Le Mans specialist Team Goh took the overall victory in the first-ever ACO-sanctioned Le Mans 1000 km event. Tom Kristensen and Seiji Ara started from the pole and ran comfortably in the lead throughout the race to take a flag-to-flag victory.
The race was called at 6 PM as it reached the six-hour limit, but with the Team Goh at 208 laps (869 km) of the shorter Bugatti circuit -- normally used for motorcycle racing -- the distance was still well short of the planned 1000 km.
Rain, a common visitor to the La Sarthe region, slowed down the pace early on in the event, and kept the field fairly closely bunched. Once the skies cleared, Kristensen, in the singular Audi R8 (neither Team Joest nor Champion Racing entered the 1000 km event), began to pull away from his competitors.
"The rain and the cold temperatures made it very difficult to get grip," the Danish driver recalled after the race. "The low fuel consumption of the Audi engine allowed us to be conservative with the tyre choice. We could stay out longer and watch what the others did. This was the key to success."
The key spoils of victory were the guaranteed entries for the 2004 Le Mans 24H for the top two entries in each class, and Team Goh and Team Pescarolo went home with these. Already guaranteed were the 2003 Le Mans winners Team Bentley (who have announced that they will not return in 2004) and the American Le Mans Series Petit Le Mans winners Champion Racing.
Panoz's resurrected coupe prototype, the Panoz GTR-1 (Olivier Beretta and David Saelens), was in trouble early, spinning off due to a fogged-up windshield, and eventually retired at the five-hour mark due to a combination of electrical problems and gearbox woes.
"We brought the old girl out of mothballs, gave her some new underwear and hit the track," said team founder Don Panoz. "Unfortunately, she pooped her pants pretty early in the race and we never caught up from there."
Intersport was already guaranteed the Le Mans 24H start by the virtue of its ALMS Petit Le Mans class victory, but Courage now joins Intersport and 24 Hour winners Noel Del Bello Racing.
The top LMP675 finishers were split by the pair of Veloqx Ferrari 550s, the two red Maranello cars claiming a 1-2 victory in GTS for the team. Jamie Davies and Darren Turner bested Peter Kox and Tim Sugden for the class win.
Christophe Bouchut and Steve Zacchia, driving a Chrysler Viper GTS, led the class for a while during the wet-and-wild first hour of the race, after Kox spun off into a gravel trap and lost four laps. Ultimately the Viper did not have the pace of the Ferraris, though, and finished third in class, five laps adrift of the leading #88 Ferrari.
"There was a possible incorrect tyre choice early on, perhaps we weren't the only ones caught out by the changing conditions," Turner recounted after the race. "The safety car definitely helped us."
With Kox and Sugden taking second in the #80 Ferrari, they are now a guaranteed entry for the 2004 Le Mans 24 H. Kox already won both the 24H event (with Davies and Tomas Enge) and Petit Le Mans (with Enge) this year, but both in the team's #88 car.
The tightest battles were to be found in the GT class, with the Cirtek Ferrari 360 (Klaus Engelhorn, Andrea Montermini, Phillip Peter) taking the checkered flag just 14 seconds ahead of the Freisinger Porsche 911 GT3 after six hours -- a difference of just 0.07 seconds in average lap times.
Freisinger's entry, with drivers Stephane Ortelli, Stephane Daoudi and Alex Vassiliev, was just one lap ahead of the PK Sport Porsche 911 GT3, with Robin Liddell and Jean-Philippe Belloc.
By the virtue of the large number of GT entries, Cirtek, Freisinger and PK Sport all join the two Alex Job racing entries (winners of Le Mans 24H and Petit Le Mans) as the guaranteed entries in the GT class for next year's 24H classic race.
The new rules reduce the power for the LMP1 (nee LMP900) class, increase the minimum weight for LMP2 (nee LMP675) while increasing allowable engine size, and unify the rules for open-cockpit and closed-cockpit cars. The new rules are bound to bring new champions -- another exciting year of Le Mans racing is certain to be in the offing.