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Indy 500 driver-by-driver one-liners

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The deeper analysis of this year’s Indianapolis 500 has already occurred. Now, MotorSportsTalk’s IndyCar writers offer their final say on each of the 33 drivers ready to take the green flag at noon today. This year’s field is one of the deepest in recent memory, and it’s hard to be too high or low on anyone. So, without further adieu, our final take on the field of 33:

Row 1

20-Ed Carpenter (Ed Carpenter Racing/Chevrolet)

Tony DiZinno: He’ll be up front over the course of the race; for him, it comes down to positioning for the final 100 miles.

Chris Estrada: The Indiana native was a threat to win late last year, and if he can stay out of trouble, I see no reason why he can’t contend for at least a top five once more.

26-Carlos Munoz (Andretti Autosport/Chevrolet)

TDZ: With clean lines and a patient drive, a top-10 finish and perhaps Rookie-of-the-Year honors could follow.

CE: A Top-10 result would be a nice ending to a great month for the Colombian youngster, who has turned a lot of heads with his efforts.

25-Marco Andretti (Andretti Autosport/Chevrolet)

TDZ: He’s never had a better chance to win, and his improved race focus and mentality should see him in contention until the end.

CE: The third-generation racer has grown considerably in maturity and in race craft, and he could definitely be in the mix for the win if he’s in position late.

Row 2

5-E.J. Viso (Andretti Autosport + HVM/Chevrolet)

TDZ: Viso is happier, cleaner and driving within himself, and should not be overlooked within the Andretti camp – a top-five would be a great result.

CE: Things have been coming together nicely for Viso this season, and his confidence should grow even more with a good finish.

2-A.J. Allmendinger (Team Penske/Chevrolet)

TDZ: Has everything to gain in terms of future full-time IndyCar prospects from a great race, and has the benefit of Roger Penske on his radio.

CE: I have the sense that ‘Dinger will be steady in his first ‘500’ and have a moment or two to really shine on Sunday. Give him credit for quickly embracing this race’s traditions.

12-Will Power (Team Penske/Chevrolet)

TDZ: In bizarro world, Power wins this year’s 500 to catapult himself back into title contention from the doldrums of the standings; in reality, his best case result is probably a solid top-10 finish.

CE: He could be the wild card in the Penske deck. He certainly has a chance with the team and talent he has, but hasn’t had the greatest luck here (or ovals, in general).

Row 3

1-Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti Autosport/Chevrolet)

TDZ: He’s too good a driver to have not had better results in Indy, and might have the strongest of the Andretti cars in race trim.

CE: That same thing about luck at Indy goes for the reigning IZOD IndyCar Series champion, too. But like Power, he’s definitely aiming for the front.

3-Helio Castroneves (Team Penske/Chevrolet)

TDZ: He needs a comeback from the abyss of anonymity in the last three years, and he hasn’t looked particularly strong in race trim.

CE: Barring trouble on the track or in the pits, racing’s original “Spider-Man” stands a shot at joining some very illustrious company as a four-time ‘500’ winner.

27-James Hinchcliffe (Andretti Autosport/Chevrolet)

TDZ: Would be a popular winner, but more likely to finish from fifth through 10th given the level of competition around him.

CE: The Canadian has been part of a noteworthy month for Andretti Autosport, and he has the potential to be a dark horse late in the going.

Row 4

4-J.R. Hildebrand (Panther Racing/Chevrolet)

TDZ: A win – or being in the top-five late on merit – would do wonders to vault him into the spotlight for something other than his last lap accident in 2011.

CE: Few seem to be talking about the 2011 “500” runner-up, but his team has shown time and again that it knows the Brickyard very well. Watch that No. 4 car.

98-Alex Tagliani (Barracuda-BHA/Honda)

TDZ: As good a sleeper pick to win as you can make in this field – this team won two years ago and Tagliani has gotten everything and then some out of his Barracuda Honda this month.

CE: Outright speed hasn’t been a problem for Tagliani at Indianapolis, but he hasn’t been able to convert quality starts into really good finishes. Still, a top-10 is not out of the realm of possibility.

11-Tony Kanaan (KV Racing Technology/Chevrolet)

TDZ: The people’s champ, but he’s struggled to find a balance in race trim all month, and will need to rely on his usual passing and restart heroics to have a chance to win.

