-R came in third after early leaders Beretta and Wendlinger were delayed by a late race battery change. The Corvettes had shown their pace in qualifying and, despite the Vipers taking off like scalded cats in the early going, were never so far adrift as to be out of contention. Indeed, going into the final stint the leading two cars from both camps were split by less than a lap, and the class victory could have gone any one of four ways before being settled in Pilgrim's favour.

The intensity was no less in GT, with a succession of leaders falling by the wayside as the marathon continued. Series points leaders Lucas Luhr and Dirk Muller were the first to show, before being involved with Magnussen's Panoz in the second hour and dropping a couple of places.

They were replaced at the front by the PTG BMW, which was already running solo following the early demise of the Cunningham/Jonsson car. Crewed by Hans Stuck, who had earlier won the Beetle Cup celebrity race, the BMW's lead was short-lived, as the Alex Job Porsche led by Randy Pobst and Bruno Lambert stole ahead under the full course caution caused by Gavin's clash with Newman.

Only losing places with the onset of driver changes, the Job car was to hold onto its advantage into the fourth hour, as local hero Anthony Lazzaro overcame Sascha Maassen in the second Barbour car to re-establish the lead. Even this was not to last, however, as Lambert later ran into gearbox problems which left the 911 with just one usable cog for some time and prevented it rising above second in the final reckoning. It would have been third, however, had not the recovering Luhr/Muller car also run into similar problems late on.

The Maassen/Bob Wollek car was thus reinstated at the front of the class, despite the French veteran spinning into the T6 gravel midway though the event, allowing the Franco-German crew to take back-to-back wins following similar success in Portland, and elevating Maassen to the class points lead. The sister car of Luhr and Muller had to be content with third place on the day.

The all-woman driving team of Cindi Lux, Belinda Endress and Divina Galica finished 20th, completing 828 miles in G&W Porsche, putting it ahead of the Roock and Chamberlain GTS cars, all of which hit mechanical problems. There were more serious incidents for the Patriot Viper, which overturned in the fifth hour and the Brown/Rice/Snow 911, which burst and oil line and caught light in the sixth.

Even these fared better than the luckless Johansson-Matthews Reynard, however. Having qualified in the thick of the prototype battle, Guy Smith was forced to start from the pit-lane and, despite the team insisting that there was no real problem, parked the recalcitrant machine with just twelve laps on the clock. Team boss Stefan Johansson and the talented Ralf Kelleners were consequently left with a fair bit of free time.

Skea Racing's day was compounded by the early exit of Johnny Mowlem and David Murry, the victims of a punt from one of the prototypes before even the Reynard had called it a day, while the sister car had its right front wheel ripped off in the frightening accident which followed Bill Auberlen's demise.

In direct contrast, hardly anything troubled the winning Audi, mush the same as the winner of the real Le Mans also survived the race unscathed. Five wins have gone Ingolstadt's way since the remodelled R8 was introduced, and there are few people who would now bet against Allan McNish joining Toyota's Formula One effort without a sportscar crown adorning his trophy cabinet.