Event Coverage: Petit Le Mans 2008
There is only one way to truly understand this type of race: to be there in person. Attendees realize that the event is as much about the fans as it is the racing. It’s clear that the teams and event organizers understand this, and in fact embrace it.
Road Atlanta is a beautiful facility with ample parking, camping and spectator space. There are almost no bad views all the way around the track. Even though there are few bleachers there is plenty of lawn, and it’s possible (and recomended) to roam around the track and hop from corner to corner to get different viewing angles of all the action. The way the track is laid out on the hilly terrain most of the grassy areas are high above the fences, which means you have a completely unobstructed view of the racing action.
As a first time attendee at Petit Le Mans, I was blown away by the whole event. Upon arriving, we parked in a nice central area in the track’s infield. The infield includes various car club parking corrals (this year, Audi, Porsche, and Corvette were very well represented), the vendor village and a variety of other services including a makeshift sports bar, catering tents for team staff and VIPs etc.
Once we got our bearings we found a location along the Turn 1 fence to watch the ACNA Cherokee chapter members run their parade lap. Seeing the various Audis running out of pit lane up onto the track was incredible, and being able to see the huge smiles on the faces of the drivers was priceless.
Leading up to qualifying, the paddock was completely overrun with fans eager to grab a few autographs. All of the Audi drivers were happily signing everything fans placed in front of them. The garages were also accessible to interested fans. All of the teams were busy readying the cars for qualifying, yet the garages were open and it was possible to watch the teams hard at work.
Once qualifying began for the Petit Le Mans, the excitement level ramped up a few notches, people started lining the fences and the track announcers became more animated. About this time it completely sinks in just how different it is watching this type of event in person versus on television. There were several huge TV screens for this event, though none were visible from Turn 1. We had to rely on the play-by-play call of the track announcers and as the cars streaked past our viewing location we strained to catch a glimpse of the 3 LED lights fitted to each car indicating its relative position in class. These lights turn out to be hugely valuable to the fan since every time a car comes into view there is no doubt as to whether it stands in the top 3.
The men from Audi managed to qualify well, with Allan McNish putting up the fastest time til nearly the very end of qualifying. At that point the Peugeot team managed to eek out a better time, and took pole position. Audi fans were disappointed, but realizing that this is a long race knew it was not the end of the world.
Saturday orning we arrived at the track very early, around 7 am, for an 11:15 start time. At this relatively early hour the track was already buzzing, people were climbing out of their tents and the smell of breakfast was in the air. Down in the paddock area crews were busy prepping and repairing the cars from busy practicing and qualifying mishaps. Road Atlanta is a smooth track, but it’s got tall curbs and these can damage cars.
There was a lot to see as we walked about the paddock and infield, but we were here for motor racing. We had seen the Speed Channel GT race on Friday prior to qualifying, and Saturday morning they ran a Mazda open wheel race. This certainly whetted our appetite, and before we knew it the paddock was active with teams wheeling their race cars up the long way to the beginning of Pit Row. A tradition in this race is to allow the fans onto the track prior to the start of the race. We secured a spot right at the gate which seperated the paddock from the pit row, watching and waiting while the cars went out of the pits, onto the track for the warm up lap and ultimately to the starting grid.
Normally the warm up lap is a casual lap to give the drivers a chance to shake their cars down, warm up the fluids and just get a feel for the car. We were shocked when some of the Audi crew started looking very worried, came running to the gate and announced that they would be bringing a car through from pit row to the paddock. What we saw next was hardly believeable. The #1 R10 TDI with Allan McNish at the wheel limped towards us in very bad shape. It seems that McNish gave too aggressive of a stab to the fuel pedal (diesels don’t have a throttle) and spun the car coming into Road Atlanta’s famous S turns. Not one single corner of the car was unhurt. Luckily most of the damage seemed to be cosmetic.
As with everything, the show must go on. It wasn’t going to wait for Audi. As the team got to work repairing #1, all of the traditional pomp and circumstance took place. There were skydivers, stunt planes billowing smoke and the young daughter of Corvette racer Johnny O’Connell sang the National Anthem.
Before we knew it, those famous words: “Gentlemen Start Your Engines” came over the speakers courtesy of Margo T. Oge, director of the U.S. EPA Office of Transportation and Air Quality. She was there because of the Green Challenge. The formation lap began minus the #1 Audi. The race started with no drama and the Peugeot in the lead being hounded by the #2 Audi with Marco Werner at the wheel. Everything that has ever been said about the TDI powered Audis (and the Peugeot) regarding how quiet they are is 100% correct. When those racing cars are alone on the track, they are barely audible. It’s quite remarkable, especially compared to cars like the Corvette which, even with hearing protection, are ear-splittingly loud.
After a lap or so went by, we could hear the track announcer talking about McNish wheeling the #1 R10 down the paddock and pit row. A loud cheer erupted, and suddenly McNish flashed out of pit row and onto the track, now 2 laps down. We were all hoping for the best (and of course the #2 was standing in 2nd place), but McNish was clearly the crowd favorite.
Through various full course cautions (Road Atlanta seems to have a very difficult time removing disabled or crashed cars from the course for some reason) McNish got his 2 laps back. As the hot sun started to go down on Georgia, the racing action only got hotter. Amazingly enough, McNish not only caught up to his teammate in the #2, he caught up the race leading and clearly much faster Peugeot and managed to PASS it while dicing with backmarkers! By this point we were seated in the turn 10a/b section, and watched the pass on the jumbotron in that area. The place practically exploded with joy when McNish and the #1 braked hard and came into 10a several car lengths ahead of the Peugeot. McNish started to build up a lead and was only challenged once more for the lead by the Peugeot. In fact the Peugeot found itself almost off the road at one point coming into 10a, which is a heavy braking zone after the longest and fastest straight of the track.
As the Peugeot seemed to slow, McNish only built up a larger lead. The atmosphere at Road Atlanta was ELECTRIC. The only somewhat tense moment for Audi fans came with around 20 laps to go. One of the Vipers in the GT1 class broke at turn 1, bringing out a full course caution which tied up the field. Suddenly McNish’s huge lead had evaporated to one car length. There was a GT car between the Audi and the Peugeot, and that helped saved Audi. It gave McNish enough buffer to run and hide from the Peugeot and take the win.
As teams celebrated, fireworks exploded overhead, and race fans poured out of the track. Hundreds of fans lingered and watched the trophy presentations, hundreds of others picked up their campsites and others just stood in amazement at what they had just seen. This was truly one of the greatest races many of us had ever seen. To have a 10 hour race come down to the last 30 minutes, and see it won by a car that started 2 laps down was just incredible.
We’re already making plans for next year, hoping Audi continues this program.