Click above for high-res gallery of Audi at the 2008 Petit Le Mans
[SPOILER ALERT] Late night winner at 2008 Petit Le Mans
In the top-tier LMP1 class, the Peugeot 908 is usually faster in qualifying than the Audi R10, and such was the case at this year's Petit Le Mans where a single Peugeot 908 HDi beat two Audi R10 TDI racers in qualifying to set a track record at Road Atlanta. Unfortunately for Peugeot, history repeated itself again when Audi drivers Allan McNish, Dindo Capello and Emanuele Pirro climbed atop the podium at the end of the 1,000-mile endurance race. McNish drove his R10 across the finish line 4.512 seconds ahead of the lone Peugoet 908 HDi, which was driven by the team of Christian Klien, Stephane Sarrazin and Nic Minassian. The win was even more incredible for McNish, who spun out and damaged the very R10 that won the race on the grid formation lap before things got started. The Audi crew was able to repair the car and get it on track after losing only the first two laps.
While the LMP2 class ended fairly predictably, with all three bright yellow Penske Porsche RS Spyders claiming the podium 1-2-3. The unpredictable part was Helio Castroneves being part of the winning team along with Ryan Briscoe. Castroneves was indicted the day before the race on charges of tax evasion and fortunately was only allowed to race after posting bond.
Finally, top honors in the GT1 class was contested mainly between the two cars of the Corvette Racing team, with the yellow Vette C6.R driven by Johnny O'Connell, Jan Magnussen and Ron Fellows getting the win over teammates Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Max Papis. And the GT2 class again came down to a duel between Porsche and Ferrari, with Jaime Melo and Mika Salo in their Ferrari F430 GT beating out Joerg Bergmeister in his Flying Lizard Motorsports' Porsche 911 GT3 RSR.
The battle that everyone expected at Petit Le Mans powered by the Totally New MAZDA6 lived up to its billing. Audi remained unbeaten at Road Atlanta as Allan McNish, Dindo Capello and Emanuele Pirro spotted the field two laps at the start of the race but came back for a stunning victory in the 11th annual 1,000-mile/10-hour endurance classic.
McNish and his Audi R10 TDI crossed the finish line 4.512 seconds ahead of Peugeot's Christian Klien and the Peugeot 908 HDi that he drove with Stephane Sarrazin and Nic Minassian. A record weekend crowd of 113,000 witnessed the week-long fight between the top two powers in sports car racing.
The victory was sweet redemption for McNish, who crashed the car on the grid formation lap prior to the race. The team got the Scot on track two laps behind the field but was back on the lead lap after a two-hour, 45-minute stint.
"It was more than a good race," said Pirro, who won at Petit Le Mans for the first time since 2005. "Allan would not have been happy with a normal win. He had to crash the car to make it extraordinary. With team strategy and the yellows we were able to bring the car back. It was a real treat and I was pleased to share the car on this day. It really was a dream race and a lot of people deserve this race."
Pirro and Capello continued to chip away at the lead before McNish's final stint. He passed Klien with about 40 minutes left and continued to drive away from the Peugeot. Even getting in position to contend for victory seemed doubtful early on. Capello had a problem with his seat insert, and the car ran hot as the temperature increased during the afternoon in Capello's stint.
"I didn't think this afternoon when it got so hot that we had a chance," he said. "Sometimes you need luck. We didn't get much luck at the Le Mans Series but we had luck here."
The climatic moments came as darkness enveloped Road Atlanta. The Audi crew called for two stops late - one for fuel and another for tires. McNish came back in during a late-race caution for more fuel and tires, a move that gave him an advantage during the late-race push.
"This race belongs to the team," McNish said. "To get 16-17 people from both crews on that and get it repaired when I thought we were out, they did something I didn't think was possible. No one in our team does the work to finish second. There's no question in my mind that when we got in the position at the end that I was going to do everything I could do to win this race. If it took us to the top step, then it was just desserts for the team.
"I got a run on Christian out of Turn 5 and he got caught up in traffic," McNish said of the winning pass. "You get one opportunity to overtake and you have to take it. I was able to dive in at seven and he couldn't get a clean line to pass me on the straight."
McNish and Capello became the first drivers to win at Petit Le Mans for three consecutive years. Audi's Marco Werner and Lucas Luhr, newly crowned LMP1 champions finished third.
Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe won in LMP2 for Penske Motorsports in their Porsche RS Spyder. Castroneves is the first driver to have won both Petit Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500. He finished 21 seconds ahead of Penske teammates Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas, who won their second straight drivers championship.
"I have to thank Roger and Tim for letting me be in the car," said Castroneves, who won in his second Series start. "These guys did an incredible job. Timo and Romain did a great job, and Ryan was awesome. This is a very challenging track and very difficult. It turned out to be a great race for all three cars."
