For the third round of the 2006 Le Mans Series, the teams traveled to the Nurburgring circuit in the German Eifel area. Now that the 24 Hours of Le Mans is behind us, the number of entrants for the 1000 km race was a good test of the series' strength. Perhaps to the surprise of some, there were 44 cars ready to take to the track for the two day event. Many of which were rumbling down the Mulsanne Straight not a month earlier. In that month various prototype builders have revealed their plans for the coming years and things should only get better from here onwards. Now all that is needed is to attract bigger crowds to the race weekend to convince skeptics that sportscar racing is not just the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Another (rare) weak spot of the Le Mans Series is the support program, which differs from race to race and usually only serves to fill the otherwise empty track. For the next round at Donnington at the end of August, the Radical World Cup will be on the support schedule. From next year, this one-make (not model) series will follow the prototype and GT racers all over Europe. Not eligible for the ‘World Cup’ is the Radical SR9 as it can run with the big boys. After Rollcentre’s impressive roll-out of the all new prototype so far this season, the factory car made its debut at the Nurburgring. Powered by the AER four cylinder turbocharged engine, the second SR9 features the familiar red-and-yellow Radical colours, which brought back fond memories of the MOMO liveries used in the 1980s and 1990s.
Other pre-race news was more of organizational nature with a number of cars being entered by new teams. Most notable was the change in GT2 were the GPC took over the entry from the Spanish ‘Team Icer Brakes’, whose Ferrari seems to be beyond repair after the Spa first lap crash. Another victim of that crash, the G-Force team will also be absent for the remainder of the season; their place taken by Kruse Motorsport.
Two in one
For this race, the organization adopted a two-day schedule instead of the more familiar three, so all practice and qualifying had to be done on one day. The usual sixty minute practice runs were replaced by two 90-minute sessions in which the teams had to find their qualifying and race setups. Maybe cautioned by the little time available for repairs and/or benefiting from the abundant run-off area, none of the cars were severely damaged in the two sessions. All drivers did seem to have a lot of problems finding a braking spot on the downhill run to the very tight first corner. Fortunately there is more than a margin for error in that area. The biggest incident was between the Luc Alphand Adventures Corvette and the Kruse Motorsport Courage; respectively hitting nose to tail. Although the damage was just superficial, there was a heated argument between the two teams in the paddock. 180 Minutes of driving revealed few surprises with the Pescarolo, MG-Lola, Saleen and Ferrari topping their respective classes. What did stun the dedicated followers was the pace of Tommy Erdos in the LMP2 MG-Lola, which was good enough for fourth overall. This could very well be the result of the high elevation of the track, which favours forced induction engines.
As usual, the field was split in two for qualifying with the prototypes out first for twenty minutes, followed by the GTs for another twenty minute run. After the pitlane opened, not all LMPs ventured out immediately with the Pescarolo and Creation the most notable non-runners. When they did come out, Nic Minassian in the Creation was especially on fire, setting two consecutive pole laps. Although the Pescarolo came close, the Creation’s time was not going to be beaten. With his teammates usually not able to match Minassian’s pace in the race, this could very well be the best result achievable this weekend for the struggling Creation team. The following four cars, three Courages and the Zytek, were separated by just 2 tenths of a second, which could result in a very close opening two hours. The first of the P2s, not surprisingly Tommy Erdos in the MG-Lola, was next. Best of the rest in this class were the two Radicals, with the old car beating the new one by a very small margin. It looked very much like another remarkable Radical debut for the car that hadn't turned a wheel until a week before the race. Post-qualifying scrutineering revealed that the Rollcentre Radical was equipped with a restrictor 1 mm too wide. According to the team it was a restrictor used in testing, which should have been binned a long time ago. They were stripped off their time and forced to start at the back of the grid.
The GTs took to the track next and again the top runners decided to sit the first minutes out. Just as in the previous sessions, the Oreca prepared Saleen was well ahead of the rest with Stephane Ortelli clocking the fastest time in the GT1 class. Behind him just six tenths of a second separated the other four top contenders for the class win with the Astons beating Corvettes. Closest of all classes was no doubt GT2, where the complete top seven was within a second of the fastest time. First round winners GPC topped the sheets with their two F430 Ferraris clocking nearly identical times. Just 3 thousands of a second in arrears the first LNT Panoz completed the ‘podium’. Slightly disappointing was the performance of the two Spykers with seventh and twelfth at the track where they finished second in class last year.
Saturday was rounded off by the introduction in the paddock of the all new Lavaggi LS1, which should make its debut at the next round of the Series. Designed by former Formula 1 driver Giovanni Lavaggi, the Ford V8 engined machine will join the top runners in the LMP1 class.
