Petit Lemans, the fall racing classic at Road Atlanta, is rapidly becoming a globally recognized event. Teams from all over the world come to north Georgia in September for a shot at a win in the 1,000 mile long race. Petit Lemans, now a part of the Intercontinental Lemans Cup and the up-coming World Endurance Challenge series, had teams venture from as far as the Middle East (in the case of Gulf AMR Middle East) to be a part of the contest.
Many European teams, such as Audi Team Joest, Aston-Martin, Oreca-Matmut, Rebellion, Pescarolo and Peugeot Sport travelled to the United States as well. These teams don’t make many appearances in the U.S, the other notable exception being the Sebring 12 hour event, so for the American fans of sports car racing, it’s a rare chance to get a glimpse of some of the premier racing teams from around the globe. Sadly, this event is not to be a part of the ILMC in the future, so this may have been Audi’s last Petit Lemans.
Audi has a score to settle with Peugeot at Petit Lemans. Any fan of the series knows about the intense but respectful rivalry that these two teams have. After Audi lost in their last outing of the R-15 Plus at Sebring to Peugeot (a privateer team Oreca-Matmut’s prior-generation Peugeot at that), vindication came at Lemans with a stunning but costly win over the French team. Audi lost two cars during the battle with hard crashes by Allan McNish and Mike Rockenfeller, but their remaining new R-18 TDI racer ended up victorious. The R-18 is the car that Audi Team Joest was going to bring to the U.S. for its first appearance on American soil. Hopes were high that Audi could recapture its position as the winner of Petit Lemans, a feat it has not done for the last two years.
Photos by Ken Neher
Clearly, Peugeot was intent on defending their title. The team, which had brought two cars to contest the event, looked racy right out of the box. The Audi team, however, during testing early in the week, showed they were going to be the team to beat when the #1 R-18 TDI of Bernhard/Dumas/Fassler, had the fastest times posted during three of the first four testing sessions on Sunday and Monday. This fact was not lost on Peugeot, who bounced back during practice on Wednesday morning when the #8 Peugeot 908 of Montagny/Sarrazin/Wurz posted up the #1 spot followed closely behind by their #7 sister car of Bourdais/Pagenaud/Davidson. This proved to be short lived however as the #2 R-18 TDI of McNish/Capello/Kristensen stepped up in Wednesday afternoon practice to be the top performing car. The teams flip flopped again during Thursday’s night practice and again during Friday morning’s warm up. Other than letting the teams parade their might in front of the others, none of this mattered until qualifying started.
Qualifying took place on Friday afternoon and ended up being quite a heated session between the two teams. Peugeot threw down the gauntlet with a blistering time of 1:07.428 turned by the #7 car with Anthony Davidson at the wheel. While not the track record (1:06.242, held by Peugeot), that was still very, very fast and the blue Lions could even be seen up on two wheels in turn three. Fear not, however, as Audi was right on the Frenchmen’s heels with a 1:07.556 turned by the #1 Audi of Timo Bernhard, a mere .128 seconds off the pace. The #8 Peugeot and #7 Audi filled out the third and fourth spots, and, notably, team Oreca-Matmut’s Peugeot 908-HDI FAP, a prior year car, was fifth to qualify. Other P1 cars from the likes of Rebellion, AMR, Oak Pescarolo, Dyson and others filled out the balance of the grid, along with P2, LMPC, GT, GT PRO, GT AM and GTC machines. You read that right. There were 7 classes competing at Petit Lemans this year. Having so many classes, and as a result, so many cars on the track actually caused some controversy. The FIA has limits for car numbers that are determined by factors such as track length, runoff area, etc, and these limits were possibly going to come into play at this event. No-one would want to go home early, but unfortunately sometimes the ugly specter of attrition raises its head, and some teams ended up going home due to incidents in practice sessions. Thus, the car count rule never truly came into play. Many of the drivers in P1 and P2 were still concerned however, as with nearly sixty cars in the event, traffic was going to be a problem, especially considering the radically different speeds of a P1 car to a GTC car.
There is more to Petit Lemans than just the main event. IMSA support series run their events during the week as well, culminating in races on Friday in between the practice and qualifying sessions for the ALMS/ILMC cars. The IMSA Lights series, a feeder series for the ALMS that runs small prototype style cars with four cylinder engines was there, as was the GT3 cup series. GT3 cup is a one marque series (Porsche 911 specifically) that is also seen as an IMSA feeder series, but for drivers in sedans or coupes instead of prototypes. Both the IMSA Lights series and the GT3 cup series ran two races each, with Sean Rayhall claiming both IMSA Light race wins and Carlos Kauffman claiming both the GT3 cup wins.
