Three years ago, Mike Rockenfeller was reduced to tears of despair after crashing out of the Le Mans 24 Hours barely an hour into his debut with the factory Audi operation, and in the 2010 edition of the race dubbed 'the hardest in the world to win', the German was again left feeling rather emotional. This time, though, they were tears of joy.
In company with team-mates Romain Dumas and Timo Bernhard, 'Rocky' proved to be a match in the #9 Audi R15 Plus TDi for the high-profile trio of Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Rinaldo 'Dindo' Capello in the sister #7 machine – one that would run into trouble whilst lapping the BMW 'Art' car of Andy Priaulx – and significantly, the #9 crew had the legs over the #8 car driven by André Lotterer, Benoît Tréluyer and Marcel Fässler.
Even more significantly still, 'Rocky' and co. enjoyed that very rare thing at Le Mans – an entirely trouble-free race from light-out to chequered flag, as the R15 failed to miss a beat and the men inside its cockpit proved to be faultless en route
to the top step of the podium and a wholly unanticipated triumph.
“Unbelievable!” the German enthused, speaking to Crash.net Radio
at La Sarthe. “It's hard to describe – it still hasn't sunk in really. I always dreamed about winning this race overall – I won in GT2 in 2005, and after that I came to Audi and I had a bit of a struggle, but they put their trust in me and finally I have been able to pay that back with victory.
“This year especially was so intense with the speed that Peugeot had. We tried just to stay out-of-trouble and run at our own pace, and in the end to be here as the winner is unbelievable. I'm so happy, and thankful that Audi gave me, Timo and Romain the chance; I think it's a good line-up with a really strong team spirit. We've known each other for a long time and it worked really well inside the car, and I'm happy for the three of us.
“It's the first win for all three of us and hopefully we will win some more in the future, but the first one I think is the most difficult and the most important, so I'm really happy and I think it takes a while for it to settle and for me to realise what we have achieved here.
“Still I will never forget 2007 and the mistake or misfortune – you can call it whatever you want, but I will never forget that moment. It was just the worst start to come to Audi and destroy the car, but I learned a lot and it's racing – things happen. It shows how strong the team is that three years later I'm here as a winner – so it all worked out.”
Rockenfeller conceded that after the lightning-quick pace demonstrated by Peugeot straight out-of-the-box on Wednesday during opening practice and qualifying – almost a full five seconds ahead of the fastest Audi – he would have 'been lying' if he had predicted an all-Audi podium come Sunday afternoon in France. Courtesy of a 'flat-out' approach, dogged determination and constant pressure, though – and in a classic case of the tortoise prevailing over the hare – the Ingolstadt manufacturer successfully broke its arch-rival's bid for glory.
“We were still hoping and doing everything we could to make it happen – to have at least one Audi on the podium or to win the race – otherwise we might as well just pack our stuff and go home,” the 26-year-old mused of the mood in the Audi camp on Wednesday evening. “We've been in this situation before; since they've been here, Peugeot have been very strong and very fast, but we knew that we could put in a great team effort and I think we showed that quite strongly this year.
“The spirit they showed and the speed they had was incredible. I would say you have to analyse the problems they had, but definitely, as soon as they had some small issues they started to push really, really hard to keep up with us, and that probably caused a few other problems – and therefore I think we did our best to keep them under pressure.
“At the very end we had [a margin], because once we were clear we tried to bring it home, but before that we were driving flat-out every lap. We are really proud to have won this race because Peugeot was here and because they are so strong – we shouldn't forget that, because it makes it all-the-sweeter.”TO LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW IN FULL: CLICK HERE