The 2000 Le Mans 24 hours turned out as everyone predicted. The Audis were too quick and too reliable, and the Joest team too competent for the competition. Andrew Frankel reports
At 4.00p, on Sunday, June 18, three Audi R8 sports prototypes crossed the line at Le Mans to win the famous 24-hour race at Audi Sport's second attempt The slowest of the three, despite having to stop for an entire new rear end, and as a result finishing three laps behind the winner, was 176 miles ahead of the next quickest car.
That's the distance from London to Manchester, and Reinhold Joest's team put that between themselves and the opposition in just a day and a night's racing. Put another way, the leader dropped its fastest finishing rival at an average of a lap an hour, every hour for 24 hours. And that's an 8.4-mile lap. Now consider that for rather more than half the race the Audis were cruising, circulating nowhere near their potential pace and try to imagine what the margin might have been had they actually been trying.
It was the most dominant win by any team (if not by an individual marque) in the history of the race, and it is hard to see how Audi could have hoped for more. And yet, despite the ocean of ink the Ingolstadt marque expended celebrating its victory, the overwhelming impression is that no one, not even Audi, wanted it to turn out this way.
For the simple truth is, this was as boring a Le Mans as any of the Sarthe-side diehards could remember; more boring even than the Group C races where the only question was which Porsche would win. But at least those many years ago there were private teams, like those run by Herr Joest back then, which would race with each other and, on occasion, beat the works machines.
Not this time. Just three racing laps in 368 were completed with something other than an Audi in the lead, thanks to David Brabham's Panoz making the most of an early safety car situation, but then that was it. No one knew it at the time, but when the Audis assumed the top three positions before the 10th hour was out, there they would stay for the rest of the race. They did not even swap positions among themselves. Further down the field both Chevrolet Corvettes finished at the team's first attempt, but failed to match either the pace or the reliability of the invincible ORECA Chrysler Vipers. Yet they do not relish the Viper-free race they will almost certainly have next year: "We need them there," said Justin Bell, "to give us something to beat"
Finally came the GT class, containing only Porsche 911 GT3-Rs. Initially it appeared to be won by Dick Barbour's entry with, notably, Bob Wollek at the wheel. But having beaten its nearest rival by over nine laps, it was later disqualified for a fuel tank capacity which exceeded regulations. This handed class honours to the Japanese Team Taisan squad. It speaks volumes that the strongest feelings for Audi were of pity. The team did a perfect job and made sacrifices elsewhere to make sure of it. This was only the second time this year that the R8s had been wheeled out. They kicked off the year with a strong win against the works BMWs at Sebring but were then kept out of competition until Le Mans. In between, Audi used last year's hugely inferior car, losing at both Charlotte and Silverstone, while the R8s secretly grew substantially better even than at Sebring. Nothing was left to chance at Le Mans. If only, one of their crew told me, the BMWs had entered the race. Charley Lamm's Schnitzer team, maybe the quickest, smartest crew in the pidane, would have been close, and there would have been a fight to the finish, a fight Audi would have won because even during qualifying they kept something in reserve. To beat BMW, last year's winner and a deadly rival on both road and track — that would have been the perfect result
They approached the problem with unprecedented thoroughness. First they created a car which exploited the rules better than anyone else, and then developed it better than anyone else. After the 12 hours of Sebring, the R8s were parked for 24 hours, refuelled and sent out for another 12, just to make sure. Then there were the drivers, nine across three cars, over half of them former Le Mans winners.
And then they got practical. Two of the three cars came in for new rear ends during the race: that's new suspension, gearbox, bodywork, the lot. Each one took just five minutes to do, so the team could afford the luxury of repairing what in all probability were undamaged cars. Why hope for the best when sacrificing five minutes means you don't need to?
I take my hat off to Audi and, in time, so will the history books, adding Audi to the short list of manufacturers including Bentley and Jaguar to have won at only the second attempt. Right now we remember only that they walked it, that it wasn't a proper race and how the only interest would have been had they not won. And even what little capital they could make out of it was swamped on the sports pages by (inevitably) Euro 2000 and an unusually interesting Canadian Grand Prix.
It was a huge effort, masked by the lack of opposition. Would they have still won if the Toyota, BMW, Nissan and Mercedes teams had stayed on for one more year? Audi believes so, and so do I. From looking at the cars, the way they were driven, the talent behind their wheels, their reliability and the consistency of their lap times, I would argue that not once, not even during qualifying, were they driven as fast as they would go.
We can only hope that, if Audi returns next year, other manufacturers will apply the same painstaking science to their cars. If not, it's going to be another very tedious 24 hours. My fear, however, is that none of the current players will be in a position to beat Audi in 2001 and that we will witness another procession. If that looks likely, don't be surprised to see Audi announce its withdrawal, prior to a return in 2002. By then, Cadillac and Chrysler prototypes should be developed and racing against new cars from Aston Martin, Bentley and Maserati. And then, thank God, we should have a motor race again.