A site of many epic 1000 km races, the Nurburgring is one of only two tracks that has been part of the Le Mans Series since its inception in 2004. As for every major international race the ‘new’ Grand Prix track was used for this year’s 1000 km and not the famous Nordschleife that was mastered by the likes of Stirling Moss and Vic Elford. Nevertheless the previous three races here proved to be classics with close racing right down to the wire. Less than two weeks after the flag fell at the soaked Le Mans track, the Le Mans Series competitors were expected to be back to full running order for the Nurburgring 1000 km. It was too close for most competitors’ comfort and the organizers started the weekend off with an apology for the tight schedule. They apparently had little choice as the FIA do not allow for any racing at the track three weeks prior to the Formula 1 Grand Prix. Despite the particularly grueling 24 Hours race, all but one of the expected teams made it to Germany. The absentee was the Swiss Spirit team, who withdrew at the last minute, because they needed more time to iron out some technical quirks in their Audi engined Lola. This left an even fifty cars to dice it out; the largest field ever in the Series’ four year history.
Our photographers spent three days around the 'Ring and returned with this full report and mouth-watering 150-shot slideshow
After a time-out at Valencia, both the Lavaggi and the GT2 Markland Corvette were back for the Nurburgring. Only the latter team had used this break well as they returned with a thoroughly modified version of their in-house developed Corvette. At Monza the Z06 suffered from serious overheating issues and much time has been spent bringing the temperatures down from 120 to 80 degrees. The hot running engine was also replaced by a new one and linked to a new side exhaust system. Peugeot revealed that they will have a customer 908 available for a privateer next year. Whether a privateer would like to take the diesel route remains to be seen; Peugeot believe that the current regulations favour petrol engines. This opinion was shared by very few in the paddock with the Le Mans diesel domination still very fresh in everyone’s memory. There was bad news from the Racing for Holland camp as the evening before the first practice Jan Lammers’ bags were stolen from his car. These included not only his laptop, but also his helmet and overalls. It made for some confusing situations as Lammers took to the track wearing both his team mates’ helmets at one point. In the race he used Jeroen Bleekemolen’s helmet, who in turn took the Dome out wearing the helmet of Spyker Squadron’s Peter Kox. Jeroen’s own helmet was apparently damaged in Lammers’ opening stint.
Classic Endurance Racing
The Nurburgring did not just see the largest Le Mans Series field, but also welcomed the biggest field in the Classic Endurance Racing history with 44 cars. That is more than three times the cars that lined up in the very poorly attended Donnington round last year. Complementing the many Porsche 911 variations was a healthy mix of GTs and prototype racers. Particularly impressive was the line-up of five BMW M1s. Our attention was grabbed by similarly well represented Chevron B16. It debuted at the ‘Ring in 1969 and against strong (Porsche) opposition took a legendary victory in the hands of the often forgotten Brian Redman. To celebrate this momentous occasion we have dedicated a complete page of the slideshow to this nimble and beautiful racing car. The one hour race was won by a direct development of the B16; the Chevron B21 in the hands of Pierre de Thoisy, with Louis Zurstrassen taking second in a Osella BMW, ahead of David Ferrer in a Lola. Behind them was a photo finish between Michel Quiniou in a B16 and Jerome Milou in a Porsche 908/3, decided in favour of the latter. The two had even touched in the race and Quiniou was quick to apologize to Milou, who replied that it was just bodywork damage and that he had greatly enjoyed the fight.
Practice and qualifying
As can be expected two (three) races in the season, the practice and qualifying sessions offered little surprises with familiar faces heading the various classes. Surprisingly still using the engines from Le Mans, the two Peugeots were again in a league of their own. Behind the diesel engined machines it was a lot closer with the top seven petrol runners separated by less than a second. The fastest of the bunch was the Charouz Lola, but that was stripped off its time as a result of a restrictor infringement. The last two of that seven were the top runners in the P2 class with Tommy Erdos taking RML’s first pole of the season, just ahead of Michael Vergers in the Zytek. Not having started in the best conditions, the weekend just kept getting worse and worse for Jan Lammers. In the second practice session David Hart had a coming together with a Porsche, requiring some ad-hoc repairs. Lammers then had a very rare off in qualifying, ending up against the wall. Having run out of spare parts, the team had to resort to parts of their 2006 car, resulting in an interesting black with white livery. Giovanni Lavagi had an equally eventful build up to the race. In the first session he lost a wheel and in the qualifying he went straight off after coming out of the pitlane. The last incident looked like it was down to none-functioning brakes; a very scary situation in a 200 mph racing car. He did get some pace in his machine and managed to qualify ahead of all GT cars.
