Pack of aces

Audi's track warriors pick personal highlights from one of the biggest success stories in modern racing
writer Rob Widdows

Pause for thought. The years, even the decades, fly by in a blur of snapshots, memories, facts and figures. But if you take a few moments to reflect on the years between 1999 and today, a remarkable sports car story unfolds. This is a tale of success that has made Audi one of the most prolific winners in the history of endurance racing.

In those 14 years and counting the team from Ingolstadt has won both the Le Mans 24 Hours and the Sebring 12 Hours 11 times each, and its sports cars have dominated just about everywhere else in between.

Some of the strongest cards in Audi's pack have been the drivers, all of them chosen by Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, the man who has orchestrated this extraordinarily successful spell. At the Sebring 12 Hours in March, Audi Sport arrived with a small but perfect collection of cars from the museum to illustrate the recent chapters of this remarkable run, from the R8 onwards and upwards to the R15. They also brought some of the stars from their 'Museum of Drivers', the 'old boys' there not to race, but to soak up the Florida sunshine now that they have been released from duty in fireproof overalls.

Happily, they all read Motor Sport: "Yes, we wanted to be in Autosport when we were climbing the ladder; now we're happy to find ourselves in Motor Sport," they joked when we sat down for a chat about the highlights of their part in the story.

Allan McNish Sebring 12 hours, 2009

Starting with the current crop of drivers, two stand out from the rest in recent times. Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish, two very driven characters, both super quick and desperate to win. McNish's career was relaunched at Audi after a frustrating, lone season in Formula 1 with Toyota. Now a member of the not to mention a serial winner, he shows no sign of going elsewhere. For our review of the last 14 years he chooses Sebring from 2009 in the R15, sharing with Kristensen and Dindo Capello.

"This stands out because the year before the R10 didn't have the pure speed of the Peugeots, but we had good raceability. Then, in '09 with the R15, we had very impressive downforce from the new aerodynamics and, my God, it was the best Audi I've ever raced at Sebring. It was the first time I overtook anyone round the outside of Turn One and believe me, that takes total confidence in the car: just dab the brakes, down a gear and let it run around the outside. The front was so much more responsive than the R10; it was really underneath you, and you could throw it around like a kart.

"We qualified second, ahead of the Peugeots, and then it was a proper ding-dong battle. We had to be really on it all the way through. Typical of this was passing [Franck] Montagny down the back straight into Turn 17, him repassing me along the main straight, and then going through Turn Two side by side having ducked around a slower GT car. This was only two hours in, and that's how it was going to be to the end.

"As we came to the end of the race I got a radio call from the pits as I went over the big bump in the middle of Turn 17— 'Allan, you have to hurry up, [Sebastien] Bourdais [in the Peugeot] is catching you'. I was on full tanks having just done a stop and I thought 'Oh, cheers, give me some good news, why don't you?' At the end it came down to a splash and dash and when I pulled out of the pits the Peugeot was just coming onto the start/finish straight, so we were able to 'coast' through the last few laps to win by just 22 seconds. That was victory first time out for the car. All three of us had to race very hard; we had to take risks in traffic and it was far from a game of draughts. But in its Sebring trim the R15 was a really great car."

Emanuele Pirro Le Mans 24 hours, 2006

The Italian was the first man to be signed by the highly perceptive Ullrich, in 1999. Pirro was already vastly experienced. Having decided to seek a new challenge after nine years with BMW, Schnitzer team boss Charly Lamm advised him that Audi was planning a return to racing and gave him Ullrich's phone number.

"I had to make a new start, for many reasons," says Pirro. "I'd never heard of this Mr Ullrich, but he came to see me in Rome. I told him I was not just looking to make more money for the end of my career, but that I wanted one more serious opportunity to race a good car and to win. There was good chemistry between us and I signed, though I could never have believed how much success we would have.

Incredibly, five Le Mans wins would follow. "It's tough to pick a highlight — I mean if you have 10 children, you don't love one more than another — and there were so many good races."

Pirro settles on the first win for a diesel car at Le Mans, in 2006 with the R10 TDI — an achievement that holds a special place in the history of the sport.

"I had to keep the plan for a diesel car as a deep secret," he says, smiling at the memory, "and I knew it would be an unbelievable adventure, a huge challenge. I first drove the diesel at a test in Vallelunga and, of course, it was very different. The technology was a big step forward, not just the powertrain, but the whole concept. So it was a special moment to drive those first few laps. I could feel the quality of the engineering and realised I would have just one shot at winning with a diesel car for the very first time in history.

"It was like being with NASA, such was the step forward in technology. I had won Le Mans already, of course, but to win with this new engineering in 2006 would be so special. When I did the final stint I was crying inside the car and wanted to do something fantastic at the finish, to express my joy. My son had given me tiger ears to stick on my helmet — I couldn't wear them in the race, but took them out of my pocket for the finish.

"I had already stood up in the cockpit on my previous Le Mans victories, and one time I nearly fell out of the car, but for this one in the diesel I had a plan for something extra. But I never did it because when Dr Ullrich and [Joest team manager] Ralf Jilttner gave me the privilege of crossing the line, they told me very firmly not to do anything silly in celebration. We were all very nervous in those last two hours, and if we did win the race then they made it very clear they wanted no funny games from me. So I never did my special plan. I crossed the line quite correctly and have never told anyone what I was planning. And no, I am not telling you now."

Dindo Capello Sebring 12 hours, 1999

Capello chooses his and Audi's LMP1 debut at Sebring in 1999. It was his first race outside Europe and he partnered two of his heroes, former Ferrari Grand Prix drivers Michele Alboreto and Stefan Johansson, driving the original R8R prototype. This was also the first race of the new American Le Mans Series.

