The Audi Sport UK/Team Veloqx operation took a comfortable 1-2 in the opening round of the new Le Mans Endurance Series at Monza, despite a cloudburst making conditions interesting in the closing stages.
Having run dry for most if five-hour-plus length, rain descended on the historic Italian autodromo with the last 30 laps to run, causing a few heads to be scratched in pit-lane as the precipitation decided just how heavy it was going to be. In the end, however, it ensured that the entire field had to switch to full wet tyres in order to make it to the chequered flag.
Never more than a matter of seconds apart, the #8 and #88 Audi R8s fielded by the Audi UK/Veloqx partnership duly came home in formation, although the result remained in doubt until the very end , as traffic and the conditions allowed a charging Allan McNish to close right in on the back of team-mate Johnny Herbert.
The two Britons had taken on the bulk of the driving in their respective cars, as an early safety car caused the team to rethink its strategy, with team-mates Jamie Davies and Pierre Kaffer taking a back seat in an enthralling battle. The turning point in the event proved to be Kaffer's stint, which allowed Herbert, who had trailed McNish when going head-to-head in the mid-part of the race, to pull out just enough of a gap to resist the Scot when he climbed back aboard the #8 car.
Although there was early competition from the exciting new Zytek Engineering 04S piloted by David Brabham, Andy Wallace and Stefan Johansson, third place eventually fell to the other Audi in the race, fielded by Team Goh, and driven to the flag by R8 veteran Tom Kristensen. The Dane had been champing at the bit to get into the car, but had to wait until the closing stages after Seiji Ara and Rinaldo Capello had taken the early stints. Not long after the final change, however, the rain arrived, and Kristensen was among the first to pit for suitable tyres, opting for intermediates before the full downpour take effect and ending up a lap adrift of the leaders.
The Zytek challenge foundered with an early brake problem, which cost the black machine six laps before its all-star crew could get back on track. Thereafter, it was right back on the pace, with Johansson lapping at the same pace as the leaders en route
Between the Audis and their greatest threat, Team Pescarolo and Rollcentre Racing put their respective prototypes into the top five after impressive runs, ending up four and five laps adrift. Rollcentre boss Martin Short almost achieved notoriety in the final laps, being tipped into a spin by McNish after inadvertently turning across the nose of the second-placed Audi, but managed to recover from the ensuing spin to claim the car's second top five finish in as many events, following its sterling efforts at Sebring.
The GTS class was led home by former FIA GT champions Larbre Competition, which put up a strong fight despite the event being its first with the Care Racing prepared Ferrari 550 Maranello. The red machine - crewed by Christophe Bouchut, Steve Zacchia and Pedro Lamy - outlasted the winners of the last FIA GT round, Vitaphone Racing, which saw its Saleen's hopes fade and die in the last couple of laps when a problematic differential finally cried enough, restricting the Alzen/Bartels/Konrad line-up to 20th in the final reckoning.
The PiR team came through to win the small LMP-2 class, seeing off the likes of Paul Belmondo Racing and Ranieri Randaccio in the process. The Belmondo team had dominated the weekend from the start, but retired just 54 laps into the race. The PiR car, driven by Bruneau and Rostan eventually came home in 18th place, behind the best of the GT runners.
The 'junior' class was won by the Freisinger Motorsport entry, driven on this occasion by Stephane Ortelli and Romain Dumas. The French pairing overcame a series of pit-stops to come home ahead of its closest challengers, the JMB Racing Ferrari 360 Modena, with the Japanese Choro Q Porsche completing the class podium.
More detail to follow....