There were no surprises in the GT classes either. GT1 saw Oreca further increasing its domination, outpacing the rest of the class by a second. The next five cars were within a second of each other, which offered a great perspective for the race. Pole in GT2 was for the Virgo Ferrari, just ahead of three Porsche 997s. In qualifying the changes carried through on the Markland Corvette really showed as it chopped six seconds of its fastest practice laps. The drivers said that there would be much more to come if the car was fitted with traction control to tame the brutish V8.
At a somewhat unusual time of 11:55 am, the lights turned to green and the fifty car field was sent off towards the very tight first corner. Amazingly all cars got through the corner in one piece; it would set the tone for a race with remarkable few incidents and retirements. Jean Marc Gounon made the best start and passed three cars to take the petrol lead. Ahead of him the two Peugeots pulled away at a staggering rate; by lap thirteen the lead was over forty seconds and by the first hour they had lapped all but two cars. Apart from requiring some additional oil at the stops the cars ran pretty much trouble free and cruised to a one-two finish. Not bad considering both engines had died or virtually died at Le Mans two weeks earlier. In the usual last man standing LMP2 class, the very poor showing at Le Mans was quickly erased as most cars ran very strongly indeed. Erdos and Mike Newton in the RML MG Lola did not have a single serious issue and took the first victory of the season. They were challenged only by the Barazi Epsilon Zytek, until a reluctant wheel nut cost them over a minute. It did give Ojjeh and Vergers the opportunity to put on a great display as they piloted the Gulf livered machine back to second in class.
GT1 had the closest action throughout the race, although most of it happened behind the Oreca Saleen, hampered only by a flat tire halfway through the race. The fight for second through fourth was decided in the closing stages and the three cars were only 20 seconds apart; not bad for a six hour race. Second place went to the Team Modena Aston Martin, despite having to drive without traction control for a very large part of the race. The real thriller was for third with the Larbre Aston being beaten with just four tenths by Luc Alphand’s C6.R. There was no close racing of this sort in GT2, which saw a very easy win for the Virgo Ferrari that had dominated the entire weekend. The most exciting event in GT2 was the fiery exit of the Spyker Squadron C8 Spyder. Driver Jarek Janis had to get out very quickly as the car had turned into a ball of flames at the end of the straight.
In the past Gounon’s stellar opening stints were usually rewarded with an early retirement, but he now continued strongly holding a strong third position as one by one the other petrol cars delayed with niggling problems. The mix of rubber and kitty litter on the track played havock for many of the prototypes with the lead Pescarolo requiring a lengthy pit-stop to remove debris from the right front wheel arch. As Gounon hands his Courage to Christophe Moreau, Jean-Christophe Bouillon embarked on a chase back to third. He gets by Moreau and the ‘Pesca’ was back in a familiar position. That was not the end for the podium aspirations for Courage with Gounon (back in the car) putting in some very quick laps right at the end, closing the gap to the #16 Pesca. Sadly he pushed a little too hard and went off into the gravel, where he remained stuck for many minutes. He just sat there with the marshals clearly unwilling to give him a hand. This handed third to Pescarolo, and fourth and fifth to Charouz and Creation respectively. It was a sad end to the strong Courage run, but the team can take comfort in the fact that the LC70 finally performed flawlessly.
This fourth Le Mans Series race at the Nurburgring might not have the classic that the previous three editions were; it did offer some excellent racing throughout. The large field and only eight retirements bode well for the future. Peugeot claimed their first one-two victory and it now seems very unlikely that we will see another winner in the remaining three races. Hopefully the rules will be changed and/or Audi will join the fun to make the race for the overall victory interesting again in 2008.