Even more racing is to be had at this event during the week if you have the interest, in the form of two SCCA Pro Racing series, namely the Trans Am Series and the World Challenge series. History was made this year in the Trans Am series finale at Road Atlanta when Amy Ruman became the first female victor in the history of the 45 year old Trans Am series. She piloted her McNichols sponsored Corvette to win. Also notable was Mike Skeen’s win in the TA2 class, as he had never driven a TA2 class car before this event. The World Challenge series seems to be a fan favorite when the series returns to Road Atlanta, mainly because the fans can identify with many of the cars that run in the series, such as the Acura TSX, Ford Mustang, Volvo S60 and Cadillac CTS-V. The crowd loves the staccato bellow of the Cadillacs, and home town favorite and ex-Corvette works driver Johnny O’Connell did Georgia proud by bringing home the win for GM’s luxury division. Eric Foss dominated the GTS class in his Mustang, and Aaron Povoledo brought home the gold in Touring in his Volvo C-30.
So Saturday was to be the big day for the ALMS/ILMC drivers, and some teams like Intersport were struggling to just make the show. David Ducote tangled up the team’s backup car with the Robertson Racing Ford GT on Friday and he got transported to the hospital as a precaution. Luckily he was ok. Dyson Racing had to change the engine in their Lola B09 86/Mazda between the morning warm up and the start. Audi and Peugeot, however, were ready to contest the 1,000 mile event. The Audi Club of Georgia, the local ACNA chapter, was ready also. The Georgia Chapter, ACNA, and Audi put in a huge effort for the club members this year at the event, and although most members who have attended this event through ACNA had certain expectations based on prior events, most everyone was thoroughly impressed with this year’s amenities. Not only were attractions like the club car corral, tech talk with race engineers and Audi R18 driver meet and greet back for this event, but some amazing surprises were on hand as well.
The Club meeting area, while historically a tent erected on site, was this year replaced by a two-story temporary building, complete with upper balcony, press area, carpeting, air conditioning and multiple HD-TV’s playing the closed circuit race feed. Food, while usually a high point of the event, was even better with the likes of Chef Richard Blais taking the reins and treating the club members to some amazing dishes on Friday and Saturday. Few things seemed better than being at the racetrack while being treated to braised lamb ribs in root-beer sauce, complemented with German beer. Club members could even sign up for the opportunity to test drive an Audi R8 sportscar, or take a tour of the hot pits during the race. In addition, Audi provided plenty of souvenirs for the club members to take home as momentos of the event. You might even get a glimpse of a past Audi Sport driver like Emanuele Pirro, who actually emcee’d the driver meet and greet. In short, if you went to Petit Lemans with Audi and ACNA, a memorable experience was guaranteed.
A memorable race was about to unfold as well. After a brief morning warm up for the teams to check their setups, the officials set the grid on Road Atlanta’s front straight and then opened the gates so that the fans could come and see the cars up close, just moments before the race would start. Another record crowd was on hand for the event, as over 131,000 fans came to see their heroes streak past them at unbelievable speeds in their amazingly colorful machines. The IMSA officials moved everyone safely off the grid. Then, the drivers set out for their recon laps preceding the green flag that signalled the start of this ten hour event.
The pole sitting #7 Peugeot of Sebastian Bourdais took the green flag at 11:29am as the field steamed out of turn 12 onto the front stretch and the chaos began immediately, with the field jockeying for dominant positions going into turn 1. Audi had revealed that during the week the R-18 had been going into turn 1 in 4th gear at a staggering 167 mph. The larger front tires, closed cockpit design and high downforce settings that make up the R-18 package were all working together in close harmony. Proof of this came 11 minutes into the race when Marcel Fassler brought the #1 Audi R-18 into the lead. Peugeot would have none of it however, and passed him back 5 laps later.
Trouble for the #2 car started about 37 minutes into the race when Tom Kristensen had to bring the R-18 into the pits to have the nose piece replaced after contact with another car. Luckily Audi engineered the body parts on the R-18 to be easily replaced, and this minimized time lost in the pits. Audi caught a break at the one hour mark when a yellow flag due to a burning Jaguar on the back straight afforded both Peugeots one minute stop-and-go penalties for pit lane red light infractions. With lap times running 1:08 to 1:10, this was a huge penalty. Another yellow shortly followed when Butch Leitzinger put his Dyson Lola Mazda into the turn one tire wall. Team Oreca, the leader at the time, pitted and Audi did not, which put Tim Bernhard at the helm of the #1 R-18, into the lead.
