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Mistral Winds

After two days in sunshine and more than 25 degrees, Gatwick airport at -1 degree Centigrade was a shock to the system. That can be the only reason I can proffer as to how I managed to squirt myself with windscreen washer fluid from the comfort of my own driver’s seat. I stuck my head out of the window to tell Brooks, who was scraping the ice off the car using some probably defunct credit card, to stand clear, I pulled the lever before I pulled my head back in. It took Brooks a long time to stop laughing and it was the end of an otherwise very enlightening weekend at the Le Mans Series test held at Paul Ricard.

We often speculated as to how fast the Peugeot actually was compared to the Audi and after the test the only thing that is clearer is that the two factories are well matched. Private teams have always wondered how fast the diesels can actually go. Some forum mongs predict a 3m21s qualifying lap at Le Mans, and Henri Pescarolo will now have his credentials checked. “Now, they have to go flat out all race, and we will see,” he noted after Audi’s Allan McNish beat Peugeot’s best of 2007 at the LMS test by nearly four seconds. The Peugeot was at the start of its development phase this time last year so don’t read too much into that performance. Peugeot has lapped the same configuration of the HTTT even quicker than McNish’s 1m39.705s. According to legend, Peugeot did a 1m38 just one week earlier.

The other potential mess to be sorted out is the LM P2 class. The two RS Spyders not only lapped the 5.971km circuit shades over last year’s LMP1 best set by Peugeot, but spent a fortune getting there, and that didn’t help to quell the unrest among the competitors. Again, paddock scuttlebutt suggests that Peter van Merksteijn has spent €3.5m on his Porsche set-up just to get to Ricard, before the car has even turned a wheel in anger. As Essex Racing’s John Nielsen noted; “This is an expensive car, but you can see where the money has been spent.” And from the outside to any observer, the teams had been spending money on new pit gear and tools, and looked professional from top to toe.

The anticipated arrival of Sascha Maassen to the Essex team for Le Mans will do nothing to ease the unrest of rival teams, in both LM P1 and LM P2, and the ACO. The teams have done nothing wrong, but the rules have been constructed in such a way as to allow these ground-up racing cars into the series. I doubt that they will have the same effect as they had in the US, where Penske won eight races overall in 2007. I even doubt that they will run away with the results as predicted. The ASM team was half a second down during the test, but look at the second drivers. John Nielsen for Essex Racing, Peter van Merksteijn for van Merksteijn and Miguel Amaral for ASM. OK, you would back Nielsen with Casper Elgaard out of that lot, but then look at RML, where Mike Newton has developed into an ideal gentleman driver – a safe pair of hands and with speed to win races. His co-driver is Tommy Erdos, one of the most under-rated drivers on the grid.

Yes, the Porsches will be on LM P2 pole at almost every round, and at the Nurburgring and Barcelona they could be mixing high in the run of LM P1 cars. If this turns out to be the case, it will be particularly noticeable at Barcelona, as it is the first race. However three weeks later the second race is at Monza where they will give more than 30km/h on the straight to the Lola Aston Martin, and a fortnight after that comes Spa where the Spyders will run out of puff half way up the Kemmel straight. Yet in the races, it will be much closer within the class and I don’t predict that the RS Spyders will win every time out, there is strength in depth for LM P2 in 2008.

Looking ahead, the ACO is planning new rules in 2010 and logic would suggest that the LM P2 class would be the most affected. When the ACO saw the potential of the LMP675 MG Lolas, they banned exotic materials and I suspect that is where they will look again. Could they implement a rule whereby a chassis and aero package should be able to accommodate a currently available turbo charged or normally aspirated engine, for example? If a chassis is able to take multiple engine configurations, it would stop a ground-up racing car, as tightly and perfectly packaged as an RS Spyder and perhaps make it less attractive to a manufacturer which clearly has one eye on winning races in the US overall.

Hugh Chamberlain believes that one element of the change should be the drivers. Anyone who has held a Super licence or who has won at Le Mans should not be allowed to drive in the LM P2 class. That would rule out John Nielsen, the 52-year-old who won Le Mans 18 years ago for Jaguar and who has had to modify the steering column of the RS Spyder to fit his huge frame into it. It would also rule out Jos Verstappen and here I can sort of see his point.

If a gentleman wants to race in LMP2, they don’t want to take on such a driver, but Verstappen is an exception, not a rule. Any regulation regarding the quality of driver will have a coach and horses driven through it. Should Klaus Ludwig and Anthony Reid have been allowed to drive in GT3? Stephane Ratel said yes because of Ludwig’s age and Reid drove with a wheelchair- bound co-driver, but they had lost none of their speed and while Ludwig qualified on pole for the first race at Silverstone, his co-driver finished the first lap almost plumb last.

That opens the door to the regulation that you cannot have a full complement of professional drivers in the line-up. There are a few holes in this theory – look at John Nielsen and Tomas Bscher, Ray Bellm and James Weaver in the McLaren days of 1995. I ask whether or not a team would make investment in machinery and driving talent without the high level performance and support offered by an RS Spyder programme? Obviously not, or we would have seen it over the past four seasons of the LMS.

It is far easier to restrict metal than people. It is a question of who is governing those restrictions.

Andrew Cotton, March 2008