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 The View From Catalunya - Andrew & Michael Cotton reflect on the opening round of the 2008 Le Mans Series...............

At Barcelona, the Le Mans Series raised its profile on the international motor racing stage. Not only was the grid dripping with quality, but also in the paddock everyone has taken a huge step forward, from the smallest teams in GT2 to the arrival of Audi in LM P1. In the short history of the LMS the seasons have been dominated by one team. In succession Audi, Pescarolo Sport, and last year, Peugeot, each team winning every race. This year, Peugeot, Porsche, Corvette and Ferrari opened their accounts with wins in their respective classes, but they will all have a fight on its hands to stay on top of the tree.

The race threw up a host of questions. How will Audi react in the three weeks before Monza, in the five weeks before Spa, and in the two months before Le Mans having been beaten in Spain? Barcelona is a downforce circuit on which all devices known to man are attached to the bodywork, unlike Le Mans, or Monza at the end of April, which might offer a clearer picture of the task in hand.

The Peugeot, which also features a 5.5 litre V12 engine, is a well-balanced car, which at Barcelona was able to pull away from the R10 TDI at the end of the straight. That called into question the much-held theory that the Audi has more power than Peugeot. Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, head of Audi motorsport, said on Saturday that if the decision were taken to stay in 2009, it would have to be with a new car. Audi really needs to get its hands on the new rules. Dr Ullrich wants to build an open car, and the design process needs to start immediately.

Peugeot proved that it has some questions yet to resolve, not least the issue of damage to the rear after contact with another competitor. At Silverstone last year, it cost Pedro Lamy and Stephane Sarrazin, and the same drivers were victims in Spain. Marc Gene was also extremely lucky to be able to continue having launched his 908 HDI FAP high into the air (and into the Zytek above the sidepods).  Then the 908 was fortunate to have enough of a cushion that Nicolas Minassian was able to finish the race as the Spaniard suffered from cramp. Yet throughout each stint, the times set by the 908s were being set at 1m35s as even the Audis trailed off towards 1m37 and 1m38.

Audi has a lot of work to do before Le Mans, and I hope we see a repeat of last year’s race, when McNish, Capello and Kristensen are given another crack at victory by driving flat out for 24 hours, without compromise. Peugeot says that it can now run its engine at full power for 24 hours and so would send cars after them on the same strategy, which is a thrilling prospect.

Peugeot will run the same engine, gearbox and suspension at the opening three races of the LMS to test durability. If that costs them a Le Mans Series race, so be it. The message is clear; Peugeot’s goal is to win Le Mans. Having lost his NASCAR drive, Jacques Villeneuve is available to take part in more pre-event testing, and will race at Spa in May with Minassian and Gene. Sarrazin and Lamy will be joined by one of the four newcomers to the team, Zonta, Wurz, Klien or Montagny.

The Aston Martin powered Lola Coupe was another to have a spectacular debut. No one will argue that a podium on its debut had a lot to do with the demise of the second Peugeot and the alternator belt failure of Allan McNish’s Audi, which cost him and Dindo Capello six laps while repairs were made. Yet the car ran strongly in the opening hour against the second Audi and reliably throughout the six hours. Jan Charouz and Stefan Mucke did a great job, the engine was powerful and the chassis excelled in both LM P1 and LM P2, where the Speedy Racing team also took a debut podium in the hands of Xavier Pompidou, Andrea Belicchi and Steve Zacchia.

Zacchia was one of the stars of the show. The Swiss driver struggled to shine at Larbre in the GT1 Aston Martin, and was considered the weak link in the driving chain for his new team. Yet in testing he was professional, and in the race he performed above expectations. He was not the only one. Peter van Merksteijn was an unknown quantity in the Dutch RS Spyder, yet he matched the times set by John Nielsen when the pair were on track together. His co-driver Jos Verstappen was mighty in qualifying, and some have raised the issue of a professional driver in LMP2 once again. Interestingly Hugh Hayden, whose team finished second with the Judd-powered Lola, had no problem with the Dutchman. During the race, Verstappen was not that much faster than anyone else and his decision to contest the category has forced everyone to raise their game.

In GT1, the loss of ORECA was noticeable, yet that did not detract from the show. The Aston Martin, Saleen and Corvette are all evenly matched, and only the Lamborghini really needs work to get up to speed. Yet, with Tomas Enge paying the price for hitting Sarrazin and then stopping out on track with a mystery failure, Peter Kox and Romain Rusinov were on the podium.

In GT2, Porsche is going to have to do some serious soul searching. Each of the teams running Michelin tyres are customers, which means that they buy their own tyres prior to the race, have limited compounds to choose from, and have to monitor pressures and temperatures themselves. The Ferrari enjoyed development tyres from Dunlop, and Gianmaria Bruni and Rob Bell were able to make up 90 seconds on the leading Porsche of Marc Lieb and Alex Davison after contact cost time, and won the race by a lap.