Trouble soon hit the #2 car again, and when Tom Kristensen brought the car into the pits for a driver change, the right hand side body work, fractured from more on-track contact, had to be repaired with 200mph tape and the team lost more time as a result. The drivers’ worries about race conditions were justified, as this is the second body repair to this car in as many hours. The #1 car gave up the lead to the Team Oreca Peugeot at about the 2 hour mark during a routine pit stop, and Team Oreca stopped shortly after, allowing Peugeot Sport back into the overall lead.
Road Atlanta is not usually considered a very abusive track to the cars that race on it, that honor goes to Sebring with its patchy and aging concrete surface. Weird failures started creeping into some of the teams however, such as Team Corvette’s cracked gear box. Dion Von Moltke also suffered gearbox failure in his GTC Porsche, and Eric Lux fell victim to an axle failure on his LMPC car. These failures did not bode well for the rest of the field. Audi was no different, with a clutch failure on the now clearly jinxed #2 car. Peugeot also had mechanical trouble, and for them it was on the #7, which had to be retired from the race just past three hours in. Luckily, the Audi team was able to get the #2 car repaired and back out on track, though the car was far back in LMP1 by this time. First place belonged to Peugeot at the four hour mark, but the the #1 Audi was right behind. At least, they were until their next pit stop, when the team got a 20 second penalty for attempting to work on the car while it is being refueled, which is forbidden in the rules.
The race settled into a bit of a rhythm for the top teams at this point, and with the exception of an occasional caution for some contact, or a car stopped on course in a bad position, it was business as usual, with the #1 Audi and #8 Peugeot swapping the lead at every pit stop. This all came to a shattering end just past the seven hour mark. Romain Dumas was in the #1 R-18 following Franck Montagny in the #8 Peugeot out of turn seven and into turn eight. Dumas clearly had momentum coming off the corner, and made an effort to slingshot past Montagny, but in a very controversial move Montagny moved his Peugeot just to the drivers left on the back straight, leaving Dumas no choice but to “thread the needle” between the Peugeot and Ben Keating’s GTC Porsche. The room Dumas had before Montagny moved over was already on the tight side, and in an effort to avoid hitting the LMP1 car, Dumas chucked the Audi to the left as well, taking the nose off the Porsche and slamming the R-18 into the turn 8 wall, ending Audi’s campaign for the 2011 Petit Lemans win. Roman Dumas said of the incident “I was not expecting him to come into me on a long straight. Made no sense to change the line like that.” Montagny countered with his version: “…I got in traffic and Romain caught up to me. He tried to overtake me but I closed the door. But later I opened my line to get around a GTC Porsche, and I took my line back into the left hand corner. Romain took a jump into the hole that was only open for the Porsche. I was really sorry to have a fight like this and finish. We'd like to battle on the track. But we had a great race and had a good car.”
Needless to say, the Audi faithful had their hearts at their feet at this moment. The #2 car was still running but no longer in contention, and the Lemans winning team of Fassler,Dumas and Bernhard were done for the day. The#2 car, with Allan McNish behind the wheel, would eventually retire as well, due to suspension concerns after being in multiple on-track incidents during the race. Victory over Peugeot at Petit Lemans was not to be this year. The #8 Peugeot took the checkered flag underneath the showering fireworks on the front stretch, followed, but not closely, by Team Oreca’s Peugeot 908, five laps arrears, and Team AMR’s Lola Aston Martin, which got a notable podium finish, an additional lap down.
Endurance racing is just what it says. You have to be around at the end to have a shot at the win. Every little detail is crucial. Every mistake is amplified just that much more. Professionalism and preparedness rule the paddock and pit stalls. Endurance racing is also, racing. Sometimes luck, good or bad, simply has to come into play when results are tallied at the end of the day. There was no question that attrition was going to be a factor at Petit Lemans, it had to be simply from the standpoint of the number of entries. Unfortunately for the Audi faithful, attrition chose the R-18 to sink its teeth into. Another year, another opportunity for a victory. That’s what the future holds for the next Petit Lemans. Hopefully, Audi will choose to be there, for it’s American fans of Audi Sport racing.