It's no secret that Audi hasn't had as successful a season so far in the American LeMans Series with its diesel-powered R10 racers compared to last year. As it had begun doing last season, the ALMS has instituted regulations designed to slow down the dominant R10s in their LMP1 class, effectively making even the cars in the more contested LMP2 class faster. For instance, Audi's fastest car placed second overall in last week's Utah Grand Prix and third overall in the prior week's Grand Prix of Houston, both times behind cars in the LMP2 class. Last year, an Audi R10 driver was highest on the podium at every race of the season.
This is why Audi is so amped up for the 2007 24 Hours of LeMans where the LMP1 class is supreme and unhindered by these stifling regulations. This year, however, Audi will be up against a formidable opponent in Peugeot's 908 HDi FAP racer, which is also powered by a diesel motor, though fitted with two more cylinders than the R10.
Recognizing that LeMans remains as the sole race to demonstrate its dominance, Audi has decided to field a third car in addition to the two that are being shipped over from the ALMS series. The third car will be obviously badged "car number 3" and driven by three donated drivers from Audi's DTM team: Alexandre Préma, Mike Rockenfeller, and Lucas Luhr (shown above left to right). A third set of wheels will obviously give team Audi a better shot at overall victory, especially considering that, over the course of 24 hours of racing, it's likely one of the cars will suffer a race-ending fate.
DTM drivers strengthen Audi team at Le Mans
- Third Audi R10 TDI for Luhr/Prémat/Rockenfeller
- Experienced Le Mans drivers in the two other R10 TDI cars
- Mattias Ekström is reserve driver for Tom Kristensen
"The race at Le Mans poses a new challenge every year," commented Audi Head of Motorsport Dr Wolfgang Ullrich. "By fielding a third car, we are increasing our chances of again being successful. Experience has certainly shown us how quickly a team can 'lose' a car at Le Mans. The costs incurred for a third vehicle versus a two-car team are reasonable."
Mattias Ekström, Lucas Luhr, Alexandre Prémat and Mike Rockenfeller proved their abilities to race at Le Mans in tests at Paul Ricard (France) in early April by setting consistently fast lap times. "All four left an outstanding impression, " explained Dr Ullrich. "We opted for the combination of Luhr/Prémat/Rockenfeller because we want Mattias to concentrate on the DTM, in which he has good chances of winning the title. Le Mans is exactly between two important DTM races at Brands Hatch and the Norisring. "
The Swede will only drive on 16/17 June in the event that the seven-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen has not received medical approval to race. "At the moment we're assuming that Tom will be fit again by the time of the Le Mans race, but of course there's no guarantee for this," said Dr Ullrich.
The Dane sustained a severe whiplash trauma in the DTM season-opening race at Hockenheim on 22 April. Only two days after the crash he was able to leave hospital and has since been recovering from the accident at home in Denmark. "Basically, he's doing well," said Dr Ullrich. "However, when he subjects himself to excessive physical strain, Tom does not yet feel totally fit. These are normal symptoms after this kind of accident. At the moment, no doctor can predict when he'll be fit again."
As a precaution, Audi Sport will nominate Mattias Ekström as a reserve driver for the race at Le Mans. On 3 June at the Le Mans test day, the Swede will take the wheel of the Audi R10 TDI (car number 2) and familiarise himself with the 13.650-kilometre circuit. His team-mates will be Dindo Capello (Italy/42), who has already won the 24 Hours of Le Mans twice, and Allan McNish (Scotland/37), who was triumphant at Le Mans in 1998 but is still waiting to clinch his first Le Mans victory with Audi.
The number 1 Audi R10 TDI will be driven by last year's race winners Frank Biela (Germany/42), Emanuele Pirro (Italy/45) and Marco Werner (Germany/41), who – between them – have a total of ten Le Mans victories under their belts.
"I'm convinced that by deploying our seasoned drivers, who rank among the world's absolute elite of sportscar drivers, and our promising juniors, we are well prepared for the battle against Peugeot, " said Dr Ullrich. "At the same time we are giving three young drivers the big chance to fight for overall victory at Le Mans for the first time. This is also a part of our motorsport concept."