Audi endures 24 hours to victory

Le Mans (Motorsport.com) -- The Audi factory team repeated its success in this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans, claiming the top two positions in a convincing victory with nary a hiccup on the march to the podium, with the ...

Le Mans (Motorsport.com) -- The Audi factory team repeated its success in this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans, claiming the top two positions in a convincing victory with nary a hiccup on the march to the podium, with the #1 Audi of Frank Biela, Tom Kristensen and Emmanuele Pirro claiming the top step on the podium.

The #2 Audi, piloted by Laurent Aiello, Rinaldo Capello and Christian Pescatori, had claimed the pole position on Thursday, and held the lead initially until the first rains hit in the early evening. The #2 recovered well from the chaos of the intermittent rain, and, for the rest of the race, kept pace closely with the leaders.

The weather, though, never quite let up, with a solid rain pounding the circuit from late evening until past midnight, and hard, intermittent rain returning again in late morning, and continuing until the finish. It had been decades since the famed race had seen this much rain, and the weather certainly influenced the reliability, with a combination of accidents and water-induced electrical problems.

Frank Biela said of the victory, "To win Le Mans is difficult. To win it a second time is even more difficult. When we came here we new we had a very competitive car, but you have to make sure that everything is reliable and lasts for 24 hours. We made it. Very often we had to make decisions at the right moment. The team did a great strategical job."

While the Audi factory team, run by the ultimate endurance racing professional, Reinhold Joest, could not repeat last year's 1-2-3 finish, the mitigating factor was that Joest only entered two cars this year, and, instead, two customer teams (Gulf Audi and Champion Audi) submitted privateer entries.

Gulf and Champion, however, could not match the reliability of the Joest Audi team, falling prey to electrics and engine failures, respectively. The only mechanical repair by the factory team, on the other hand, was a pair of precautionary gearbox replacements -- in six minutes each -- to ensure that the cars would suffer no ills on the track.

The most impressive newcomer this year, however, was Bentley. The British team (with drivers Andy Wallace, Butch Leitzinger and Eric van de Poele), returning to Le Mans after a 70-year hiatus, and looking to add to the marque's five all-time Le Mans victories, survived the full 24 hours with one car, taking a commendable third place in their return to the Sarthe track.

"The original Bentley Boys knew how to party," reconted Leitzinger. "But we're going to show them a thing or two tonight. A top ten would have been great, the podium is just out of this world!"

The other Bentley, though, had succumbed in the evening to an electrical fire caused by water leaking into the closed cockpit, spoiling what had been an extremely strong drive by Martin Brundle up to that time.

Behind the fast and trouble-free drives by the Audi and Bentley teams, however, the marquee prototype class suffered carnage well beyond might be expected. In addition to the two customer Audis and the Bentley, nearly every other car in the LMP900 and LMP675 classes failed prior to the end of the race, including Dome-Judd, MG and Panoz.

Even the top finishers, such as the the Courage-Peugeot spent the dying hours of the race parked in the pit garages, with the teams gingerly preparing the engines and gearboxes to last a few more miles. And all this because a quirk of the Le Mans rules classifies only those cars running at the end, regardless of whether they are 2 laps or 200 laps behind, and regardless of whether they have spent most of the race sitting in the pits.

So the Courage team pulled the car in when it appeared that it might not make another lap, tended to it with care -- and then pulled it out a few minutes from the end in order to be able limp home for a final lap, and to claim a Le Mans finish for the car, albeit 50 laps down from the winning Audi.

Chrysler LMP limped home fourth in the overall standings, and was followed by a crippled Reynard-VW, also returning to the track for one final 13-kilometer circuit, and to claim the LMP675 class honors, in 5th place overall, and ahead of the Courage.

The Cadillac Northstar LMP entry, which had been successfully battling Chrysler, Courage and Dome for the fourth place, also resorted to the single final lap, but, having experienced problems earlier, fell back to 15th overall.

In the GTS class, the Corvettes successfully fought off early opposition from Vipers and Saleen, and also stayed on the road even during the worst of the Saturday night torrential downpour. Ron Fellows led the team of Scott Pruett and Johnny O'Connell to the GTS class win in the #63 Corvette, ahead of the #64 sister car.

The #63 Corvette had run as high as six throughout the night and in the morning, but both Corvettes spent much time in the pits in the final two hours, completing only 15 laps in that time, as the the team investigated gearbox troubles, and did work to ensure a running finish to the race.

With the Corvette delays, the top two GT finishers claimed overall finishes ahead of the Corvette, though, with the 911 GT3R-S of Gabrio Rosa, Fabio Babini and Luca Drudi claiming not only a class victory but also a sixth position overall.

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