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.

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