Silverstone, the Ďhome of the British Grand Prix,í hosted the final round the 2008 Le Mans Series. It was also very much the deciding round as after the first four races all but one of the championships was still up for grasps. The big fight would between Audi and Peugeot for the manufacturer title and between the #7 Peugeot and #2 Audi for the LMP1 driver championship. Even though Peugeot had won all four races the difference was just six and two points respectively in favour of the French.
The weekend not only shed a final light on the 2008 Le Mans Series, but a first glimpse at the future of sports car racing was given during a press conference of Le Mans organizer Automobile Club de líOuest (ACO). With input from the teams, manufacturers and other experts like Gordon Murray they came up with various ideas that will form the basis of the future regulations that will come into effect completely in 2011. Even though they are rather drastic, the changes are evolutionary to ensure continuity. As with most new regulations, the intention is to lower the speeds and the spending. The full details will be published in November. A few hours later Peugeot offered their view on the future with a hybrid racing car based on their current 908 HDi FAP. Painted in a literally electric livery, it was demonstrated around the track by Nicolas Minassian. Itís unfortunate for Peugeot that the ACO had just announced that hybrids will be allowed to race next year, but wonít be eligible to score points. It seems that Peugeot was aware of this and it remains to be seen whether the French companyís marketing department will worry too much about that though. Zytek, who announced a hybrid for 2009 earlier, clearly did not know about it. Fortunately racing is very much a technology showcase for the British company, so they should still push forward and reek the marketing benefits of being the first (again).
In between the releases and press conferences there was also plenty of action on the track, headlined of course by the Le Mans Series sessions. The participants were treated to the finest British weather with a torrential downpour on Friday afternoon and a wet track on Saturday morning. As the weekend progressed the skies cleared up and at times the track was engulfed in sunshine.
The news, practice and qualifying
Despite being the last race of the season, two new cars made their debut. The big surprise was the RML entered MG-Lola EX265C, which uses the latest Lola coupe chassis with the familiar MG powertrain and running gear of the successful open MG badged Lolas. The car arrived at the track after only a brief shakedown at Snetterton, so the team hardly expected miracles. They made the switch now to be better prepared for next season. It was interesting to note that both drivers had problems judging the speed without feeling the wind rushing past their helmets. Also making its (belated) debuted was the James Watt Automotive Aston Martin V8 Vantage. The test car had appeared several times in practice sessions, but was always withdrawn for the race. The car at Silverstone was a brand new production car, liveried in a stylish dark-blue with silver accents.
It was business as usual during the first practice session with the championship leaders topping each class. Peugeot had taken their familiar position at the head of the field with the two Audis a full two seconds behind. The biggest surprise was the fifth position of the faster of the two Epsilon-Euskadis. It was not all good news for the Basque team as the other car ended the session in the wall with considerable damage. Team director Joan Villadelprat revealed to us that it will be the final outing for the two cars. Next year the brand new cars will be built with a revised design, although Villadelprat was adamant that the 2009 machines will have a roof. Their recent performance does bode well for the small, but very ambitious team.
The heavy rain on Friday afternoon turned the tables around during the second session. Even on the grooviest of tires the drivers had to tip-toe around the soaked track. An early victim of the slippery conditions was LMP2 champion Jos Verstappen, who smashed the Van Merksteijn Porsche RS Spyder into the wall on his out lap. Towards the end of the session the track dried up slightly, which saw the times drop gradually until Allan McNish once again showcased his brilliance by beating the fastest Peugeot by nearly four seconds in his Audi R10. Upon asked Audi team principal Wolfgang Ulrich told us that he did not believe in rain-dances, but it was clear that rain would favour the Germans.
For the third practice session early on Saturday morning, the track was still damp, which meant that again representative times could not be set. It also offered problems for the teams, which only had the first session to go by for their dry weather setup. The #8 Peugeot got stranded after just two laps after running wide. The other Peugeot did not take any risks and recorded the sixth fastest time. Audi again topped the sheets with Jos Verstappen setting the second time in the repaired Porsche. Unfortunately the session ended on a low again for Epsilon-Euskadi with the #20 again hitting the barriers hard.
