A very brief Le Mans 24 Hours History – Chapter 7

© Bertrand Brothier – www.zoom-24.com

After Audi Sport Team Joest finished third and fourth in the 1999 Le Mans 24 Hours in their first attempt with the R8R it looked like Audi would be able to score an overall Le Mans victory in the near future…nobody had expected the dominance of the German manufacturer in a new age at Le Mans.

At the end of 1999 BMW and Toyota left sportscar racing and went to Formula One instead, Mercedes turned to the DTM and Nissan pulled out after getting into financial problems. The only two manufacturers to stay onboard in 2000 were Audi and Panoz, while the Cadillac brand joined the race. Audi replaced its open top LMP R8R and closed top LMGTP R8C with a new open top LMP900 car, the Audi R8.

© Bertrand Brothier – www.zoom-24.com

Three R8’s were entered and the R8 turned out to be an instant winner. During qualifying the number 9 R8 of Aiello, McNish and Ortelli took the pole position, the other Audi’s were second and third on the grid. At the end of the 2000 Le Mans 24 Hours the same three cars were on top, albeit in a different order. Frank Biela, Tom Kristensen and Emanuele Pirro beat the sister cars to clinch the R8s first Le Mans victory.

In 2001 the Mulsanne straight was once again changed, the large hill on the last part of the straight was lowered in order to prevent accidents like the Mercedes-Benz CLRs becoming airborne in 1999. The race itself saw a famous name making its return to the French circuit. British manufacturer Bentley, like Audi owned by the Volkswagen Group, entered a Bentley EXP Speed 8 to challenge the German Audi R8. The race was hampered by heavy rain throughout the race but even the huge amounts of water could not stop Audi. The number 1 R8 of Biela/Pirro/Kristensen won again, 1 lap ahead of the number 2 Audi and 15 laps ahead of the Bentley.

The 2002 race was driven on yet another Le Mans circuit layout as the track was changed between the Dunlop bridge and the Esses. Once a straight it had now been turned into a set of fast turns leading to Tertre Rouge. Under much better weather conditions than in 2001 Bentley and Audi took on each other again and just like the previous years it was Audi that prevailed. With this result Audi Sport Team Joest and its drivers Biela, Pirro and Kristensen took their third consecutive victory as a team and manufacturer. It was the first time the same three drivers won the event three times in a row.

With the success of winning three times in a row Audi did not field a works team in 2003, but privateers like Champion Racing, Team Goh and Audi Sport UK did enter the R8 though. However it was Bentley that won the race, its first victory at Le Mans since 1930. The Bentley team was supported by Audi factory squad Joest Racing and Audi had put its drivers Rinaldo Capello and Tom Kristensen in the winning car, joined by Briton Guy Smith. For Tom Kristensen it was his fourth consecutive victory, a new record.

© Planetlemans – Marcel ten Caat

After taking the win Bentley withdrew from Le Mans again which meant there were no official works entries for the 2004 edition of the race. Nevertheless several privateer teams returned to the track with an R8 and the car showed its capabilities by scoring a 1-2-3 finish. The winning R8 of Audi Sport Japan Team Goh had a couple of familiar names in its line-up, next to Japanese Seiji Ara Audi works drivers Rinaldo Capello and Tom Kristensen were in the car. For Kristensen it was his fifth straight victory at Le Mans and his sixth overall, he was now on the same level as Jacky Ickx. The Le Mans-based Pescarolo squad entered its own Pescarolo C60 to compete against the Audi’s and finished fourth, preventing an Audi top 4.

The 2005 edition was driven in exceptionally hot weather. The temperature was well over 30ºC and caused a lot of mechanical problems for the teams. The Pescarolo Sport C60 of Collard/Boullion/Comas had taken pole position and with French rally ace Sébastien Loeb behind the wheel of the second Pescarolo the French fans all came to Le Mans hoping for a French victory for the first time since Peugeot in 1993. Unfortunately for them the Pescarolo cars had a lot of bad luck during the race and despite the speed of the car the reliability of the Audi R8 was the key factor. The Champion Racing R8 in the hands of Lehto, Werner and (again) Kristensen won the race, 2 laps ahead of the number 16 Pescarolo. Kristensen set a new record of seven overall Le Mans victories, six of them in succession. He was now one win ahead of Le Mans legend Jacky Ickx.

Before the 2006 event started the ACO changed the Dunlop Curve and Dunlop Chicane area again and extended the pit lane, as requested by the FIA. After receiving many complaints about the longer and slower pitlane during the Le Mans test day the ACO decided to use the old pit exit for the race. Audi Sport Team Joest returned to Le Mans as the official Audi works team with the diesel-powered R10 that had replaced the legendary R8. The car showed it was able to carry on where the R8 had left and it was the number 7 R10 of Kristensen/McNish/Capello that took pole position for the 74th Le Mans 24 Hours. However the number 7 turned out to be less reliable as its sister car. While the number 8 of Biela/Werner/Pirro won the race, ending the winning streak of Tom Kristensen, it was the Pescarolo C60 Hybrid of Loeb/Hélary/Montangy that took second place ahead of the second Audi R10. Kristensen did not improve his record, but Audi did rewrite autosport history as the R10 became the first ever diesel-powered sportscar to win Le Mans.
For 2007 a battle of the diesel-powered cars is expected with the return of Peugeot to the Le Mans 24 Hours. The 75th running of the classic race will also see more entries. New garages have been built, making it possible for 55 cars to start the race. The Tertre Rouge corner has had a make-over; it is now a long flowing turn instead of the sharp turn it was until last year. With three Audi R10s, two Peugeot 905 HDi FAPs and several other LMP cars that are hoping for some diesel-mishaps the 75th edition is set to become a thriller…