CE: A victory for TK at the Brickyard would trigger some of the loudest cheers this old track will ever hear. He can definitely have a say in how this race ends.

Row 5

22-Oriol Servia (Panther DRR/Chevrolet)

TDZ: He’s been Indy’s “ghost driver” in years past, coming from nowhere to contention in the dying stages, and will be extra motivated to do so again and potentially add more races to his 2013 schedule.

CE: The Spaniard has been sneaky quick in his last two tries at Indy, and charged from 27th to fourth last year. A steady car can put him in contention again.

19-Justin Wilson (Dale Coyne Racing/Honda)

TDZ: He’s downplayed his chances but some other Honda runners like his car in race trim – Wilson should be a top-10, possible top-five finisher.

CE: Wilson also came from the back of the field to a Top-10 result last year. His overall work on the ovals has improved and another Top-10 could be in the cards for him.

7-Sebastien Bourdais (Dragon Racing/Chevrolet)

TDZ: Despite a flashy chrome and red livery, Bourdais’ pace this month has not gotten the credit it deserves this month; the question is whether his team can keep him in contention for 500 miles.

CE: Nobody doubts the talent of the four-time Champ Car World Series champion but he has definitely been flying under the radar this May. Don’t be surprised if he makes his way toward the front on Sunday, however.

Row 6

9-Scott Dixon (Target Chip Ganassi Racing/Honda)

TDZ: Never rule him out, and if he isn’t in the top five going into the last 100 miles, it would be a surprise.

CE: Always there, always lurking. He’s won the “500” once before and if he has no issues, you can bet he’ll be fighting for a second victory at Indy.

10-Dario Franchitti (Target Chip Ganassi Racing/Honda)

TDZ: His team found something on Carb Day but otherwise has struggled this month – that said, like Dixon, he’ll be there at the end in some way, shape or form.

CE: Franchitti’s run at Indy over the last few years has been sensational. Remember, he was knocked to 28th last year after an early pit road incident and still came back and won. Never count this guy out.

14-Takuma Sato (A.J. Foyt Racing/Honda)

TDZ: Driving at the top of his game right now, and buoyed by the confidence of his run last year, should once again figure into the top five in the last 100 miles.

CE: His emergence this season has been one of the better stories from the IndyCar paddock. I can see him being up toward the front again at Indy like he was in 2012. Expect a lot of cheers if he is there.

Row 7

83-Charlie Kimball (Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing/Honda)

TDZ: Has finished 500 miles both of his first two starts, and another in the “sleeper top-10 finisher” category this time around, if not the outright fastest.

CE: He bagged a solid Top-10 finish last year in the “500,” but with this competitive of a field, a Top-15 may be the most likely target this time around for Kimball.

16-James Jakes (Rahal Letterman Lanigan/Honda)

TDZ: All I can say about Jakes is that no one expected Bertrand Baguette and Takuma Sato to be in the winning frame late for RLL the last two years, and if the team again plays the strategy cards right, this is your “über-sleeper.”

CE: The thing that strikes me about Jakesy is that he keeps out of trouble. That could play to his advantage if there’s a higher rate of attrition on Sunday.

77-Simon Pagenaud (Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports/Honda)

TDZ: Very strong in race trim, and with a year’s worth of oval experience behind him, Pagenaud has the confidence and team to contend for a top-10, perhaps top-five, run on Sunday.

CE: He was the fastest man on Carb Day and considering how wide-open the grid is, a top-10 finish is definitely doable for IndyCar’s reigning rookie of the year.

Row 8

60-Townsend Bell (Panther Racing/Chevrolet)

TDZ: If his pit crew can keep him in the frame for all 500 miles, Bell is the one of strongest of the Indy-only entries.

CE: The veteran driver has proven to be a steady and reliable one whenever he’s called upon. A top-10 finish would be far from unexpected for him.

8-Ryan Briscoe (Chip Ganassi Racing/Honda)

TDZ: He’ll have a fresh engine but hasn’t had the smoothest of months; in a one-off entry, it’s hard to see him doing much better than 10th.

CE: Last year’s “500” pole winner has had to deal with qualifying difficulties and a blown engine this month, but he’s had success here in the past. He could be a sleeper as the race plays out.

78-Simona de Silvestro (KV Racing Technology/Chevrolet)

TDZ: She needs race laps more than anything else, and a finish of any kind would be a boost after two challenging race days the last two years.

