Anatomy of a Unnecessary Wreck

To finish first, first you must finish.
A tried-and-true maxim in any form of racing, a tautology, actually. It is also something often forgotten even by the professionals. In this instance, J. J. Lehto, driving the #1 ADT Champion Racing Audi R8, let it slip his mind, even though he has a long and storied racing career that includes many victories in the American Le Mans Series, and even at Le Mans itself.

He forgot, or ignored, the fact that (a) it's just not possible to go three wide through turn one at Road Atlanta at speed in a Le Mans prototype, and (b) there was a car already occupying the piece of real estate his car needed to reduce that to two wide. So he ended up knocking one competitor completely out of the race, damaging another severely, and knocking his own car about enough to put it out of contention for the race win.

This incident occurred at the first corner on the first lap of the 2005 Petit le Mans at Road Atlanta, which is a race of ten hours or 1,000 miles, whichever occurs first. Not exactly a sprint race, where your position after the first turn of the first lap might actually matter in your eventual position at the finish.

As Lehto knows, but apparently forgot at the beginning of the Petit le Mans, endurance races require consistency throughout the entire race, and position at the second corner of the first lap means very little. How much that consistency matters, as well as the operations in pit lane, can be seen by the fact that this car and driver team ended up finishing third despite this wreck and another later in the race.

Frame One In this first frame, you see the #16 Thetford Norcold Dyson Racing AER Lola EX257 driven by James Weaver on the inside, the #15 Zytek O4S driven by Hayanari Shimoda in the middle, and the #1 ADT Champion Racing Audi R8 driven by J. J. Lehto on the outside. Looking closely at this frame, you can see that Lehto is not completely ahead of Shimoda, but has decided, and started, to “slam the door” on him, anyway. This action precipitates the incident shown in the following frames.
Frame Two The second frame shows the immediate results of Lehto’s ill advised move. The Audi spins to driver’s right after his right rear contacts the left front of Shimoda’s Zytek, which has started moving to driver’s left, which is not what the driver intends in this high speed right-hand corner, but his left front corner has been severely compromised by this point. The Lola has also been upset and has come off the apex early as a result of the collision.
Frame Three At this point, the #16 Dyson Lola has moved out of the picture to the left. Lehto’s Audi is completely sideways, and still rotating from the force of the collision with Shimoda’s Zytek. As the Audi spins out of the way, it unveils the damage done to the Zytek. Shimoda is just about to exit the track at over 100, maybe 150, miles per hour, and is getting the last of the effective braking done that he’ll have a chance to do. Once he reaches the grass, the effectiveness of the brakes pretty much disappears, because the tires have almost no grip on the grass.
Frame Four Here in the fourth frame, the Audi has also moved out of the picture to the left, and the Zytek has left the track surface. He is heading straight into the gravel trap, still travelling well over 100 mph. His left front is largely destroyed, causing that part of the car to dig into the soft turf and rotating the rear of the car around to driver’s left.
Frame Five As gravel, grass, and dust rained down on the photographer, he suddenly realized that something altogether larger, altogether harder, and altogether much more dangerous might be coming through the cloud towards him. So he ate dirt. If you look carefully, you can see a couple of pieces of gravel in the dust.

After picking himself up off the ground, the photographer found that the cars involved in the incident had already limped over the hill to turn two. These three frames show some of the carnage left behind by the incident. The dust was still thick in the air, and the first and second of the three show the same view of the main debris field from the Audi, before and after the dust cleared. The third shows the remains of the left front body work of the Zytek.

After the race, both James Weaver (driving the Dyson Lola) and J. J. Lehto (driving the Champion Audi) commented that Shimoda in the #15 Zytek had braked much earlier going into turn one than either Weaver or Lehto expected. In addition, though the photographer couldn't see it from his vantage point, he has heard that apparently Weaver was trying to squeeze up the inside when he really shouldn't have. Either or both of those points may well be true.

Even though Shimoda captured the pole during Friday qualifying, this was his first trip to Road Atlanta. Weaver is an experienced driver, and typically puts on quite a car control show at Road Atlanta, but he apparently pushed the envelope when he shouldn't have. Plus, events like a driver braking earlier than expected are all part and parcel of racing at any level, including the top of the professional ranks, and they're something experienced racers like Weaver and Lehto should be able to handle. Instead of either of them tapping their brakes, Weaver went to the inside, and Lehto went to the outside, combining to make it three wide on a corner they all know is impossible to negotiate three wide at prototype speeds. Then Lehto cut back to the right before clearing Shimoda's car. So this writer is less inclined to give either Weaver or Lehto the benefit of the doubt than some commentators.