Preview: Petit Le Mans

Only a victory will do for BMW in the Petit Le Mans sportscar classic at Road Atlanta - that's the verdict of the German marque's two title contenders ahead of this weekend's ninth round of the American Le Mans Series in Georgia

Preview: Petit Le Mans

Championship leader Jorg Muller and second-placed JJ Lehto acknowledge that they need to take advantage of the 1000-mile endurance format to stretch their points lead on the rapidly closing Audi drivers. Their BMW V12 LMR has been consistently out-paced by the Le Mans-winning R8 over the second half of this season, but both are counting on the Bimmer's legendary reliability and the factory Schnitzer team's canny pitwork to pull off their first ALMS victory since Silverstone in May.

"I'm really looking forward to Petit Le Mans," says 31-year-old Muller. "The longer the race, the better chance we've got of a good result. We need to build a gap to the Audi drivers again - taking into account dropped scores, we are just behind. We need a good result this weekend to try to cling on to the end."

Lehto agrees with his German team-mate, who has eked out a three-point lead at the head classification courtesy of the unusual scoring system used in the ALMS. "Anything can happen in a 10-hour race [the maximum distance of the event]," says the Finn. "I can't see the championship being decided until the season finale in Adelaide, Australia. It's going to be a good fight."

Three victories from the past four events have closed Audi driver Allan McNish to within five points of Muller, while the Scot's co-driver Rinaldo Capello is a further two behind with four rounds to go. McNish acknowledges the importance of Petit Le Mans because extra points are on offer for this the second longest race on the ALMS schedule.

"It's going to be important to score well at Road Atlanta," said the 1998 Le Mans winner. "We're on a run and it's important for Audi to keep the momentum going."

McNish and his Italian team mate share their Audi R8 with former Grand Prix driver Michele Alboreto this weekend. The Italian returns to the Joest-run Audi squad for the first time since finishing third in June's Le Mans 24 Hours. Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro, fifth and sixth in the points, are rejoined by Tom Kristensen, who partnered them to victory at Le Mans.

The biggest threat to the Audi must come from the lead Panoz LMP Roadster of David Brabham and Jan Magnussen. Not only are they the only pairing to beat the R8 since it joined the series full-time after Le Mans, but they are racing on home ground this weekend. The Panoz Motor Sports factory is based at Road Atlanta and both drivers always excel around this challenging 2.54-mile circuit.

"This is a race to win," says Brabham, who is defending the Petit Le Mans crown from last year. "It won't be a walkover because we are up against the factory teams, but there's no reason why we can't win. We've gained momentum steadily over the past two races and that top step of the podium is waiting for us."

The big three factory teams are in with a shout for overall victory in Georgia, but two more full-blown works operations should fight it out for honours in the GTS class. Chevrolet's Corvette C5-R finally ended the Dodge Viper's unbeaten run in the ALMS on its last appearance at Texas last month, but this is where the competition between the American muscle-cars gets serious. The Chevy squad is up to full strength with two cars, while the factory ORECA team has entered no fewer than three Viper GTS-Rs.

A late addition to the entry is septuagenarian movie star Paul Newman. The amateur racer, who finished second at Le Mans back in 1979, drives a Dick Barbour Racing Porsche in the GT class.

Petit Le Mans starts at 12.30pm local time [5.30pm BST] and runs for 1000 miles or 10 hours, which ever comes first.

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Jason Watt

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McNish fastest in first Petit Le Mans qualifying

McNish fastest in first Petit Le Mans qualifying
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