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Inside Audi’s Changing of the Driver Guard

Audi seeks 13th Le Mans with a newer crop of drivers…

Photo: John Dagys

Photo: John Dagys

Audi has been the record-setter at the 24 Hours of Le Mans this millennium, as it has captured 12 of the possible 14 overall victories at Le Mans, dating to 2000.

That means there’s been 36 total wins achieved by drivers, and for Tom Kristensen, that includes seven of his nine overall triumphs (the others were in 1997 and 2003, with other manufacturers). Fourteen others have won for Audi in that time period.

To put into perspective what an achievement that is, the remaining eight original drivers on this year’s Audi squad had seven Le Mans wins between them.

Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler have been the most successful trio of Audi’s “new breed,” having achieved back-to-back Le Mans wins in 2011 and 2012.

“Some people say never change a winning team, although we didn’t win last year because it didn’t work out with a technical issue,” Lotterer told Sportscar365. “We get on really well; we’re all friends here. It’s not just the three of us as teammates, but also our engineering crew and mechanics.”

While the No. 2 car features the lineup with the most driver continuity, Kristensen in the No. 1 is the last remaining link to the previous era that produced so much glory for the four rings in years past. Kristensen’s now 46; seven of the other eight drivers are 37 or younger.

The No. 1 R18 e-tron quattro has had a lineup change just this week. Kristensen was due to share with fellow FIA World Champion Loic Duval and open-wheel veteran Lucas di Grassi, but Duval was ruled out following his crash on Wednesday. Marc Gene, who won Le Mans with Peugeot in 2009, fills in for Duval.

Although he’s had a rough week with an accident of his own on Thursday, di Grassi still understands and respects his role in the No. 1 car.

“To be upgraded in the place of Allan was a big step in my career. I’m doing my best to fulfill this role,” di Grassi said. “Tom, you don’t even need to comment on the nine victories. He’s the legend.

“It’s an honor, and a big learning opportunity for me. I have to understand his approach as to why he is so successful, and work to fill the role of teammate.”

The No. 2 car is now the veteran trio of Lotterer, Treluyer and Fassler, who’ve been together as a cohesive unit since 2010, and are hungry to return to their winning ways after mechanical gremlins spoiled a chance at a three-peat last year.

“I’ve grown in confidence within the team, getting the trust from my teammates and the crew and the whole company,” Lotterer said. “This puts a lot of freedom on you, you can be yourself and they know you can do it, because we have before.”

Meanwhile the traditional “young guns” No. 3 car now sees the trio of Filipe Albuquerque, Oliver Jarvis and Marco Bonanomi behind the wheel. Albuquerque’s a Le Mans rookie – hard as that may be to believe – while Bonanomi (one start) and Jarvis (three) have only four prior Le Mans starts between them.

Bonanomi is perhaps the under-the-radar star-in-waiting on the No. 3. While Jarvis and Albuquerque have had past seat time together as co-drivers – the pair were part of the GT class-winning Audi R8 LMS at the 2013 Rolex 24 at Daytona – Bonanomi has logged miles as Audi test and reserve driver, before stepping up to a race seat.

Bonanomi praised Kristensen, Allan McNish and Dindo Capello, three Audi veterans who achieved so much success together.

“I have to say I have a really close relationship with Dindo and Allan now (as mentors),” Bonanomi said. “Tom is still a competitor and opponent, but I’m trying to learn all the insights from him. He’s the best guy to get some tips on this track.”

McNish’s retirement over the offseason puts him into this list of past Audi multiple Le Mans winners no longer active in top-level sports car racing: Frank Biela (five Le Mans wins), Emanuele Pirro (five), Marco Werner (three) and Capello (two). Collectively, those five drivers have 17 Le Mans wins.

How Audi’s Le Mans success will continue into the new FIA WEC era – one that should play to its benefit, considering how ahead of the game Audi has been on new technologies – will largely come down to how well its new breed of drivers handles the magnitude of the brand’s history.

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno) is Sportscar365's North American Editor, focusing on coverage of the IMSA-sanctioned championships as well as Pirelli World Challenge. DiZinno also contributes to and other motorsports outlets. Contact Tony

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