For the final round of the 2006 Le Mans Series, organizers were forced to relocate to the Jarama track just north of Madrid, Spain from the previously scheduled Monza track. Residents surrounding the Italian track had succeeded in a recent court battle and all racing with the exception of F1 and WTCC was cancelled on the legendary circuit this season. Fortunately an exception has been made for next years running and Monza will be on the calendar again in 2007.
Designed by Hans Hugenholtz of Suzuka and Zandvoort fame, Jarama is a real driverís track with several blind corners and many elevation changes. One drawback is that the track is not very wide, which does not make it ideally suited for endurance racing. At Donnington there were a few too many close encounters between prototypes and GTs, and the stewards here stressed once more in the driversí briefing that lapping slower cars should be done with some care and preferably only straights or in braking zones. Dust on and around the track did not make it any easier for the drivers either.
With two commercially interesting races in the United States just around the corner and some of the championships already decided, it was great to see the start list still sported 37 entries. Among the familiar faces was one new kid in the pit box; the Lavaggi LS1. The white and red racer was officially unveiled two months earlier at the Nurburgring, but had done insufficient test kilometers to race at Donnington. Now with some mileage under it's belt, Giovanni Lavaggi used the last opportunity of the season to pitch the V8-engined machine against serious competition. He was joined behind the wheel by experienced French endurance racer Xavier Pompidou.
The weekend's proceedings are described in detailed below and in full colour in a spectacular
Three hours of practice
After two two-day rounds, it was back to normal with the Jarama weekend stretched over the full three days. For the Le Mans Series crowd that meant two one hour sessions on Friday, one on Saturday and a twenty minute qualifying to round up the second day. Sunday was as usual reserved for a brief warm-up and the 1000 km, or six hour race. With relatively few straight lines on track, the six hour marque was going to be reached considerably earlier than the 1000 km were covered. We only were to catch a glimpse of the first session from the airplane, but we found the ex-F1 track in time for the second. What we missed was a spectacular pit fire that all but destroyed the Binnie Motorsport Lola. A faulty fuel regulator continued to pump fuel as the car had shut down and once it got in contact with the hot manifold there was no stopping the fireball. Fortunately nobody was hurt, but the car needed some serious repairs. With a new cableboom sourced, the team work all night to get the car ready for the third session and they did so with just a few minutes to spare.
Out on track familiar patterns emerged in all four classes. In LMP1 Courage continued their impressive run once again showcasing that the Mugen/LC70 package is very quick; if only it had the Pescaroloís reliability... Jean Marc Gounon continued his Donnington and Goodwood form by topping the time sheets after the three practice sessions. On Friday Pompidou showed the somewhat ungainly Lavaggi clearly has potential by posting a time less than four seconds off the pace. The limited number of laps run was somewhat of a worry for the six hour race. Making the most of the twisty track Tommy Erdos pressed on to an impressive fourth overall and first in class. In GT1, the addition of Aston works driver David Brabham to Team Modena spiced things up and immediately moved the dark grey DBR9 to the top of the leaderboard in the closely disputed class. At Spyker the recent acquisition of Midland F1 was prominently visible with a large ĎMidlandí sticker on the nose. The Dutch teamís performance on track was impressive as well with a third and fifth behind the fastest Ferraris and Porsche.
Halfway through the last session the Team Icer Brakes / GPC had a very big off at the end of the main straight. The car veered into the wall at high speed and the damage was frightingly similar to the damage in Spa four months ago; the carís last race. While he was able to walk from the wreckage, driver Edoardo Bisconsin was far from off the hook as the incident was deemed a driver error and the GPC team boss was steaming mad. We were down to 36 for the remainder of the weekend.
Classic Endurance Racing
At Donnington the field of the Classic Endurance Racing (CER) series was somewhat disappointing, but after going through the entry list, it looked promising for this weekend. Sadly most of the unfamiliar cars on the list did not make it out to the Spanish capital, with the exception of Jean Marc Lucoís unique Porsche 908/4. This car was built for Joest by the factory from a 908/3, with revised bodywork and a turbocharged engine. After campaigning a 917 and a 936 earlier this season, itís the third stunning Porsche to emerge from the Swiss racerís impressive stables. And when he takes them out, he certainly does his Porsches justice. Never challenged, he took a well-deserved victory in the one hour race. The other steps on the podium were filled by Patrick Guillot in his Lola T292, and Jerome and Jean-Louis Miloe in their Gulf coloured Porsche 908/3. After a spirited drive, Claude Nahum and Bernard Thuner took the win in the GT class in the formerís beautiful Ford GT40 ahead of three Porsche 911s.
