The 76th 24 Hours of Le Mans
For hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts the annual 24 Hours of Le Mans has become somewhat of a pilgrimage. They come to the track for the unique atmosphere first and for the actual race a close second. In recent years the fans were right to take more interest in the off track action with Audi absolutely dominating the race. Peugeot’s arrival already brought great anticipation last year, but the race was again one-sided as the French team failed to combine their outright pace with reliability. A lot has changed since and Peugeot arrived at the track this year as the clear favourite, having beaten Audi at three of the four opportunities before Le Mans. The big battle at the top was only the beginning with Porsche vs. the rest in LMP2, Aston vs. Corvette in GT1 and Porsche vs. Ferrari in GT2 also making plenty of headlines. Although hardly needed, a little more flavour was given to race week by inviting the hugely popular Group C cars back for the Saturday morning support race.
We were trackside during every session and decided to skip sleep altogether during the race. This has enabled us to present a full report of the qualifying and race and a truly mouthwatering 200-shot slideshow
On the Monday and Tuesday before the cars were let loose on the track, they were brought to the Le Mans city centre for the traditional scruteneering at the Place de Jacobin. Although this is a very serious affair, it usually is a formality. Not so for the Racing Box Lucchini as it was excluded, apparently for failing to present the homologation papers. This cleared the way for the second Epsilon-Euskadi, which had been sitting around with a complete crew of mechanics and very experienced drivers (Jean-Marc Gounon, Shinji Nakano and Stefan Johansson) since the test day, as if they already knew what the future had in store for them.
Poor weather had pretty much rendered the official test useless, so the teams had to use the four two-hour qualifying sessions to both get a good race setup as well as clock a fast time to get a respectable position on the grid. The sessions are traditionally held during the evening with the second one in darkness. Each driver has to complete at least three laps in of the two night sessions to get used to the unique conditions. We talked to ‘rookie driver’ Nick Leventis, who pilots the #53 Vitaphone Aston Martin and he was quite impressed with how well lit the track was. He explained that visibility was actually worse in wet conditions than in darkness. Fortunately all four qualifying sessions were run under dry conditions.
Probably eager to get their point across, the Peugeot team went out with all guns blazing at the very first opportunity. Stephane Sarrazin set an astonishing 3:18.513; an improvement of almost eight seconds over his 2007 pole. No, the track has not been shortened over the winter. Shortly after the second of the three 908 HDIs almost matched the incredible time. Audi on the other hand were struggling to get under the 3:25 mark and the best of the petrol LMP1s were about three seconds further back.
On Wednesday the fast petrol P1 was the #16 Pescarolo, despite going off over some oil at the Porsche Curves in the night session, which brought out the red flag for the first time. A second major off, this time the P2 Lola Mazda of Hideki Noda, brought a premature end to the day’s activities. The car was virtually destroyed, but not beyond repair, while the young Japanese driver was fortunate to walk away unharmed. On Thursday the carnage was even bigger with the #5 Courage-Oreca, #9 Peugeot and #14 Creation-AIM all involved in pretty major accidents. It certainly looked like the pressure was on. The only real casualty of the qualifying session was a black cat that more than met its match in Olivier Panis and his Courage-Oreca.
It was hardly a surprise that Peugeot’s times were not matched; the fastest Audi was still over five seconds adrift. A much bigger surprise was the performance of the Aston Martin engined Lola, which finally seemed to have put its setup gremlins behind. It clocked the sixth fastest time and in doing so beat one of the Audis. Eighth was for the all new Dome S102 and its Toyota!-factory drivers.
The first session saw a small upset in P2 with Michael Vergers setting the fastest time in his Barazi-Epsilon Zytek, ahead of the much favoured Porsches. The situation was well rectified by Jos Verstappen in the Van Merksteijn Porsche, setting a P2 pole of 3:32 and beating the other Porsche by over a second. The only other cars that managed to keep within striking distance were the aforementioned Zytek and the new Lola Judd coupe.
Everybody expected the GT1 class to be a battle between the two factory Corvettes and the two works Aston Martins. Christophe Bouchut certainly had other ideas as he placed his Larbre Saleen S7R second on the grid, splitting the two yellow/black Corvettes. Remarkably it was the very first pole for Corvette Racing, even though they won the GT1 class at many occasions in the last few years. The performance of the two Gulf-liveried DBR9s on the other hand was a little disappointing and did not bode well for the race, which was expected to be particularly close in this class.
Porsche made it two for two as they also clinched the pole in the GT2 class. The heavier, but more powerful 997 GT3 RSR is definitely better suited to high speed tracks than the nimbler Ferraris. Last year’s class winners IMSA Performance recorded the fastest time, easily breaking the magic 4-minute barrier. Nearly two second behind the 2007 Le Mans Series winning Virgo Motorsport was the best of the seven Ferraris. A favourite of the fans, but always struggling with a power deficit on the long Le Mans straights, the two plucky Spykers were 9th and 12th fastest.
