New rules, new chances!
Last year's European season finale returned as this year's opener. Barely seven months after the 2004 Spa 1000 km, the Belgian track again hosted a round of the Le Mans Endurance Series (LMES). Adding to excitement was the fact that it was the last race on the continent before the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in June. A number of brand new cars lined up for the 1000 km race that was more than just a fancy dress rehearsal for the big show. It was the first race where the old LMP900/675 cars headed up against the new 'hybrids' in the LMP1 class. Hybrid does not refer to the use of multiple engines, but to the mix of regulations. These cars comply fully to the LMP1 regulations, but are built around an old chassis to cut the costs for the teams. In 2006 there will be room for full LMP1 cars and hybrids and from 2007 onwards only LMP1 cars are allowed. The LMP1/2 rules are mainly aimed at making the cars more stable at high speeds, by setting very specific demands for the underbody aerodynamics. To encourage the construction of new LMP1 cars or hybrids, the governing body has handicapped the old cars with smaller restrictors and fuel tanks. This gives cars like the all-conquering Audi R8 a slight disadvantage.
Three hybrids were fielded in Spa; the Pescarolo Courage, the works Courage and the Dome. Especially the Pescarolo was a pre race favourite, after it clocked very fast times at a test earlier
in the month. Completing the LMP1 class were the old generation racers, represented by an Audi R8, two Zyteks, a DBA, two Dallaras and a Lister Storm LMP. One of the Rollcentre Dallaras was equipped with a new Nissan powerplant, which might hint at the return of Nissan to sportscar racing. In the LMP2 class the almighty Courages were now joined by the brand new Lola B05/40, of which two were entered, one of them rebadged as the MG Lola EX264.
Not much has changed in the GT classes, except for the names; LM GT now is known as GT2 and LM GTS as GT1. Complementing the regulars Ferrari and Saleen in GT1 were an old Dodge Viper and a Porsche 996 Turbo. In GT2 the majority of the field was made up of Porsches, joined by three TVRs, two Ferraris and a Spyker. Livered in silver and orange, the brand new Spyker C8 Spyder GT2 is the first ever open GT car. Unlike the previous Spyker racer, the new car does meet the homologation requirements and it can start without the restrictor and weight penalties applied to the old C8 Double 12 R.
In between the LMES sessions four other classes took to the track. The LMES weekend is not complete without a round of the CER (Classic Endurance Racing). In this championship racers of the 1960s and 1970s again take each other on for a one hour race on Saturday afternoon. The field varies from event to event, but in Spa we were particularly lucky with some stunning historic machinery lining up. No less than three Porsche 917s were present in the paddock on Friday morning, of which two made it out on the track. Other highlights included a meticulously restored and very fast Ferrari 312 PB, two Ford GT40s, three Lola T70s and a Tour de France winning Matra MS650. In the free practices on Friday the Ferrari proved to be the quickest of the bunch, but the careful owner decided to keep the car in the dry paddock for the qualification and race on Saturday. The typical Spa weather played a major role throughout the weekend. On Saturday and Sunday the track was never completely dry and from Saturday afternoon onwards the rain was replaced by a thick fog. Pole sitter Frank Sytner in the Lola T70 was forced to start the race behind the pace car, because the fog made it too dangerous to race on the high speed track. After a few laps the fog cleared and the race was on. In the treacherous conditions Sytner proved his worth and lead the race from start to finish.
One of Belgium's most popular series, the Belcar Championship, was also present. A mix between touring cars and GTs, the Belcar field is as diverse as it can get. A larger number of Porsche 911s of all sorts were joined by BMWs, a M3 engined Mini, a Corvette C5-R, two Vipers, two Stealths, two Ultimas and a Saker. Both races were won by one of the Vipers, although the Corvette came very close in the second.
In the Friday free practices the high expectations were easily met, and to the joy of many enthusiasts (especially the French), the Pescarolo Courage proved quickest. It was closed followed by the Zyteks and the Courage hybrid. In the LMP2 class the new Lola proved quick right out of the box, beating the seasoned Courages of the Paul Belmondo Racing team. GT1 looked like an easy prey for the Prodrive built Ferrari 550s. More surprising were the practice results of the Ferraris and TVRs in the GT2 class, outpacing the Porsches.
The changing weather conditions made qualifying far from
predictable. First up in the 40 minute session were the LMP cars, which were on track for twenty minutes, before making way for the slower GT cars. This left only a limited number of clear laps to get a good time in. The GT qualifying was even cut short because of the sudden fog hampering the drivers' vision. Remarkably the first two were just 2 tenths of a second apart, with the Pescarolo just beating the Creation DBA. They were followed by one of the Zyteks, the Audi and the Lister Storm. In the LMP2 class, the MG Lola continued to show good form, beating the two Belmondo Courages. Ferraris continued to dominate the GT1 class, but in GT2 the free practice results were not carried over. Two of the Porsches made the most of the conditions and beat a pack of three cars just 5 tenths of a second apart, which consisted of the Ferraris and one of the TVRs.
The start of the 1000 km or six hour race was scheduled for Sunday noon, when the visibility on the higher parts of the track was still severely hampered by the dense fog. It was considered safe enough and just after noon the cars were let go. A poor start from the DBA and Zytek freed up the track for the Audi and Lister to take the second and third places. In those opening stages the Pescarolo Courage gradually expanded its lead, despite Stephane Ortelli's impressive efforts in the Audi. Both the DBA and Zytek made up some of the ground lost at the start. Unfortunately the DBA suffered from an alternator failure and lost a couple of laps. A number of heavy crashes, taking out among others one of the Zyteks, resulted in two lengthy safety car situations. After the track was cleared again, the works Zytek emerged on top; the Pescarolo had suffered from some small problems throwing it back slightly. Once in the lead the Zytek laid down a pace, which could only be matched by the DBA. Jean Marc Gounon had taken over from Ortelli in the Audi, but he could not match his countryman's pace. Late in the race both the DBA and the Audi were forced to retire; a technical failure and a crash respectively. Six hours after the start the works Zytek was the first to reach the checkered flag, followed by the Pescarolo and the Judd engined Dallara. In the LMP class problems dogged the fastest cars, and the second Lola eventually emerged on top, beating a Courage by three laps. No surprises in the GT1 class, where the Prodrive Ferraris filled all three spots of the podium. The third British (class) victory was scored in style by the LNT entered TVRs, finishing first and second in the GT2 class.
Conclusion and desert
What has this result taught us? Well, the rule changes have clearly slowed down the Audis, but their iron reliability will continue to make them a top contender for the Le Mans victory. If the hybrids can match the R8's reliability, they are the top favourites for the elusive victory. Another interesting development is the growing game console sponsorship; Sega (works Zytek) beat Playstation (Pescarolo and Audi) and Xbox (Belmondo Courages).
And now for the icing on the cake; we have prepared a 200-shot slideshow
covering all the action and weather types of the weekend.