If there ever was a track where the split qualifying makes sense then it is Jarama and we are sure both the LMP and GT drivers welcomed the track time with the slower or faster cars respectively out on track. First out on track were the prototypes, well, not all of them as most of the front running LMP1 teams decided to wait for a bit before going out. Sadly neither the Lavaggi (engine related), nor the Binnie Lola (another fuel leak) went out and made up the back row. Tommy Erdos again did his job and set the fastest LMP2 time and fourth overall, followed at a considerable distance by the Whiskey Radical. A surprise third was Kruse Motorsport in the last race (in Europe) that their Courage C65 was eligible. The first of the pole candidates out on track was Emmanuel Collard in the Pescarolo and he completed just four laps before spinning off the track; both flyers were good enough for pole. This time the last minute rabbit out of Gounonís hat put him no higher than second nearly six tenths adrift.
After a ten minute break, it was up to the GT cars to put their times in. There was no waiting game here as Stephane Ortelli was first out on track in the Oreca Saleen. At the end of the twenty minute session, the French driver topped the sheets, but as always the rest was not far behind. Actually just seven tenths separated the six cars. It continues to amaze us how Peter Kox is still able to keep up with big boys despite driving a five year old car, which has not benefited from development since at least 2004. In most other international championships the F430 GTC is the dominant GT2 car, but in the Le Mans Series at least one Porsche can still keep up. This is no small part due to one of Porscheís protťgťs; the talented Marc Lieb, who worked his magic once more in the aging 996 GT3 RSR to claim another pole position. The two remaining Ferraris completed the top three. Behind them the quirky Spykers continued to show good form and if the progress can be continued the gap to the top runners could very well be bridged next year. Yes, the GT program is not under threat and will continue to get the companyís full attention, despite the recent expansion into the World Parade Championship. During the weekend team-manager Hans van Rennes revealed three cars will be built for 2007 and the current cars sold to most likely American customers. Both of the LNT Esperantes did not seem able to really get to grips with the challenging track and could do no better than 9th and 11th, but Le Mans and Donnington have proven that the team is frequently there when it matters, at the end.
Although not having put in a qualifying time both the Binnie Lola and Lavaggi were allowed by the stewards to start the race. They also found the wing-endplates fitted on the Team Modena Aston to be illegal and was put at the back of the grid. So at noon 35 cars lined up on the grid, while Giovanni Lavaggi awaited the start in the pitlane. Before going into the details of the race, it is best to review Lavaggiís Ďraceí first as he was in a league of his own. Clearly suffering from all sorts of problems, Lavaggi spun the first lap out and then for the 27 laps the car was out on track, it was a rolling chicane, which made matters unnecessarily worse on the tight track. The car entered the pit 17 times, but surprisingly went out time after time. We really appreciate his efforts, but a serious race is not really the place to test a new car and quite honestly we were surprised the stewards allowed the red and white car to go out on track time after time. Hopefully the team can iron out the bugs over the winter, because there really is potential in the car as Pompidou had shown in that rare fast lap on Friday.
In the hours building up to the race many drivers expressed fears the lapping of slower cars could lead to carnage; even with the new overtaking instructions. It was not quite that bad, but most cars that crossed the finish line bore scars of some type. The biggest incident was between the Kruse Courage and one of the Spykers, but, after some delays, both cars were able to continue.
