(This is the third and final entry of "30 Years of Covering Le Mans". For a more complete glimpse into the history of this great race, read Part One and Part Two first.)
The arrival of the new century saw a new name dominate Les Vingt Quatre Heures du Mans, that of Audi. The German powerhouse threw more resource into their sportscar program than the other few manufacturers left trying to compete. The whole racing campaign was used to underpin a big marketing push in North America, with the factory cars racing in the American Le Mans Series as well.
Both Chrysler and Cadillac made attempts to get on terms with the rising star of the VW group, but after a season or three it became obvious that the budget required to match Audi was too high a price to pay. Even the attraction of exposure to potential customers on the home front couldn't keep the Detroit pair on board.
Audi's success wasn't merely based upon the amount of money spent - it was in the intelligent application of financial resources, bringing on technology that would have a direct benefit to their range of road cars. It was at Le Mans in 2002 when Audi first introduced their TFSI direct injection system, which has subsequently become a standard feature on their entire model line up.
The new engine performed reliably that first year, giving both the power and fuel economy that their rivals could not match. The hat trick of victories was certain from the moment practice began on the Wednesday, and at 16:00 on Sunday, Audi driver Emanuele Pirro celebrated the 2002 Le Mans victory in exuberant style.
With the immediate goals achieved, the factory Audi team left the field, choosing to concentrate on the home market and DTM series instead. Bentley, another member of the VW family, stepped into the breach. Having run a coupé in the previous two years, they were well set up for success. In 2003 both #7 and #8 had pretty flawless races, finishing first and second, which you can read more about HERE in an interview I did with Tom Kristensen. Memorable for me, was the above shot being used for the front cover of the 2003 Le Mans Annual. Apparently the two cars only ran together in the right order for one lap in the race...
It was not only at the head of the field that competition was fierce. GT classes were always keenly contested, many feeling these battles were even more compelling than Audi versus the rest at the front.
Audi decided that the sport needed to get out of the comfort zone, they entered once again as a factory outfit in 2006 - but this time they wanted to develop and showcase their diesel technology. The R10 was a handful, powered by a 5.5 litre V12 diesel with enough torque to pull a super tanker, it performed wonders at Le Mans.
The new direction of endurance racing, pushing the envelope of technology, attracted other players, most notably Peugeot. The rules favored the diesel route, but that meant factory efforts only as budgets were simply out of reach for privateers. After a tentative start, Peugeot took the fight to Audi - bringing a car for 2008 that was way faster than the German's R10.
In one of the most incredible races I have ever witnessed, somehow the lead Audi hung on to the Peugeots untill the rains came early on Sunday morning - then the French challenge wilted. The whole affair was immortalised in the film "Truth in 24" which I suggest watching if you get the chance.
French pride was stung, as might be expected, but Peugeot came back very strongly the following year. Despite this small mishap early in the race, the Blues won easily.
The competition between Audi and Peugeot fiercely continued, and inevitably the limits were encountered and overstepped. During 2011 24 Hours of LeMans, Audi lost two of their three cars to massive accidents. Remarkably, the remaining car withstood the pressure.
This happened to be the same year that my personal role in the proceedings saw a big change. After covering the race as a member of the media for so many years, I committed to working with only one team, running their communications program. Oh...and the race, we won our class at Le Mans that year!
An amazing feeling, even for someone like me, somewhat remote from the proceedings. Being part of a successful team was something I would never had expected to happen at Le Mans when I first attended in 1984.
The 2013 Le Mans 24 Hours was my 30th in a row working at Le Mans. As you can see, I now enjoy the respect of senior figures in the pitlane - here Ralf Jüttner, Technical Director at Joest Racing, who runs Audi's team in endurance racing, makes a suitable gesture towards me. I would not have it any other way.
Roll on another 30 years.......