Welcome to Donnington
After visiting Silverstone for two years, this year Donnington was the chosen venue for the British round of the Le Mans Series. Although a very fast track, nicely suited for the Le Mans cars, the configuration of the pitlane raised some concerns. In fact the entry was limited to only 44 cars due to the lack of pitboxes. The problems were somewhat solved by moving the refueling rigs well into the pitlane, leaving a just one lane for the cars to drive through. If anything it would some additional excitement for the drivers, mechanics and photographers working in the pitlane. Fortunately only 41 teams applied for an entry, so no teams had to be turned down. Among those entries were mostly familiar faces with the second Creation chassis being the biggest news. With Nic Minassian and Kevin McGarrity behind the wheel, it was a very big candidate for the win. After a podium finish at the Nurburgring, Jan Lammers now firmly turned his attention to next season and has bailed out on the remainder of this one. His team’s place was taken by Lister, who returned with another revision of the nose on their Hybrid LMP; supposedly wind-tunnel tested this time. At Belmondo racing things have changed as well with one car already sold and the remaining car saw its Mecachrome engine replaced by the more powerful and more reliable AER engine for the rest of the season. Didier Andre was not out for a drive for long as he filled the third seat in the Pescarolo, conveniently bringing some additional funds to team to help finance the construction of a new car for next season. The Works/Bruichladdich Radical regulars were joined by Ben Devlin to give him a first feel of the car before his American Van der Steuer team gets their SR9.
With all teams now fully adjusted to their (new) cars, every class looked set to be even more closely fought over than in the previous three rounds. What happened can be read in the following report and seen in our exclusive 150-shot slideshow
Practice and qualifying
Just like the Nurburgring round, this was a two day event and that race’s timeschedule was adopted, so on Saturday there were two 90 minutes practice sessions and then a 20 minute qualifying. With little time between sessions, a problem or accident could be really costly. For this, and other reasons, it was great that the predicted rain did not start until five minutes after qualifying. Some of that rain had fallen the night before, so when the cars were first sent out, it was on a drying track. As a result there were some interesting scenes on track with on normal circumstances slower cars flying past the faster ones. In motor racing water is not seen as the ‘great equalizer’ for nothing. As the track dried up, the timing computers started to show more familiar patterns. Early out on slicks, the Lister and the Ferrari 550 both briefly held top-three positions, but eventually ended up in 15th and 20th respectively.
The Saleen and one of the Spykers only managed to complete a handful of laps. The American car was left stranded after an accident and once retrieved it was repaired and good to go again. The quirky Dutch car had a valve problem and the team’s mechanics were forced to replace the engine with an older example. They completed their work with minutes to go in the second session. Worse off, if possible, was one of the #82 Esperante, which also had an engine failure a little later in the session. Again it was fixable, but the drivers were forced to watch the entire second session from the pitwall.
There were happier faces at the Courage Works, which saw both cars finish in the top five, with the blue #12 LC70 recording the fastest time. While the ‘old’ Creation was piloted to a strong third, the tenth spot of the new car was somewhat disappointing. In LMP2, it was business as usual with the two Radicals and the single MG Lola dicing it out. With no Saleen to worry about, it was an easy one-two for Aston in GT1. Three different cars featured in the GT2 top three with a F430 GTC just beating an Esperante and a C8 Spyder.
In the second practice things were really back to normal, except for the LMP1 class where the Pescarolo was found all the way down in sixth. It seemed that with the championship in their pocket, most of attention was now on the coming season. Until the dying seconds Courage was set to top the charts again, but former F1-racer Stefan Johansson put in a killer last lap to go two tenths ahead of the fastest Courage.
With all 41 cars in full running order, the qualifying got under way. As usual the prototypes were out first for twenty minutes, followed by the GT cars to offer both groups a relatively a better chance of a traffic-free run. With less than a second separating the top eight, it was the closest qualifying result yet. Jean Marc Gounon once again proved his remarkable ability to get that little extra out for when it really matters by placing his Courage on pole. He was closely followed by the Zytek and the Pescarolo. Already sporting the second nose of the meeting, the Lister could do no better than 14th behind five LMP2 cars. In eight was the first of the LMP2 cars; the RML MG Lola, which fought off the similarly engined Radical. The most competitive class clearly was GT1 with all six cars within six tenths. The Larbre Aston marginally outpaced the Saleen to take pole position in class. Ferrari’s F430 GTC continues to impress in every series it is campaigned and again here with two examples beating all the competition. The trouble free Spyker impressively completed the top three.
While the 200 minutes have drawn a picture of pace, it was not clear enough to make predictions for any of the classes.
On paper the Classic Endurance Racing and the Radical World Series looked like very promising support programs; most definitely an improvement compared to the Nurburgring. Sadly the turn out of just twelve cars made the CER a bit of a travesty. The poor showing might have something to do with last month’s Le Mans Classic, where most of the regular competitors were raced. There was a clear highlight however, with the entry of an Astra to be driven by its original designer Roger Nathan. It was the first time in 35 years he had been behind the wheel of a racing car and it clearly took some getting used to again. The meeting also saw the debut of Roger’s autobiography describing his racing career both in other manufacturers’ and his own cars. With already very few cars on the grid, the one hour race proved too much for many of the competitors. In the closing stages it was the Kevin McGarrity Lola T212 in the lead being chased by Carlos Barbot in the much bigger Lola T70. As the fuel loads went down, the two continued to set a faster time almost every lap. Barbot caught up and with five minutes to go give it a try at Goddard’s, which sadly ended up in the grass relieving some pressure off McGarrity. It proved sufficient for McGarrity to claim the victory for him and teammate Martin Birrane, the owner of the car and the Lola company.
