The Heavyweight RoundThe Circuit de la Sarthe was braced this year for a showdown between two of the world's great manufacturers, Audi and Peugeot, for a bid for supremacy in the brave new world of high-performance diesel technology. The Peugeot 908 coupe was dominating the round of the European-based Le Mans Series (LMS), but everyone knows that it is the 24 hours that matters to all concerned.
Peugeot dominated the early stages with the No. 2 Audi of Tom Kristensen, Dindo Capello, and Allan McNish keeping up the pressure and waiting for the first mishap. Between the Audi trio of a Dane, an Italian, and a Scot, there were no less than 10 victories at Le Mans with Kristensen as the record holder with seven. Would they make it 13 by the final tick of the clock? They did and most impressively. Audi pilots McNish, Capello, and Kristensen reflect on this battle for the ages.
Time Loves A Hero:Allan McNish
EC: One of the great comments of the race came after your first quadruple stint, something about a "conservative" pace? You need to go back to the start of the '99 race when I think it was Schneider in the Mercedes taking a run at your teammate Mr. Brundle in the Toyota. You made it stick but it just as easily could've been the goat, what say ye?AM: I prefer the "ass" instead of the goat; goats are useful! It was a safe move with Nic's Peugeot. I knew he didn't want to end his race on the first lap either and just wanted to see how quick they actually were. In fact, when we got to the first chicane I had a small chance to out brake him again because he left me just enough room, but my experience got the better of my racing instinct just.
EC: Qualifying was shocking enough, with regards to their outright speed. Did you expect all three of the lions to open up such a gap in those opening laps?AM: Yes, but I hoped they wouldn't. For me it was a case of pushing hard, taking no major risks in traffic, getting the 12-lap stints before pit stops, and thinking about where the race might be at midnight.
EC: The pace of the No. 2 R10 was noticeably quicker over the race than that of the other two Audis. Was this a case of you being the rabbit or was it left to each team to determine its own pace and attack?AM: We all have the same equipment and engineering support. We chose four stints and our pace was our pace, as it was in Le Mans 2007 or to date in the LMS in 2008.
EC: Compared to last year's R10 it seemed that the car was considerably looser in the setup. At times you seemed like a WRC driver on the tarmac.AM: It actually wasn't much different to drive, just faster, except for slightly less traction. But that could've been because we had a little more power!
EC: Throughout this decade, your prime competition at la Sarthe has come mainly from other VAG products. This was a return to 1997-1999 where it was also a battle between manufacturers. How did this race compare to those earlier efforts for you on a personal scale?AM: More exciting, more of an edge, more on the absolute limits of every aspect of the race, in and out of the car, and much more like 1998/1999. It was cool.
EC: Every driver has some kind of moment during the 24 hours, what was yours this time?AM: The second stint coming out of the Porsche curves where I overtook an LMP that, at the same time, decided to overtake a GT three wide with me two wheels on the grass passing the big Audi hospitality flat in Fifth, hmm ... That was my closest but ask Tom, I seem to remember him having a closer shave!
EC: Now one of those questions for the fans. Compare the R10 at Le Mans to your other rides from the past: the R8, Porsche GT1, and of course the Toyota GT-One.AM: All different but all top of that year. The Porsche GT1 was solid and consistent in every condition, it drove itself, but Norbert Singer was behind that one so that was no surprise. The Toyota GT-One was very fast (354 km/h) but much more on the edge, only a few drivers really got on top of it through the Porsche curves. The R8 was initially in-between but became sedated after a few years of rule changes and development. The R10 was harder to drive than the R8 but when you're on it, you know you're traveling very fast.
EC: So it's been 10 years between wins, what does this mean and what effect does this have on you from a business perspective?AM: Unlike last time, I'm sure no F1 opportunities will arise, and I would not want them to, but it certainly is good for my current sponsors and also certain ones we are talking to for 2009. Maybe more euros in my wee Scottish pocket, tee hee.
EC: A while back you mentioned that after retiring from driving you would bring Finlay to Le Mans and show him where you used to race with Uncle Tom and Uncle Dindo. It took awhile longer than you wanted but it finally happened.AM: Yep and I will definitely take him there to experience Le Mans, but I will also show him a picture of his dad on the podium to prove his old man could hack it once upon a time!
More Than A Contender:Dindo Capello
EC: How are you feeling today? How were you greeted when you returned home?DC: I was on the train (TGV) from Le Mans to the airport at 7:30 a.m. and for the first three hours after my wake-up call I was still sleepy, but when I got the first Italian newspaper in the plane and saw a large photo of me on the podium I started to think that Allan, TK, and I, we did something great.
EC: Last year you were miles ahead of the field and could have cruised to victory until the wheel nut incident. This year it was flat-out attack, how was it going from being the hunted like last year to being the hunter?DC: From one side it was less pressure; from the other side we all knew that to have a small chance to win this year we had to make exactly the same race like 2007, which almost was the perfect race, but without the incident. We also knew that would've been almost impossible to repeat it, but we did it.
