Champion No. 3 drivers hope for Le Mans win

NO. 3 TRIO HOPES TO GIVE CHAMPION ELUSIVE LE MANS VICTORY Braselton, Ga. - JJ Lehto has won overall at Le Mans, as has Tom Kristensen (six times over). But this go-round in the No. 3 Champion Racing Audi R8 they will share with Marco Werner may...

NO. 3 TRIO HOPES TO GIVE CHAMPION ELUSIVE LE MANS VICTORY

Braselton, Ga. - JJ Lehto has won overall at Le Mans, as has Tom Kristensen (six times over). But this go-round in the No. 3 Champion Racing Audi R8 they will share with Marco Werner may be the most challenging of all.

This could be the last voyage at the world's most famous sports car race for the most successful prototype in history. And Champion Racing's two R8s are being saddled with 50 kilograms of added ballast and restricted airflow into its turbo-charged V8 engine. The penalties are the result of the car not meeting the ACO's standards and regulations for LMP1 cars.

As a result, the performances of the R8s suffered significantly during testing on June 5. The No. 3 entry was a shade more than six seconds off the pace of the No. 16 Pescarolo Sport, which doesn't have any restrictions for the race.

But that didn't matter during Wednesday's practice/qualifying session. Lehto, Werner and Kristensen were quickest in the combined four-hour session by more than two seconds with about an hour left. They finished fifth at 4:07.643.

"Even prior to the pre-practice, we knew that things would be difficult for our customer teams at Le Mans this year," said Dr. Wolfgang Ulrich, Head of Audi Motorsport. "The result confirms our projections. We're not assuming that any of the three R8 cars will start the race from the front rows. Over the whole distance, due to the well-known strengths of the R8, they will have a good chance for victory. Yet the performance of the teams and the drivers will be even more critical than in previous years."

There may not be a better lineup in both LMP1 and the entire field than Lehto, Werner and Kristensen, who won overall at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring this year to open the 2005 American Le Mans Series season. Lehto and Werner, defending ALMS driving champions in LMP1, also won the Sportsbook.com Grand Prix of Atlanta in April and form one of the most successful pairings in ALMS history. And Kristensen is approaching iconic status at Le Mans as he goes for his record seventh overall victory.

So if in the waning hours Sunday the race comes down to experience and reliability (the Audi has been bulletproof at Le Mans), the advantage may shift dramatically to the No. 3 Champion Audi because of its reliability and average speed, Werner said.

"We knew before that we wouldn't be any quicker," Lehto said. "A six-second disadvantage seems to be a lot at first glance. But the race lasts for 24 hours - and that means that the R8's reliability is a key factor for success."

This may be Champion Racing's best shot yet at an overall title. No American team has won at Le Mans since Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt drove a Ford GT40 for Shelby American Inc., in 1967.

Dave Maraj, owner of Florida-based Champion Racing, fielded an Audi R8 in 2001 and each of the past three years. A Champion entry finished third overall in 2003 and '04. The closest Maraj came to victory was in 2003, when Lehto, Emanuele Pirro and Stefan Johansson finished five laps behind the winning Bentley EXP Speed 8.

"This is my 10th Le Mans, and I have already won it once (1995)," Lehto said. "We are purposely running two cars so we have a better opportunity to win. The goal is a win for Dave Maraj. It doesn't matter which car wins as long as it is a Champion Audi."

Qualifying continues at 1 p.m. EDT today. The 24 Hours of Le Mans will be broadcast on SPEED Channel starting at 10 a.m. EDT Saturday. The next race for the American Le Mans Series is the New England Grand Prix, set for 3 p.m. July 4 at Lime Rock Park. The race will be broadcast live on SPEED (3 to 6 p.m. EDT) and on MotorsTV in Europe, reaching 40 million viewers in 21 countries as well as at www.americanlemans.com.

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Series ALMS
Drivers Stefan Johansson , Dan Gurney , Marco Werner , Dave Maraj , A.J. Foyt , Emanuele Pirro , JJ Lehto