All of the cars that were damaged during qualifying were ready in time for the Saturday morning warm-up session and subsequently for the start of the race. At exactly 3 pm the full field set off for what promised to be a very exciting race. Allan McNish in the #2 Audi had the best start and got by one of the Peugeots in the first corner. Much to the delight of the French, order was restored on the long Mulsanne straight thanks to the 908’s superior top speed. The #8 and #9 Peugeots quickly disappeared into distance, while the #7 sped away from the #2 Audi at a slightly lower rate. At Audi, the #2 had clearly been given the task of keeping as close to the Peugeots as possible. Behind the six Works cars, the Aston engined Lola and the lovely Dome fought for the best of the rest position. The Lola was first to give as Jan Charouz had a big shunt going into the Dunlop chicane and then crashed the stricken car again trying to get back to the pits. It looked like it was an early retirement for the coupe, but the mechanics managed to bring the car back and the three drivers drove incredibly well to claim ninth overall. The Dome was first struck by mechanical issues and much later went straight at Arnage. Nevertheless the Japanese machine managed to finish the race, in 33rd and last position.
In LMP2 the order of qualifying was maintained with the Van Merksteijn Porsche leading the metallic blue Team Essex example. Tommy Erdos was doing a hell of a job to gradually work the RML MG-Lola up the leaderbord until he had a coming together with a P1 Lola, which sent him right into the barriers. The ever impressive RML crew worked hard to completely revamp the car and it was soon out again. Later in the race team-owner Mike Newton would have another off, this time at the Porsche Curves, which saw him get airborne and almost flip over. While he was able to return to the pits, the damage was now too severe to repair at the track. Meanwhile the lead had changed in the smaller prototype class for a brief period and the two Porsches remained close until the Essex car started to suffer from a misfire during the night. This enabled the Dutch RS Spyder to build up a comfortable lead. For the longest time it looked like the Speedy/Sebah Lola coupe would claim the best of the rest position, but an accident at dawn put it out of the race. Its third place was then taken by the Saulnier Racing, Judd engined Pescarolo, which despite a rather big accident managed to hold onto the position, resulting in a Porsche – Porsche – Pescarolo podium. For the first time the LMP2 winner actually managed to stay ahead of the GT1 cars.
Speaking of GT1, this turned out into the expected close fight between the four Works cars. The relative slow pace of the Astons in qualifying was quickly forgotten as both Gulf liveried machines set out to chase the leading Corvettes. The surprisingly quick Larbre Saleen faded to the background and eventually slipped well down the leaderboard after a rear wheel came off. After both Corvettes suffered from minor issues, the 009 Aston Martin managed to slip into the lead, just ahead of the #63 C6.R. These two remained on the same lap throughout the race and eventually the Aston got the better of the Corvette. This brought the score at Le Mans between them to 2-2 and it looks likely that it will remain undecided, which is a great reflection of these two fabulous machines. It was also a great conclusion of the race for Gulf Oil, who celebrated the 40th anniversary of their first victory at Le Mans, with the Ford GT40.
The pole sitting IMSA Performance Porsche was forced to start from the back after a mechanic breached the ‘parc fermee’ rule on the starting grid. This handed the lead to the Flying Lizard Porsche, closely followed by fellow Americans Risi Competizione with their #82 Ferrari. The Krohn sponsored Risi car opened the list of retirements after it hit the wall at the Corvette Curve within an hour after the start. In the meantime the IMSA GT3 RSR was quickly recovering from its penalty and fought its way back to the tail of the Flying Lizard car just before 5 pm. Not much later the two cars collided at Indianapolis, sending them both in the barriers at high speed. Only the American Porsche managed to crawl back to the pits with a broken rear suspension, but lost valuable time and any hope for victory. This brought Porsche’s challenge back from three to just one car and virtually handed the race to Ferrari. Last year the Risi Competizione Ferrari also had a comfortable lead and failed to convert it into victory, but this time round the engine survived. It was Ferrari’s first success at Le Mans for many years. Spyker’s race was even worse than Porsche’s with both cars retiring before the evening fell with engine trouble.