For the first time since the opening practice session the cars could venture out on a dry track during qualifying. The GT-cars had a go first, followed by the prototypes to give the cars a better chance of a clear track. In GT2 there were no surprises with championship leader Rob Bell setting the fastest time in Virgo Motorsportís Ferrari F430. Underlining the amount of work still ahead was the time set by the Aston Martin V8 Vantage; 7.5 seconds behind Bellís. Dutch driver Peter Kox was in top form as he recorded the Lamborghini Murcielagoís very first GT1 pole position. He managed to outrun the Aston Martin and Corvette competition by a .5 of a second.
The two Audis took to the track at the start of the 20-minute prototype qualifying. They set quick times with relatively few cars on track. The repaired #8 Peugeot had to do an installation lap first and like the sister car left it late to set a time. Both were hampered by traffic and yet managed to grab the fastest times. The difference with the competition was much closer than it had ever been all season. In P2 Verstappen was once more the quickest, beating his compatriot Michael Vergers in the Barazi Zytek by over a second.
Classic Endurance Racing
Our favourite support race of the Le Mans Series rounds is the Classic Endurance Racing. Open to late 1960s and 1970s sports and GT racers, it gives a nice look at a popular period in racing. Combining the various British prototypes from the likes of Lola and Chevron with production based machinery like Porsche 911 RSRs and BMW M1s it is a diverse and colourful field. Not surprisingly there were many familiar faces and cars, but each CER round seems to bring out a number of Ďnewí entrants. A clear highlight at Silverstone was Le Mans Series regular Miguel Amaralís Porsche 908 ĎFlunderí. It was the first time he raced it after a two-year restoration was completed recently. Unfortunately the one-hour race was cut short for the Portuguese after a suspension failure. Another interesting entry was the DeCadenet Lola entered by current Lola owner Martin Birrane. Celebrating the companyís 50th anniversary, he got back behind the wheel for the first time in almost a year. Unfortunately his back injury played up again, so he had to leave the racing to journalist Ed McDonough and Ronald Cumming. The race itself was dominated by another Lola; the T298 of Pescarolo racer/owner Jacques Nicolet. He was followed by Sandy Watson in a Chevron B19 and Michel Quiniou in a Lola T280.
The Autosport Silverstone 1000km
For obscure reasons there was no warm-up before the race, so fresh from qualifying almost 24 hours earlier, the cars ventured out onto the grid. The good news was that the #20 Epsilon had been repaired just in time to take up the last place on the grid.
At 11:20 am the cars took off for a 195 lap race around the high-speed track. Peugeotís problems started in the first corner as McNish surprised Minassian in the #7 around the outside. The two touched, sending the championship leader into a spin. He could continue the race, but was well down the field and had his work cut out for him to catch up the leaders. Amazingly after just one hour he was back up to third and most importantly ahead of Audi that was his rival in the championship. Then tragedy struck in the corner coming onto the Hanger straight as Minassian collided with a backmarker, sending him into the barriers and ending the championship aspirations. To add insult to injury the McNish / Capello Audi had gotten ahead of the surviving Peugeot during the following safety car period. Shortly after the restart Stephane Sarrazin in the #8 tried to pass Capello around the outside of Copse in a rather bold move. An unavoidable collision sent both cars spinning towards the barriers. At first the Audi looked worse off as it was stuck on a gravel strip while the Peugeot limped back to the pitlane. However once the Audi got going again, it only needed the replacement of a punctured tire. The Peugeot was backed into the garage where the mechanics spent 25 minutes completely rebuilding the right side of the 908. So close to victory Peugeot had thrown it all away less than two hours into the race.