CE: The Brickyard hasn’t always treated her well – and that may be putting it mildly. But now that she has a competitive engine, expect her to come away with a finish better or close to her Indy best of 14th (2010).

Row 9

21-Josef Newgarden (Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing/Honda)

TDZ: Another sleeper, Newgarden’s maturation process is noticeable from his first to second years, but he and the Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team need to avoid reliability pitfalls.

CE: The social media maven can rise up the pylon on Sunday but with his starting position, he’ll definitely need a good car in traffic to do it.

15-Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan/Honda)

TDZ: Like Jakes, Graham has the benefit of RLL strategy in his camp, but has struggled for pace; most likely, a borderline top-10 finisher at best.

CE: A win from him would make the Rahals the second father-son combo to win the “500.” One wonders how that would make their rivals, the Andrettis, feel.

6-Sebastian Saavedra (Dragon Racing/Chevrolet)

TDZ: Just finishing his third Indy 500 start would be a victory for the Colombian and his spiked hair; finishing ahead of Katherine Legge, whom he replaced at Dragon, would be a bonus.

CE: The most memorable moment of the month for Saavedra may wind up being his chrome silver and blue paint job literally going to pieces in a practice session.

Row 10

55-Tristan Vautier (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports/Honda)

TDZ: Given he’s the only full-season rookie in the field, just needs race laps and a finish from his first 500, with anything 15th or better a bonus.

CE: The Frenchman needs to show a lot of patience as he makes his way from Row 10. Finishing this race on the lead lap would be a good showing for him.

18-Ana Beatriz (Dale Coyne Racing/Honda)

TDZ: With three DNFs from the first four races, Beatriz is another in the “needs a finish first” camp, and would go a long way for her participation the rest of this season.

CE: Beatriz has had finishes of 21st, 21st and 23rd in her first three Indy appearances. That would appear to be right where she’ll likely be again.

63-Pippa Mann (Dale Coyne Racing/Honda)

TDZ: After her car had a vibration on Carb Day, Mann just needs to run 500 trouble-free miles this Sunday.

CE: The Englishwoman did a great job getting her car into the show, but she’s going to need a strong race car in order to keep from being lapped.

Row 11

41-Conor Daly (A.J. Foyt Racing/Honda)

TDZ: Good name, good genes, but a rough month for Foyt’s rookie; if he cracks the top-15, it’s a good result.

CE: The mission is simple: Run as many laps as you can, bring it back in one piece, enjoy the experience.

91-Buddy Lazier (Lazier Partners Racing/Chevrolet)

TDZ: He’s fit and his car looks sharp, but he’s unlikely to trouble the leaders at any point.

CE: Does the 1996 Indy winner have another good run left in him at the Speedway? Lord knows, he’ll try. Much like Kanaan, he’s a bulldog. A top 20 sounds right.

81-Katherine Legge (Schmidt Peterson Pelfrey Motorsports/Honda)

TDZ: There’s nothing to lose for her, with a car that was quick on Carb Day and wanting to again prove herself in her first IndyCar start of the year; she potentially could finish in the 10th-to-15th range.

CE: A nice showing on Carb Day (eighth-quickest) may indicate that she has something decent for the race.

Perez: “This year’s Mexican GP will be even better than last year’s”

xxxx during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on October 31, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico.
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Sergio Perez is not expecting a sophomore slump for the second edition of the Mexican Grand Prix back on the calendar since 1992, in its second year at the refurbished, renovated and relaunched Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City.

If anything, the Sahara Force India driver expects the race to build on what it did last year, when it came back to a Formula 1 calendar after a 23-year hiatus.

“I have no doubt this year’s event will be even better than last year – expectations are huge following the success of 2015,” he said in the team’s pre-race advance.

“For me, the biggest surprise was the passion of the fans: all the affection I received, all the messages and all the incredible moments I experienced are what really made an impression on me. I am so happy to go back there.”

This is very much a home race for Perez, who finished eighth in it last year, but who could be poised to end better this go-around.

He is from Guadalajara and not Mexico City proper, but still holds an affinity for his home country’s capital city.

“Mexico City may be quite far from my city of Guadalajara, but I go there very often for professional reasons,” he said. “It’s a city I love and there’s so much going on: the best restaurants, so many sights and so many things to do. It is a huge city and sometimes traffic makes going from one side of town to the other feel like an adventure!

