The previous two visits to the legendary Spa Francorchamps track of the Le Mans Series were plagued by the track’s typical weather. Last year was particularly bad with fog severely hampering the driver’s visibility and even prompting the cancellation of one of the support races. In an attempt to get better weather, the 1000 km race was moved forward one month from April to May for this year’s running. In the week building up to the three day event we kept a close eye on the weather reports even though Spa’s weather is nearly impossible to predict even for the biggest experts. The last forecast before we left home showed sun on the first day, and rain and thunder on the next two, so very familiar for regular Spa visitors. As usual we would have to take in the Spa weather one day or even one hour at a time. What happened from once we arrived on the track on Friday morning can be seen in the following action packed report and similarly exciting 200-shot slideshow
New cars and colours
Istanbul’s 37 car entry grew to 47 for Spa with a number of brand new cars making their competition debut. Problems with the Mugen engine and its installation forced Jan Lammers’ Racing For Holland to replace it with the more familiar Judd V10 engine. Sadly they did not get it ready in time for the Spa race and was forced to withdraw his entry. The Dome’s place in the LMP1 class was filled by three newcomers; a second works Courage, the all new Protran RS 06/H and the Zytek 06S. Both cars use seasoned chassis originally designed by Reynard, but that’s about where the similarity ends. The Protran is a hybrid version of the Reynard 01Q, powered by AER’s new twin-turbo V8. Welcomed with more anticipation is the Zytek, which is a hybrid version of their very successful 04S. Not only have the aerodynamics been upgraded, but also Zytek’s V8 engine, which has grown in size to just under four litres. In LMP2, the full season entrants were joined by the Kruse Courage and the Binnie Motorsports Lola. The big news in this class was Paul Belmondo breaking his collarbone, which prevented him starting at Spa and also puts his Le Mans entry in danger. His Gulf coloured Courages were present with Yann Clairay taking his place.
After receiving his new Saleen late Oreca’s Hugues de Chaunac was forced to withdraw the car from the Istanbul race and Le Mans. The striking blue S7-R was first raced a few weeks ago in the French GT championship and at Spa made its international debut. Given both Oreca’s GT racing record and the S7-R’s potential, a lot was expected from this car. In Istanbul the Cirtek Aston Martin DBR9s sported blue and green liveries, which was now replaced by grayish paintscheme topped off by a huge union jack on the roof. The colourful mix of GT2 racers saw the re-entry of the Racesport Peninsula TVR. Trying to solve the stability problems, one of the Spyker’s grew a roof; the turbulence caused by the open top pretty much rendered the rear wing useless.
Practice and qualification
Uncharacteristic sunny conditions helped start the weekend off on a high on Friday for most. Not so much for the guys at Creations, who were faced with unrepairable damage after a spun Felipe Ortiz was hit head on by PSI Experience’s Corvette C5-R. The front left corner was completely ripped off and the damage was too severe to fix on the track. The damage on the Corvette was equally bad and like the Creation it was not seen out again either. This was not the end for LMP1/GT1 problems; on the back straight the Pescarolo had a run in with the Larbre Aston Martin at nearly 300 km/h. Vincent Vosse in the Aston lost control and hit the barrier head on. Extensive repairs were required and the Larbre Aston missed the following sessions including the qualification.
Enough with the bad news, let’s get on with the racing. At the top of the leaderboard things were very familiar with Pescarolo topping two of the free practice sessions. All three of which were ran under pretty much dry conditions by the way. One of the works Courages and the new Zytek followed closely behind and ahead of the Pescarolo in the Friday afternoon session. In LMP2 the performance of the Rollcentre Radical was slightly disappointing after its blistering pace at Istanbul. Barazi Epsilon continued their good form joined by the RML MG Lola and the regular Lolas of Binnie and Chamberlain Synergy. The GT1 class was somewhat decapitated with the last race winning Larbre DBR9 in the pit in almost all sessions. This paved the way for the Cirtek Astons and the Oreca Saleen to share class honours. Fitting a roof did not solve the problems for Spyker yet as the hard-top C8 GT2-R was still quite a bit off the pace. The Ferraris entered again proved the superior pace of the F430.
The promised rain came after the free practice sessions were over and stopped a few minutes before the qualifying started. On a slowly drying track the prototypes went out first. In the treacherous conditions Marcel Fassler excelled and piloted the Swiss Spirit Courage to a pole position. Over two seconds in arrears the Swiss team was followed Zytek and the Pescarolo. Jean-Marc Gounon in the first works Courage had a small off at the end of the session forcing him to limp back to the pit, but he should still be content with his fourth place. Because of complicated fuel feed problems the Lister did not make it out at all this session and failed to record a qualifying time. Fourth overall and first in class was the RML MG Lola. In third place, the Barazi Epsilon Courage was the only non-Lola in the top four. With still no sign of the Larbre DBR9, Aston Martin’s honours were defended very well by Cirtek who took the pole just ahead of the Oreca Saleen. The Porsche teams clearly benefited from the ‘great equalizer’ finishing with the IMSA Performance and Seikel Motorsport finishing first and second respectively. The second Porsche was closely followed by the first two of the Ferraris. Back in ninth and tenth in class the Spykers slightly disappointed us and with only 0.5 seconds separating the two, the rather ugly roof does not seem to be an improvement.
