This could be the start of a beautiful friendship……..
We could be heroes……..
The opening round of the 2004 Le Mans Endurance Series produced some
heroic drives from world class drivers and there is no better stage for such
performances than Monza. There were changes for the lead, there was quality car
control in the wet, and there were blistering qualifying laps in preparation for the
1000km race. The results in LMP1 read Audi, Audi, Audi, but those who believe it
was a German tribute race had better find themselves a television screen and sit
and watch the entire five hours and five minutes of pure motor racing to get the
The race was everything endurance racing enthusiasts have hoped for and at
Monza, the LMES extravaganza got off to the finest of starts. There is still a place
for GT racing in the market, says Stephane Ratel who points out that 30 cars in
the FIA series would never all fit in the LMES paddock, but the sight of Audis,
Zyteks, Ferraris, Porsches, Domes, Courages and TVRs out on the track together
was superb. There is overtaking, traffic, tactics and everything a proper motor race
should have, including a classic dice for the lead.
The 1000km format was a classic distance for good reason and it was just long
enough for a touch of rain in the last 20 minutes to add that final ingredient – luck.
Each of the LMES races is promoted as an ‘event’, and Monza’s will certainly stay
in the memory, filed in the ‘classic’ section. Race reports can be found elsewhere,
but there were some drives at the weekend that deserve better.
Zytek Wallace and the Spiders from Mars
In the interests of leaving the obvious until later, let’s start with the Zytek and, in
particular, Andy Wallace. There are those who have said that he is missing those
last few tenths of balls out speed these days, but anyone who saw his opening
stint at Monza would soon shut up. He had crashed his Dyson Lola at Mosport
last week, hitting a frost heave on the straight, flipping the Lola onto its single roll
hoop which absorbed the 12g impact and allowed him to walk away unscathed.
He tested the other chassis the next day, drove the Zytek in Italy on Saturday, and
started the race.
It was some surprise to see him start the race, and even more of a surprise to
see him have a cheeky look around the outside of Allan McNish into Parabolica
during the opening hour. It was a faultless display of driving, only interrupted when
the bracket holding the brake master cylinder broke, tipping the cylinder and
allowing brake fluid out, air into the system, and no front brakes for the last bit of
his first stint, and his second stint too.
David Brabham hopped in, did a lap and recommended that the part be
replaced, as it was only the second hour of the race! Stefan Johansson stepped
aboard for the final stint and comfortably ran among the Audis. Wallace, Brabham
and Johansson, the ageless Swede who had put the car on provisional pole
during first qualifying and who is reputed to be looking to buy one of these
rocketships were, between them, sublime behind the wheel.
In with a bullet
Nasamax were another bunch that came up trumps at the weekend and, in
particular, South African Werner Lupberger. The bio-ethanol car has been
adapted to the new regulations and aerodynamically it looks like a dog’s dinner.
Team manager John McNeil fully advocated the basis of the new rules, however.
In the past, he explained over dinner on Friday night, you were terrified of dropping
the rear even a fraction in case you got air underneath the nose with awful
consequences…….ask Mercedes, Porsche or BMW.
With the new car and the aerodynamics, you can drop the front, the back, either
side, it matters not one jot. Over that same dinner, incidentally, McNeil
demonstrated his complete lack of compassion as I ill-advisedly started a
conversation with the Japanese Kondo team about bio-ethanol. “Good luck” he
muttered as I embarked on a story about stuffing modified plants into the fuel
tank. I’m going to have to explain it again later, properly translated.
Having substantially less downforce than the older cars, Lupberger was still
mighty during qualifying, comfortably quickest in a straight line and was ably
backed up by Robbie Stirling who was having his first ever go around the
Autodromo. The car sounds superb and the South African was obviously driving
the wheelnuts off the car and having a fabulous time doing it. McNeil appreciates
his protégé, though his impersonation of him does rather sound like Steptoe
Senior. The car reached the finish at Monza, the first time it has completed a race,
and well deserved it was too.
Dutch disappointment and honourable rollcall
Mike Hezemans deserves a note of sympathy as he failed yet again to finish a
race. The Dutchman’s Ferrari 575 broke a prop shaft and retired to the dismay of
his father. “Yet again, Mike doesn’t finish a race,” said Toine. “It has been a long
time now.” Mike is a man who drives from the heart with all the passion any man
who gets behind the wheel of a Ferrari should possess. Any time we went to
Enna Pergusa, Mike in the Viper was simply outstanding through the first chicane
and he has lost nothing behind the wheel of his Ferrari.
There are many others who deserve a mention in the heroic stakes, from
Nicolas Minassian in the Creation Zytek to Luca Riccitelli in the Seikel Motorsport
Porsche, which challenged the likes of Stephane Ortelli and Romain Dumas,
Sascha Maassen in the Cirtek Porsche. Hell, we could even get to the likes of
Bobby Verdon-Roe, who managed to lap just about everyone in the his Ligier in
the classic event on Sunday morning despite breaking his foot in a trampoline
accident two weeks before, or Martin Short’s Rollcentre team that continues the
bluffer’s guide to prototype racing and has now finished competitively at the
Sebring 12-hours and at Monza 1000kms.
But we must move onto the Veloqx Audis at some point and this is it. Allan
McNish and Johnny Herbert were outstanding in their Audis, and you couldn’t find
many who would disagree. The Scot put in a Herculean quadruple stint for
starters, lost the lead in a chaotic pit stop thanks to Wallace’s faded brakes and
missed pit which shoved everyone ahead out of place when they stopped
including the Audi. The Veloqx team couldn’t refuel until the Konrad Saleen behind
had been pushed back, so they changed tyres, then refuelled, then sent McNish
He hunted down Herbert, passed him with a wonderful move at the exit of the
Ascari chicane, and pulled out a lead for his co-driver Pierre Kaffer. Would Kaffer
finish the race? “He is fast enough to do it, why not?” asked McNish. The standard
was simply too high for the German taking part in only his second race with Audi.
He has undoubted talent, gets on well with McNish who groomed Dindo Capello
in 2000, and who recognises Kaffer’s potential, but at Monza, it took world class.
Herbert chased down Kaffer, and as they jinked either side of a Ferrari, Kaffer
must have been astonished to see Herbert drawing level, fully on the grass, and
holding the inside line into Parabolica. “I was on the grass for a bit longer than I
expected,” said Herbert afterwards. It was the move of the race, one that summed
up what we have in store for the season. There are no team orders at Audi Team
Veloqx, there are two ex Grand-Prix drivers who never had the opportunity that they
deserved, and we have Silverstone and Spa coming up.
Audi did finish first, second and third, the Team Goh Audi struggling for the pace
of the Veloqx cars and never being part of the battle for the win. That was left to the
Zytek, which everyone agrees will be a real handful at the Nurburgring in July, with
the Creation, Zytek Engineering and Team Jota machines expected to jolly along
the German machines on their home turf.
The Pescarolo team brought its car home fourth; delighted with its new Judd
engine that has replaced the unwieldy Peugeot powerplant. RML had a reliable
run to seventh, possibly the first time such a car has run without any mechanical
issues over that race distance, Larbre won the GTS category with Pedro Lamy,
Christophe Bouchut and Steve Zacchia to the delight of team owner Jack
Leconte…the list of deserved mentions goes on and on. We’ll try to do them all
justice later in the year. For now, for those who videotaped the Grand Prix, try to lay
your hands on a copy of the LMES 2004 season opener. You won’t be
We know we will enjoy the race, whoever shows up.