EC: TK and Nishy have different driving styles than you do. The R10 appeared to be more on the edge this time, were these changes to the aero or just down-to-driving performances?DC: I felt the car in some stints was not as good as in other stints with some movement on the tires that make it not so nice to drive. I don't think it's coming from the new aero package.
EC: You get the same question I asked Nishy. Every driver has a big moment at Le Mans. Nothing could top yours personally from last year, but what was this year's?DC: To be honest, the race for me went very well without any risk of having an accident with slower cars or driving errors. I would say a big moment was when I was on slicks and I had to bring the car back to the pits in heavy rain. I thought I was very slow but later when I checked I had gained more than 10 seconds during that lap.
EC: A lot of drivers don't appear in the pits until just before their stint. You always seem to be quite comfortable hanging out and taking it all in. Is this your way of getting ready or do you just enjoy being there?DC: Very often I would like to stay away from the pits, and especially from the monitors, but at the end I am always focused on the pace of my teammates and the coverage of the race. I should be more relaxed!
EC: You've had a difficult season so far with just about every mishap or mechanical problem possible. At any time during the 24 hours were you ever thinking, "OK Dindo, what is going to happen next?"DC: At the end of my first four stints I immediately thought: This is the first time that Allan and I have done six hours without any problems! This was at least the first good news of the race for me.
EC: The victory showed a rare glimpse of a genuine letting go of emotion from the Audi team right on down to Dr. Ullrich. It was evident on the podium. This must have felt very different from your previous wins at Le Mans.DC: For me the photo of the podium with Dr. Ullrich, Ralf Juttner, and the drivers all together shows exactly how strong the team spirit has been in the No. 2 car. I also felt that for many people this victory was at least as important as the very first one in 2000.
EC: Why don't you ask Audi for one of the race cars you drove and put it away for your children one day?DC: That would be great, but to be able to afford that, Audi should first increase the drivers' salaries.
EC: Teams are always looking for youth, not to say that you're old but this has been both a profession and a living. Not only have you been successful, you continue to outpace a lot of people. What gets a driver to a plateau like that to remain sharp and competitive?DC: I'm working very, very hard to keep in shape, not only for the body but also for the mind and for the eyes. I would say that I invest a lot of money in training. Plus, I have the will to fight to keep my seat.
EC: You haven't been back to the U.S. since Sebring. Don't you think it's time for you and the wee Scot to come back? We forgive you.DC: I really miss the ALMS even though the LMS is a great championship. Yes, it would be nice to be back with Allan in the States. Why not?
All Hail The King:Tom Kristensen
EC: You're pretty good aren't you?TK: [Tom just smiles.]
EC: The previous record held by Jacky Ickx once seemed impossible to break. Not only have you broken it but with number eight, you keep adding to the total. Now 10 seems to be within reach.TK: I only think as far as the next corner!
EC: The decade has belonged to Audi with regards to Le Mans but Peugeot truly raised the stakes. It's been a long time since you were a true underdog, did you find additional motivation in this?TK: Oh yes, and Dindo and Allan as well. Also, remember our bad dance with lady luck last time we were out in Le Mans with the four-lap lead and no cigar Peugeot has indeed done a superb job for speed during the winter. We were very impressed, but certainly not depressed.
EC: Can you describe the emotions as a professional driver during that stint in the darkness while raining when you took the lead over the No. 7 Peugeot?TK: Deep concentration with a lot of positivity to do the higher risks (in particular in braking), no mistakes for us drivers, and always fast and efficient stops, and tires from the mechanics, plus a great united team spirit. Raising the game.
EC: Concerning the R10, it was obvious that it didn't have the straight-line speed of the main competition. With the constant pushing of always being on the attack, how was the overall balance and did the R10 become more difficult to drive?TK: No, not at all. The car was actually the best R10 we had at Le Mans, and the balance was constant through the race with good brakes and reasonably safe in the wet.
EC: You were paid a high compliment on live television regarding your skills in the wet by Jacques Villeneuve back in your F3 days. In your opinion, what makes a driver good in the rain?TK: Good stability and control under braking and adjusting the traction control according to the conditions. Le Mans during the night is a pretty scary sight, although JV was just being very kind. We had great races in several monsoon-type storms in Japan back then.
EC: You've witnessed several changes to the circuit since your first go. Do you have any observations?TK: They can easily improve the circuit in consistency and safety even more because it improves slightly every year, but I agree that the speed of the cars is reaching the limits. They have to look at the regulations; I am sure they will.
EC: So what does an eight-time winner of the world's most famous sports car race do in his free time?TK: Every year I have less and less free time, and more and more kids! I try to spend time with my entire family and play with the children. I certainly do a lot of sports to stay tuned, like biking, running, and playing a bit of soccer.
EC: Will you be at Petit Le Mans this year with Dindo and Nishy?TK: Ask Dr. Ullrich from Audi Sport. I would be happy to go out with those two boys anytime, but I guess it's very close to the final two DTM races in Le Mans (Bugatti) and the Hockenheim finale.