“It is, not surprisingly, one of my favorite moments in the season and last year’s was special not just for me, but for my team and for anyone who came to the race.”

Perez currently sits seventh in the Driver’s Championship with 84 points, having moved ahead of Williams’ Valtteri Bottas as “best of the rest” behind the top six drivers from Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari at last week’s United States Grand Prix from Circuit of The Americas.

Gutierrez: “It’s a very special week for my whole career”

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 30:  Esteban Gutierrez announced as driver for Haas F1 Team on October 30, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images for Haas)
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Mexican driver Esteban Gutierrez will have his first chance to race on home soil in Formula 1, when the Haas F1 Team driver competes in this weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix from the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.

Gutierrez, then a Ferrari reserve driver, was announced in Mexico City last year as Haas’ second driver for 2016, alongside Romain Grosjean. But while he was at the track, he hasn’t been in a car here and that will change this weekend.

With the new version of the Haas VF-16 front wing expected to return to his chassis this weekend, Gutierrez is looking for a big weekend on home soil.

“It’s a very special week for my whole career,” he said in the team’s advance release. “It’s probably one of the best two weeks of my career because it represents so much to racing, to motorsports in Mexico in general, and to me. It’s a kind of connection where I can share my passion for racing and what I do with all Mexicans. I feel grateful for their support.”

Gutierrez reflected on what last year in Mexico was like for him.

“Last year was great. I could live the event from a different perspective, but now it will be even better when I will be racing there. I’m very excited to enjoy that.

“The atmosphere was amazing. I enjoyed it so much. Obviously, I would have liked to have been racing, but that was my position and the reality is that I wanted to enjoy in that perspective. It was a very special weekend and I felt very proud to see all the fans having a huge interaction. It turned out to be one of the best events of the season.”

With the new front wing expected and the circuit’s long straights expected to suit the Haas, which doesn’t have a ton of downforce, it could play to his and the team’s benefit this weekend.

“Romain ran the new front wing all weekend. Esteban did 20 laps on Friday and then we discovered a problem with the front wing. We had to go back to the old version because we had no spare because that was damaged in Japan when Esteban had the contact with Carlos Sainz. These wings are very complicated to make and they take a long time, but we should have the new version of the wing again for Esteban in Mexico,” team principal Guenther Steiner said.

Gutierrez added, “It will be important to do the best we can with our car. It’s a track we believe can suit the style of our car, and we’re hoping that will be the case. It’s going to be important to have as much track time as possible to adapt to the circuit.”

Several finishes of 11th have left Gutierrez on the fringes of scoring a point this season, but not yet having cracked the top-10 in any race this season.

Q&A: PFC ready for return as IndyCar’s brake partner

A look at PFC Brakes. Photo: Tony DiZinno
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Announced back at the Watkins Glen weekend in September, Performance Friction Corporation, or PFC, was announced as INDYCAR’s new brake partner for 2017 and beyond, replacing Brembo.

Darrick Dong, Director of Motorsports, Performance Friction Brakes, explained some – but not all – of the “bells and whistles” PFC has coming down the line for INDYCAR, and how they were chosen to be the new partner to begin with.

MotorSportsTalk: For those that may not be familiar with PFC, its reach and its background, can you summarize all that PFC has been involved in?

Darrick Dong: “Don Burgoon was the owner of the company that passed away on Sept. 12, 2015 in a road car accident in Italy. He really was a true visionary about this particular technology we’re using carbon for IndyCar – and it’s unique. It’s made from a single strand and what this does for us is it’s not a laminate that’s needled together or a constructed matrix like the current supplier is. Also, most of the carbon that’s being sold into racing is actually demilitarized carbon. That’s one of the reasons why they can talk about it, whereas we cannot talk about a lot of the details from a technical standpoint because it’s actually a current used material. It’s proprietary.

“So the key to a single strand carbon matrix is it has a very uniform crystalline structure where the temperature goes through the PFC carbon almost as quickly as it’s introduced. Whereas, with the other materials out there, there’s always thermal banding and there’s a lot of differentials in the temperature profiles of those materials. Because, truth be told, they’re 12 plus year-old technologies.

“As you know, the IndyCar community have been fighting some torque variation, erratic wear and erratic behavior, just inconsistencies. So, we did that blind test and essentially there were three suppliers that supplied car sets to three or four different drivers at Mid-Ohio. All the drivers chose us over the other guys.

