Although JJ Lehto and Johnny Herbert led from start to finish in the Champion Audi and won the sixth annual Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, it still wasn't enough to keep Infineon Team Joest Audi drivers Frank Biela and Marco Werner from clinching.
With a comfortable 14-point lead over Lehto going into the final race of the season, Biela and Werner simply needed to complete at least seventy percent of the laps of the race winners and finish no worse than sixth in the LMP900 class to win the championship. And given the Joest squad's impeccable record in endurance races and the six-car LMP900 field, winning the championship seemed virtually inevitable. But someone at Team Joest must have forgotten to tell that to Biela and Werner, both of whom seemed determined to throw the championship away.
This is unbelievable. We had a lot of spins and accidents and little problems with the car, but we still won the championship.
Shortly before the two-hour mark, while running second to Lehto, Biela slammed into the inside retaining wall at the top of the esses as he tried to avoid a slower GTS car. As he limped back to the pits with his front bodywork eschew, a bent front suspension, a damaged undertray, and a broken transaxle, it looked like Lehto, who had taken the lead from the pole sitting Werner half way through the first lap, might have a chance to win the championship after all. However, thanks to the well-honed efficiency of the Joest mechanics, Biela was back on track in a mere 13 minutes. As a result, the Joest Audi was back in the top-three less than two hours later.
Then it was Werner's turn to make a mistake. On the lap that would have officially made them eligible to secure the championship, Werner slid off the track at the bottom of the esses, beaching himself in the gravel. Luckily, he did not hit anything and was able to rejoin the race after being fitted with a new set of Michelins.
Despite both of these miscues, Biela and Werner still finished third overall, giving Team Joest its fourth consecutive team and drivers' titles.
"After today's race, I'm delighted," Biela said after winning his first drivers' title since he won the British Touring Car championship in 1996. "It was hard work out there. The last two races could have been better for us, but I thought we could come here and do well.
"But there were a couple times today when I thought that there was no way that we would win the championship. We tried everything we could to give it away. I had a couple offs, Marco wound up in the gravel, so when we finally completed seventy percent of the laps we needed, it was a great relief."
"This is unbelievable," Werner added. "We had a lot of spins and accidents and little problems with the car, but we still won the championship. It feel great to come here as a new driver and win my first championship."
For his part, Lehto appeared equally happy to win his fourth race of the year. "I'm really happy for the win. We've been trying to win this race for so long. Leading from the first lap all the way to the end is really very special."
Lehto and Herbert finished the season on a high note, winning three of the four final races of the season. They also claimed both events at the famed Road Atlanta road course.
Tomas Enge, Alain Menu, and Peter Kox take the class win in GTS
While the two Audis were racing for the championship, the JML Panoz of Olivier Beretta, Max Papis, and David Saelens ran virtually trouble free throughout the race, coming home second overall, its best finish of the year. The second Panoz of Gunnar Jeannette, Ben Leuenberger, and Scott Maxwell finished fourth.
Revised aerodynamics and some suspension improvements helped the Prodrive Ferraris to easily sweep the top two spots in the GTS class, with Tomas Enge, Alain Menu, and Peter Kox leading Jan Magnussen, David Brabham, and Anthony Davidson to the checkered flag. Though both Prodrive cars were on the same lap near the end of the race, the drivers were told at the eight-hour mark not to race each other for position in order to ensure a one-two Ferrari finish.
"We improved the car and the tires over the last few races, so we knew that we would be much more competitive here," said Enge. "And we put all of these things together today. It's a great achievement to win Le Mans and the Petit Le Mans in the same year."
Oliver Gavin, Kelly Collins, and Andy Pilgrim finished third in class, nine laps behind the Ferraris, but good enough for Corvette to win the GTS manufacturers' championship -- by a single point -- for the third consecutive year.
Timo Bernhard, Jorg Bergmeister and Romain Dumas win in GT class
Timo Bernhard, Jorg Bergmeister, and Romain Dumas, driving the second Alex Job Porsche GT3 RS, survived an early collision with the Olive Garden Ferrari to win the GT class, defeating their teammates, Lucas Luhr and Sascha Maassen, for the third time this season. The Risi Competizione Ferrari of Anthony Lazzaro and Ralf Kelleners ended up third in class, five laps behind the Alex Job Porsches.
"The performance of our car, even in traffic and with the damage from the Ferrari, was good," said Bergmeister. "It was good fun to race with Sascha and Lucas."
Jon Field, Duncan Dayton, and Larry Connor take LMP 675 win
In LMP 675, Jon Field, Duncan Dayton, and Larry Connor drove to victory in the Banana Joe's Judd-powered Lola. And despite an early spin by Chad Block that ripped off the rear wing and mangled the rear bodywork, Dyson Racing's Chris Dyson managed to win the LMP 675 class drivers' championship.
Dyson, who shared the driving duties with Block and Didier de Radigues, finished second in class, one lap ahead of Jim Downing, Howard Katz, and Yojiro Terada in the Welter Racing Mazda.
"Today was a good result for the team," Dyson said. "It was a little more exciting than I would've liked, but we still made it to the end."