After a one year hiatus, the Le Mans Series returned to the ‘Home of British Motor Racing’; Silverstone. The 1000 km race two years ago had an epic finale with Nicolas Minassian just losing out to Alan McNish in very wet conditions. A lot has happened since and both the DBA4 03S and Audi R8 used respectively have been replaced by a new generation of racing cars. Now in a Peugeot, ‘Quick’ Nic was determined to do one better this weekend on one of his favourite tracks. Another 45 teams, most of them with familiar faces and equipment, lined up for the penultimate race of the 2007 season.
Having missed the previous round at Spa Francorchamps due to conflicting schedules, we were back in force at Silverstone and have captured both the CER and 1000 km in great detail in this action-packed 170-shot slideshow
One question and two big announcements
Concluding this season is the ‘Mil Milhas’ at the Brazilian Interlagos track and building up to Silverstone the big question was “who would venture out there?”. Some teams confirmed, but prominent squads like Pescarolo Sport and Courage Competition made it clear that Silverstone was their last race of the season. The organizers even offered a round trip that included the ALMS Petit Le Mans, but on their entry list only two Le Mans Series teams are mentioned. Nevertheless a figure of 35 entrants has been mentioned for the race in November.
At Silverstone this discussion was quickly forgotten thanks to two press announcements on Friday. First up was Embassy Racing, who unveiled the design for a brand new Zytek engined LMP2 racer. The British team plan to run two of the Peter Elleray (of Bentley Speed 8 and Radical SR9 fame) designed machines in 2008. Even bigger news came later in the day when Hugues de Chaunac was joined by Yves Courage to announce that his Oreca team had bought Courage Competition. The French team turned manufacturer had struggled in recent years and despite celebrating their 25th anniversary, Courage did not impress this year. The purchase means that Oreca will return to prototype racing and might signal an early end to their Saleen program; the GT1 class is thinning out quickly. We were told that for 2008 detail changes to the aerodynamics and gearbox of the Courage LC70 would be carried out while a replacement is being designed for 2009 and onwards. The new Oreca-Courage will most likely be a coupe.
There were also some small changes to the entry list for Silverstone with both Domes and the Kruse Pescarolo absent. The latter was the result of a fire, which completely destroyed the team’s trailer and everything in it, a week before the race. The Zytek 07S/2 driven by Adrian Fernandez at Le Mans was a surprise entry in the hands of Team LNT’s Danny Watts and Tom Kimber Smith. Tom Chilton in the Arena Zytek was joined this weekend by his 16 year old brother Max, who made his international racing debut.
Practice and qualifying
Not surprisingly the two Peugeots set the pace in all practice sessions, although the gap was not quite as big as could be expected on such a high speed track. A bigger surprise was the fantastic pace of the LNT Zytek, which filled the ‘best of the rest’ position with great verve. Behind them a familiar pattern unfolded with most of the LMP1 and LMP2 cars clocking competitive times. With just seven cars, the GT1 class has been the smallest throughout the season, but the racing has been cutting edge with at least five of the entries capable of taking a win. For Silverstone two of them were reinforced with a factory driver; Oliver Gavin in the Alphand Corvette C6.R and Darren Turner in the Team Modena Aston. The latter seemed to have the edge in practice over the dominant Oreca Saleen. In GT2 the two teams fighting for the championship, the Virgo Ferrari and the #77 Felbermayer Porsche diced it out at the top. Making a startling impression behind them were the two Spykers, who were right up there in all sessions, clearly benefiting from new Dunlop rubber.
In qualifying the two Peugeots naturally dominated, but again the gap to the ‘best of the rest’ was not the four or five seconds as expected. Minassian clinched the pole, ahead of Pedro Lamy and Stefan Mucke in the Charouz Lola. The LNT Zytek in the hands of Kimber Smith clocked the fastest LMP2 time and lined up fourth on the grid. As the prototypes peeled off the grid, the GTs took over. The performance in practice also proved a good sign of what to expect as the quickest laps were put in by the Team Modena Aston and the Virgo Ferrari, both well ahead from the next closest competitor.
Classic Endurance Racing
One of the biggest disappointments during last year’s British 1000 km at Donnington was the very small Classic Endurance Racing grid. Those memories seem distant this season with packed grids throughout the season of the support race. At Silverstone just over forty 1960s and 70s sports racers were assembled, ranging from a Ford Escort BDG to several Cosworth DFV engined prototypes. These fast, but fragile racers were the quickest around the track with Yvan Mahe clocking an impressive 1:51 in his Lola T286. He looked set to take the win in the one hour race, until his car let him down once more with less than 15 minutes to go. This opened the route to victory for the four-cylinder engined Chevrons of Sandy Watson and Jacques Nicolet. They had been nose to tail or side by side throughout the race and eventually a small off from Watson decided the outcome. Anthony Hancock finished third behind them and first in P1 in a Lola T212. The victory in the GT2 class was equally closely disputed between father and son McInerny and Christian Traber both in glorious BMW M1s. The difference was less than two seconds in favour of the McInernys at the end of the race and the best lap times were just 0.009 of a second apart. The outcome in GT1 was decided behind the green table as the Ford Escort of Claude Boissy and Alain Miran was given an eleven second penalty for punting Claude Nahum in his GT40 off the track. This gave the win to Nahum and his co-driver Bernard Thuner.