Saturday marked the first time Briscoe and Castroneves - teammates in the IndyCar Series for Team Penske - shared a car together. It obviously worked out well with Briscoe setting class records in qualifying and the race. The pairing also led overall five times.
"It was a great opportunity given to us by Penske and Porsche," Briscoe said. "We've been really working closely together. It was a great result and great for the whole team. We managed to be the sole P2 cars on the lead lap for a long time before Timo and Romain made a lap up. As we saw last year, the P1 cars are quicker but we can stay with them on the lead lap."
Penske swept the Petit P2 podium with Sascha Maassen, Patrick Long and Emmanuel Collard finishing third. The victory also gave Penske its third straight team championship in class.
"The year was very special," Dumas said. "It is an honor to win this championship again. From my point of view, this is the biggest moment for me with Porsche and the RS Spyder. The competition with Acura has not been easy. A lot of people were thinking before this race, 'What is happening with Penske?' We worked very hard during the month to increase the level of the car."
Bernhard and Dumas benefitted from an early retirement of the Patrón Highcroft Racing Acura ARX-01b. After having the car being completely rebuilt following a crash Thursday, Sharp spun the car coming out of Turn 10B and smacked a concrete wall, damaging the rear end beyond repair.
"I felt bad for them but it was only one hour into the race," Bernhard said. "There was a long race ahead of us and the same could happen to us. With the traffic here, sometimes you need some luck. I really wanted to try to stay focused and bring this home."
Johnny O'Connell, Jan Magnussen and Ron Fellows won in GT1 for Corvette Racing by six laps to take their second endurance victory of the season. They also won in class at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. The win Saturday gave O'Connell and Magnussen the class championship with their eighth victory.
"It's a very special win because we won the championship," said Magnussen, who won his first title. "The race today was hard between the two cars. We were pushing hard on the track and in the pits and everywhere. In the first half of the race we had to push like crazy to stay ahead of the No. 4 car. It was difficult in the daytime and in the nighttime."
Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Max Papis finished second in class. The two Corvettes exchanged the lead twice in the pits before misfortune again befell the No. 4 car. A malfunctioning throttle linkage left Gavin crawling around the track before the six-hour mark. It was eerily similar to Sebring where the trio lost laps to a broken driveshaft early on.
"Winning Petit Le Mans is very special. For some reason, this race has never gone our way," O'Connell said. "For Ron and I, this is our eighth Petit Le Mans and only our second win. We lost the lead on one pit stop but we got it back on the next one. We kept building gaps and I felt like we had things in hand."
Jaime Melo and Mika Salo followed their GT2 endurance victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with another hard-fought endurance win Saturday in their Ferrari F430 GT. Salo finished just 2.317 seconds ahead of Flying Lizard Motorsports' Joerg Bergmeister and his Porsche 911 GT3 RSR. The result with Marc Lieb was enough for Bergmeister and Wolf Henzler to wrap up the class championship.
"It was really hard," Melo said of the race. "To win Le Mans and Petit Le Mans is great for the whole team. It was a very difficult race. We had to move to the back of the field at one point and we had to push hard to get back on top. The car was working very well and comfortable to drive. It made it easier for us to do it."
Tafel Racing's Dirk Mueller and Dominik Farnbacher placed third in their Ferrari.
Salo had to weather a stuck throttle and a broken drink system during his stint. It was a refreshing change considering some of the horrible luck Risi has had this year. After winning eight times last year, this was only the second victory in the Series for the team.
"Yes we won but it doesn't completely make up for the bad luck this year," Salo said. "We knew since the first day how quick the Flying Lizard guys and the Porsches were. Our car worked very well and we had to work hard. It was a really nice fight."
Henzler and Bergmeister have finished on the GT2 podium in every event this year except St. Petersburg in March. Four class victories helped give Bergmeister his third championship and Henzler his first.
Flying Lizard also won its first team championship.
"This is unbelievable," Henzler said. "I can't describe it. Flying Lizard has tried for so many years. With the support of Joerg, the team and Porsche, we never had any issue throughout the year."
Bergmeister also won championships in 2005 and 2006 with Petersen Motorsports/White Lightning Racing.
"It's the first time for the Lizards, so it is like a first time," Bergmeister said. "The team was really ready to win the championship. To have it both the team and driver makes it doubly special."
In the debut of the Green Challenge, the Penske entry of Long, Maassen and Collard were the prototype winners. In the GT category, the Corvette of O'Connell, Magnussen and Fellows were victorious for General Motors.
The cars had the best scores for overall performance, fuel efficiency and environmental impact.
The final round of the 2008 American Le Mans Series is the Monterey Sports Car Championships from Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The four-hour race into darkness is scheduled to start at 2:45 p.m. PT on Saturday, October 18. NBC Sports will air the race from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, October 19. XM Satellite Radio will air the race from 4 to 8 p.m. ET on the same day. American Le Mans Radio will have live coverage on americanlemans.com, which also will feature Live Timing & Scoring.