Audi delivers its `A' team to RFK

German maker's two cars will be handled by four of class's top five drivers

Auto Racing

July 19, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Frank Biela, Tom Kristensen and Emanuele Pirro comprise the Audi team that has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the classic sports car endurance race, for the past three years and has been in so many victory lanes that facial joy has become a common expression.

"Two, three, five, 10 years from now, looking back," Biela said, "we will all realize how big what we have done is."

This weekend, Biela and Pirro will be paired against Kristensen and fellow Audi driver Rinaldo Capello, an Italian who has been runner-up at Le Mans each of the past three years, in the American Le Mans Series Cadillac Grand Prix at RFK Stadium in Washington.

And as all the teams begin practice today for Sunday's Grand Prix, the competitors in the Prototype 900 class will have their eyes on these two Audi teams.

"Our car is definitely the car you have to beat," said Biela, speaking of the Audi cars. "All things have come together for Audi - a good car, good drivers, a good pit crew. Somehow, Audi has been able to put all those things together, and from all those things comes success. But we are not coming to Washington thinking we are 1-2."

No, but they are coming thinking they will have to beat out one another to win.

"Pirro and myself, we fight for victories," said Biela, who is tied with Pirro for fourth in the drivers' point standings. Kristensen and Capello are first and second, respectively. "But we are not enemies of our teammates. The good thing with Audi is that, normally, we really try to be a team. But, of course, everyone tries to get an advantage."

These four men took their own diverse paths to get to the top of the sports car racing world.

Biela, 37, is from Germany and is a man who turned his dreams from Formula One racing to touring cars and sports cars about 11 years ago and never looked back. Kristensen, who will turn 35 Sunday, is from Denmark and was a bank clerk before his racing star began to rise.

Pirro, 39, is from Italy and drove in Formula One for Benetton and BMS Italia Dallara before joining the sports car ranks, where he counts the ALMS 2001 driving championship among his trophies. And Capello, 38 and a resident native of Italy, began by making his name with Saloon car championships.

"Yes, we have had great success, but we always can get better," Kristensen said. "It's not like saying we won this and this and this, and now we can relax. You are constantly trying to improve - yourself, your car, everything around you. If you get settled, let's say, it gets dangerous. It gets routine. Then it is time to retire."

As much as the competition might want to see them say auf wiedersehen or arrivederci, these men seem far from doing that. At the top of their careers, driving for the sports car manufacturer that is currently the best in the business, they and their crews are simply longing for their next race and their next victory.

And Audi gives them everything they need to get it. A visitor walking into the Audi compound at the 24 Hours of Le Mans sees one giant area of supreme organization and precision. There are rows and rows of every necessary piece of equipment. Engines are suspended overhead, ready to be dropped into a needy car. Tires are stacked and under wraps to keep them warm. Every crewman knows his job and his place within his surroundings.

In Washington, the Audi compound will not be so big and grand, but it will have everything it needs to service the same cars that ran and won at Le Mans, France.

"I'm really, really happy to be driving this circuit in America," said Kristensen. "To be racing in Washington, D.C., is another dream come true. It's something very, very fortunate to do."

His co-driver Capello, who spent yesterday afternoon with several of his teammates touring the Smithsonian, is a little more reserved in his views and may be the team's worrywart.

"I was worried when I saw the map of this track," he said. "But looking at it now, it looks pretty nice. I just hope it doesn't rain, because I don't know how the track will drain. And I hope it is not too hot, because then the Trans-Am cars [bigger, heavier cars that race tomorrow] could chew it up [pull the asphalt surface apart]."

Smooth or rough, the Audis will be tough. Biela said the team's strength all season has been its ability to run a good, basic speed and then push the car harder if necessary.

"What we don't believe in is luck," said Kristensen. "We know we're working very hard to prevent bad luck, but the Audi R8 is the best car in the world. It is a big advantage to be driving it."

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