Georgia Chapter and Audi host ACNA members at Road Atlanta’s Petit Lemans
Photos and story by Ken Neher
Petit Lemans, the fall endurance classic that takes place at the historic road course known as Road Atlanta in northern Georgia, has always been an exciting event for the fans to be a part of since its inception in 1998. When Dr. Don Panoz assumed control of Road Atlanta and created the American Lemans series, he brought international endurance racing to a new pinnacle in North America. While the series does include other classic venues such as Sebring, Road America and Lime Rock, the Road Atlanta event stands out to many fans as the most enjoyable of them all.
One of the most outstanding draws of this for teams both a part of, and outside of, the ALMS is that a class win at Petit Lemans will result in an automatic class bid for the 24 Hours of Lemans in France the following year. As a result, many teams that don’t normally participate in the full American Lemans schedule, such as Peugeot, Oak-Pescarolo, and of late, Audi, will come to Petit Lemans in search of a class win that will give them the 24 Hours race bid. The fans at Road Atlanta certainly love this additional participation as it allows them to pull for their favorite Lemans teams that they otherwise might not get a chance to see. Record attendance at this year’s race, at approximately 130,000 fans, proves the popularity of the event. An additional facet of the event is that Petit Lemans was one of three events in the inaugural season of the Intercontinental Lemans Cup, a multi-continental championship for Lemans type endurance racers. 2011 will see the expansion of this event to seven events, including Lemans itself as a double points event. Petit Lemans will remain one of the North America stops for the championship, the other being the historical twelve hour event at Sebring.
The big draw for the spectators at Petit Lemans was, of course, the reprise of the Audi-Peugeot battle. Audi and Peugeot have developed a healthy but professional rivalry between the two camps during the three years Peugeot has been running the 908. The 2009 Petit Lemans win was claimed by Peugeot’s 908 over the Audi R-15 when the race was severely shortened by torrential rains. The leading Audi R-15 of Allan McNish spun during the severe downpour handing Peugeot the win after only about four hours of competition in a race that was eventually called complete after several hours under the red flag. Audi never had a loss at Petit Lemans prior that race. The fans, and doubtlessly Audi of course, wanted a rematch, especially after the rain-shortened event last year. The Audi faithful were putting their hopes in the revised R-15 Plus, which was an R-15 modified to a new set of rules and that sported a new body package and paint scheme. A lot of hope also lay with Audi driver Tom Kristensen, who is known as “Mr. Lemans” due to his record-breaking eight wins at the Circuit de la Sarthe. Tom was coming with Audi Team Joest to contest the event, something he had not done since 2002, and he would co-drive with Allan McNish and Dindo Capello.
Audi’s week at Petit Lemans started off fairly badly, punctuated by a big off by Tom Kristensen early on during testing which necessitated some major repairs to the lead R-15 Plus. The intrepid Audi mechanics got the prototype in shape in very short order indeed and soon the car was out circulating the course. The team’s fast work allowed the drivers to re-familiarize themselves with the natural terrain of Road Atlanta’s two and a half miles and also to gauge the team’s position relative to Peugeot and its other competitors. Testing was especially important for Faessler, Lotterer and Treluyer, the drivers of the #9 R-15 Plus, as they were fairly new to the course.
The first practice session of the week actually went fairly well for Audi, with the # 9 car of Faessler/Lotterer/Treluyer posting the fastest times of the session. Peugeot’s Gene/Wurz/Davidson entry was hot on their heels however with a second place time less than a tenth of a second off the lead Audi. The resurrected #7 Audi R-15 Plus of Kristensen/McNish/Capello followed up in third place, a second off the lead cars, but a real testament to the perseverance of the Audi team mechanics. Night practice occurs on Thursday night, which allows the teams to have a feel for the track on race day once the sun goes down. Night practice is also a special treat for the spectators, who get to experience the 200mph speeds in the crisp night air. The track experience is different at night, as the cars have reflective graphics on them that catch the photographer’s flashes, and the red-hot brake rotors and sparks from cars bottoming out make themselves apparent as well. Peugeot took the fast time in night practice, with the #9 car again being the fastest Audi, and the #7 car reprised third fastest, but this time they were closer to the other team car.
Another practice session in the form of the morning warm up on Friday took place. The Audi mechanics would again be put to the test as Capello put his car off during the session, requiring repairs to the R15 Plus. Before going off though, Capello did manage a third place time behind the two Peugeots. The second R-15 Plus was less than two-tenths of a second behind him. Qualifying came that afternoon, and Peugeot was ready for this for sure, as they already held Road Atlanta’s overall track record for the fastest lap. Again they stole the thunder from Audi with their qualifying effort by claiming the inside and outside pole, and Audi followed up with a solid third and fourth that lead the balance of the field. That’s how they would start the following morning.
Race day proved to have the usual morning chaos with a set of early recon laps and then the fan grid walk afterwards. The grid walk is a signature part of the American Lemans Series. The fans are allowed to walk along the grid and see the cars and crews up close just prior to the start of the race. They might even see their favorite driver as well. Some crews might even be doing last minute preparations for the big moment, as team Cytosport found out when they had the engine cover off of their Porsche Spyder while on grid. After the grid had been cleared and the United States and French national anthems played, the cars rolled off the grid for recon laps and then the Peugeot contingent lead both of the Audis down to the start of the race.
