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Michael & Andrew Cotton
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French Élan

The dry ice threatened to choke some of those present at the presentation of the Peugeot 908 HDI FAP and the first words from sporting director Michel Barge disappeared as his microphone failed to work. But it was an otherwise flawless launch of Peugeot’s racing activities this year and the message emanating from the arena at a horse racing course in Paris was clear; we are out to beat Audi.

The car has been improved to run at full power for 24 hours at Le Mans, as did Allan McNish, Dindo Capello and Tom Kristensen in 2007 for Audi, before the wheel fell off their R10 on Sunday morning. The Peugeot team has been expanded to three cars for Le Mans, will remain at two cars for the LMS, and for the first time, the French manufacturer will race at Sebring next month. The problems that affected the suspension, wheel bearings, clutch and gearbox of the 908 in 2007 have been cured. One problem fixed will invariably lead to another discovered, but at the Parisian launch, Peugeot was in confident mood.

Grand Prix
There are few weaknesses in the driver line-up either. F1 test drivers Alexander Wurz, Christian Klein, Ricardo Zonta and of course Marc Gene are on board this year. Jacques Villeneuve joins the party again, and coupled with the likes of Nicolas Minassian, Pedro Lamy, Stephane Sarrazin and Franck Montagny, there are few weaknesses. “If we keep these kind of cars, we will have Formula One drivers,” said Barge. “That is very important for the success of the championship. People want to see man before the machine.”

At Le Mans Villeneuve did not have the pace of his two colleagues last year, having struggled with vision through the windscreen on Saturday night, broken a splitter on Sunday morning, and failed to grasp the intricacies of driving in traffic. But, having stepped from the car late on Sunday morning after his best stint, he announced that he wanted to come back and try again, even before his car conked out on Sunday afternoon. Would the team have him back I had wondered? The answer was an emphatic ‘yes’ from technical director Bruno Famin late last year, and he has got his wish. Villeneuve helped with the development of the car, sometimes pointing the team to more simple solutions to complicated problems, and the team was delighted.

Alexander Wurz claimed that he had seen the 908 HDI FAP testing at Paul Ricard shortly after signing for Williams, and told his manager that he wanted to drive one in 2008. His manager was gob-smacked, pointing out that he had just signed a new deal in F1, but Wurz was adamant. He wanted to return to the place where, in 1996, he had won the Le Mans 24 hours on his debut, just one year before Tom Kristensen debuted and scored the first of his seven wins. It seems that sports car racing is entering a new phase.

Back to the Future
While the manufacturers are committing to ever more diverse technology, some of the biggest names in the sport, such as James Weaver, were promoted by R J Reynolds in the US in the 1980s and were able to command a faithful following 20 years on. The Daytona 24 hours attracts drivers like no other race in the US, and on that we can sell stories. If the Le Mans, and the prototype cars, are able to draw high calibre drivers on merit, there is very little need to change. “I have no problem with closed and open cars,” confirmed Barge, neatly dodging the question about Peugeot’s strong-arm tactics in discussion with the ACO regarding the 2010 regulations. “It is the decision of the manufacturer to be closed or open. If we built a closed car, it was not for the future, it was only a technical decision.”

As the manufacturers take a closer interest in the LMS, the series itself has also stepped up to the plate. Barcelona joins the calendar as the season opener on April 6, followed by Monza, Spa, Nurburgring and Silverstone. The sixth race has been shelved in favour of the proposed Shanghai race on November 1, though this addition to the calendar has been roundly criticised by manufacturers and organisers alike. Patrick Peter wanted to return to Brazil with a race worth 50 per cent more points than a standard round, and an automatic Le Mans entry for the class winners. He believed he could have guaranteed 36 cars this year, and has scrapped the rule that awards half points if there are too few entries in any class. Full points at all races for the LMS, then, and television will switch from Motors to Eurosport for both Le Mans and the LMS.

The wealth of entries in the LMP1 class belies the moaning in the past about the advantages held by diesel over petrol engines. With Hugues de Chaunac’s Team Oreca taking control of Yves Courage’s Le Mans based prototype factory, we now see two Team Oreca Matmut Courage-Oreca LC70 Judds in the entry for the LMS, with Stephane Ortelli and Soheil Ayari promoted to the LMP1 team, along with Olivier Panis and Nicolas Lapierre.

