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Diesel Smoke & Mirrors

Le Mans during years ending in an ‘8’ have over the past 40 years been special, and in 2008 it was no different. The battle between Peugeot and Audi was always going to overshadow the other classes and it did so, masking Porsche’s achievement of two RS Spyders winning the LMP2 class on their debut, Aston Martin defeating Corvette again in GT1 and the Risi Ferrari team scoring an overwhelming win in GT2. It has been a long time since the winners in all four classes have run trouble-free throughout the 24 hours, and in each class the level of competition meant that total reliability was critical.

The pace of the diesels in qualifying and the race, coupled with the accident of Mike Newton, the seventh driver to take flight this year, may prompt the ACO to rush through emergency measures to slow the cars and reduce their downforce. By next year, the ACO wants to have target race lap times of 3m30s for the LMP1 cars, and planned to do so by reducing air restrictor sizes for petrol cars and turbo boost pressure for diesels.

That leaves manufacturers in even more of a quandary than they were before the ACO press conference on Thursday. Open and closed cars will be admitted in 2010, confirming the rumour started here in December. The existing cars will be eligible to race beyond this deadline. Diesel and petrol will be better balanced, but with the air restrictor rules not being announced until September, and possibly new aero rules announced then too, teams will have to rush through new cars if they are to race them in 2009.

Corvette denied that the C7 programme was dead and expects a decision quickly whether or not General Motors will return to top flight endurance motorsport in LMP1. This from a racing department which has consistently fought against the suits back home to deliver victory at Le Mans time and again, and turned the American Le Mans Series programme into a marketing bonanza. The case has been made, for this and for other projects. The question is which way will the suits jump?

Another case to ponder is GM’s position with the ACO, which in April presented manufacturers with a draft set of regulations for 2010. According to paddock rumour, the diesel manufacturers rejected them and delayed the announcement of their new projects. With Peugeot’s racing department not delivering for a second year, a significant reduction in diesel performance would not be well received in Paris. Audi’s programme is for five years, and this is its third, but it desperately needs a new car. Will it be petrol or diesel? That depends on the rules, and we will have to wait until the Essen Show in November after Audi delayed the announcement it was expected to make at Le Mans…

The R10 TDI was in 2008 inferior to Peugeot’s 908 HDI FAP by up to six seconds in qualifying and four seconds in the race when the track was dry. While the Peugeots could overtake wherever they wanted, even changing direction mid-manoeuvre, Audi had no option but to attack everywhere, taking big risks under braking, mid-corner and on acceleration, all the time staying clean. This was the big challenge for the drivers, and testament should be paid to those in the GT1 and GT2 cars who played their part in avoiding big accidents.

While Audi was tactically brilliant, keeping in touch with the leaders despite its dry weather performance, the decisive factor was the rain, and how both teams coped with the changeable conditions. In the wet on Sunday morning, Audi was able to press home its advantage, using its tyres better and was faster.

Audi Sport had devised a plan that concentrated on the performance of its personnel, in the pits and in the car. The Audi driver changes were faster by between five and 10 seconds, and there were fewer of them. From the start, Audi quadruple stinted its drivers which also gave the number 2 car greater consistency, particularly when the weather changed on Sunday morning from dry to wet, from wet to dry, and the greasy bits in between. Tactically, Audi called the race better.

“As soon as the rain came Audi went straight onto full wets,” said Michelin’s competition manager Matthieu Bonardel. “Peugeot tried intermediates at first before going to harder tyres then full wets.” Having lost the lead during the night, Peugeot had to gamble on Sunday morning and their guesses did not pay off. A catastrophic decision to put Nicolas Minassian out on wet tyres on a dry circuit was as a result of a weather report that was not right, and gave Tom Kristensen the chance to stroke home a comfortable win.

Audi was able to complete 12 laps on a tank of fuel compared with Peugeot’s 11 even given their attempt to keep pace with the Peugeot. By midnight, the number 2 Audi had saved itself two pit stops, three driver changes and despite their significant speed disadvantage around the 13.629km circuit, were only two minutes and 53 seconds behind the leading Peugeot!

Peugeot had a strong driving line up, including Franck Montagny who was outstanding in the dry conditions on Saturday evening, Nicolas Minassian, Stephane Sarrazin and Pedro Lamy. Yet they were all in different cars and each line-up had a weak link. At a time on Saturday when Jacques Villeneuve was lapping in 3m27s and Capello in 3m29 in the Audi, Montagny was regularly posting 3m20s laps.

That brought his car into the lead, before he handed to Christian Klien who was called to the pit to replace the nose of the car due to only one headlight working. The bodywork change was insufferably slow, as was Klien’s reaction to the pit call which earned him a stop and go penalty for driving too long with a defective headlight. The Austrian then spun the car into the gravel at 10pm, undoing all of Montagny’s brilliant work. Villeneuve picked up speed on Sunday, as he did in 2007, but in the dark and wet, he was not fast enough. The Lamy, Sarrazin, Wurz car arguably had the strongest driving line up, but a broken piston which enabled gear selection cost them too long in the pits on Saturday evening to catch a healthy Audi.

“The hardest aspect was that we had a car that was obviously slower,” said Kristensen. “It was three or four seconds slower in the dry. In the wet we were able to take chances. We had a race we could win, and they had a race they could lose. We had the right calls on tyres, which was difficult in the night and the wet. The drivers drove very fast, were very disciplined, and we had an iron will to win together.

“We decided to go four stints from the beginning. They copied our strategy but it was far too late and we had stressed them. I was in the car late at night when it started to rain, and got into a good fight with the number 7 car, and we passed it in the pit stop. From then on we were really well disciplined and we knew that there would be more rain. We took good solid chances and that meant they had to dig in deeper.”

For McNish, the options were simple: “We knew we had one chance and that was to put them under pressure straight away, be clean and tidy, but needed to be on the risky side of traffic and strategy to be close enough if an opportunity came about,” he said. “Twelve laps were important as were 4 stints, not easy on either but necessary. When it rained it was our chance and the 3 + minute lead we had at 9am was enough for them to be the ones taking risks and difficult strategy decisions.  After 3 o' clock it was all plain celebrating.”

Peugeot succumbed to this pressure. Not only did they struggle to get heat into their wet-weather tyres which left them without grip, but they also wore them out faster and had to change at every pit stop. This was despite running three different downforce set-ups on the three cars, one of which was ‘maxi’ downforce setting. In the dry, the 908s could double stint, in the wet, Audi could and may even have triple stinted. Do they have the same Michelin tyres?

“I don’t think there was one mistake,” concluded Peugeot’s technical director, Bruno Famin. “There is a short list of inconveniences that we had, and we have to solve them. There were no major problems. I don’t think it was strategy that was a problem. That was good. We have shown that even going fast and consuming more fuel was the right choice. The problem in the rain was the speed and that was because our package was not as good. We had all sorts of problems with the car and tyre package.”

Peugeot was beaten by a team which performed better. It was Audi’s finest hour at Le Mans, but it is not a trick that can be repeated. Peugeot Sport will learn good lessons from this and will be even stronger next year. Audi needs a new car because Peugeot will not fall like that again.

Andrew Cotton, June 2008