Le Mans Diary with Audi Sport Team Joest
To return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Audi Sport Team Joest was a great experience and really an honour. That we achieved a podium, with the Infineon Audi R8 no. 3, for the team on this historic third win for them was the icing on the cake.
I arrived in Le Mans on Monday evening and spent most of Tuesday completing the scrutineering, and Wednesday in meetings with the team and completing interviews. I had forgotten what a big event this is, and although I get a lot of attention from the press back in Japan, this was really special.
The first qualifying sessions on Wednesday evening went fairly well and I was designated to make the qualifying attacks, while my co-drivers Marco Werner and Philipp Peter concentrated on completing the race set up work. I made the fourth quickest time in this session and really learnt that you have to be very lucky to get a completely clear lap or catch the slower cars in a place where it does not slow you down to much. My quickest time from this session actually included a few metres on the grass to avoid a Porsche that did not see me coming!
Thursday was more meetings and presswork, while thinking about the final qualifying sessions in the evening.
Thursday evening between the two qualifying sessions my wife Kimiko arrived, from Japan on route to England where she is commentating on the Wimbledon Tennis for Japanese TV, she has to talk for about 8 or 9 hours a day for the next couple of weeks, so she was happy that it was me doing all the interviews in Le Mans.
Finally on the very last set of tyres I had available to me, in the last session I managed to get a fairly clear lap and jumped into third place with a time of 3:30.801. So that was the first Audi one, two, three completed.
Just like Tom Kristensen in the no.1 car, I know from the data that in theory I could have done a 3:29 second lap but neither of us got that one lap that you need. Dindo's lap was awesome and he was very generous in saying that he was the one who got lucky and ended up on pole, but I think he is very good here and he would have been tough to beat.
Friday we had our final technical meetings and Audi's annual press conference then in the evening we had the driver's parade downtown. This is always fun and a great opportunity for the fans to meet us and give us their best wishes. Marco picked up his first award of the weekend for being the fastest rookie driver in qualifying, which was quite special.
So finally on Saturday we started the race. As most of you have seen on TV the first puncture of the race was mine On the warm up lap !! As all the cars drove past me I was just hoping that I could get the car back to the pits without any major damage and get back into the race. It seemed like a lifetime before I arrived in the pit lane and the Audi Sport Team went to work and I rejoined stone last.
My first two stints were great fun, I passed every single GT and GTS car and then started picking off the slower LMP cars. Quite soon we were fighting for third place, which we soon secured with some excellent pit stops by the mechanics.
Although we were running out of sequence with the Infineon Audi R8 1 and 2 cars, my co-drivers and I soon settled into a nice rhythm and ran in second place on occasions as the Infineon Audi R8 No 2 car also suffered some problems with punctures.
Although both the no. 1 and 2 cars had their share of problems, we just had a few more. Although we looked good for second place at one stage when we had to change the rear bodywork of the car that really settled it for us and we knew we would be third.
The strength of the Infineon Audi R8 and the team was very evident when late in the day the no.1 car also had the same starter problem as us, which meant they had to do the same stop as us - they did not even loose the lead - incredible.
So with Marco and Philipp we brought the no.3 Infineon Audi R8 home in third place. Marco and Philipp did an excellent job, they have been driving in the Supercup in recent times so this was a big step for them and they did not make a single mistake. For me it was great to be on the Podium with them and Tom, Frank, Emanuele, Christian, Johnny and Dindo on a very important and historic day for Audi Sport and the history of Le Mans. I have known some of my teammates for a long time, especially Tom who I have worked with before in Japan, they all said afterwards it was great to have a third car pushing everyone. For sure I would have preferred to be a couple of steps higher on the podium, but for my return to Le Mans after a couple of years break this will do and it was very special to be involved in such an historic occasion for Audi.
Dr Ulrich of Audi Sport and Reinhold Joest of Team Joest along with our sponsors Auto Motor und Sport and Infineon gave Philipp, Marco and I a wonderful opportunity and I would like to thank them very much for this, the 24 Hours of Le Mans has always been one of the races we all want to win, even drivers who have success in F1 want this one.
I hope that in the future I have the chance to return to Le Mans with as strong a package as I had this year. The Infineon Audi R8 is one of the most impressive cars I have ever driven. Like all great racing cars you have to work hard to get the last little bit out of it but it is very rewarding and, believe it or not, quite easy to drive at high speed so you do not suffer from too much fatigue in a long distance race. Audi Sport development engineers have done an incredible job.
I leave immediately for my next race in Japanese GT in Malaysia next weekend so I do not really have anytime to enjoy this, but I won in Malaysia a couple of years ago so lets see what happens.
Although the Japanese GT program is my main focus for this season there are still some opportunities for me to race again in the west before the end of the year and we are working hard on these at the moment.
Be sure that if the right opportunity is open to me I will be at Le Mans again in 2003.