Audi team expected to set LeMans pace


LEMANS, France - Audi driver Frank Biela, a Dutchman, is sitting in the cool comfort of the team's hospitality center. He reaches into the pocket of his white shirt and pulls out a cigarette.

Flick, flick, flick.

Finally, a flame. He lights up, sits back and smiles a comfortable smile. Smoking is still cool in Europe.

"Yes," says Biela, who is tall and blond and who will compete in car No. 9. "It does look like we're the team everyone else is shooting at. The thing is, we're really well-prepared. Everything we learned here last year and during testing since has gone into the car. We're really competitive and have a really good chance to win."

Biela puffs.

If his car doesn't break during warm-ups, he will start on the front row between two other Audi team cars in the 24 Hours of LeMans, the classic endurance sports car race.

From the day Audi unloaded its cars for their first test in April, they have been the fastest.

"But," Biela (pronounced Be-La) says, "this is LeMans and you should never underestimate the other competitors. The gap may seem quite big to start, but. ... You should never feel too safe."

For perhaps the first time in 33 years, the team that is expected to put the most pressure on the favorite in today's race is American.

The Panoz two-car entry led by the legendary Mario Andretti is viewed as the top challenger. His No. 11 car will start on the inside of the second row as the fourth fastest.

"We look at them and we know they are the closest to us," Biela says. "They are strong, good drivers, well-organized and experienced. A one to one-and-a-half second gap doesn't mean much."

Biela is referring to the times run during qualifying, when the Panoz car was within 1.5 seconds before Audi found its best lap time - 3:36.124 - to take the pole. The Panoz No. 11 remains just three seconds back at 3:39.156.

There is broad interest in the Panoz team for two reasons. An American team has not won at LeMans since A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney did it in 1966 driving the Ford Factory car. And Andretti is seeking to become the only driver in history with a resume that includes a Formula One championship and victories in the Daytona 500, the Indianapolis 500 and LeMans.

But this race also marks the return of General Motors for the first time in 50 years. The American manufacturer is fielding two Cadillac teams in the prestigious LeMans Prototype (LMP) class and two Corvettes in the Grand Touring Series (GTS).

"Durability is the platform to build from," says Cadillac driver Butch Leitzinger of State College, Pa. "We're about seven seconds off Audi's pace, but it's nothing to slit our throats over - yet. This is Audi's second year and our first and we're ahead of where they were here last year."

Leitzinger and his teammates in the No. 1 Cadillac qualified 11th, while their team car will be 16th on the starting grid.

Behind the scenes, Herb Fishel, the head of General Motors' motorsports program and the man whose idea it was to make a three-year commitment to compete here, will not say exactly where he expects his cars to finish.

"Success to me," he says, "is if we leave here having left the impression that General Motors is serious about what we're doing and going to be a force to be reckoned with. If I leave with that, and I think we've already made that impression, I'll be satisfied.

"I don't allow myself to think about the podium."

The podium, which is where the first-, second- and third-place finishers accept their awards, is where Biela and his Audi teammates plan to be if all goes well.

But Leitzinger says Audi could be its own worst enemy. The course is 8.5 miles long, and nearly half of it will be run at speeds of more than 190 mph. If Audi continues to race hard against itself, Leitzinger believes at least one of the Audis could be eliminated.

"They could come up with a fault, a new problem. It's a big risk," Leitzinger says. "If that happens, we have a chance for a top three."

Biela, still comfortably puffing, gives a disbelieving shake of his head.

"I hope this is not going to happen," he says. "For sure we will fight for our place on the race track. At LeMans, only one thing is sure, you never know in the 24 Hours of LeMans what the end will be. But, for a first-time team like GM, it will be a success if they finish already. For us, it is the podium, a very great result."

NOTE: Chrysler is also competing in the prototype class. At least, its money is. Its name is on the side of a brilliant red race car, but it is a Raynard-built car, not a Chrysler. However, the power inside it is a new Chrysler Mopar 6-litre V8 engine that is making its debut.

24 Hours of LeMans

What: Classic sports car race.

Where: LeMans, FranceWhen: 10 a.m. today until 10 a.m. tomorrow, EST.

TV: Speedvision, 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. today; 2:30 p.m. today to 10:30 a.m. tomorrow.

Favorite: In the highly sophisticated prototype (LMP) class, the Audi team has the three fastest cars in the overall field of 48 but the American Panoz team led by Hall of Fame driver Mario Andretti is considered a threat if durability does not become a problem.

Story lines: The GM Corvette team could challenge the Chrysler Vipers for victory in the Grand Touring (GTS) class. Also watch for GM's Cadillac entries in the LMP series. The cars are not fast, but they hope slow and steady wins the race. They also have the benefit of night vision technology (the kind used in Desert Storm) that could help if a crash occurs around a corner in front of them or if a deer runs onto the course in the wooded portion.

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