New to the Le Mans Series was the Radical World Cup, which in contrast to the CER had a packed grid. With the exception of the LMP2 SR9, this single make series is open to all Radical products. At the head of the field were the new V8 engined SR8s, which saw some interesting entries. One of them was former WRC champion Colin McRae, who returned to the track for the first time since his Ferrari Le Mans outing in 2003. He did a very good job in the first race and even briefly led the race after a stunning move at the chicane before he was forced to retire with mechanical problems. Other familiar faces were those of Stuart Moseley and Tim Greaves, who were also out in the feature race in the Works/Bruichladdich Radical SR9. In race one Phil Quaife took an easy win after McRae’s retirement. Richard Ince and Austin Kinsella were seven seconds the better of Quaife in the second race.
On Saturday we were still treated to typical British weather, but Sunday started off much kinder with mostly sunny skies and it stayed like that throughout the day. Minutes after the qualifying we already noticed the gearbox separated from the Lucchini and the problems proved terminal, which meant 40 cars lined up for the start. Another car suffering from mechanical issues was the Ferrari 550, but a spirited drive from the mechanics to Italy and back saw the power steering steering issues resolved before the start.
At a few minutes past planned 12:30 start, the cars took off headed by Jean Marc Gounon. Into the first corner Hedeki Noda got the better of him, but before the first lap was over, the Courage driver got by again. What followed was a series of lead changes with eventually both Creations sneaking by Gounon and Noda. Bouillon in the Pescarolo was served a stop-go-penalty for running down a corner marker and again for stopping in the wrong spot. Order was restored before the end of the first hour with the Pescarolo leading the Swiss Spirit Courage and the two Creations. Problems for all three LMP1 Courages and one of the Creations saw a very close three horse battle develop the next hours between the Pescarolo, the other Creation and a storming Stefan Johansson in the Zytek.
Both early leaders in the LMP2 class, the MG-Lola and the Binnie Lola were slowed down with mechanicals problems opening things up for the Rollcentre Radical and their Nurburgring nemesis ASM Racing for Portugal. This time Barbosa managed to get by cleanly and gradually built up a lead. The other Radical was not as fortunate as it was steered into the pits very early in the race, but the problems were apparently repairable and the car was sent back out; many laps in arrears.
Just 1.4 seconds separated the top three after one hour in the GT1 class and remained close throughout the race. At the three hour marque, the Saleen was called in because the splitter was dangerously hanging off and it did not go back out again because of a dropped valve. The leading GPC and Virgo Ferraris got a little too close in the hairpin and effectively knocked each other out of the top spots. This paved the way for the #81 Panoz to get hold of the lead for the next couple of hours. Already suffering in qualifying, the race did go much better for Spyker. The healthy car was running strong until it was hit from behind by a Lola, which a few corners later led to a broken wheel and a big off in the very fast Craner curve. The old engine in the other Dutch racer was not up to the strains of racing once more and seized before halfway.
The strain of racing in general proved too much for many other cars as well with brakes getting a serious beating in particular. One of the major victims of brake failure was the Larbre Aston Martin, which was stuck in the pitlane for many minutes. This was much to the despair of Martin Short, whose Radical was supposed to pit right in front of the stranded Aston. The French were not able to move the car, but with a little improvisation the Rollcentre SR9 was refueled and fitted with new tyres. Sadly all efforts proved in vain as the black and green racer failed to start during the final pit stop; again all of Short’s hopes were shattered in the final stages of a race. This pretty much handed the victory to RML, who had been slowed down throughout the race with several niggling problems, but at least still ran at the end of it all. In GT2 the order changed little with Le Mans winners Team LNT taking their first Le Mans Series win of the season. With the Larbre Aston and the Oreca Saleen out of it, the GT1 class victory was really up for grasps and was not decided until the penultimate lap. Antonio Garcia in the Team Modena Aston put in a stunning series of laps, sufficient to pass class leaders Luc Alphand Adventures literally in the final minutes of the race.
At the head of the field we were robbed of a real battle when the Zytek hit a series of problems. It all started to go horribly wrong when one of the wheels did not want to come during a pit stop, which easily cost the team two minutes. Just a few minutes after the car got going again Johansson returned to the pits and when the engine cover was removed there was smoke coming off the engine. It was a sad ending to what was an amazing weekend for the Zytek team. As Pescarolo crossed the finish line they were the official champions of 2006 and also the first team ever to complete 1000 km in a Le Mans Series race before the six hours were over. They did so with 30 seconds to spare. Despite some minor niggles in the opening stages of the race, the two Creations were second and third and crossed the line for a photo-finish.
Maybe thanks to the weather and it being a bank-holiday weekend, the turn-out for the race was quite good and the spectators were treated to some very good racing. However, it is not hard to imagine the difficulties for spectators to figure out who is leading who and they do not have a media centre available with up to date information. For those wanting to be in the know throughout the race, there was also the six-hour live coverage of the race on Motors TV and their viewers really must have gotten entertained until the dying seconds by the Aston versus Corvette battle. Although the racing was great, this weekend has also brought some of Donnington’s problems to light when it comes to endurance racing; the pit-lane is still clearly too small and the track is never really straight so overtaking slower competitors can get very dangerous as several incidents throughout the race proved. All in all, it was a good race with well deserved winners (of course with the exception of LMP2 where a Rollcentre win is long overdue). It will be interesting to see how many teams will venture out to Jarama for the final round as two very lucrative rounds of the ALMS are just around the corner. With new prototypes coming in next year from Audi, Peugeot and Porsche, the Le Mans Series could very well get the high profile it deserves.
As this report was completed, news reached us that Spyker is interested in buying the ailing Midland Formula 1 team. With their poor showing here, Formula 1 really sounds a little overambitious for the Dutch niche manufacturer.