All these exciting machines will be back in the CER next year and many also at the Le Mans Classic in July.
Minutes before the race, the LMP2 Lucchini was withdrawn with either a cracked tub or a broken engine. Being the slowest prototype by quite a margin, it was hardly missed.
From the start, the race was dominated by the #7 Peugeot of Marc Gene and Nic Minassian and it pulled away from the other 908. The #8 had clearly adopted a more modest strategy to secure the championship. Behind the two oil-burners, third was closely disputed between the Charouz Lola and the LNT Zytek. The battle was decided quickly in favour of the latter. The bright blue Zytek was hot on the heels of the #8 when the first safety car was called for as a big commercial sign above the track was falling apart. As this was fixed the LNT car pulled into the pit for a quick stop, but unfortunately it refused to re-fire. The problem was tracked down to a faulty alternator and the car was able to rejoin, losing six laps in the process. It was the start of a highly impressive comeback from dead last.
In LMP2 the Zytek’s problems had opened the path for the Iberian Lola of the Quiffel team. Sadly the black and blue racer lost precious time in the pits as they were forced to repair broken fender louvers by the marshals. Amazingly others with similar problems were allowed to continue. After a good stint from Juan Barazi in the other P2 Zytek, Michael Vergers once again showed off his abilities by putting in a set of exceptionally quick laps. He handed over the Gulf livered Zytek to Karim Ojjeh with a comfortable lead, who had the golden opportunity to make up for his dreadful mistake at Le Mans in a similar position. In the remaining two hours, he was challenged by both the Quiffel Lola and the Embassy Radical, but both efforts succumbed. Ojjeh safely piloted the Zytek to its maiden class win and fifth overall, one lap ahead of the LNT Zytek. Both LNT drivers and their steed greatly impressed and they left us wondering just how the Zytek would fare against the Porsches and Acuras.
With both the Corvette C6.R and the faster of the two Larbre Astons slowed down by incidents, the GT1 class very much a two-horse race between the Oreca Saleen and Modena Aston. The latter clearly did not have as much of an edge over the competition during than the race than it had in qualifying. With less than two hours to go, the two were nose to tail and eventually Stephane Ortelli got by to clinch Oreca’s fourth consecutive win. It clearly was not a bad weekend for De Chaunac’s men. In GT2, the Rob Bell and Gianmaria Bruni put in a perfect race and were never challenged in their Virgo Ferrari. In the final hour, the victory got a golden lining when the #77 pulled into the pits with the red rear corner completely missing. One lap down, the Imsa Performance Porsche 997 finished second. After four retirements, things finally came together for Spyker Squadron as they finished third.
At the head of the field, the #7 Peugeot’s lead was unchallenged and ‘Quick’ Nic achieved his goal to do one better. The race for the other Peugeot was not quite trouble free as some minor problems and a puncture threw the car down the order. Eventually Sarrazin and Lamy managed to claw back to second, but they were called into the pit for repairs. The part of the rear body that housed the lights had come off and the marshals had asked for it to be replaced. With less than 10 minutes to go, the Peugeot did not have the time and they were forced to retire the stricken 908. In the previous hour, the crowd had been treated to an absolutely fascinating race for second between Stefan Mucke and Emmanuel Collard in the Pescarolo and on fresher tires. They were nose to tail lap after lap and Collard seemed unable to get by the Judd engined Lola. A daring move up the inside of the Lola through Brooklands saw the fight end in the favour of the French driver. Mucke did not make it to the finish as he was forced to retire with steering problems. Collard's second place finish and the #8's retirement put the team back in contention for the championship and Pescarolo decided to come back on his earlier plan; they will race in Brazil. Third place on the podium was for the Rollcentre Pescarolo, piloted by Stuart Hall and Joao Barbosa. It was the Barbosa's last race for Martin Short’s team, as he will be racing in GrandAm next year.
With close racing across the board right until the finish and few technical problems, the Silverstone 1000 km was arguably the most exciting of this season’s Le Mans Series. It was also good to see the grandstands and paddock actually filled to some extent. The spectators were treated to a good show, although providing with some more information during the race should be a priority for the organizers. The Le Mans Series is a healthy championship now and with proper radio commentary, the leader light system and maybe a screen or two around the track, it should provide the spectators with a spectacle that is hard to resist.