“We’ve been continuing testing with the series with the two car sets we gave them at Mid-Ohio. We tested at Road America, Watkins Glen and Sears Point (Sonoma). It’s the same two-car sets that we’ve done that. I think we’re up to 11 or 12 drivers now that have actually had chances to put miles on the stuff.

“For all the miles we’ve put on it with all the different drivers, it didn’t pull or do anything unexpected. It may not have as much bite as some would have liked, but then I don’t know any driver that didn’t ask for more bite. But we were working primarily on the premise that they wanted something that was consistent and had better control. These cars are capable of pulling over a 5g stop now and have over 6,000 pounds of downforce when they’re in full aero. So you’re going from high downforce to mechanical grip in really less than two seconds.”

MST: How different is INDYCAR now versus the last time PFC was involved? Certainly the cornering speeds are significantly higher…

DD: “It’s been awhile since I’ve been playing with the IndyCar guys. We have been a primary source for CART, Champ Car and the IRL series when they were on iron brakes. In fact, in those days when it was open, when they could choose anybody from 1986 through 2011, we had won all the championships and I think we won all the races on our products – with the exception of one or two – through all those years. So it’s not like they didn’t know who we were.

Zach Veach locks it up at Mid-Ohio. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Zach Veach locks it up at Mid-Ohio. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“When they came up with the DW12, we were the last of the two guys standing on supplier for that car, but the (ICONIC) group decided to go with Brembo. So for the last six years, I still have been keeping my ear to the ground and because we’re the supplier to the (Mazda) Road to Indy, I’ve got all the USF2000 cars, the Pro Mazda cars, Indy Lights and the new Tatuus USF-17, so it’s not like we don’t have a footprint in the garage area.

“It can truly been said that the Road to Indy has been a road to us, for us in getting the confidence of the series! They were pretty gun-shy, as you can imagine, with the problems they had with the current supplier and apparently the same problems in IndyCar has gone to other markets, other series and championships. So, this is rapidly turning into a unique opportunity for us and we’ll be able to bring some new technologies and some new ways of thinking on how a braking system can work on an IndyCar.”

MST: What do you expect the support system/operations side to look like at the track?

DD: “That’s a great question. The series wants us to deal directly with the teams; that’s what we’ll do. Depending on how the logistics work out, in fact, I’ve been talking to Haas Auto here about renting a couple cabinets for them – because there’s always going to be somebody that needs something. Either way, we’re going to have it. What’s nice is most of the team managers and engineers they know who PFC is, so we’ve been part of the canvas now for quite some time.”

Kanaan at Gateway. Photo: IndyCar
Kanaan at Gateway. Photo: IndyCar

MST: Has the driver feedback you’ve received thus far – Tony Kanaan being a good example of a driver since he’s been around and did the test – been a step in the right direction?

DD: “Particularly with TK, he’s very sensitive to this torque variation. One of the things they were able to do, a lot of drivers with the current brake configuration, they have to use the largest master cylinder made to help reduce the locking. With our product, they’re able to drop a size down, which gives them a lot more feel for the threshold of grip between the tire and braking capacity. The difference is, that particular change, because they’ve done it twice now, it stays with the car. The drivers prefer that because now the way the brake pedal is, they have to jump on it as hard they can and then trail off immediately to keep the thing from locking.”

MST: How much more difficult is it to engineer now than when there were higher braking rates?

DD: “One of the things that’s unique about the PFC Carbon is it’s not as sensitive to temperature as most carbon is. So, its sweet spot is about from 100C (100 degrees Celsius) to about 650C. It’ll easily go up to 800C or greater. It never fades. The only difference is you’ll have higher oxidation or greater wear. But at 100C, it acts very much like an iron brake, so it has more cold bite characteristics, which is one of the reasons the why series liked that characteristic, particularly after they did a dyno simulation between all the different brands, and they realized ours had a smoother, cold, predictable bite.

“So with these high downforce cars, you usually use the brakes primarily to balance the cars. You need to have more drivability, not less, so it’s not like an on-off switch like they’ve got now. Everybody who said it’s modulation, that the cold bite – particularly at an oval – is something that will be a benefit to these guys.”

MST: The longer-term viewpoint is looking ahead to 2018 and the new aero then. Will you be part of that development process?

