Johnny Herbert will be bidding to score his second and Audi’s third Le Mans 24 Hour victory when the Briton lines-up for this year’s round-the-clock marathon on Saturday afternoon (15 June).
The 37-year-old three-time Formula One Grand Prix race winner drives for the all-conquering "works" Audi team that has dominated the annual French marathon in recent years. In 2000, the German manufacturer claimed the top-three places and then finished first and second last year with its phenomenally successful 220mph Audi R8 sportscar.
Indeed former British Touring Car Champion Frank Biela along with Tom Kristensen and Emanuele Pirro will make history if their Audi wins again as never before has the same three drivers claimed three consecutive Le Mans wins.
But Herbert is hungry to repeat his own 1991 Le Mans triumph and is confident that the Audi he shares with Italian duo Rinaldo Capello and Christian Pescatori is capable of glory and achieving a memorable Le Mans hat-trick for Audi.
"My objective is for ‘Dindo’, Christian and I to win - that’s not being selfish I’m just being an honest racing driver," confirmed Herbert who has been cycling near his Monte Carlo home in preparation for the physically demanding race. "I’m racing at Le Mans to win myself but we’ll obviously do everything to help the other two ‘factory’ Audis as whatever happens, the important factor is for Audi to claim its third Le Mans triumph - a tremendous feat.
"Dindo, Christian and I won the Sebring 12 Hour race in America in March while our car set the quickest time in warm-up trials at Le Mans last month so the build up couldn’t have been better for the three of us. But Le Mans is unique - that’s the attraction of arguably the world’s most famous and difficult motor race."
A twin-turbocharged 3.6-litre V8 engine, which features the latest FSI (petrol direct injection) technology to improve fuel economy and torque, produces 610bhp. The winning car will need to clock up in the region of 3,200 miles at an average speed of almost 130mph around the 8.62-mile circuit which is fractionally longer this year.
The fuel-efficient Audis will make scheduled pit-stops approximately every 45 minutes to take on almost 19 gallons of petrol which sees the car stationary on average for just 30-seconds courtesy of well-regimented and efficient team tactics. A new set of Michelin tyres are generally fitted at every other pit-stop. Each driver will normally stay behind the wheel for at least two "stints" but cannot exceed four hours driving at any one time. The car is stationary for less than a minute even when tyres, fuel and a driver change takes place.
Johnny continued: "There is a pit-lane speed of 37mph. Strict rules apply during refuelling - the engine must be switched off, the car cannot be jacked-up, no repairs can be done until refuelling has finished. Once it is fuelled-up, up to four mechanics can then work on the car.
"If I’m driving then either ‘Dindo’ or Christian will be waiting in the garage, in their race-suit, ready to jump in the car if I want to make a sudden pit-stop. The ‘off duty’ driver will often have a massage, eat something like pasta and perhaps lie down for a few minutes. But you never fully switch off even when you’re not in the car - you’re always listening out for news about your co-drivers and of course keeping your fingers tightly crossed."
But Herbert and the rest of the Audi driver squad know that they have the best car. Since the Audi R8 made its race début in March 2000, it has chalked up 21 victories from 26 races.
"An Audi will win Le Mans again this year barring a major catastrophe," confirmed Herbert. "It’s the fastest, best handling and most reliable machine in the entire 50-car Le Mans field. The changes to the rear aerodynamics worked well in the Le Mans test and in our final 30-hour test at the high-speed Paul Ricard circuit recently."
Audi switched to endurance sportscar racing in 1999, finishing third and fourth at Le Mans. Previously the German prestige car manufacturer had been dominant in world rallying in the 1980s with its revolutionary quattro before taking its four-wheel-drive technology in to circuit racing.
Having enjoyed success in America, in the 1990s Audi turned its attention to Touring Car and more recently the Super Touring Car Championships worldwide - again with its quattro models. Amazing success followed with titles in Australia, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, South Africa, Spain and Sweden. The Audi R8 is rear-wheel-drive, all-wheel-drive sportscar are not allowed to race at Le Mans.Published 10 June 2002