Ever since Peugeot announced its sportscar program, this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans has been greatly anticipated as it was going to be the first time a proper Works team would take on Audi at their home away from home. David losing Goliath had become a bit boring; Audi running away with it again was not going to be in anyone’s best interest, not even Audi’s. Fortunately Peugeot worked really hard over the winter and during the first races of the season and the Le Mans official test, it had become clear that an Audi win was not a foregone conclusion. Although not quite as high profile, the battle for GT1 class glory between Aston Martin and Corvette was expected to be an even bigger spectacle. Not in the least bit because of the two Oreca Saleens playing the outsider role very well. The crowd could not only look forward to blistering track action, but the introduction of the leader light system and a total of eight big screens had made following it all a lot easier. The only bad news was the dreary weather predicted for the qualifying sessions and the race day.
Your Ultimatecarpage.com editor and photographer made his second pilgrimage to the legendary track together with 250,000 other enthusiasts to capture the 75th Le Mans in great detail. His thoughts and shots have been captured in this full report and mouth watering 200-shot slideshow
As always qualification was spread out over two evenings with four two-hour sessions. The fastest laps are usually set in the second session of the evening, but with the continuously changing conditions nothing was certain. As soon as the green flag was waved the entire field went out to get a lap time when it was still dry, even though the track was still very greasy from the regular traffic. Audi got on with the job quickly and even had Mike Rockenfeller try an alternate route over the first chicane. Well it was more likely that he missed his braking point and got airborne over the curb stones. The R10 was over a foot off the ground, but fortunately did not flip. There is a shot of this highly unconventional flight in the slide-show! Rockenfeller and the car were ok and both continued chewing up the laps. Far worse off was Marco Apicella, who had a big off in the same first chicane. He suffered a tire blow-out under braking and the car sharply turned right straight into the barrier. Before the heavily damaged machine ground to a halt, it caught fire. It took a considerable time for the marshals to remove the injured driver and the session was delayed for nearly 45 minutes. At that point it looked as if both Apicella and the Lamborghini would not be recovered in time for the race.
By the time the cars were allowed out on the track again, it was raining on parts of the track and quick times were impossible. The teams went out anyway to get the drivers qualified and to get a wet weather setup. It started to dry and right at the end the track was dry enough to get a quick one. Stephane Sarrazin gave the French newspapers something good to write about as he put his Peugeot on the provisional pole with 3:26.3. The fastest Petrol P1 was almost nine seconds off that pace. P2 saw no surprise with a Zytek clocking the fastest time and the T2M Dome the slowest 70 seconds behind the Zytek. Aston had the first bragging rights in GT1, followed by a Saleen and a Corvette. Ferrari, Porsche, Ferrari was the order in GT2 It has to be noted that none of the LMP1, LMP2, GT1 or GT2 cars came close to their test-day times, except for the five oil-burners.
The changing conditions continued on Thursday and as the second qualifying sessions drew nearer, it looked less likely that Wednesday’s times would be in jeopardy. A few minutes before the session started a big shower hit and the start was postponed by half an hour. Sadly it only got worse and before the first car completed a lap, the track was completely soaked. Many drivers went out anyway to get a feel for the wet track and figure out the best lines around the standing water. Even though rain should not favour the diesels, they were quickest in the wet as well with both the Audis and Peugeots clocking a 4:01 lap right at the end. The nine second margin of the dry had grown to a ten seconds in the wet for the fastest petrol car; surprisingly the Fernandez LMP2 Zytek. So Peugeot got the pole they wanted, leaving just the question about the 908’s reliability yet to be answered.
Baby can you fix my car?
With the weather preventing a real chase for quick times during qualifications, the attention was quickly turned to the race. The big question was whether the badly Lamborghini could be fixed in time for the race. The simple answer was: no. So the team requested if they could replace the chassis with an older FIA GT one and the ACO’s simple answer was: non. This was a somewhat strange reaction as at previous races the exact same thing happened to other teams and they were turned a blind eye and allowed to enter a car with a new chassis. The rules do say that the race should be run with the same chassis as was used in qualifying. Eventually a compromise was found and the chassis could be changed on the grounds that it was unsafe to start with the original car. One condition was that parts of the old car should be fitted on the new one, but the JLOC team then argued that they were also damaged to the extent that they were unsafe. In the end a completely different car was collected at Dams in Paris and quickly stickered up to look like the JLOC car. It was ready for the Saturday morning warm-up, but Apicella was not patched up in time to race, leaving just two drivers to complete. When the car drove off for the formation lap the well informed crowd acknowledged the effort and gave a great round of applause. It all proved to be completely in vain as the ‘new’ Murcielago did not complete a single lap as it ground to a halt at the second chicane in the Hunaudieres straight.