Porsche’s updated 997 is clearly a better car than last year, but one driver commented “we got our asses kicked,” in Spain, and they had better hope that Monza suits the Porsche better. And they could do without crashing into each other. In the ALMS, Patrick Long and Sascha Maassen were each docked three championship points for a on-track incidents, including tagging Butch Leitzinger’s Dyson Porsche which spun to a standstill and was hit by the unsighted GT2 class leading Flying Lizard Porsche. That brought out the safety car which ultimately let the Audi in with a chance to win.

In Barcelona, a spinning Spyker caused mayhem. The Team Essex Porsche took evasive action, and was hit by the Porsche of Allan Simonsen. Simonsen’s car later retired with a punctured radiator while the Essex Porsche lost the lead of the class carrying out repairs. Even Marc Lieb’s Porsche picked up some damage in the same incident. Porsche’s spare parts department will be working overtime from here on in if this keeps up!

Can sports car racing continue to strengthen over the coming three years? In Automotive News Europe, Toyota’s head of research and development Kazuo Okamoto is quoted as saying of Le Mans; “We want to enter when we are confident of victory.” It will be a hybrid when it comes, and will be extremely competitive. Those close to the company confirm that not winning yet is a major thorn in their side. If Acura does move to LM P1 and overcomes the branding issue of being Honda in Europe, can we expect more to come from the Far East?

Will Audi stay, or be replaced by Porsche in LM P1? By contesting the Le Mans Series, the indication is that Audi will stay. That means that, by Ullrich’s reckoning, it will have a new car next year and a long-term future, as long as the ACO allows open prototypes in 2010. Will Peugeot stay if it wins at Le Mans this year? History suggests that it will and with Porsche, Lola, Epsilon and Embassy Racing all joining the LMS for the first time this year, this could be one of the golden years of sports car racing.

Andrew Cotton, April 2007

Le Mans Series’ Launched

The first meeting of Le Mans cars on European soil since last September was eagerly awaited, but produced no great surprises. Half a year of development and refining came into focus at Barcelona’s Catalunya Grand Prix circuit on April 6 and confirmed several preconceptions. The Peugeot 908 is measurably superior to the Audi R10. Porsche makes a damned good LM P2 Spyder, but the three Weissach wonders were given a good chase by Speedy’s Judd powered Lola B08/80 coupe. Aston Martin has enough speed to win GT1, but lacked reliability, while in GT2, Virgo Motorsport’s Ferrari 430 GT was so much faster than the ’08 model Porsche GT3 RSRs that it was almost out of sight.

Audi Sport Team Joest expected serious competition from Peugeot, but could hardly have expected that the French would dominate the front row of the grid, Stephane Sarrazin 1.4 seconds quicker than ALMS champion Allan McNish, Marc Gene eight-tenths quicker. In the race, Sarrazin set the fastest lap, after a long delay in the garage, at 1m 33.515 sec, some 1.4 seconds faster than Nishy’s best lap, also set after a delay due to a broken alternator belt. Later, McNish said he couldn’t hold the Peugeots on the straights, and noted too that the coupe body Lolas, the Aston Martin powered B06/80 and even the LM P2 B08/80, were also pretty damned quick on the straights.

As for Joest’s number 2 Audi, Alexandre Premat and Mike Rockenfeller never really looked a threat to the Peugeots. A snapshot, at the 20 lap mark, had Lamy leading Minassian by two seconds, McNish was 10 seconds down, Stefan Mücke was 18 seconds down in the Lola Aston and Premat was 30 seconds in arrears, the British car not even in his sights.

  Peugeot were lucky to win, though. Gene had a huge moment at quarter distance when he came up to lap some backmarkers, launched the Peugeot over a marker kerb and slammed into Michael Verger’s innocent Zytek head- high, smashing its sidepod and radiator. Did the French military have a hand in designing the 908? It came away with nothing worse than a broken headlight, and even after the race, Nic Minassian had no idea that his team- mate had had such a massive encounter.

 When Sarrazin was on McNish’s tail in the second hour (the number 1 Audi got the jump with an early pit stop, for a punctured tyre) I noted “two masters at work”. Nishy was able to keep the Peugeot at bay for several laps, until such time as Tomas Enge did him a huge favour and slammed into the back of the Peugeot, breaking the box section behind the right-rear wheel. Sarrazin was black-flagged after trailing the broken bodywork around by the tail-light wires, and lost 16 laps.