Pescarolo Sport, now backed by Jacques Nicolet, runs a two-car Judd powered team for 2006 champions Jean-Christophe Boullion and Emmanuel Collard, and Harold Primat with Christophe Tinseau. There will be huge interest in the Aston Martin V12 powered Lola B08/60 entered by Charouz Racing System for Jan Charouz and Stephan Mücke, and in the Aim powered Creation Autosportif team cars, with new V10 engines from John Judd’s productive drawing boards. Jamie Campbell-Walter again leads this team, with Felipe Ortiz, with Stuart Hall (the ‘find’ of 2007 in Martin Short’s Rollcentre team) switching mounts and drives with Frenchman Simon Pagneaud. Juan Barazi’s Epsilon team moves up to LMP1 with the oddly named Epsilon-Euskadi cars, designed by John Travis and powered by Judd engines.

RML’s MG Lola EX265 team defends its championship title in LMP2, Mike Newton and Tommy Erdos enjoying backing from the Chinese owners of MG for their AER turbo engine. Competition in this class will be the most fiercely fought with two new Zytek powered Embassy WF01 cars – Johnny Kane with Warren Hughes, and Mario Haberfeld with Joey Foster – and three Porsche RS Spyders, racing in Europe for the first time.

Dutchman Peter van Merkstein was the first to declare, naming Jos Verstappen and Jeroen Bleekemolen as his co-drivers (nota bene, the plan to allow no more than one professional driver in each LMP2 entry has been quietly ditched). Fredy Lienhard has Didier Theys and Jan Lammers in his Horag Racing Porsche, and from Denmark, John Nielsen and Casper Elgaard compete in the Team Essex Porsche, this one on Dunlop tyres, the first to switch from Michelins. Another newcomer in LMP2 is Lola’s new B08/80 closed body design, powered by the Judd V8, entered by the Swiss Speedy Racing Team in conjunction with Hugh Hayden’s Sebah Automotive.

Only five cars are entered in GT1, a reversal of last year’s 10-car entry. “It is the same everywhere,” laments Patrick Peter. Larbre switches from Aston Martin to a single ex-Oreca Saleen, and a lightweight driver line-up. Luc Alphand enters two Corvette C6.Rs, IPB Spartak a Lamborghini Murcielago, and Team Modena is the single representative of Aston Martin with a DBR9 for Antonio Garcia and Tomas Enge. If the Czech can bridle his enthusiasm this year, they should be almost unbeatable.

Six Porsche 997s, four Ferrari 430 GTs, three Spyker C8 Laviolettes and James Watt’s new Aston Martin Vantage V8 make up the 14-car GT2 entry list. Virgo Motorsport will defend their title very strongly with Rob Bell and Gianmaria Bruni, and there are two more from JMB, another (a new entry) from Farnbacher Racing.

Porsche will fight back strongly, IMSA Performance Matmut running two cars, with factory contracted driver Richard Lietz on the strength, and Team Felbermayr Proton a single Porsche for Marc Lieb and Australian Alex Davison, on Michelin tyres rather than Pirelli. Double Porsche Supercup winner Richard Westbrook joins Allan Simonsen in the Farnbacher Racing Porsche, also on Michelin, joining Dane Lars-Erik Nielsen.

Tom Coronel and Peter Dumbreck lead the Spyder Squadron, backed by returnee Ralf Kelleners with Alexei Vassiliev, and we hear that the Dutch cars have been improved for 2008 with longer wheelbase chassis.

Missing in Action
Disappearing from the entry are the Swiss Spirit Lola-Audi, Racing for Holland Dome, Scuderia Lavaggi, Binnie Motorsports, Noel del Bello, T2M, Ranieri Randaccio, Pierre Bruneau’s Pilbeam, Racing Box Ferrari, GPC Sport, Scuderia Villorba Corse, Ice Pol, Markland Corvette and sadly, the Team LNT Panoz team. Some of these will undoubtedly appear in their national events.

Predictions? Peugeot to edge Audi in the Le Mans Series, but the two manufacturers will be evens-stevens at Le Mans. Team Essex Porsche to win LMP2, Team Modena for a handsome title in GT1. As for GT2, we don’t yet know the strength of the 2008 model Porsche RSR, which should be a significant step forward. I foresee a battle between Virgo Motorsport’s Ferrari and Felbermayr’s Porsche RSR with Lieb and Davison, with Virgo retaining their title.

Andrew and Michael Cotton, February 2008