Petit Le Mans 2009

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September 28, 2009

Text and Photos by Kris Hansen

At the end of the 2008 American Le Mans Series (ALMS), Audi announced that they would not be returning to the USA for any ALMS races, except for the 12 hours of Sebring, in Florida. Ultimately though, Audi reversed their stance, and announced in August that they would in fact be competing in this year’s 12th running of the Petit Le Mans (a 10 hours or 1000 miles endurance race) at Road Atlanta, in Braselton Georgia, much to the delight of Audi enthusiasts across the USA, and elsewhere.

With the sagging global economy, Audi didn’t want to spend the money to bring the whole team and all that’s needed to support it to the USA more often than needed. Basically, the decision to come to the Petit Le Mans this year came down to this; it was a great chance to further test their all new R15 TDI (Turbo Direct Injection) Diesel racer, and to hopefully find the speed that they were lacking at the previous running of Sebring and Le Mans. Audi fans didn’t particularly care just why Audi came back; we were just thrilled that they were here, in the USA, at the track where they have dominated for the past 8 years. Unlike previous years where the team was run as an American entity by Champion Motorsports, this year the cars were brought here by Team Joest, who are the team that campaigns the cars in Europe, and the cars carried German flags.

The driver lineup was the same as in years past however, with the #1 R15 being driven by Lucas Luhr and Marco Werner, and the #2 R15 being driven by Allan McNish and Dindo Capello.

Racing fans were happily watching events leading up to the race, and making plans for travel and camping at the track. Meanwhile, the greater Atlanta area was being absolutely hammered by rain, and some of the worst flooding the area has ever seen considering that these rains were not related to any hurricane. Braselton is a few miles northeast of Atlanta, and somewhat higher elevation. Regardless, it’s undeniable that the weather was of high concern for everyone in attendance.

We arrived at Road Atlanta Friday morning to glorious sunshine, and frankly brutal heat and humidity. We found our way to Spectator Hill, which overlooks the “esses” part of Road Atlanta’s 2.25 mile circuit, and tried to stay cool while we watched the various races (IMSA Lites, Speed TV’s Touring Car Race, and others) held prior to qualifying for the Petit Le Mans.

Qualifying itself was mostly uneventful, and as we’d come to expect recently from the Audi vs. Peugeot battle, the 908 HDi Peugeot seemed to have a fairly large speed advantage over the Audi R15 TDI, at least in the dry of qualifying. Eventually Nic Minassian put his 908 HDi on pole with a time of 1:06.937 and 136.152 mph, while the best an Audi driver would achieve was Dindo Capello’s time of 1:08.200 and 134.076 mph, a significant difference – in the dry. The question was, would it be dry for the race?

That question was answered, at least partially, even before sunrise. It was raining as the teams arrived at Road Atlanta, and it was painfully clear watching the weather radar that some severe weather was headed directly towards Braselton.

Morning warm-ups and the VW TDI Cup race were held in light rain. It continued to rain lightly as the National Anthem was sung, and the drivers were called to their cars. Before long, the pack headed off of the grid, lead by the Mazda 6 safety car. As the green flag dropped, the #2 Audi driven by Allen McNish just plain ROCKETED away from the pack, passing BOTH of the Peugeots before the 3rd turn. Clearly the Audi’s wet setup was superior to Peugeot’s, and clearly McNish is not afraid of a little water.

As the race went on, McNish and the #2 R15 TDI had lapped the entire field up to the #1 Audi R15, which was at that time running in a solid 2nd place. Only after the first of a few mishaps sent the safety car out to collect the field, and the first of the pit stops took place were the Peugeots able to get back on the lead lap. By then though, the rain had let up considerably, and a very distinct dry line was forming on the track. This was working in Peugeot’s favor, and clearly the Audis were slowing to preserve their tires while they worked out their strategy.

At around 2pm, roughly 4 hours into the race, one of the LMP2 cars went off at turn 1, which caused damage to the tire wall. Once again, the safety car was sent out to collect the field while track personnel worked to repair the damaged tire wall, which took quite a bit of time. During this full course caution/safety car period, we were watching the action presented by Speed TV, when the unimaginable happened – While behind the safety car, throwing the R15 side to side to keep the tires warm, McNish lost the handle on the car, and spun it, actually beaching it on the curb at the exit of the Esses. This saw Allen go from 1st place to 3rd in class (behind BOTH Peugeots) and at the end of the entire field by the time he got the car pointed in the correct direction. Undoubtedly he was angry with himself, but there was nothing he could do at that point; with the full course caution, there is no passing. He’d have to wait till the safety car came in and they went back to green flag racing.

By this point however, the sky opened up with a furious thunderstorm, and large puddles and rivers were forming on the race circuit. Drivers were spinning off all over the place, and it was clear that the conditions were deteriorating to the point of being dangerous. IMSA (the sanctioning body) decided to pull the cars into the pits, and red flag the race till the rain let up. In a timed event like this, the clock continues to run even while the race is halted. As minutes turned into hours, spectators were fleeing the track, and it was looking pretty doubtful that racing would resume.

At around 7pm, IMSA decided that even if it stopped raining, which it did not, there would not be enough time to clean the track and get back to racing, so they called the race. The end result of third place (behind both Peugeots) was very disheartening to Audi fans, who saw their car go from first to third under yellow, and never have the chance to recover. Hopefully Audi was able to take some new knowledge back to Germany, which they can apply at Sebring.

Here’s to looking forward to finding out!


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