24 Hours of Le Mans and Petit Le Mans | A French connection in the U.S.
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24 Hours of Le Mans and Petit Le Mans | A French connection in the U.S.

Created in 1998, Petit Le Mans has become one of the top endurance racing events in the world, along with its inspiration the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and American classics like Sebring and Daytona. Ahead of the 2021 edition, and in light of the promising convergence between the ACO and the IMSA, here are 10 stories shared by the 24 Hours circuit and Road Atlanta where Petit Le Mans is held.

Contested over 1,000 miles (1,600 km) or 10 hours of racing, Petit Le Mans serves as the closing round of the U.S.'s main endurance series: first named the American Le Mans Series (from 1999 to 2013), then the Tudor United SportsCar Championship (2014 and 2015) and now called the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship (since 2016). The race was founded by American industrialist Don Panoz whose enthusiam and charisma greatly contributed to the renaissance of endurance racing as we know it today.

Don Panoz, founder and winner

After amassing his fortune in the pharmaceutical industry as the patent holder for the nicotine patch, Don Panoz became a major player in endurance racing during the second half of the 1990s. He bought the Road Atlanta circuit (in the state of Georgia a few kilometers from his home in Braselton) in 1996, then formed Panoz Motorsport the following year and created the American Le Mans Series in compliance with the ACO's technical regulations. The first running of Petit Le Mans, on 11 October 1998, served as the circuit's inauguration. In 1999, a Panoz prototype shared by Éric Bernard, David Brabham and Andy Wallace won the second edition of Petit Le Mans and closed out the first season of the American Le Mans Series. In 2006, Panoz left his imprint on the 24 Hours as well when the Esperante GT fielded by British outfit Team LNT won its class.

Ferrari, Petit Le Mans pioneer

Already a winner in the LMP1 class at the 24 Hours (eighth overall), the Ferrari 333 SP entered by American team Doyle-Risi won the first running of Petit Le Mans in 1998 thanks to Eric van de Poele, Wayne Taylor (teammates at the 24 Hours) and Emmanuel Collard. It was an extremely successful year for Ferrari's last prototype to participate in the 24 Hours after also winning the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring.

15 drivers at both races

Since 1998, 15 drivers have taken the start in both the 24 Hours and Petit Le Mans: Michele Alboreto, Frank Biela, David Brabham, Dindo Capello, Brendon Hartley, Johnny Herbert, Neel Jani, Tom Kristensen, JJ Lehto, Allan McNish, Emmanuele Pirro, Nick Tandy, Andy Wallace, Marco Werner and Alexander Wurz. Seven among them have won both races in the same year: Biela (2001), Pirro (2001), Kristensen (2002), McNish (2008), Capello (2008), Tandy (2015) and Hartley (2017).

Dindo Capello, the record-holder

With five victories (2000, 2002, 2006, 2007 and 2008) to his credit, Dindo Capello holds the win record at Petit Le Mans. The Italian driver has also reached the top step on the podium three times at the 24 Hours (2003, 2004 and 2008), all shared with Tom Kristensen with whom Capello also won Petit Le Mans in 2002. Kristensen has only triumphed at Petit Le Mans once, but is the winningest driver at the 24 Hours with nine.

Nick Tandy and the Porsche 911, a major exploit in 2015 

A few months after his first 24 Hours win in June with Earl Bamber and Nico Hülkenberg, Nick Tandy triumphed at one of the most memorable editions of Petit Le Mans to date. Rain caused not only several neutralizations and red flags, but also created huge grip problems for the prototypes. Tandy and teammates Patrick Pilet and Richard Lietz avoided every pitfall at the wheel of their Porsche 911 RSR, and the car became the first GT to win Petit Le Mans, 17 years after the marque's first overall win at the 24 Hours.

Brendon Hartley, the marathon man of 2017

The last driver to have conquered both the 24 Hours and Petit Le Mans in the same year, New Zealander Brendon Hartley experienced a particular outstanding season end in 2017. In addition to his two wins just three and a half months apart, he also won a second world endurance champion title with Porsche, and made his Formula 1 debut, competing in the last five Grand Prix of the season with Toro Rosso (now Alpha Tauri).

Petit Le Mans and 24 Hours of Le Mans, a French exception

Seven French drivers have claimed the top step on the podium at Petit Le Mans, with 12 wins between them: Eric Bernard, Emmanuel Collard, Franck Montagny, Patrick Pilet, Olivier Pla, Nicolas Prost and Stéphane Sarrazin. Montagny and Sarrazin earned Peugeot three consecutive victories (2009, 2010 and 2011), Prost two (2012 and 2013) and Collard won the very first running in 1998, but none has ever triumphed at the 24 Hours.

Peugeot and Ligier, the French victors

In 2009, a few months after its third win at the 24 Hours, Peugeot put an end to Audi's winning streak at Petit Le Mans. The French marque scored three consecutive victories at Road Atlanta thanks to French drivers Stéphane Sarrazin and Franck Montagny as a duo in 2009, then with Pedro Lamy in 2010 and Alex Wurz in 2011. Ligier won the 2016 running of Petit Le Mans with a JS P2 LMP2 prototype fielded by American team Michael Shank Racing. In 2017, the car served as the basis for the Nissan Onroak DPi that won representing Tequila Patron ESM.

Audi, the record-holder

Audi is the winningest marque in the history of Petit Le Mans with nine consecutive victories between 2000 and 2009, and eight wins at the 24 Hours and Petit Le Mans in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008. Every Audi driver to triumph at Petit Le Mans has also won the 24 Hours, namely Michele Alboreto, Frank Biela, Dindo Capello, Johnny Herbert, Tom Kristensen, JJ Lehto, Allan McNish, Emanuele Pirro and Marco Werner with a total of 32 victories at Le Mans and 20 at the Road Atlanta circuit.

 

PHOTOS (Copyright - ACO ARCHIVES & CHRISTIAN VIGNON): LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), CIRCUIT DES 24 HEURES, 24 HOURS OF LE MANS. A gallery of cars that have made their marks at the 24 Hours and Petit Le Mans. From top to bottom: the Panoz winner at the 2nd Petit Le Mans in 1999; the Ferrari 333 SP of the Doyle/Risi team winner in LMP1 at Le Mans in 1998 and the first running of Petit Le Mans; the Audi R10 TDI driven by Allan McNish in 2008; the 908 HDi FAP of Peugeot, the first French constructor to win Petit Le Mans; the Audi R8 that boasts five victories at the 24 Hours and six at Petit Le Mans.