DD: “Yeah, in 2018, we’ll have calipers on the cars. So we’re not only producing the brake pads, the carbon discs and the brake bells and attachment system for the current caliper. And then in 2018, we’ll be supplying the teams with new hardware and calipers. Also, we hope to have the design approvals for the series on or before the Indy 500 in 2017. So after the Indy 500, we can concentrate on making sure we get the hardware right for them.”

PFC Logo. Photo: Tony DiZinno
PFC Logo. Photo: Tony DiZinno

MST: Will you get extra test days?

DD: “I don’t know how that’s going to work, that’s still down the road. Obviously, one thing that’s been about PFC is we’re one of the few companies that manufacture 100 percent of the hot-end components for the car, including friction components. Because of the complexity, there’s not too many companies that recognize what the braking event really is. We have to understand the tire and the interface between the tire, ground and brake torque better than most.

“So most of these other guys, brake pad suppliers, they typically will design the architecture for the caliper, they go buy a disc from somebody else and then they have three or four pad guys build a brake pad for them. With us, we work from the friction out. So, it’s a whole different philosophy and makes us in a unique position because we understand the grip model or try to understand the grip model as best as anybody out there.

“Our relationship with the teams have been very, very close. They’ve freely talked to us because they know we’re always working on improvements. That traction circle, particularly with the amount of downforce, goes from here to here in a very short period of time. It’s a very small, narrow window.”

MST: You had a funny line when you and I chatted at Watkins Glen, that it’s taken eight years to become an overnight success…

DD: “For us, our motivation is and always has been that open-wheel racing is in our DNA. It’s one of the truest forms of being able to apply all the little nuances that we work on in terms of getting not only the performance and the consistency. We bring quite a bit to the table because even the attachment system for the Indy car will be very unique. I can’t talk about all the little bells and whistles that we’re going to be throwing at this thing, but I can tell you that when the teams have the opportunity to implement the new program, it’ll be a significant moving of the bar.

“For instance, although not too many people know this, PFC is the only North American supplier to Porsche Motorsports. So, going through that Porsche-perfect quality assurance protocols, it’s a big deal. And we’re putting the same philosophies of what we have incorporated over the years into the IndyCar thing, so the only thing they have to worry about is how to make the car better, not chase the brake ghosts.”

DiZinno: Thank you, Audi, for making Le Mans great again

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 15:  Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Lucas Di Grassi, Loic Duval, Tom Kristensen on June 15, 2014 in Le Mans, France.  (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)
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Today’s news that Audi Sport would be withdrawing its LMP1 program at year’s end was not a surprise in that it happened, but only a surprise in terms of when it did.

But the truth of the matter is that for five years, the beginning of the end of the Audi era was always going to end: it was just a question of how it would.

How it ends should not take away from the 18 years of magic that Audi, Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, and the team of people assembled, has provided on sports car tracks around the U.S. and around the world, as a brand that has helped to elevate both itself and the sport as a whole to the level it is today.

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 11: Wolfgang Ullrich of Austria, Head of Audi Motorsport looks on during practice on June 11, 2014 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)
LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 11: Wolfgang Ullrich of Austria, Head of Audi Motorsport looks on during practice on June 11, 2014 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)

When I started watching sports car racing on an occasional basis in the late 1990s at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, it was a mix of Riley & Scotts, Ferrari 333 SPs and then a hodgepodge of GT cars – some more stealthy and pioneering, some more low-budget than others. It didn’t really seem to have proper cohesion or, more importantly, a true “star car.”

Daytona was the U.S. 24-hour race of note at the time but then there was this other 24-hour race in France every June that I knew little about but somehow, felt an allure and a draw to once I properly understood what it meant.

And from 2000 onwards, there was one manufacturer whose dominance at the event became a staple of summer, and that was Audi.

Every June, even if I hadn’t yet comprehended the series around which Audi raced – that came later – I knew I’d be tuning in from home the Saturday of Le Mans to watch as many hours as I could to see Audi win again.

17 Jun 2000: Biela, Kristensen and Pirro take their Audi R8 to victory in the Le Mans 24 Hour Race at La Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans, France. Mandatory Credit: Mike Hewitt /Allsport
17 Jun 2000: Biela, Kristensen and Pirro take their Audi R8 to victory in the Le Mans 24 Hour Race at La Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans, France. Mandatory Credit: Mike Hewitt /Allsport

With a mix of promotional efforts, pioneering technology and an all-star group of drivers – none ever rising too high to be much more “a star” than another – Audi established itself as the brand to beat with its incomparable run of form with the R8 those first six years from 2000 to 2005. It was perhaps unlucky its only defeat in that time was in 2003, to the beautiful Bentley Speed 8, was to a car from a sister brand (keep that in mind for the future).