And what a race it was. In addition to the Peugeot-Audi battle there was also a significant race going on in the GT category, which would not be decided until the final turn of the final lap. The Risi Competizione Ferrari ended up running out of fuel, which allowed Team Corvette to win their first race of the season. That move also cost Risi the championship to the Flying Lizard Porsche team. Drama was certainly not relegated to the GT ranks however. The R-15 Plus of Capello/Kristensen/McNish actually had gotten up into second place due to management of traffic, pit stops and the like.
Then Dindo had what could only be described as a wardrobe malfunction. The balaclava for his helmet had shifted to such a degree that he was forced to make an un-scheduled pitstop, during which the team did a driver change. The car got lapped in the pits, a bad break that they never recovered from. This left the hopes of the Audi faithful in the hands of the sister car of Lotterer/Treluyer/Fassler. Another bad break befell Audi however when that R-15 Plus ended up being crowded off line in the down-hill esses, so much so that the car ended up off the circuit entirely. The car’s front splitter dug into to ground which was still wet from rains earlier in the week, and broke the nose undertray. The repairs of course took several laps to complete, and the chances of a win were left solely to reliability of the Peugeots. A real possibility of an Audi win existed, as every Peugeot entered in the 24hr Lemans race failed to finish due to either accident (one car) or mechanical difficulty (3 cars). Peugeot had done their homework on the issue however, and they came home with their second straight win at Petit Lemans. The embattled Audi team managed a third place finish, two laps down, with the Capello/Kristensen/McNish R-15 Plus, and a sixth place finish, 17 laps down, for the Treluyer/Lotterer/Fassler R-15 plus.
The drivers of the R-15 Plus will tell you that the R-10 and R-15 never have had quite as good a handling balance that R-8, which preceded those cars, had. Although they have tremendous torque and good straight-line speed, the handling of the more recent cars is not quite as good as the R-8. The R-10 and R-15 have been very successful despite these issues, however. The commitment Audi has to these programs has allowed constant development of the cars, even leading to the creation of the R-15 Plus, which is an evolution of the R-15. Brilliant race strategy and preparedness has been on Audi’s side as well, allowing Audi to defeat Peugeot at Lemans despite the fact that the Audi was not the faster car. Soon the all-new Audi R-18 will be out on the tracks of the world. Audi should again be a factor with their new car, as their commitment and strategy will keep them up front, and in the hunt for victory over arch rival Peugeot.
What is the Audi Experience??
The Audi Experience hospitality package, which is so popular at these events, was once again offered to ACNA members for this year’s race, and the members showed their devotion to the event by selling out the tickets for it in less than an hour when they were offered for sale several weeks prior. The strength and value of the Audi Experience make it a big hit with club members, many of who return year after year as a part of the program. A whole host of benefits and perks await the ACNA members that opt to go to the race with the Audi Experience package. Audi truly does make going to this race an experience.
The club members that get the Audi Experience package live the good life at the track. Starting with something as simple as reserved infield parking in the club corral, the perks get better from there. The corral not only functions as a parking space, but the corral also functions as a central location for members to meet and it offers a modicum of security as it is staffed by volunteer club members who are there to assist in parking arrangements. The volunteers also point folks in the right direction once their car is safely parked and are there to answer questions and even recruit club members.
Additionally the general public and other club members can check out the cars that are in the corral. These cars ranged from a mid 80’s 4000 Quattro and Ur-Quattro to the new R-8 Spyder. You never know who you might see milling around the corral, from drivers like ex Audi hot-shoe Emanuele Pirro and ACNA board members like Michael de Guzman or even Johan de Nysschen, President of Audi North America.
The next step in the experience is the Audi hospitality chalet. A large outdoor tent complete with tables, chairs, a PA system, closed circuit TV to watch the race with, and facilities for serving food and beverages, the chalet is a great place to hang out with friends or maybe even make new ones. Adjacent to the chalet is a trailer type bathroom facility that is climate controlled and has real fixtures inside, a far cry from the typical port-a-potties scattered about the track infield. Some folks claim that feature alone is worth the premium price. Foods ranging from snacks to steak and seafood dishes are served on race day, as well as a nice lunch on qualifying day, and it is top-notch. Drinks including sodas, wine and beer are also available.
Audi typically has some extras though, too, for its club members. Audi swag such as hats and key-chains for the racing team is available if desired, as well as posters and “hero” cards. Club members in attendance make sure they get a poster, as on Friday the drivers will come speak to the group up in the chalet about their racing experiences in the R-15 Plus, and afterwards there is an autograph session for all who desire to be a part of it. This session is private and for club members only. The general public also gets a chance to get some autographs and the like as the drivers attend a public autograph session in the paddock behind the team transporters. One must get there early to avoid the line however so plan ahead. “Hero” cards, and sometimes posters, are available during these times as well.
A “tech talk” session with some of the teams key engineers also takes place at the chalet, for those wanting more details on how the car and it’s systems function. Another popular feature of the event is a drawing for the club members for the opportunity to go on a tour of the Audi pit area during race day. This tour allows club members to not only see the cars up close during race conditions but also to see the pit crews in action, and maybe even a chance to see something special such as a driver change or a quick repair to the race cars.
Those weary of being out at the track’s spectator areas to watch the racing in Road Atlanta’s fan friendly atmosphere can come back and relax in the Chalet and recharge their batteries for another round of spectating, or they can hang out there and get a snack and do some bench racing with other Audi club members. Many club members have made very good friends with other members as a result of being a part of the program. And that’s what its really all about. Great racing, great friends, great food, great fun, and a great time are what you can expect when you are a part of the Audi Experience.