One hare and four tortoises
The last hour before the 3 pm race start was a real nightmare for the team managers as the rain was visibly approaching, but the track was still dry. What tires to fit? Eventually all cars took off on slicks when the French flag was shown at the start/finish straight. Bourdais started the pole sitting car and allowed Capello to get past in the #2 Audi after a running wide at the Dunlop chicane. Capello jumped at the opportunity and took off into the distance, putting in some very quick laps. The two Peugeot could not or did not want to respond to Audi’s hare and diced it out with the other two Audis. The Germans clearly had a lot of confidence in the R10’s durability. Having never lasted more than 18 hours in testing, Peugeot were wise to take it easy with the 908. The four tortoises did pull away from the petrol engined Pescarolo, which would play the ‘best of the race’ throughout the race. The other three classes were much more closely disputed and especially in GT1 the top six cars were nose to tail for many laps. The early class lead in LMP2 was held by the Quiffel Lola, but it was overtaken by both Barazi entered Zyteks. Unfortunately Michael Vergers decided to ruin the Zytek 1-2 by trying a silly move on the leading car and spinning. GT2 saw an equally close battle with the pole sitting IMSA Porsche holding a short lead over two other 997s and two Ferraris.
And then the rain hit for the first time. It caught out Jamie Campbell Walter and Tim Greaves in the Creation and Radical respectively as the slid into each other in the Porsche curves. The Radical had its tub damaged and was the first real retirement of the race having completed just 16 laps. The Creation was eventually repaired, but later in the evening it would crash once more and this time beyond repair. The pace cars were pulled out to clean up the debris and by doing so the close field was split into two groups, putting an end to some of the big fights. The next retirement was a really big surprise as it was the #64 Corvette with a snapped prop-shaft; it was the very first time a Works Corvette retired from the 24-hour race with mechanical issues. The other factory Corvette also struggled and as the dust settled the 007 and 009 Astons held a good lead over the rest. The field was barely back to green-flag racing when the #3 Audi went off violently at Tertre Rouge destroying the car and the crash barrier. Rockenfeller was told to try and get the car back to the garage, but with one rear wheel snapped off that was impossible; the list of retirees was growing at a worrying rate. Especially the LMP2 cars seemed very frail as one by one they came in for lengthy pit stops and/or ground to a halt at a marshals’ post. In all this chaos the steady running Binnie Motorsports emerged as the class leader by the virtue of having no problems at all. The #8 Peugeot also had some minor problems with the rear wheel bearings and lost a few laps in the pit.
Sunshine after the rain
The expected rain only hit parts of the track and the track steadily dried while the field ran under another lengthy safety car period (over one hour) to repair the crash barrier destroyed by Rocky’s Audi. It was the start of a very long period of the best weather we had at the track for many days. The dry track still proved treacherous and many pit crews had to perform serious repairs. As the night fell, one of the GT2 top contenders, the beautifully livered Flying Lizard Motorsport 997 has to make an emergency pit stop as it rear wing had collapsed. The repair proved in vain; the gearbox failed but a few laps later and the Porsche was out permanently. The now dry track allowed for an even faster pace and Allan McNish in the leading Audi set an incredible 3:27; barely slower than in qualifying. The two Audis continued to lap consistently faster than the Peugeots, gradually expanding the lead. The surviving GT1 cars continued very strongly and seemed unhampered by the problems that had slowed many of the other competitors. At midnight, the leading 009 Aston had fought its way up to eight overall. The drivers were spared of any wet weather in the night, which must have been quite a relieve as rain would have made for the most dangerous of conditions. McNish continued to impress and prevented everybody from nodding off by clocking several consecutive 3:27 laps. At 5 am red skies signaled the arrival of the morning and the Audis continued to lead with visible ease. The delayed #8 Peugeot fought its way back past all the Petrol P1s to fourth overall. In GT1 the surviving Works Corvette climbed up to second in the hands of Ron Fellows, who was most likely competing in his last Le Mans. Through the night the GT2 leaderboard was shuffled around a bit and the lead was now held by two Ferraris over two Porsches. Not for long though as the leading Risi Ferrari had to make an unscheduled pit-stop to repair a broken splitter. It was the beginning of the end and not much later it was retired from the race. The Scuderia Ecosse Ferrari took over, but suffered a similar fate and ground to a halt with a broken driveshaft. It looked like 2006 all over again, when the Panoz clinched a surprise win as the leading cars dropped out one by one.