Emmanuel Collard in the pole-sitting Pescarolo seemed to get the edge over the competition at the start, but a lock-up into the first corner saw the competition catch up again. In the next minutes a cat and mouse game between Collard and Gounon in the #12 Courage entertained the crowd. Things did not get easier when the leaders hit traffic and then Gounon finally got by. In the morningís warm-up both Mugen engined Courages beat their Saturday qualifying times; they clearly made useful changes overnight. As Gounon started to pull away, the image of the Courage grew rapidly in Collardís mirror. The pressure on the Pescarolo was somewhat relieved when both Courages pitted. Gounon regained the lead a few laps later, and then lost it again as he pitted during the first safety car period while Collard stayed out. Despite having pitted twice, Gounon was almost back on Collardís tail when his ride let him down once more. It was gut-wrenching to see the lightning quick French driver grind to a halt and to see his best drive of the season come to nothing. Problems also struck the other works Courage, which did manage to return to the track, but down in 20th position. An unusually poor showing of the Creation team left the Swiss Spirit Courage as the only serious competition for the Pescarolo. Sadly they lost valuable time with another gearbox problem that restricted the drivers to third to sixth gear, which made pitstops very tricky. Everybody knew it would take a perfect race to beat the dominant Pescarolo, but they are only ones capable of doing so this year. With five wins in five races, Henri Pescaroloís 64th birthday party started earlier. It might look boring to us, but to pull off five perfect races really takes something very special. Hopefully all of the Le Mans legendís efforts will be rewarded with that elusive win in the 24 Hours next year; he more than deserves it.
As the LMP1 cars dropped out or fell dramatically down the leaderbord, the LMP2 and GT1 cars moved up; at one point all six GT1 cars were in the top twelve. Like at the start of the season, the best of the rest was again a LMP2 car, but this time the ASM / Racing for Portugal Lola. The teamís solid run was of a Pescarolo quality and even if the competition had not run into trouble, their class win would not have been challenged. Literally last minute drama for the RML MG Lola, which had run conservatively to win the championship, saw the striking car grind to a halt with a sudden engine failure. This paved the way for a surprise championship win for the Barazi-Epsilon team, which scored a win at Istanbul and then continued with strong results to score enough points. Both Radicals were again dogged by mechanical problems and were forced to retire. Although being involved in two big incidents, the Kruse Courage did enough to finish second in class, followed by Pierre Bruneau in his Pilbeam.
The other still up for grabs in this race was for the GT1 class, and most teams were still in striking range, although Oreca could only win it if everybody else retired. In the opening stages Jos Menten in the C6.R Corvette got the better of Stephane Ortelli in the Oreca Saleen. As the race progressed things developed in the Saleenís favour and they gradually built up a lead, running as high as fifth overall. The Larbre Aston had quietly moved into second while the C6.R and the Team Modena were involved in breathtaking battle for third for many laps. At one instance they ran four across the main straight as they were overtaken by two LMPs and overtaking a GT2 car. Eventually the Corvette managed to slip past after the DBR9 had a bad run through traffic. Behind them the Alphand Corvette cruised safely to the championship win when it suddenly ground to a halt, leaving the title fight between the two Astons. With only forty seconds between the two, the Larbre Aston eventually got the better of the Team Modena car and took second in the race and first in the championship.
A poor start from the GPC Ferrari, saw Marc Lieb built up a substantial lead in GT2, but a strong run from the De Simone saw the gap decreased to 0 centimeter. With some damaged panels and time lost both cars were able to continue. An uncharacteristic technical problem (gearbox) saw the Autorlando Porsche of Lieb drop out of the race. Behind the leading Ferrari, one of the LNT Esperantes had quietly moved into second as the British team once again showcased their excellent endurance racing skills. The #86 Spyker saw its chances of a podium dramatically decreased as the bonnet slammed open into the windshield. Severely hampered by the oversized visor, Peter Dumbreck eased his C8 Spyder back to the pits where a new bonnet was installed. With a cracked and dented windshield, he could continue and eventually finished fourth behind the surviving Autorlando Porsche. Many hours after the finish, the GPC Ferrari was removed from the result because Fabrizio de Simone had been in the car for more than four hours.
Creationís Beppe Gabiani summed it up best when he explained at the post race press conference that he first came to Jarama in 1977 and that since then nothing had changed. It was not quite the time-warp that the Goodwood Revival offers, but the limited facilities and poor track condition were far from modern. Some of the marshalls were clearly stuck in 1977 as well; crossing the track with cars qualifying really is not of this time. Despite the problems, the drivers did manage to put up another good show and with a few rare exceptions all upheld the live and let live policy set in the driverís briefing. The good news for the Spanish race fans, which showed up in decent numbers, is that the Le Mans Series will return to Spain next year and for the drivers and journalists alike that Jarama will not be the venue. Monza, the Nurburgring and Spa were also confirmed for next year. This concludes our race by race coverage of the 2006 Le Mans Series, but you can expect a final review of the full season in the near future.