Petit Le Mans 2011 – AudiWorld Perspective
So by now surely the final outcome of the 2011 Petit Le Mans is not going to come as any kind of surprise, and the risk of spoiling it for someone who has not yet watched their recording of the race is non-existent. If that’s not the case, go ahead and stop reading now.
We’re not going to lie, the outcome of this year’s Petit Le Mans stings a little. Actually it stings a lot. As die hard Audi enthusiasts, naturally we desire for Audi to come out and stomp all competitors. Yeah sure, it’s nice to see them battle with their chief rivals, the Peugeots, and we always feel great when they go out and take the lead early. But at the end of the race, we want the car with the 4 rings on its bonnet to be at the front under the checkered flag.
The setting was perfect for Audi success. The weather was cool, the skies bright blue. Road Atlanta’s beautiful facility was packed with a record number of excited race fans. The Road Atlanta crew knows how to put on a great event, and teamed with IMSA, Petit Le Mans is one incredibly well run auto race. Beyond the race, the infield areas are full of fun things to do when the action dies down (rarely during the race!), car club corrals, food vendors, hospitality clubs, and on and on.
Since making our first trip to Braselton Georgia in 2007, Petit Le Mans is solidly on our “must attend” list. For enthusiasts of European style endurance auto racing, Petit Le Mans combines local and accessible racing on a spectacular race track and a decidedly Southern charm, with the enthusiasm and vibe one would normally only find at Le Mans.
Petit Le Mans is a race of 10 hours or 1000 miles, whichever comes first. Usually the distance is hit long before the time limit. Even though this is a wonderfully fun and accessable race, the atmosphere on race day is intense. For most of the teams, there is a lot at stake at this late point in the season, and at least one championship will be decided by the outcome of this event.
As one strolls through the paddock (which is open to spectators at all times throughout the event), teams are furiously preparing their machines for the race. We arrived at Road Atlanta on race day at 7am, to find action in more than one team garage. It’s not long into the morning that the paddock is jammed with race fans. Honestly, there are not many things a lot cooler than watching the team run through their testing and warm up routines, assemble the car, and then roll it out to the track. It’s not every day you have the chance to have your toes run over by an Audi R18.
Throughout the week leading up to Petit Le Mans, the Audis were right on pace with rival Peugeot, with the nod going to the French team for the pole position. In the greater scheme of things, pole or 2nd on the grid is not a big difference in a 1000 mile race, so we were not particularly worried. Heck, we watched Allan Mc Nish win from 2 laps down once (2008), we know how it can be here. When the green flag dropped, the #1 car of Marcel Fassler, Romain Dumas and Timo Bernard kept pace with, and actually swapped the lead with the #7 Peugeot in traffic. This was shaping up to be a really great battle between 2 very fast cars.
The racing was REALLY exciting early on for both Audis. A bit of bad luck fell upon the #7 Peugeot when it lost drive in the esses and came to a halt in Turn 5, which gave a good boost to the Audi team. The #1 Audi had been faster than the remaining #8 works Peugeot, and we Audi fans were feeling pretty good.
It wasn’t long before the #2 car of Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen, and Dindo Capello found the first of its share of crap luck. First off was a bit of a collision with the Robertson Racing Ford GT, which required some bodywork changes (the whole nose section, which is a clip on piece). Then later on, they collected a Lotus in the rear, which broke suspension and body pieces, and ultimately the clutch. Even though the team changed the clutch faster than many teams can add fuel and swap tires, they came out of the pits quite a few laps down. While the #2 car really never had a chance for overall victory, we were nonetheless sad when the car was retired due to concerns about the steering, which was apparently damaged in one of the earlier incidents.
The race was dramatically better for the #1 car. An overall victory was absolutely a possibility, even though they found some bad luck as well. First bad luck, while leading, the R18 picked up a piece of bodywork from another competitor, which damaged a tire, and clogged up the air inlets for the radiator. On the resulting unscheduled pit stop, apparently while the car was being refueled, one of the mechanics reached into the inlet to pull the debris out, which is not allowed by the rules. Basically, during the refuling stage of the stop, only driver changes and “safety” related service such as cleaning the windscreen are allowed. One would think that preventing the car from overheating could be “safety” related, but the IMSA steward apparently doesn’t see it that way, and handed Audi an 18 second penalty. So right there Audi lost valuable time, and had to start to fight back. This fight was going exceedingly well, right up till the point in the race where the Peugeot drove them off of the track.
It happened just before the 8th hour. Romain Dumas at the wheel of the Audi Ultra R18 TDI came out of turn 7 with authority behind the #8 Peugeot driven by Franck Montagny. Montagny seemed to be taking a wide line into the straight, presumably to clear a slower Porsche on the far inside. Dumas, since he had such a run on the Peugeot, made a move to the inside of Montagny. For whatever reason (presumably to protect his line), Montagny made a very aggressive move to the inside, which forced Dumas to also move left to avoid a collision with the Peugeot. Unfortunately for the Audi team, Dumas was not fully clear of the slower Porsche, which he clipped with the left rear of the R18. That collision sent the R18 careening into the concrete wall, and out of the race.
That moment was devastating to many of us in attendance. Seeing the seemingly unsportsmanlike driving from the French team at Petit Le Mans, we were seriously bummed out. For the Audi team to be knocked out in an incident like that at a time where they were poised to take the lead of the race, and hopefully take it to the end, really stung. Not going to lie here. Did not like it. But, that’s racing. There’s always next time, which for us will be in Sebring next spring.
As of the time of this writing, we’re also on the edge of our seats waiting for the release of the schedule for the FIA WEC (World Endurance Championship). Rumors are flying at this time as to whether Petit Le Mans will be on the WEC schedule for 2012.
We genuinely hope that the WEC comes to Road Atlanta next year, because we want to see a rematch of this year’s race.