Sunday morning drama
If anybody was not awake yet, a big crash in the Indianapolis corner at 7:30 made sure everybody was. The victim was the leading Audi, which lost a wheel going into the very fast right-hander. Capello got out of the car unharmed and like Rocky so many hours earlier, he was unable to make it back to the pit. Despite leading, it was clearly the most difficult Le Mans for Audi in many, many years. One more failure and the lead would be handed to the two Peugeots. The grim faces at Audi were quite a contrast to the happy ones at Peugeot. The French had not expected their cars to survive the night and most certainly not in second and third position. Behind the oil-burners the fastest of the Works Pescarolos was running in a strong fourth, closely followed by Pesca customer Rollcentre Racing, who had put in a steady and flawless performance. There was further drama in P2 as eight cars were out of the race, leaving just the three Zytek engined machines to fight for glory. The all Zytek podium was ruined as Ojjeh put the Gulf livered Zytek into the wall, throwing away a second in class finish. He was visibly distraught and sat behind the barrier for many minutes with this helmeted head in his hands. Two cars left with six hours to go and many wondered if we would get a P2 winner at all.
The crawl to the finish
As the grandstands started to fill gradually very little happened on the track, with the drivers preserving their machines, to make it to the finish. The expected rain and Peugeot reliability issues came virtually together with around two hours to go. The second placed #7 Peugeot was pulled into the pit with injector problems and it would not emerge again. Audi were well prepared and fitted the sole surviving R10 with rain tires and a special ‘Regen’ rear bodywork one lap before everybody else came to the pit to shed the useless slicks. The rain got so heavy that the team managers asked for a safety car: the prototypes were virtually floating and were overtaken by the GTs. When it came out, the rumbling Audi RS4 safety car ended Fellows’ magnificent chase for the GT1 lead, which saw him lap around half a minute faster per lap than the leading Aston. It was not over yet though as the other Peugeot was also rolled into the pit box with electrical problems caused by the water building up in the cockpit. This same problem had also hampered the closed-top Bentleys six years earlier. The leading P2 Binnie Lola saw a routine pit stop turn into a near nightmare as water seeped onto the ECU. They had a big enough lead over the other P2 survivor, but they had to get the car going again. With just minutes to spare they managed to do so. The safety car was pulled off the track to allow for a green flag finish. Bourdais also had gotten on with things and wisely waited at the Ford chicane for the R10 to get by, so he did not have to do another lap with the ill-running coupe. The Pirro-Biela-Werner combination scored a back to back win, well ahead of the Peugeot and two of the brand new Pescarolos. Henri got another podium and for Martin Short it finally all came together. The closely disputed GT1 class was won by the Turner-Rydell-Brabham driven DBR9. Aston supremo David Richards assured the British company would be back next year and were seriously looking at going for the overall win sooner rather than later. P2 saw a two car podium with the Binnie Motorsport Lola-Zytek taking the win well ahead of the Adrian Fernandez Zytek. The quick Mexican should be back at Le Mans next year with an Acura; Honda personnel were spotted taking pictures of every nook and cranny of the Le Mans paddock and pit lane, so the Japanese company will get to the 24 Hour race well prepared. In GT2 the 997 GT3 RSR took its second 24 Hour victory after winning the Nurburgring race a week earlier. The winning machine was the factory supported (Norbert Singer was never far from their pits) IMSA Performance entered example.
The 75th 24 Hours of Le Mans was certainly not the cracker we had all hoped for and maybe it was a little unrealistic to expect Peugeot to really challenge the Audi steamroller. The Germans got their fourth win in a row, but they most certainly left the track with a bag of mixed feelings as the target of a podium clean-sweep was not achieved. Although the final result does not clearly reflect this, Peugeot really pushed Audi; all four diesels that survived the night clocked a best lap time five seconds faster than that of the fastest Audi a year ago. Peugeot are arguably the moral winners as they did not expect the cars to make it through the night, let alone finish on the podium. The half-finished livery is most certainly an indication that they did not feel they were ready yet. To preserve the cars, the team adopted a very conservative pace, but the fastest laps of both cars are a clear indication that they are at least as quick as the Audis. One more year of development could easily turn the 908 HDi FAP in the Le Mans winner some hoped/expected it already was this year.
The other great rivalry also did not provide for the close racing expected before the race, although it could have gone down right to the wire if the safety car had not stopped Fellows dead in his track. With David Richards’ post race words in mind and the fact that the drawing of the ACO’s future prototype ideas had a Corvette livery, it might have been the last Corvette (Pratt & Miller) vs Aston (Prodrive) battle at Le Mans in the GT1 class. Both teams would form a very welcome addition to the prototype field, even though it might mean the end of the GT1 class.
GT2 and LMP2 were the usual last man standing deal. Fortunately the wins went to two well deserving teams that have been loyal competitors at Le Mans and in the Le Mans Series. Why especially these P2 cars are so fragile is the big question; quick as they may be, they are highly unreliable, even those built by the likes of Porsche. Honda/Acura look set to make their way to Le Mans, but it is still uncertain whether Penske’s Porsche RS Spyders will.
The spectators will not have to wait until next year for the second Peugeot/Audi get together as it seems likely that a R10 will be raced in one Le Mans Series race this season. For the 76th running we expect the 908 fully painted and ready to give Audi a real run for the money, breaking the distance record in the process!