After the eventful start at Spa, the start of this race was very uneventful with all cars making it through not only the first corner, but also the first couple of laps. At the head of the field both the Creation and Pescarolo lost a place to Shinji Nakano in the Works Courage. Emmanuel Collard aboard the Pescarolo quickly got about turning things around in his favour and twenty minutes into the race the Frenchman was in the lead. With the exception of a brief fight after the first pit stop with the other Works Courage, this lead was not challenged. In LMP2, the pole-sitting RML MG Lola suffered a similar fate and was forced to claw back time lost to the Barazi Epsilon Courage and the Bruichladdich Radical. It was not going to be a Courage weekend and the Istanbul class winner was forced to pit very early in the race when the gearbox stuck into fourth gear. The Radical shortly followed after Stuart Moseley had a small off and was brought in prematurely for a quick check up and fill up, but it had lead its class at the car’s debut. The order was now restored, with Tommy Erdos easing away from the competition. Adding insult to injury Joao Barbosa hit gearbox problems in the Rollcentre Radical, having already started from the back. Some time was lost, but once he changed to manual selection, he could continue his march to the top of the leaderboard. Thanks to a stellar drive and problems for others, the elegant black and green car was in third overall when he handed the car over to team-owner Martin Short. The Le Mans winning MG Lola was delayed by alternator problems and lost a lap to the Radical. At Spa the GT1 class was the most closely disputed with a four hour wheel to wheel battle for the lead, which made this race somewhat disappointing. The ORECA Saleen set the pace and two hours into the race, two of the six cars were already out. A lot more exciting was the fight for GT2 honours with the #76 Porsche taking on the two GPC Ferraris, followed by the Spykers ready to pick up the pieces as soon as one of the top runners made a mistake.
While the third win this season of the Pescarolo never seemed to be in danger, there was still plenty of drama behind them. The three Courages again hit trouble and were forced to play catch up for most of the race after the stellar start. Hopefully the car’s obvious pace can be combined with reliability before the end of the season. Another early casualty was the Zytek, but problems were overcome and in the second half of the race Stefan Johanssen was the quickest man on track, but many laps down on the lead group. This left the Racing for Holland Dome and Creation to divide the podium positions. Finally Gabbiani and Ortiz put in a good performance in the Creation, leaving Minassian in striking range of Yoong in the Dome with 30 minutes to go. Yoong risked too much in the struggling Dome and ran wide enough to let the French driver through. For both teams it was the first finish of the season, so there were only happy faces on the podium.
As always, the LMP2 class was a true battle of attrition with technical difficulties small or big hitting almost every team. After a promising start, the red and yellow Radical was thrown down the field, but it did manage to cruise to the finish in a very respectable fifth in class and fifteenth overall. As mentioned earlier, the day did not belong to Courage with big problems hitting all four cars. One of the Belmondo Courages had the most spectacular exit with a blow-up usually only showcased by the Honda F1 team. After the MG Lola was again delayed with problems, the fight for victory was between the ASM Racing for Portugal Lola, the Binnie Lola and the Rollcentre Radical. After the race Martin Short admitted that he found the car very difficult to drive with the manual shift, which resulted in very poor lap times by the team owner. Nevertheless, Barbosa was still very much in contention when he took over for the last stint. Some 15 seconds ahead of him was the Portuguese Lola and he was quickly gaining. With less than 15 minutes to go, he had closed the gap and passed the yellow Lola on the outside. Miguel Burgueno would have nothing of it and planted the nose of his Lola right in the side of the Radical. Barbosa lost control and was sent into the kitty litter, losing two laps in the process. The clerk of the course did not appreciate the Spanish t-bone move and penalized them with a one-minute stop-go penalty. It did not make much difference as the yellow Lola crossed the line first, half a minute ahead of the Binnie Lola. The Rollcentre team finished third, but there was little reason to celebrate their first podium of the season. At the post race press conference Burgueno explained it was a racing accident, but as Martin Short added those usually don’t get penalized.
Just as the first and only safety car period started, the leading Saleen was pushed back into the garage with starter motor problems. The surviving Larbre Aston, Alphand Corvette and Convers Ferrari all got passed before the problem was rectified, leaving a fourth place for the Spa winner. There was a brief battle between the Ferrari and Corvette for second place, but this was soon over as the American car got passed and quickly drove off into the distance. A very late pit stop for the French Aston team saw the Corvette close the gap, but after six hours of racing there was still 10 seconds between the two.
At times the GT2 class looked more like a national touring car race with drivers seemingly eager to swap paint. The biggest incident was between one of the GPC Ferraris and one of the Spykers who ran into each other at the last chicane. Later in the paddock the two drivers had another run with GPC’s DiSimone throwing a punch at Spyker’s Donny Crevels; the Dutchman returned fire. At the end of the race three different cars filled the top three, once again proving the days of Porsche domination over (for now). The other GPC Ferrari took the win ahead of the Autorlando Porsche and the other Spyker.
Jan Lammers correctly stated at the post-race press conference that all the Le Mans Series really needs is more visitors, although it would be difficult for any series to fill the grandstands on a Grand Prix weekend in Germany as long as Michael Schumacher is still in the thick of things. With close racing throughout the field well into the final hour, the Nurburgring 1000 km was more a sprint race than an endurance. We look back at this enjoyable weekend with great pleasure and can’t wait for the next race at the end of August in Donnington. All the weekend's glory moments and drama are packed in our exclusive 150-shot slideshow