Audi plays it cool for one-two-three

The temperatures were down, the grip level was up, but Audi refused to take the bait and instead concentrated on perfecting its race set-up in the fourth and final qualifying session.

Audi plays it cool for one-two-three

With the Ingolstadt marque calling a halt to its private pole battles, that left Allan McNish's time of 3m36.124, set in the third session earlier in the evening, as the best of the week.

"We changed the car overnight, we made a plan and we stuck to it," said McNish of his third session time. "The car was better, the track was better and I went for it. When my team mate Tom Kristensen went quicker than me, I matched him, then managed to put in a quicker one. I was held up slightly by another car, but you never get a clear lap at Le Mans. As of 10 o'clock and the final session, it was time for Laurent (Aiello) and Stephane (Ortelli) to concentrate on set-up work."

Scorching weather and a slick track in the opening sessions aside, McNish was unable to shed much light on why the 2000 pole time was some five seconds off Toyota's pole pace 12 months earlier.

"I thought we'd be able to go much faster - maybe a 3m32s lap," he said, "but for some reason, and I don't have an answer, it's a lot slower. But it's been the same for everybody - we're all slower than we were in testing."

Joining the McNish/Aiello/Ortelli R8 on the front row is the sister car of Biela/Kristensen/Pirro, which also put fine-tuning over pole-hunting in the final two hours of dusk/night practice.

Audi has held the top three spots since qualifying began on Wednesday evening and its iron grip never looked threatened in the final session, despite a spate of grid changes in the lower reaches of the top 10 proving that the circuit was in its best condition of the week.

The third R8, of Alboreto/Abt/Capello, did actually improve its time early in the session, but succeeded only in stretching the gap to the opposition, not in changing the order of the Ingolstadt steamroller.

With this level of domination, it's easy to envisage Audi playing the team orders card, but the team's drivers and key personnel were quick to dismiss it as an option.

"I think it will be a free race," said Capello. "OK the car is good, but the competition won't be as far behind as it appears in qualifying, so we will be free to race."

Audi team boss Dr Wolfgang Ullrich believes that the nature of the race will remove the need for team orders anyway: "I can't imagine that over the course of 24 hours, everything on every car will work identically perfect," he said. "The normal small differences that come about, with problems, or overtaking slower cars, or losing time at pit-stops, means the cars will be split automatically."

David Brabham's one-man crusade to take the fight to the Audis was replaced by expediency and set-up testing in the final session, but with Capello's improvement, he is now over two seconds off the slowest of the Audis, but half a second faster than the Rafanelli Lola, which finally began to show its potential as it leapt to fifth in the hands of Mimo Schiattarella.

The Gache/Formato/Cottaz Courage-Judd C60 squad that had been the revelation of the third session, moving to fifth overall, found itself relegated a place, but still among the very dark horses (should the Audis stumble and falter en masse). And for very dark horses, read also the Johannson Matthews Reynard-Judd 2KQ, which took seventh in the hands of team boss Stefan Johannson, relegating the Katoh/O'Connell/Raphanel Panoz to eighth.

In the classes, the ROC Reynard-Volkswagens dominated in LMP 675, taking 18th and 19th overall; the GTS Chrysler-Chevrolet showdown continued, with the Beretta/Wendlinger/Dupuy Viper hanging on for class pole, and in a shock GT result, the Porsche GT3R of Bouchut/Chereau/Goueslard edged the all-conquering Muller/Luhr/Wollek GT3R into second.

For a full list of qualifying results click here.

Schiattarella: no giant killer
Previous article

Schiattarella: no giant killer

Next article

Allan McNish's Le Mans diary

Allan McNish's Le Mans diary
Why the WEC should make space for modern garagistes in 2023 Plus

Why the WEC should make space for modern garagistes in 2023

OPINION: There is plenty of excitement over the glut of manufacturers tackling the Hypercar class of the World Endurance Championship this season. The selection committee is set to face headaches over who it decides to admit and who gets turned away from the 2023 entry list, but history tells us that the smaller entrants have a place

Jan 9, 2023
Autosport writers' most memorable moments of 2022 Plus

Autosport writers' most memorable moments of 2022

The season just gone was a memorable one for many of our staff writers, who are fortunate enough to cover motorsport around the world. Here are our picks of the best (and in some cases, most eventful) from 2022

Formula 1
Dec 31, 2022
Is Qatar the price motorsport fans have to pay? Plus

Is Qatar the price motorsport fans have to pay?

OPINION: Fresh from hosting a controversial 2022 football World Cup, Qatar has added its name to the 2024 World Endurance Championship calendar. Although questions may be asked about its presence on the calendar, is it simply the price to pay for having a healthy racing championship?

Dec 21, 2022
How Toyota defeated Alpine for the 2022 WEC title Plus

How Toyota defeated Alpine for the 2022 WEC title

Toyota #8 trio Brendon Hartley, Sebastien Buemi and Ryo Hirakawa outscored their rivals in the last season before the World Endurance Championship’s top class gets ultra-competitive. Here's how their Hypercar battle with Alpine and the remaining class tussles played out in LMP2, GTE Pro and GTE Am

Dec 5, 2022
The long road to convergence for sportscar racing's new golden age Plus

The long road to convergence for sportscar racing's new golden age

The organisers of the World Endurance Championship and IMSA SportsCar Championship worked together to devise the popular new LMDh rule set. But to turn it from an idea into reality, some serious compromises were involved - both from the prospective LMDh entrants and those with existing Le Mans Hypercar projects...

Nov 25, 2022
How Porsche's Le Mans legend changed the game Plus

How Porsche's Le Mans legend changed the game

The 956 set the bar at the dawn of Group C 40 years ago, and that mark only rose higher through the 1980s, both in the world championship and in the US. It and its successor, the longer-wheelbase 962, were voted as Autosport's greatest sportscar in 2020 - here's why

Aug 25, 2022
Why BMW shouldn't be overlooked on its return to prototypes Plus

Why BMW shouldn't be overlooked on its return to prototypes

OPINION: While the focus has been on the exciting prospect of Ferrari vs Porsche at the Le Mans 24 Hours next year, BMW’s factory return to endurance racing should not be ignored. It won't be at the French classic next year as it focuses efforts on the IMSA SportsCar Championship, but could be a dark horse in 2024 when it returns to La Sarthe with the crack WRT squad

Le Mans
Aug 21, 2022
The problem sausage kerbs continue to cause Plus

The problem sausage kerbs continue to cause

Track limits are the problem that motorsport doesn't seem to be able to rid itself of. But the use of so-called 'sausage kerbs' as a deterrent has in several instances only served to worsen the problem, and a growing number of voices want to see action taken

Formula 1
Jul 18, 2022