Audi Sport UK drivers Johnny Herbert and Jamie Davies took the spoils of victory at the Spa 1000 km event, the final race of the inaugural Le Mans Endurance Series (LMES) season.
The win clinched the LMES drivers' championship for Davies and Herbert, and the teams' championship for the Veloqx-run Audi Sport UK team. The team's sister car, piloted by Allan McNish and Pierre Kaffer, was favored to win the drivers' title, was the early-race favorite to clinch the title, but fortune did not smile upon the #8 Audi R8.
Herbert, with an impressive track record in Formula One and at Le Mans, was thrilled by the title. "This is my first championship success since winning the 1987 British Formula Three title so I'm delighted -- I'd forgotten what it felt like!"
Leading the championship coming into Spa, Kaffer and McNish had outqualified their teammates on Saturday, and took the lead from Nicolas Minassian's pole-sitting DBA Zytek when they touched wheels at Eau Rouge, Minassian having to pit with a rear tire puncture.
Then an early-race safety car picked up the third-placed Herbert, letting Rinaldo Capello (Team Goh Audi R8) and Herbert stretch the lead to nearly a lap.
"The opening lap was hectic, but my biggest problem was losing almost a lap when the Safety Car came out in front of me putting me almost a lap down," Herbert recalled.
But disaster struck Kaffer on the 24th lap -- as he rounded the Bus Stop chicane, a GT-class Ferrari Modena moved over, not having seen the Audi, and Kaffer slid onto the grass and into the barriers. Worse, he slid into Warren Hughes's TVR, breaking an oil line and causing the back of the car to catch fire. Kaffer managed to get back to the pits, but the team had to retire the car due to the severity fo the damage.
I was catching a slow car," Kaffer explained. "There was enough space so I went to the left but he didn't see me and he changed his line and moved over. We touched and I hit the barrier, spun along the wet grass, then collided with another car at the Bus Stop."
Herbert was, this time, the beneficiary of the resulting safety car period, catching up the the Team Goh Audi and then taking the lead during a yellow-flag pit stop. Herbert and Davies continued to gradually pull away from Capello and co-driver Seiji Ara, and eventually took the chequered flag more than a lap clear of the other Audi.
Behind the battle of the Audis was the DBA Zytek of Nicolas Minassian and Jamie Campbell-Walter. From the first-lap puncture that had dropped them to the back of the field, the duo drove quickly and consistently to stay in contention. In spite of a second, late-race, puncture, the due managed to claim third place overall for the Creation Autosportif team.
"Sometimes you just think all the world's working against you. We drove the wheels off the car today, we made no mistakes but things just kept happening to push us backwards, what can you do?" Minassian reflected after the race. "The car is awesome, we were consistently quick out there, easily keeping pace if not better than the guys at the front, it is only a matter of time until we win."
Alexander Frei, Sam Hancock and Jonathan Cochet took not only first in the LM P2 class, but also fourth overall, and the P2 class championship, in the Courage works entry, beating out a number of P1 teams, including Team JOTA's Zytek and the RML Lola-MG. The trio's Courage C65 AER completed 137 laps, only seven fewer than the winning #88 Audi.
Tops in LM GTS, and seventh overall, was Larbre's #86 Ferrari 550 Maranello, with Pedro Lamy, Christophe Bouchut and Steve Zacchia in the driver's seat. The trio had to fight the #87 sister car (Tomas Enge, Robert Pergl and Patrice Goueslard) throughout, but eventually took the honors by a three-lap margin. Better yet, the #86 also sealed the LMES championship for the GTS class.
The Saleens, which had been highly competitive in practice and qualifying, were a threat, but all succumbed to various incidents before the 1000 km had been completed. Uwe Alzen (partnered by Michael Bartels and Franz Konrad) had the lead Saleen in a strong position, until he spun off at Eau Rouge -- flat-out in fifth gear at the time!
The LM GT win was claimed by Stephane Ortelli and Emmanuel Collard in the Freisinger Motorsport Porsche 996 GT3 RSR, but it was not enough to take the class championship. The title went to Marc Lieb and Xavier Pompidou (Sebah Racing Porsche 911 GT3 RS), for whom a third place in class was enough to clinch.
So ends the first season of the Le Mans Endurance Series. Perhaps appropriately, the return of Le Mans-style racing to the great tracks of Europe was capped by another milestone: Herbert's and Davies' win was the 50th for the all-conquering Audi R8 in only 60 races.
"I'm delighted that our team has finished first and second in the LM P1 standings and it's fantastic that Veloqx has scored Audi's 50th R8 race victory," Sam Li, Audi Sport UK's team principal reflected. "Obviously, it is a shame for car #8 - the accident was very unfortunate. The entire team has worked extremely hard throughout the season and they deserve great credit."
Of course, in 2005, there will be a number of teams looking to make a dent in that Audi track record. It only gets better from here ...