Bob Smith Cars

Bob smith is a superb motorsport photographer and Porsche fan.  He
currently owes a 964 RS America.  Do
check out the Cars page on his website for many excellent photos.  Bob was
at Le Mans in 2000 and 2001.  Here is his trip report accompanied by some
of his great shots.

24 Hours of Le Mans, 2001

Noted motorsport photographer, Hal Crocker, once said to me, ?If the race is
long enough, eventually a Porsche will win.? At the time, it seemed to be a bit
of a backhanded compliment. After all, since the debut of the 917 in 1969,
Porsche had become quite accustomed to winning from the front. The days of
Riesentöter — the ?Giant Killer? 550s, RSKs, RS-60s, and RS-61s — were long
past. Or were they?

After
standing on the top rung of the Le Mans podium for a record 16th time, Porsche
abandoned its werks prototype racing effort in late 1998, promising to return
with an all-new car in 2000. As 2000 approached, the effort was left on the
drawing board once again. This put Porsche?s 911 GT3-R in the role as Weissach?s
sole flag-bearer for the start of the new millennium. As the fastest car in Le
Mans? slowest class, the thought of competing near the top of the overall
standings seemed a fading memory. Or did it?

And that?s how it was in June of this year as 48 of sportscar racing?s
highest caliber teams assembled in the Sarthe region of France, on the outskirts
of the city of Le Mans. Four questions were on the lips of most race fans:

  1. Which of the four Audis would take the overall victory?
  2. After 70 years in hibernation, what would become of Bentley in their
    return to the 24 Hours?
  3. Could the Saleens persevere and run consistently for 24 straight hours,
    thus vanquishing the Vettes in the GTS class?
  4. Which Porsche would win the GT class?

There was one question, however, that was absent from the lips of most fans:
Would a Porsche finish in the top 10 overall? With a long list of Prototypes and
a solid contingent of fast GTS cars, nobody suspected a Porsche assault on the
overall leaderboard. I certainly didn?t.

And that?s how it was during Wednesday/Thursday qualifying as the Audis
asserted themselves by taking four of the top five spots on the grid, the
Bentleys ran impressively fast for such new cars, the speedy Saleen dusted the
steady Vettes, and the Callaway Corvette of Mike Colucci Racing set fastest time
in GT.

Wait! What was that?! A Callaway Corvette set fastest time in the GT class?!
…must be a typo, because everyone knew that Porsche was supposed to own the GT
class from start to finish. To the credit of Colucci?s squad and to the
consternation of Porsche, the Callaway Corvette was fast on Le Mans? sprawling
8.5 miles. Very fast.

As Saturday?s 4:00pm race start approached, a fifth question was added to the
lips of race fans. Would the weather hold? Rain had dotted the region during
Thursday and Friday, and a glance at the sky on Saturday morning indicated a
fading prospect for a dry race. But, seemingly on cue, the sun poked through the
clouds as the green flag fell, and the field?s 48 cars rocketed down the front
straight and made the turn up the hill toward the Dunlop Bridge.

Of course, Audi quickly moved into first place. But an unexpected interloper
snagged second place early. Jan Lammers in the new Dome S101-Judd got an
exceptionally good start and ran in the top two during the race?s early stages.
After an early lap accident that involved several cars, the race settled and the
cars sorted into their (more or less) expected order.

In
the Prototype ranks, Audi built a lead, and Bentley, having briefly led the
race, settled in as ?best of the rest?. In GTS, niggling problems with both
Saleens put the Vettes on equal footing that gradually grew into a comfortable
lead for the Detroit supercars. And in GT, the pesky Callaway Corvette diced
early with the strongest of the Porsches, primarily the #77 Friesinger
Motorsport 911 and #83 Seikel Motorsport 911.

Then, the rain came. And the drops weren?t of the refreshingly light, misting
variety. They were big, cold, skin-slapping wads of water, hurtling from the
heavens and quickly flooding 8.5 miles of racetrack. With the ?great equalizer?
making its presence felt, the pace slowed considerably. The throng of 250,000
fans, however, largely persevered through the deluge(s), not wanting to miss a
moment of the fascinating battles that were developing at the front of each of
the three major classes.

And
that?s how it was through the late afternoon and into the evening with periods
of drying conditions bookended by bouts of intense rain. As darkness fell, not
much changed at the top of the standings. Leading the overall charge were a
couple Audis followed by a Bentley, in GTS it was Corvette?s race to lose, and
in GT the best of the Porsches traded time at the front of the class after the
Callaway Corvette retired with mechanical problems.

There?s always something a bit eerie about racecars screaming around the
track at a time when most sane people are tucked comfortably in bed. However,
with headlights dancing off the shimmering wet pavement at the 2001 24 Hours of
Le Mans, the scene between midnight and 5:00am was almost surreal. Through the
night, the action continued, and as the hours passed, there was really only one
noticeable change in the race?s running order…

As the Sunday morning skies began to lighten and sleeping fans began to stir
in their cars (or under the bleachers), a glance at the leaderboard revealed
something a bit unexpected. The leading Porsches were knocking at the door of
the top ten overall. As the morning continued and the rain returned and abated
and returned and abated, the little cars from Weissach continued their ascent.
11th place, 10th place, 9th… and the hours wound down.

As 4:00pm Sunday neared, exhaustion turned into anticipation turned into
elation as the checkered flag flew and the 2001 24 Hours of Le Mans drew to a
close. After two trips around the clock?s dial, the five questions that had been
on every fans? lips had finally been answered:

  1. Which of the four Audis would take the overall victory? Answer: The #1
    Audi Sport Team Joest R8 of Frank Biela, Emanuele Pirro and Tom Kristensen.
  2. After 70 years in hibernation, what would become of Bentley in their
    return to the 24 Hours? Answer: A highly respectable third overall for the #8
    Team Bentley EXP Speed 8 of Andy Wallace, Butch Leitzinger and Eric van de
    Poele.
  3. Could the Saleens persevere and run consistently for 24 straight hours,
    thus vanquishing the Vettes in the GTS class? Answer: No, they couldn?t.
    Corvette deservedly took the top two rungs on the GTS podium.
  4. Which Porsche would win the GT class? Answer: The #83 Seikel Motorsport
    911 GT3-RS of Gabrio Rosa, Fabio Babini and Luca Drudi.
  5. Would the weather hold? Answer: Heck no! It was cold and wet and miserable
    and amazing all at the same time.

But what about the those Porsches? Well, they took four of the top ten spots
overall, including a fantastic sixth place for the GT class winning Seikel
Motorsport entry. Even more fantastic was the fact that nine of the ten Porsches
that took the green flag on Saturday were still running when the checkered flag
fell on Sunday. Was it the 21st century equivalent to Porsche?s Riesentöter days
of yore? Perhaps it was.

And as I packed the rental car and pulled into traffic on the motorway to
Paris, the words echoed in my mind, ?If the race is long enough, eventually a
Porsche will win.? Yes, I suppose it?s probably true.

You may also like...