November 11, 2008

AudiWorld Exclusive: Truth in 24 Documentary at AFI Fest
By: Alexander Palevsky

There have been many movies about the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but few have been able to fully capture all the emotion, turmoil, complexity and genuine satisfaction that comes from competing in the world's most grueling road race as vividly as the new film, Truth in 24. A collaboration between Audi of America, Intersport and NFL Films, Truth in 24 does not yet have theatrical distribution, but we were recently invited to a special screening at the Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, as part of the annual AFI (American Film Institute) Fest film festival. Though Audi has sponsored AFI Fest for the past five years, this was the first time it had its own content to show, and the red carpet affair brought out many of the movie's creators and stars, including several Audi team drivers and even Jason "The Transporter" Statham, who narrates the epic.

Interestingly, neither director Keith Cossrow nor co-director Bennett Viseltear had ever set foot on a race track before this project (both have directed Emmy-winning NFL documentaries). Nonetheless, they managed to whittle down 175 hours of race footage and an additional 100 hours of ancillary footage into a 95-minute film that successfully conveys all the hardships and tribulations that the Audi Sport team encountered, not just during the race itself but also in the many months leading up to it. In fact, Audi probably couldn't have picked a better year to shoot Truth in 24 than 2008, at least in terms of cinematic drama. For this was they year that Peugeot unleashed its brand new 908 racer, a diesel-powered machine that was proving to be quite a bit faster than the aging Audis during qualifying, leading many to predict that the French team would likely secure its first Le Mans victory since 1993.

Audi's defeat seemed even more probable in light of its less than stellar luck earlier in the 2008 season, much of which is re-capped in the film. After eight consecutive Audi victories at the 12 Hours of Sebring, turbocharger and brake problems put the R10 of Capello/McNish/Kristensen so far behind that an overall win was simply out of reach. And things did not go too well during the 1000 kms of Monza, either. First, Dindo Capello's gruesome accident nearly terminated his Audi for good. Then, his teammate Allan McNish narrowly escaped a brutal (and potentially fatal) crash when the ORECA of Stephane Ortelli lost control and flew overhead, missing his car by mere inches. Finally, near the end of the race, the R10 of Mike Rockenfeller was forced to pit after contact with the Peugeot of Pedro Lamy caused damage to his front wheel. This ultimately relegated the Audi into a second-place finish, which was especially controversial due to the fact that Lamy had already been given a time penalty for cutting a corner earlier in the race, thus essentially handing the victory over to Rockenfeller.

These defeats put even more pressure on the Audi Sport team going into Le Mans, setting up the ideal scenario for the kind of "champion-turned-underdog must be redeemed in a make-it-or-break-it race to the finish" movie plot that should be familiar to any fan of big-budget Hollywood films. But while the Audi-Peugeot rivalry obviously represents the crux of the movie, Truth in 24 also does a great job of exploring the unique circumstances surrounding each of the nine drivers assigned to the three R10s entered in the race.

R10 #3 belongs to the rookies or "youngsters" of the Audi Sport team, namely Lucas Luhr, Alexandre Prèmat and Mike Rockenfeller. They have a lot to prove after an accident in 2007 took them out of that race very early on. At the opposite end of the age spectrum are Frank Biela, Emanuele Piro and Marco Werner in R10 #1. These seasoned Le Mans veterans are hoping to secure yet another victory at La Sarthe while still in competitive shape. Last, but hardly least, is the #2 car of Allan McNish, Dindo Capello and Tom Kristensen. Kristensen is otherwise known as "Mr. Le Mans" for having won a record seven times between 1997 and 2005. Can he possibly do it one more time?

Through a combination of interviews and stunning high-definition race day footage (as many as eight cameras were employed at once during the race), Truth in 24 follows the thoughts and actions of these nine drivers in the most candid and insightful manner that has likely ever has been captured on film. But their exploits only tell half the story. The rest takes place in the paddocks, pit lanes and control towers, as the engineers, mechanics and crew members work with machine-like precision to minimize lost time and make vital decisions about tire choices, driver changes and overall race strategy. Their jobs require that they remain just as proficient and clear-headed during the 23rd hour as they were at the start of the race, forcing them to endure the same enormous pressure and debilitating fatigue as the racers themselves.

It is the way in which Truth in 24 masterfully depicts this complex interplay between all the distinct factions of the Audi Sport team that truly sets it above the other movies of its kind. Each character is fascinating in his own right, but together they weave an intricate tale about determination, skill and simple hard work that gets at the very kernel of why the 24 Hours of Le Mans has garnered such immense respect since its inception in 1923. That the 2008 race itself turned out to be one of the most fiercely contested in Le Mans history is only icing on the cake.

It's a tense ride from the get go, as Audi's engineers and team managers watch the Peugeots move further and further into the lead at the start of the race. The only strategy that might work, they explain, is if the drivers make up for their slower laps by performing quadruple stints, i.e. staying in the cars for the longest amount of time possible. Then the rain starts to fall and spirits lift once the Audi Sport team begins to deduce their rival's emerging weakness: The Peugeots simply can't keep up with the Audis in the wet. A new strategy is clearly called for and in moments engineer Howden "H" Haynes is on the radio with new orders for McNish: Out-drive the Peugeots while the track is slick to make up for all the time lost in the dry.

As day turns into night and back into day, the Audis and Peugeots battle through crashes, mechanical issues and various unforeseen mishaps. The #1 and #3 R10s eventually drop too far behind to win, but the #2 car still has a chance until Kristensen spins and crashes, and it seems for an instant like it might all be over for the Audi Sport contingent. Luckily, he quickly gets back on track without major damage and only 10 seconds are ultimately lost.

As in any great thriller, it all comes down to the final few scenes. When the rain returns late in the day, Haynes must make the crucial decision about whether or not to switch the #2 R10 to intermediate tires. Despite protests from Kristensen, who doesn't think the track is wet enough to warrant a tire change, Haynes orders him in to the pits. Meanwhile, the Peugeot team opts to carry on with the slicks. In what can only be described as a perfect Hollywood ending, the leading Peugeot soon spins and pops a tire, forcing it to make an unplanned pit stop after all, and the race ends with Kristensen in first place by the smallest of margins.

Audi of America hopes to secure distribution for Truth in 24 during the coming months, and a TV deal is also under serious consideration. Besides being a fantastic promotional piece for Audi and its TDI technology, this is a superb film in its own right and one that surely deserves to have an audience that is much greater than only those who are fascinated with auto racing.

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