"When Michele and Stefan were at Ferrari, I was still dreaming of being a racing driver," Dindo says, "and I never expected to be driving with them in an Audi at Sebring. The R8R was so demanding to drive, so stiff over the bumps, and really it was not fast enough to win. And of course Sebring is an old-fashioned track, more suitable for a vintage car than a modern prototype. It's quite scary, especially at night, but you get used to it. Maybe we could get on the podium, but the car was not yet really good enough, so to get in the top three would be fantastic. After free practice they asked me to qualify the car. That was a privilege and a recognition of my speed in practice. To get this respect from Michele and Stefan made me very proud and I just wanted to do the best job I could. In the end, though, I crashed after a Ferrari spun in front of me at Turn Five. It was quite a big impact.

"In the race we went well and got the car into third place. To be on the podium was such an achievement with a new car and I was just so happy to be there. Since then I have had so many good races at Sebring, especially with Tom and Allan. Now I'm in the drivers' 'museum', I wonder whether my brothers can win a race without me. Seriously, though, I'm happy with what I have achieved."

Frank Biela Le Mans 24 hours, 2001

The second driver Dr Ullrich signed at the beginning of Audi's sports car campaign was a German. Frank Biela had already starred for the manufacturer in touring cars, winning the BTCC in 1996, and didn't have long to wait for his first endurance success — at Le Mans no less in 2000, with the new R8. But Biela chooses the race at La Sarthe in 2001 as his personal highlight when, driving with Kristensen and Pirro, he won a race run in appallingly wet conditions. They led home a 1-2 finish for the R8 in a race that was, at times, a chaotic affair.

"We had worked hard since 1999 and we'd solved all the problems we had in the beginning," Frank says, "but having won in 2000 I thought there was no way we'd be able to win again the following year. I drove the first stint and early in the race there was heavy rain. Going down to Indianapolis at about 230kph I remembered the words of Michele Alboreto from a few years earlier."

Alboreto had died just a couple of months earlier, in a freak testing accident at the Lausitzring during preparations for Le Mans. For everyone at Audi, the tragedy loomed large at the race and the Italian was never far from their thoughts. Biela recalls, "He'd told me, 'If it's raining, you really have to slow down through Indianapolis, it's so fast down to that corner and if you back off it's never enough'. So I went really slowly. But cars were passing me, so I got back on the throttle and as I did so the car slid 90 degrees to the guardrail. I was still going very fast. I thought, 'F***, this is it, this is what Michele told me and it's over.'

"But I didn't crash. I got it back, opposite lock this way and that. The whole race was like that, very difficult, always the heavy rain and lots of people crashing.

"During the night it was very wet and that's not nice, especially down the Mulsanne where you want to keep the car in the middle of the road because of the camber. But sooner or later you have to go right or left to pass another car and then you're in the puddles. I thought, 'You stupid idiot, you've won this race once already, so why are you doing it again in these terrible conditions?' But things went well. We got through it and won the race, a lap ahead of the other R8.

"The best things about Audi are the people, the teamwork and the preparation. Drivers will always complain, you know, but they gave us a driveable car, one that suited all three members of the team and was reliable. And somehow Audi always managed to do that. The team reacts very quickly and strictly controls every part that goes into the car. This kind of detailed preparation is the key."

Tom Kristensen Le Mans 24 hours, 2008

Some might say we have left the best until last. Tom Kristensen is the acknowledged maestro when it comes to endurance racing, a winner through and through with an enviable reputation for skill at speed in the dark. Kristensen/McNish/Capello was always quite simply the benchmark, the team to beat. The Dane's highlight? Le Mans 2008, with the R10 in its final season.

"We qualified fourth behind the three Peugeots," he says, "but always felt we had a chance. The Audi preparation is so good and the car was strong, the diesel having improved enormously since we started with the new technology. We knew we did not have the speed of the Peugeot but I sensed we could win. We were so determined and believed it was possible if we stuck to doing our maximum and executed the perfect strategy. It was a real team effort, all down to the five Ps — 'proper preparation prevents poor performance' so every mechanic did a perfect job during the refuelling stops.

"The race was a turning point for me because I'd had a huge crash in the DTM the year before and had been suffering for months with a constant headache. I wondered if it would ever go away. So I focused on being quiet, being as relaxed as possible and concentrated on the circuit. At the start we were four and a half seconds a lap slower than the Peugeots, but Dindo and Allan did a fantastic job and, when the rain came in the night, we really started to eat into their advantage.

"We came into the morning with the lead and then there was more rain around lunchtime. The race was going down to the wire, but it rained again — in some places around the track — in the afternoon and we had discussions about the right call on tyres, slicks or wets, for the conditions. It was a truly epic battle. People have said it was the best Le Mans 24 Hours ever and fans can relive it with that great film Audi made, Truth in 24, which captures the intensity of that weekend.

"It was my first win after the DTM accident so it was a kind of a new beginning for me. And it was just a unique feeling to win that Le Mans. The teamwork was fantastic. If you looked at pure performance, nobody ever expected us to beat the Peugeots. But we had such a raceable and driveable car, we studied the weather forecast — the more rain that came, the better we prepared the aerodynamics for the rain and we were prepared to take risks. You have to do that in changing conditions. A great memory."

Now, looking ahead, all the talk in Ingolstadt is of beating Porsche on its return to the fray in 2014. The new rivalry with Toyota is already intense. But Porsche, with its immense Le Mans history, nationality and shared ownership under the VW umbrella that'll be a whole different story.