The first crack in Peugeot’s challenge came after just two hours when the #8 car came in from the lead with gear selection issues. It took the mechanics over twenty minutes to sort things out and the ‘blue’ Peugeot returned seven laps behind the leaders. It would be the first of many problems for the fastest of the three Peugeots. The #9 car first lost valuable time in the pits as its front bodywork needed to be replaced and then Christian Klien spun and ended up in the gravel, losing almost a full lap. Thanks to trouble of the team mates, the lead was inherited by the ‘tortoise’ Peugeot. They held a comfortable lead over the #2 Audi, which had quietly worked its way up and managed to keep close to the Peugeot by staying out on the track a lap longer and quick pit work. Well into the night, at what should be the coolest period of the race all three Peugeots came into the pits with what looked like over heating problems. A quick fix of dry ice saw them return to the track, spitting out white plumes of smoke. Despite this delay Jacques Villeneuve in the #7 was still close to a lap ahead of Tom Kristensen in the #2.
At little over 4 am the weather gods threw a big spanner in the Peugeot works by covering the entire track with water. All six diesels took on threaded tires, but the wet conditions clearly did not suit the Peugeots. For the first time the Audis were quicker and by quite a margin. Within a few (fabulous) laps Kristensen had closed the gap right down. Those that stayed awake were treated to an absolutely fantastic show by the seven-time winner. In a desperate attempt to adapt the Peugeots to the wet conditions, the #9 and #7 cars were fitted with new nose and tail sections. It was all in vain as at 5:30 am, the #2 Audi grabbed the lead and with rain still coming down started to build up a hefty lead. The rain eventually stopped and the #7 Peugeot started to reel in the leader from a lap behind, but time was running out. Then with less than two hours to go the rain returned. In a rather brave move Peugeot decided to stick with slicks and it seemed to be the right choice as 'Quick Nic' continued to close in on the #2. Minassian did not have the time to bridge the gap fully, but he did make sure that any mistake could be fatal. Then Juan Barazi tapped the back of his countryman Kristensen at the Dunlop corner, which fortunately did far more damage to the Dane’s Zytek than it did to TK’s Audi.
A flat tire with less than thirty minutes to go forced Minassian to give up, although he still managed to finish on the same lap as the leader, which is quite rare for Le Mans. A few seconds past the 3 pm mark, Tom Kristensen crossed the line to claim his eighth Le Mans victory and certainly one of his most hard fought. More importantly it was the second and long overdue win for Allan McNish, considered by many as the fastest sportscar driver of the moment and an all around good guy. He seems to cherry pick his wins as the last time the race was anyway near as exciting as in 2008, was in 1998 when the wee-Scot won his first Le Mans.
How did Peugeot lose?
After Peugeot’s record-shattering performance in qualifying, it looked like only serious mechanical problems would prevent Peugeot from winning. And there were plenty of concerns about the reliability of the French machines; no 908 HDI Fap had ever successfully completed a 24-hour test. Yet apart from the dry-ice moment during the night, the #7 ran completely trouble-free. Sure the Peugeot lost time in the wet, but a vast majority of the race was run under dry conditions, which saw the R10s lap up to 5 seconds slower. The answer is found in the pit-stop sheet supplied by the ACO. The winning #2 visited the ‘box’ 34 times, using just under 32 minutes. The #7 Peugeot was in the pitlane only twice more, yet was stationary for a whole nine minutes more. The difference on the track eventually was four and a halve minutes, so it can be concluded that Peugeot lost the race in the pits. Allan McNish described it best when he said the performance of his team was ‘perfect’. This no coincidence; Audi have built a car that is both quick and easy to work on and the mechanics are well drilled. The 908 might be very fast, it is far from easy to service. On the Audi the wheels seem to fall off, whereas the Peugeot mechanics always need to pull a second time to get them off. Another telling example was the change of the bodywork to adapt to the wet weather conditions, which also seemed to take ages with the panels almost refusing to get onto the car. On a positive note, the #7 and #9 cars ran almost trouble-free for 24 hours, so the reliability was there. Now Peugeot need to focus on further drilling their crew and making the 908 easier to service. With a brand new Audi looking more and more likely for 2009, the French team will probably not have this big of a performance advantage again. Perfection is required to beat Audi, not just having the fastest car. Henri Pescarolo suffered the same fate in 2005, when his machines were clearly faster than the aging Audi R8, but failed to convert the superiority on the track into a victory.
A record crowd of 258,000 visited the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year and they were treated to an absolutely thriller. While the other cars faded into the distance, the #2 Audi and #7 Peugeot were never more than a lap apart. Together they contributed to the most closely disputed and exciting races of recent years. With Audi and Peugeot in endurance racing for the long run and several other manufacturers looking set to join, this year’s edition could be the first of many great races. What the ACO does have to do, is to solve the problem of the flying cars, which will be quite a hard nut to crack. Other than that sports car racing looks healthier than it has in years and is on the brink of yet another golden age. We can’t wait until the 2009 edition, but in the meantime the Le Mans Series and ALMS races should provide for plenty of excitement!