It is often said that the impact of living through a moment of history is not fully realized for a number of years. The 2002 edition of les 24 Heures Du Mans is such an example. No one in attendance or viewing the race, including the various types of media, doubted anything less than an Audi victory and resulting hat trick of three Le Mans overall wins in a row.
The Ingolstadt steamroller performed as expected, and when the checkered flag came down after a warm Sunday afternoon, Audi truly became the Lord of the Rings after rewriting the record books. How good was the Audi R8 performance at Le Mans? Reinhold Joest, renowned for twice recording back-to-back victories with Porsche, now owns the record, having a total of seven team-managed triumphs at circuit la Sarthe. Audi, as a manufacturer, recorded a natural hat trick with its team cars also finishing on the podium for three straight years and now joins a select group of automobile manufacturers which have recorded the hat trick. There should be a quiz, but to save the trouble, they're Alfa Romeo, Bentley, Ferrari, Matra and Porsche. (Ford should be included, but the ACO does not see things that way; the French, you know.)
The one record set that no one ever dreamed would be possible is that the driving trio from Audi R8 #1 is also the same three drivers who recorded overall victories in 2000 and 2001. Frank Biela, Emanuele Pirro and Tom Kristensen have achieved a kind of success that seems almost supernatural. Le Mans can frequently be a heartbreaker and takes no prisoners. For three years, the #1 trio has enjoyed a near flawless run to the top step of the podium, resulting in part from few if any mechanical problems and great driver chemistry. Even their own teammates in the Joest Audi stable shake their heads in collective amazement at the statistics put up by Biela, Pirro and Kristensen.
For one member of the winning trio, the 2002 win was even more special. Tom Kristensen, the quiet Dane, now has four overall victories at Le Mans. At age 34, he has a number of years to match and pass the great Jacky Ickx, who's recorded six wins. What makes TK's four wins remarkable is they've come in only five starts!
The Audi triumph was not the only story at Le Mans, but it was far and away the most important. Based on the showing from the previous year, both MG and Bentley returned to la Sarthe for another go. The management (or mis-management) at Bentley decided to enter only one car, which amounted to nothing more than an extended test session. With dreams of improving on its emotional third-place podium spot from last year, the reality was the boys from Crewe were only able to claim fourth overall this year. There are many who've suggested that with Bentley being owned by the VW group, the order had been given that nothing was to interfere with an Audi win. Bentley will have to wait another year. MG really did little to impress after its performance from last year. The cars were fast but fragile, and all three of the Lola chassis 675 Class entries failed to finish.
The GTS Class was perhaps the inside story of the race. Prodrive had entered its version of the Ferrari 550 Maranello with an A-list driver squad. Alain Menu, Tomas Enge and Rickard Rydell are, if nothing else, three of the fastest shoes around. The Peter Stevens-modified and -designed prancing horse easily was the most powerful race car on the straights heading toward Mulsanne. The drivers in the LMP 900 Class, which include Audi and Panoz, were literally huffing and puffing to match the straightline speed of the Ferrari.
Prodrive PR boss Fiona Miller had a series of press releases ready to be distributed if and when the Ferrari failed. The team really didn't expect the car to go the distance just yet, but the adventure lasted until the early morning hours before sunrise. The eventual class-winning Corvettes then took over the lead to record their second one-two finish. However, the Prodrive Ferrari gave us something to watch as it set a torrid pace from the start, leaving the GTS (and many prototypes) field far behind.
It may have been in the strange hours of midnight to 4 a.m. when the mystery and nonsense of Le Mans produces the peculiar comments. Someone stated that Audi's four rings were clocks and each ring was good for six hours. Thus a car good for 24 hours. (I swear I'm not making this up) While I doubt the validity of this observation, compared to the competition, only the Audi steamroller ran like clockwork.