Spa 1000Kms
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Plus ça change .......

The 2007 Le Mans Series rolled into the Ardennes last week for the 22nd edition of the Spa 1000Kms. As expected, the race was dominated by the factory Peugeots, indeed with the exception of GT2 the whole affair was predictable, victory going to the favourites and pole sitters all the way down the line in the other three classes.

The ascendancy in Europe of the diesel powered French Coupes this year has been such that an air of defeatism has crept into the ranks of the petrolheads in the LMP1 class. Former top dog, Henri Pescarolo, is speaking openly of leaving the sport he has graced as driver and entrant for over 40 years, citing that the advantages of the HDi 908 under the current rules package makes it impossible for a team such as his to compete or even to have an honest expectation of competing.

This is a bad enough situation but there have been plenty of hints around paddock that the Peugeots are not actually flat out when running in the LMS. Only at Le Mans’ Qualifying when faced by the Audis did the team go for it, special bodywork, and the softest of Michelins. Pole position and leading on lap 1 were Peugeot’s objectives, as realistically they did not expect to be around at 3.00pm on Sunday. Self-inflicted wounds by Audi nearly gifted the great prize to their diesel rivals. Ironically the R10s are supposed to have made their qualifying runs at La Sarthe on nearly full tanks, which certainly explains the ability of the Ingolstadt Boys to run so fast in race trim.

However even a casual observation of the 908 on the track will confirm that it is not just horsepower that makes up the full advantage held over Pescarolo, Lola, Creation, Courage and Zytek. Stefan Johansson, having one of the best seats in the house from his perches in the Zytek and Courage cockpits this year, reckons that the French factory effort has a significant handling advantage over the Audis never mind the others. The split times around Spa would confirm that at least according to one Norbert Singer. And who am I to argue with such men of substance? Since the 24 Hours at Le Mans Peugeot have tested extensively at both Jerez and Estoril, the privateers have not. Performance gains are the inevitable result, increasing the gap to the pack.

My companions on the road to Spa were the Cottons, Michael and Andrew. Michael, along with Herr Singer, is about the last man in the paddock who was working in the sport when it was at the Golden Age of 917s and 512s(plus of course, Madame and Monsieur Pescarolo). This prodded me into having a look at the details of the races in 1970 and 1971, to whether things really changed?

Well, “Up to a point, Lord Copper”

In 1970 the race was dominated by two John Wyer Automotive, Gulf sponsored, Porsche 917s with a factory Ferrari 512S for Jacky Ickx and John Surtees being the only real opposition. The 3 litre Group 6 teams of Matra and Alfa Romeo decided that washing their corporate hair that particular weekend would be preferable to the drubbing that would be dished out by the superior speed of the Group 5 cars.

Pedro Rodriguez’ 917 was on pole by 4 seconds from Jo Siffert in the second Gulf car with the Ferrari being a further half a second adrift. The Mexican set his time while bedding in brake pads and being apparently “cautious” as a result of a tyre deflation problem that the JWA 917s had suffered in practice and it came as no surprise that he set a time 3 seconds quicker than pole in the course of the race. The 917 were racing 4.9 litre engines for first time and had the benefit of new aerodynamic tweaks to the engine bay area together with a new spoiler arrangement both developed by the team and tested at MIRA, giving significant downforce gains with minimal drag penalty.

During the race itself Rodriguez, Siffert and Ickx put on performances that were in a different league to the others in the pack, setting lap record after lap record while swapping the lead between them. The result was decided when the Rodriguez’ 917 suffered transmission failure with Leo Kinnunen at the wheel and by the heroic efforts of Siffert’s partner, Brian Redman, who blew away Surtees in the 512 and was indeed comprehensively quicker than Swiss ace. The Lancastrian took the flag with nearly a lap in hand.

1971 saw a repeat victory for John Wyer’s Porsche 917s, this time it was Pedro on the top step with Jackie Oliver sharing driving duties; Siffert was once again shaded by his team mate, a young Derek Bell, pole sitter at 3.16.00. Records were established with the race being won at an average speed of 154.77 mph which still stands as the highest ever race speed achieved in any form of circuit racing and the fastest lap time was lowered to 3.13.60 by Pedro. According to John Horseman’s excellent book “Racing in the Rain” the 917s were in top gear, 4th, for up to 87% of each lap with a maximum speed of 218mph being achieved approaching the Masta Kink. Finally, the 1000 Kilometres were completed in a minute over the 4-Hour mark, incredible.

At Spa that year there was no real pressure on the Gulf team, the other factory Porsches of the Martini equipe ran different spec bodywork and after the first lap were not a factor. Group 6 produced only a singleton factory Ferrari 312PB which tripped over a slower car and the Autodelta Alfa Romeo 33/3 of Pescarolo and de Adamich ended up third overall and four laps adrift of the JWA pair (see, Henri was a star back then).

So what conclusions can be drawn from this? The obvious one is that any “Golden Age” has as many downsides as the next. Sure the 917 is a motorsport icon, how could it not be when arguably the coolest guy on the planet make the purest movie about racing ever with the Porsches and Ferraris as the real stars?

But the Peugeot 908 is also a star, with striking, Stealth Bomber looks and blistering performance; Nic Minassian is a driver in the school of Pedro and Seppi. It is a pity that this factory effort is not up against the Joest Audi R10; legends would then be made for old guys like me to wistfully remember. Let’s hope that the whiz kids in Audi AG marketing see the European arena in 2008 as a suitable target, then we will have something to talk about. Factory needs to fight factory, privateers will only win when the works guys screw up and that happens rarely these days.

“You can’t beat Cubic Bucks” or so I have been told. It is in the nature of motorsport that a good bigg’un(budget and resource) will beat a good little’un, every time, unfair maybe but so is life.

John Brooks
August 2007

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