  “We’ll be better at Monza” McNish reckoned afterwards. “The corners are faster, and we have the downforce.” Yep, then there’s Spa, and after that, Le Mans where the straights are long, long and long. Reinhold Joest and Ralf Jüttner returned to Germany knowing that they have to find a significant performance gain in the R10, with very little time at their disposal. “Haven’t the cars got boost knobs on the dashboard?” I asked Herr Jüttner helpfully. “I wish it was that simple” was his rueful response.

  Asked on Saturday morning about the R10’s replacement, Dr Wolfgang Ullrich pondered for at least 30 seconds before responding “if I had the choice, it would be an open car again, but we have to wait until we see the Le Mans rules for 2010. We need to start work straight away if we are to have a new car in 2009.” After Barcelona, I reckon his choice has narrowed somewhat, and a more aerodynamic coupe body style might be preferred.

  The Charouz Racing System Lola Aston Martin made a sensational debut, racing fast and trouble-free to third overall, three laps behind the winner. It was, significantly, two laps ahead of Pescarolo Sport’s better car as Jean- Christophe Boullion and Emmanuel Collard took fourth position. I have to conclude that the good Henri has made little progress during the off-season, and while bemoaning the superiority of the diesel cars, now takes a swipe at the Aston Martin: “They have bigger restrictors than us! They say it is a production engine so it has the advantage with restrictors, but in my opinion it is a racing engine. Chevrolet has a production engine, not Aston Martin.” Tell that to David Richards and George Howard-Chappell!

  Creation AIM’s new car, run by Ian Bickerton, ran like an express train with Jamie Campbell-Walter at the wheel, sixth overall after an hour, but slowed later with a slipping clutch and was classified 14th, 52 laps down, and one place behind the promising looking Epsilon Eskudi from the Basque province.

  The Swiss Speedy Racing Team Sebah Lola, run by Hugh Hayden, was just as impressive as its big brother, also enjoying a trouble-free debut and giving the three new Porsche RS Spyders a good race. Burdened by the addition of 50 kg, to 825 kg, and with 80 litre fuel tanks, the Porsches were never going to perform the miracles that the Penske Racing Spyders perform in America, so the Van Merksteijn Motorsport Porsche performed pretty much as expected in claiming sixth position overall.

  Jos Verstappen made an impressive sports car racing debut, learning the traffic, but his best race lap was nearly three seconds slower than he qualified, so it would seem that he wasn’t really pushing. Lacking Verstappen’s experience, car owner Peter van Merksteijn did an excellent job to keep the Porsche in contention and stay out of trouble. A 30-second stop- go for Verstappen for overtaking, twice, under yellow flags, made no difference to the result.

  John Nielsen got a biff in the back from Allan Simonsen’s Farnbacher Racing Porsche, while avoiding a spinning Spyker, and Didier Theys had the front-right tyre explode on the Horag Racing Porsche on the main straight after running over some debris. On recovery, they raced well to third and sixth positions in LM P2.  LM P2 champions RML, with Mike Newton and Tommy Erdos maintaining their partnership, suffered a lack of power in the AER-MG turbo engine and found it difficult to stay with the GT2 cars on the straights. Seems their engine management system kept telling the four cylinders to back off, lads, we might be about to detonate, although this was not a threat. The switch to E85 fuel might be somewhere in their equation.

 Team Modena’s Aston Martin was level-pegging with Luc Alphand’s Corvette at half distance, 3.1 seconds adrift in fact, after Tomas Enge had first hit Sarrazin’s Peugeot a hefty thump, then run so wide in a turn as to investigate the back of a gravel trap and regain the circuit spreading dirt far and wide. Can that Czech not stay out of trouble for a while? Then the Aston stopped at the trackside, not out of fuel as was believed, but with four litres in the tank and a pick-up malady.

  Larbre Competition’s ex-Oreca Saleen was started by Christophe Bouchut from the back of the grid, after failing to qualify (the engine was in the back of the garage at the time, having overheated), lost a lap behind the safety car and finished second in class, two laps behind Alphand’s Corvette. Bouchut looked especially grumpy after the race and declined to attend the press conference.

 Ferrari and Dunlop finished the 2007 season as champions in GT2, and look odds-on favourites to repeat the achievement in 2008. Gianmaria Bruni qualified the Virgo Motorsport Ferrari 430 GT an astonishing 1.25 seconds faster than a clutch of Michelin shod Porsches, three of which qualified within a fifth of a second. Champion Rob Bell was hit by a prototype early in the event and limped the Ferrari to the pits with a cut tyre, but after that he and Bruni forged through the field to win the GT2 class by 69 seconds. “We will go back to try to find some more speed from this car” said Marc Lieb grimly. All the “favoured” Porsches qualified by Lieb, Richard Lietz and Richard Westbrook, suffered lack of grip and uncertain under-oversteer characteristics which might, in fairness, not manifest themselves on the faster circuits.

 Roll on Monza on April 27!

Michael Cotton, April 2008