An overnight delivery of parts from Prodrive enabled Larbre to repair their DBR9 in time for the Sunday morning warm-up. The Pescarolo was blamed for the incident and was given a stop-go penalty, which they received by starting in the pits. With the Larbre Aston back in, there were three non starters with the Creation and Corvette joined by the Kruse Courage.
More of the predicted rain came overnight, but for the race the conditions were pretty much dry with some fog in the higher areas of the track. The damp track made the tire choice for the teams difficult. The race was barely underway when all hell broke loose op on top of Eau Rouge; in two seemingly separate, but very identical incidents four cars were immediately out of the race with several others damaged by the debris spread all over the track. The Protran and G-Force Courage both hit the left barrier and ricocheted back on the track right into the #78 Autorlando Porsche and Icer Brakes Ferrari respectively. G-Force driver Jean-Francois Leroch was taken to hospital with a deep cut in his leg, but he was allowed leave before the end of the day. This first lap incident set the tone for an incident packed race that pretty much carried on with the drama where the practice session had left off. The safety car was deployed, but after two laps the red flag was out because there was no clear path through the debris; the cars were forced to stop on Eau Rouge both laps causing severe stress on the clutches and cooling systems. The combination of clogged air intakes and the slow pace was too much for the fragile Murcielago, which retired on top of Eau Rouge with an overheating engine.
After the track was cleared the cars lined up behind the safety car again for two guided laps before they were let loose again. Sadly, before the green flag could be shown the Chamberlain Synergy LMP1 Lola hit the barrier in La Source, prompting the striking Daewoo/Chevrolet safety car to stay out for some more laps. By the end of the race, the safety car driver had brought his lap times down to under the three minutes! Peter Owen had to be helped out of the Lola and joined Leroch in hospital with a leg injury. He was also released before the Belgian night set in.
Just after the one hour mark, the safety car pulled off and the race finally got under way. The pole sitting Swiss Spirit Courage was soon relieved at the head of the field by a storming Jean-Marc Gounon in the first works Courage. His car was fitted with an off colour engine cover as a result of the accident in qualifying. Even more impressive was Jean Christophe Boullion’s climb up the leaderbord in the Pescarolo. Forty-five laps into the race he took over the lead and the Pescarolo never looked back. Immediately after this decisive move, the safety car was deployed again to clean up the remains of the Lister, which had a close encounter with the Armco barriers between Blanchimont and the Bus-Stop chicane. The two leaders pitted and only the Pescarolo made it back out on the track with the works Courage suffering from electrical problems. The other works Courage was out shortly after possibly with engine problems. The Swiss Spirit Courage and the Zytek were the only remaining LMP1s together with Pescarolo and were carefully driven to second and third respectively.
The “Iberian” LMP2 Lola was driven to a very convincing class victory and was at one point running second overall. The all Lola podium was rounded off by the Binnie Motorsport car in third and the second placed RML MG Lola, which was thrown back early in the race because of a flat tire. The star of the previous race, the Radical, failed to shine in the race and was out with two hours to go after an eventful race.
In the GT1 class the battle for first place lasted throughout the race between the first Cirtek DBR9 and the Oreca Saleen. The drivers swapped first place several times and were never more than a handful of seconds apart. At one point the cars came into the pits nose to tail and took off in similar fashion thanks to swift Formula 1 style pit-work of both crews. Eventually the French Saleen pulled away slightly to take the flag first after an exhilarating fight (the first non-Prodrive win in a Le Mans Series round). Third place was for the remaining PSI Experience Corvette, giving them something to smile about after the disastrous first practice session.
Many of the GT2 cars were damaged to some extent in the opening kilometer of the race, but most kept going with the help of some duck tape and similar precision engineering tools. The #76 Autorlando Porsche remained undamaged and drove a very clean race to take the class win. Behind the Italian 911 there was a first podium finish for the LNT Panoz and Virgo Motorsport Ferrari. The latter was the fastest car on track, but was unfortunate in the safety car periods.
It was remarkable that at the end of the day 25 cars managed to cross the finish line in a driveable condition.
The past 2000 words are but a small summary of the eventful and highly entertaining Spa 1000 km (935 km actually). A fair mix of drama and great racing is what makes motorsport so much fun and the second round of the 2006 Le Mans Series had an abundance of both. It looks like the damage to all cars is repairable in time for the next outing, which is either Le Mans in June or the Nurburgring 1000 km in July. It was also announced at Spa that the Monza replacement will be Jarama in Spain on the same date.