Historic triple for Audi at Le Mans Historic triple for Audi at Le Mans

For the first time in the 70-year history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the same driver squad has been victorious three years in a row.

The trio of Emmanuele Pirro, Tom Kristensen and Frank Biela drove a flawless race in the #1 Audi R8, marred only by three punctures, to capture the 2002 Le Mans by a one-lap margin in a 1-2-3 Audi finish.

Race winners Emanuele Pirro, Tom Kristensen and Frank Biela.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.
"Every year is a new competition," Pirro said. "And when you enter a new competition, you have to do your best."

Starting from second on the grid, the #1 Audi first took the lead from the polesitting #2 on Saturday evening. Kristensen took over P1 when Christian Pescatori suffered a puncture on the Hunadieres straight, losing a great deal of time limping back to the pits with only shreds of tire left on the rim.

After that, the #1 Audi would never again be headed, in one of the longest leads in Le Mans history, though still not quite a match for the 1981 flag-to-flag victory of Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell in the Porsche 936/81.

"It's just like a dream," said Reinhard Joest, the manager of the Audi Sport team. "But sometimes dreams do come true."

Frank Biela.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.
The shredded tire was to be only one of nine punctured tires for Audi in the race; the #1 car suffered three, while the #2 of Pescatori, Rinaldo Capello and Johnny Herbert bore the brunt of the tire damage with four, and the #3 with two.

The #2 Audi still finished second, in spite of some spirited driving by Herbert, as Pirro's and Kristensen's steady pace was not to be matched in the long run. "Dindo" Capello still recorded a second Le Mans pole, but both Capello and Pescatori are still looking for that elusive first Le Mans victory.

As if it had been planned in advance, the #3 Audi finished third, with Michael Krumm, Philippe Peter and Marco Werner driving a steady race to recover from a formation-lap puncture that seemed, at the time, to set the tone for the day for Audi.

Other teams also suffered from tire problems, though to a lesser extent. Most notable was the #25 WR-Peugeot team, whose puncture on the penultimate lap of the race would lose them the LMP 675 class victory, and hand it to the #29 Reynard-Lehman VW.

Welter Racing WR-Peugeot LMP-2002.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.
Not only was Audi faster than it had ever been, it was also even more reliable. In the past three years, Audi had perfected the modular rear end to allow it to quickly replace the failed gearboxes that seemed to plague the cars, but this year there was not a gearbox failure among the four Audi entries.

The "Bentley Boys" were once again the best of the rest, finishing fourth this time, thirteen laps adrift of the triple winners. A solid race by Andy Wallace, Eric van de Poele and Butch Leitzinger, heavy support from the British fans, and some timely retirements of competitors moved the EXP8 inexorably up in the standings.

The car did not have the absolute speed that the Bentley fans had hoped for, but was certainly a quick, competent, reliable competitor -- exactly what you need at Le Mans.

The only attempt at a serious challenge to the Audis came from an unexpected source, however. Neither Panoz nor Cadillac had the pace to be a factor, and, instead, the sophomore MG team, running in the "junior" LMP 675 class, threw down the gauntlet, outracing all the LMP 900 cars bar the top three Audis.

This was not yet destined to be MG's year, though. Both factory MGs and the KnightHawk Racing MG Lola suffered from mechanical woes, and none lasted the 24 hours.

Beyond the Bentley, then, it was the Oreca Dallara-Judd LMPs, finishing a Le Mans for the first time for John Judd's Engine Developments, with #15 (Olivier Beretta, Pedro Lamy and Erik Comas) in fifth, and #14 (Stephane Sarrazin, Franck Montagny and Nicolas Minassian).

Team ORECA Dallara-Judd LMP.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.
Oreca claimed the positions by taking advantage of the mechanical woes of the Cadillacs. The new Cadillac Northstar LMP-02 had pace well beyond that of last year's car, but both Cadillacs made repeated, extended pit stops, totaling some nearly two hours for #6 and nearly three for #7.

It is widely expected that the "triple crown" of the 2002 race will be the crowning achievement of the Audi Era, and that the German team will not be returning with a factory effort for 2003.

Unlike many other series, the one-marque domination of Le Mans appears not to have had any detrimental effect on the popularity of the series -- whether for spectators or for constructors.

There will soon be a new Le Mans movie -- the new Michel Vaillant movie, based on the popular French cartoon character, was filmed during the race, and will serve to further increase the event's popularity.

Further, the enhanced and extended partnership between ACO and ALMS will continue to build the profile and popularity of sportscar racing.

For 2003, Bentley will be returning with at least a two-car effort, Panoz will be back with a vengeance, Courage will return, MG may be a force to be reckoned with -- and it is widely expected that there will be half a dozen privateer Audi entries on the grid.

The trophies and champagne go to Audi, Joest, Pirro, Kristensen and Biela this year, but there are bound to be challengers for the laurels next year.