With an impressive 13 wins between 1999 and 2016, naturally the 24 Hours of Le Mans holds a special place in the heart of Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, now serving as an advisor to the Automobile Club de l'Ouest. At Le Mans, the former head of Audi Sport has experienced it all: memorable highs and lows, outbursts of joy and anguish, satisfaction for a job well done as well as his fair share of frustration…
Dr. Ullrich, which do you consider the favorite of your 13 victories?
"The first, in 2000, will always remain in my mind the best one, especially since we were not expecting to pull off a hat trick. I still remember asking the drivers over the radio to slow down so the three cars could cross the finish line in tandem. As it was the beginning of the adventure, the trust wasn’t there yet between the drivers, and the one who was on his way to winning the race was afraid the second would take advantage of the situation and overtake him. So, I had to reassure the winner who understood in the end that he was not risking anything."
What is your best memory of the 24 Hours of Le Mans?
"Without hesitation, the win in 2011. We won the race even though we had lost two of our three cars in accidents (Allan McNish then Mike Rockenfeller, Ed.). Before the happy celebration on the podium, there was anxiety about Mike Rockenfeller’s incident. Fearing the car was about to explode, he extracted himself quickly and jumped over the safety barrier. When the marshals arrived on-site, they found the cockpit empty. As Mike had been rather shaken up in the incident, he had sat down, but in the shadows, and the marshals couldn’t see him. For several minutes, no one knew where he was or if he was alright. It was a very stressful experience. Once we were sure he was fine, it became all about teamwork, no one went to sleep! The mechanics, drivers and engineers from the two eliminated cars went to work for the third car still in the game. We gave our all because Peugeot wasn’t letting up. In the end, we (Marcel Fässler-André Lotterer-Benoît Tréluyer, Ed.) crossed the finish line with a 13-second lead after 24 hours of racing. A magnificent victory!"
What is your worst memory of the 24 Hours of Le Mans?
"The 2016 edition because we were definitely competitive but were forced to deal with unacceptable reliability problems. It made me even more uncomfortable because the situation was very unusual for Audi whose cars were known for their reliability and durability."
Does any specific car stand out for you?
"The Audi R8 because it won everything, whether in Europe, with the Le Mans Series and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, or in the U.S. with the American Le Mans Series. Not only did it win everything, but it’s also one of the winningest cars of all time with more than 70% of its races finishing on the top step of the podium (63 victories out of 80 races, Ed.). It is unique."
Same question about any certain driver.
"If I give you a name, I will upset around 50 other drivers (laughs, Ed.)! But seriously, I would say Tom Kristensen because he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans nine times and the 12 Hours of Sebring six times. He’s a very special individual."
A personality you would consider remarkable?
"I’ll say Hugues de Chaunac. Though rivals on the track, we’ve always been friends before and after the races."
A favorite snapshot of the 24 Hours of Le Mans?
"I have thousands, but the Dunlop bridge is truly emblematic. The light in that area allows for some beautiful photos."
A unique edition in your opinion?
"2010 with the hat trick despite being far from fastest on the track. Peugeot was stronger on paper, but they had some engine troubles. At that edition, we ran the gamut: early in the race, our hopes of winning were minimal, but a few hours before the checkered flag, we were the only contenders."
What moment or moments in the race do you prefer?
"The finish because victory brings with it satisfaction with the work done over the course of a year. But, you have to manage to win! In 24 hours anything can happen, so when you get to the end, it means you made it. Luck is not enough to win at Le Mans, but you still need a little of it."
What is your favorite time during the week of the 24 Hours of Le Mans?
"The start! You feel like the week and especially that Saturday, with the warm-up for which we must get up early, will simply never end. At the start, you can finally say: here we go, let’s go, let’s get to work!"
Now on the other side of the fence so to speak, as an advisor to the ACO, Saturday probably doesn’t seem to drag on quite as long for Dr. Ullrich!