The bar was raised in 2006 with the all-conquering R10 TDI, Audi’s move into diesel shifting the game from a singular petrol focus to a form of new technology. That was 10 years ago. And Audi didn’t just win Le Mans with its new car; they dominated.

Further wins in 2007 and 2008 followed against Audi’s toughest adversary yet, Peugeot, the French carmaker entering with a diesel of its own, the 908 HDi FAP. It’s funny; to me at the time, even though Peugeot was the crowd favorite on home soil in France, I always cast them in a role of the villain up against the good guys from Audi, who we at least knew here a little better in the U.S., and who we’d got to know as fans from their time racing in the American Le Mans Series.

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 15: Tom Kristensen of Denmark drives in the final hour to take victory with Audi Sport North America team mates Allan McNish of Great Britain and Rinaldo Capello of Italy in the 76th running of the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans on June 15, 2008 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

The 2008 win in mixed conditions served as the impetus and race for the iconic Truth in 24, a movie that inspires chills among the sports car racing world for how good the Audi/Intersport/NFL Films production was. From the singular first line of the film – Jason Statham’s foreboding “It always rains at Le Mans,” – to the buildup to the race from testing and the preliminary races, to Allan McNish’s track lap description, and then to the introduction of Howden “H” Haynes as the engineer, you are so incredibly amped up by the time it gets to the chronicling of the race itself. And you feel as though you’ve become one with the team, as Audi won the 2008 race on smarts and strategy more than outright pace.

This would be a good time to note that when I first had the opportunity to go to Le Mans in 2009 for another website, I was so excited to see Audi win at Le Mans. Naturally, then, it didn’t happen; the new R15 was a rare misstep from Ingolstadt and Peugeot, which needed to win to keep its program going, finally did so in its third crack at the race.

The die cast of Audi’s success in the nine years previous is why Peugeot’s 2009 win was such a big deal at the time; the almighty Audi had finally been toppled. Audi was human.

In truth though, the dominant, unchallenged period of success Audi had at Le Mans was really at an end in 2008, even though they’ve still amassed more wins. The 2010 and 2011 Le Mans wins were fortunate. Audi won in 2010 only after the Peugeots grenaded themselves; with the new R18 in 2011, Audi won only after its first two cars sustained two of the heaviest accidents in recent years at Le Mans, and held on with its single remaining bullet in the gun.

Audi won the first two Le Mans in 2012 and 2013 following the launch of the FIA World Endurance Championship – a championship whose presence was spurred on by LMP1 manufacturers and the creation of hybrid technology, but has since seen the privateers that made up the rest of the class fall by the wayside. Toyota wasn’t ready to win Le Mans either year; frankly no one wanted to win in 2013 after Allan Simonsen’s fatal accident in the opening laps.

But the biggest signs of change for Audi had been revealed in summer, 2011, and it had nothing directly to do with Audi. That summer, Porsche announced it would be returning to Le Mans with an LMP1 entry, targeting a 2014 launch.

Audi, the flagship LMP1 brand that had built its image on Le Mans greatness in the 12 years previous, would have company within the Volkswagen Group as two top tier brands would start competing head-to-head for wins at the most glorious sports car race on the calendar.

Audi had beaten a host of competitors in its run at Le Mans, the privateers, then Peugeot, then Toyota. But it hadn’t yet beat a manufacturer from its same company in a full-season setting.

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 15: Winners of the Le Mans 24 Hour 2014, Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Marcel Fassler, André Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer cross the line with 2nd place , Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Lucas Di Grassi, Loic Duval, Tom Kristensen on June 15, 2014 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)
LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 15: Winners of the Le Mans 24 Hour 2014, Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Marcel Fassler, André Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer cross the line with 2nd place , Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Lucas Di Grassi, Loic Duval, Tom Kristensen on June 15, 2014 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)

The 2014 Le Mans promised great things. In Audi, you had the established heavyweight. In Toyota, you had the relatively younger upstart ready to win in its third year – as Peugeot had done five years earlier. And in Porsche, you had the returning giant, perhaps not ready in its first go-around but ready to fight.

