D.C. track may be short, but it's long on challenge

High-flying Audi's Biela says Le Mans no tougher

July 21, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It's such a little racetrack compared to the one they drive at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Just 1.7 miles, compared to 8.7. Just seven turns compared to double digits.

But when Frank Biela finished his pole-setting qualifying run yesterday -- which will stand as the track record, given this is the first year of the race -- he emerged from his car, wiped the sweat running from his hair and face and declared there is something to be said for the little track.

He said, in fact, that the effort it will take to win the Cadillac Grand Prix today will be as great as the one it takes to win Le Mans, the most prestigious sports car race in the world.

"At Le Mans, there is little sleep for 24 hours, but there are long stretches on the track where you can relax a little bit," he said after earning the pole with a 94.484-mph run in his Audi R8.

"Here, the race is only 2 3/4 hours, not 24, but there will not be a second of relaxing. Physically, I think, it is tougher. Probably tougher than Le Mans."

Tougher than Le Mans?

Some may laugh, but Biela and his Audi teammates have won Le Mans three consecutive years now and they are dominating the American Le Mans Series. So, who should know better?

The scary thing for the other competitors in the LMP 900 class in which Audi races is that while this specially built street course in the parking lots of RFK Stadium is proving to be a surprising challenge, Audi continues to be up to it.

It is a fact that had other teams pondering over what, if anything, they could do about it.

In the Panoz compound, team manager Andy Waldrep had hoped one of his drivers would win the pole, but both Audi factory team cars were faster than the Panoz LMP01s and faster than the Cadillac factory teams and everyone else.

It was a fact that sent Waldrep and his teams and the two Cadillac teams into closed-door debriefings and strategy sessions in an attempt to figure out how to win today's American Le Mans Series race.

"Audi has dominated this series since it has been in it," Waldrep said. "They have deeper resources, more people. They've got 100 people to my 15. Their budget is extremely higher than mine. But we won Sears Point this year, and since they have come in three years ago, we're the only team that has ever beaten them and we've done it seven or eight times."

But they couldn't snag the pole yesterday and that surprised Biela, who said the Panoz cars have two advantages on this track that counts four hair-pin turns among its seven curves.

The Panoz cars do not have turbo engines. They run the big American V-8 motors instead, which means they power out of the corners faster. And, they have good, strong brakes, which means they go into the corners a lot deeper, another advantage.

"I thought we would have had more problems because Panoz is good in the corners," Biela said. "I think they are very close."

Starting beside Biela today will be the Audi R8 team car driven by Rinaldo Capello and Tom Kristensen (94.447 mph). On the inside of the second row, the Panoz LMP01 of David Brabham and Jan Magnussen (93.814 mph) will start third and beside that will be the third Audi R8, campaigned by Johnny Herbert and Stefan Johansson (93.814 mph).

Jon Field earned the top starting position in the LMP675 class in his Lola EX257/AER MG at 90.621 mph. In the GTS class, Ron Fellows was fastest with a lap of 86.870 mph in his Chevrolet Corvette C5-R. And in the GT class, Sascha Maassen took top honors with a run of 82.033 mph.

"We're significantly closer to the Audis than we have been," said Panoz's Waldrep. "I thought we'd be a little better today, but I didn't think they'd be quite as good as they were. They've worked hard to overcome our advantages."

In trying to beat Audi, the Panoz team must overcome not only Audi's advantages, but its own problems with grip on the track. "The tail end is a little fishy," Waldrep said. "It has been like that everywhere we go."

Across the way, under the large white Cadillac tents, team manager Bill Harris shrugged when asked how Cadillac could beat Audi.

"We just have to keep trying," he said. The Cadillac Northstar LMP02 will be running in only its third race. The team's technical director, Nigel Stroud, believes it will develop into a car capable of being as good as the Audi.

In a race, anything can happen, because winning takes a near-perfect performance from car, driver and pit crew. And some circumstantial luck.

Cadillac, however, is not counting on luck.

"We'll have two alternative strategies," said Julian Randles, who oversees the American Cadillac racing operation. "But the problem is those strategies get thrown out when yellows [caution flags] come out and we know no matter what we plan the yellows won't be at the right time for us because they never are.

"But we're going to try to plan how to do the impossible."

How to beat Audi.

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