And that was how it played out. Audi’s 2014 win was the third for the Andre Lotterer/Benoit Treluyer/Marcel Fassler trio, but won more on expertise and guile again rather than outright pace. Toyota’s chances came undone just before dawn, and Porsche fell off as the race entered its final stages. It would have been impossible to know at the time this would be Audi’s last of its 13 triumphs at Le Mans, but indeed it is.

Porsche won in 2015 with the famous third car win of Nick Tandy, Earl Bamber and Nico Hulkenberg. They won again this year after Toyota’s final-minute heartbreak; Audi, for the first time in 18 years at Le Mans, was nowhere, and only made the podium thanks to the Toyota non-classification. That these two poor results came following VW’s emissions scandal that emerged last fall was poor timing.

The Le Mans history outlined above is but the flagship venue of Audi’s successes in top-flight prototype racing, but far from the only one.

BRASELTON, GA - OCTOBER 04: The #07 LMP1 Peugeot Sport Total 908 driven by Nicolas Minassian leads Marco Werner in the #2 Audi Sport North America Audi R10 TDI as the field follows at the start of the American Le Mans Series Petit Le Mans on October 4, 2008 at Road Atlanta in Braselton, Georgia (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)
BRASELTON, GA – OCTOBER 04: The #07 LMP1 Peugeot Sport Total 908 driven by Nicolas Minassian leads Marco Werner in the #2 Audi Sport North America Audi R10 TDI as the field follows at the start of the American Le Mans Series Petit Le Mans on October 4, 2008 at Road Atlanta in Braselton, Georgia (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

Because of its presence in the U.S. in the American Le Mans Series from 2000 through 2008 – either with the Audi Sport Team Joest or Champion Racing efforts – Audi inspired a generation of sports car fans to start paying attention to what it was doing.

Audi raced hard versus Don Panoz’s team with its weird, wacky and wonderful front-engined LMP1 Roadster, the venerable Dyson Racing Lolas, and then, for those few glorious years from 2006 to 2008, the factory-supported Porsche RS Spyder and Acura LMP2 cars from the Penske, Highcroft, Andretti, de Ferran and Fernandez teams.

It didn’t matter the tracks; it didn’t matter the classes. BoP and driver ratings weren’t buzzwords. It was simply about the racing – and seeing the ways the more powerful Audi raced against the lighter, more nimble LMP2 cars in the ALMS at the time was mesmerizing to watch.

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 13: (L-R) Allan McNish of Great Britain, Rinaldo Capello of Italy and seven time race winner Tom Kristensen of Denmark and Audi Sport North America attend the drivers parade in Le Mans town centre prior to the 76th running of the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans on June 13, 2008 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 13: (L-R) Allan McNish of Great Britain, Rinaldo Capello of Italy and seven time race winner Tom Kristensen of Denmark and Audi Sport North America attend the drivers parade in Le Mans town centre prior to the 76th running of the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans on June 13, 2008 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

The trio of Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello became heroes. Kristensen will go down as the greatest of all-time at Le Mans with his nine wins there. McNish’s tenacity and starts were always an incredible sight to watch. Capello was the third tenor, and just as critical to the success by combining the best of both.

These three stood out while others like Emanuele Pirro, Frank Biela and Marco Werner also were among the winners. The Lotterer/Treluyer/Fassler trio stands as Audi’s next generation, but their time together figures to come to an end in two races.

They all slowly faded away though. Capello, McNish and Kristensen retired each of the last few years. The Pirro/Biela/Werner trio were there through 2008 before the first real changing of the guard in the driver lineup occurred. Leena Gade, an inspiration in her own right, stepped down after Le Mans this year.

Much as my formative years in IndyCar were built by the Target presence with Chip Ganassi Racing in the mid-1990s, my formative years following and appreciating sports car racing – and Le Mans in particular – was crafted by Audi.

So while the business realities and changing demands of what manufacturers want to pursue for their motorsports program to coincide with their automotive interests is changing, so ends Audi’s run of glory at the top level of sports car racing.

This is no doubt a sad day for the sport. But rather than with anger, I’m left only to reflect and say thank you to Audi for making me a fan in the first place.

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 15:  Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Lucas Di Grassi, Loic Duval, Tom Kristensen on June 15, 2014 in Le Mans, France.  (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)
LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 15: Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Lucas Di Grassi, Loic Duval, Tom Kristensen on June 15, 2014 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)