Behind the protagonists the race steadily unfolded without too many surprises. The Lola Aston Martin was once more best of the rest and profited from the mishap of the top runners and at one point during pit-stops grabbed the lead ahead of the #2 Audi. Also running strongly was the Courage-Oreca of Olivier Panis and Nicolas Lapierre, who remained within striking distance of the Lola Coupe until suspension problems threw them back. There was more tragedy for the #20 Epsilon as it hit the barriers for the third time this weekend after being run off the road by Porsche GT2 car. Driver Miguel-Angel de Castro was visibly frustrated to see his teamís work be for naught. The Porsche driver wisely tried to get out of the gravel and although he got stuck not much further he avoided the Spaniardís fury.
It was business as usual in the P2 class with Verstappen building a comfortable lead over the rest of the field. Behind the white and purple Porsche the battle was on between the other Porsches, the ASM Lola, one of the Embassies, the Pescarolo and the two Lola Coupes. The Speedy Sebah Lola Coupe was the quickest of the bunch, but saw its race end prematurely after a run in with the Lamborghini. Eventually the Horag-Lista Porsche finished second, which was a fitting finale to team owner Fredy Lienhardís 40 year driving career. At Silverstone he announced his retirement as he celebrated his 61st birthday. Heading towards their best result of the season the #45 Embassy crossed the line in third. Unfortunately they were penalized after the race for running through a red light at the end of the pit-lane. This elevated Miguel Amaralís Quiffel ASM Lola into third position in what will most certainly be the carís final race after a very successful four year career. The new RML Lola Coupe finished fourth in what can be considered a highly successful test.
After his surprising pole position during qualifying Peter Kox managed to hold off the charging Team Modena Aston Martin in the opening stages. Eventually the dark grey DBR9 managed to get by the glorious sounding Lamborghini. The British desperately needed and got a victory to have a chance for the championship. In addition the Luc Alphand Corvette had to retire from the race and the two French drivers made sure they crossed the finish line to score the teamís first championship after finishing third in 2006 and second in 2007. Despite their get together with the Speedy Lola, the IPB Spartak Racing Lamborghini managed to complete the 1000 km race in a well deserved second position in class.
This weekend assisted by Jaime Melo, Rob Bell was in complete control of the GT2 class with his Dunlop shod Ferrari. The two talented drivers took the checkered flag a lap ahead of the competition and their fastest lap time was almost a full second quicker than the rest of the field. Coming second in the race and the championship was the Felbermayr-Proton Porsche 997 with Richard Lietz and Alex Davison behind the wheel. Third was for the Farnbacher Ferrari. Spyker finished the season on a high with a fourth place finish.
Having been pulled from the gravel and fitted with fresh rubber the #1 Audi found itself way down the field. A spirited drive from the 2008 Le Mans winners Capello and McNish saw the car progress all the way up to second behind the sister car. Not surprisingly there were happy faces throughout the Audi box. Dr Ulrich remarked that with the help from the competition the rain dance was not necessary. Minutes later the leading Audi came in for an unplanned pit stop and was pulled into the pit for some rear suspension repairs. For a minute it looked fortune was on Peugeotís side, but a few minutes later the car ventured back onto the track and in fourth position. This handed the lead to McNish and Capello, who took a well deserved win. The Charouz Lola Aston was second, which was also the best Le Mans Series result ever for the British manufacturer. Just two seconds ahead of the champions, the #16 Works Pescarolo got a well deserved podium finish.
Of the two major manufacturers Peugeot had everything to lose and Audi had everything to win and they both did so. Peugeot team manager Michel Barge complained after the race about aggression on the track, but had his drivers been a little more patient, he would have been the one with all the trophies in hand. After losing at Le Mans to Audi, this second major defeat must come as devastating blow. Despite winning four of the five races, the French manufacturer has little to show for it at the end of the year. With Audi reportedly building a brand new car for next season, it remains to be seen if the Peugeot team will ever has this good an opportunity to win the Le Mans Series or the 24 Hours of Le Mans again.
The best news from Silverstone is the fact that the season finale was attended by a staggering 53,000 spectators, which easily is a Le Mans Series record. For us seasoned Le Mans Series attendants, it was amazing to hear of traffic jams on the roads to the track. These attendance figures were the result of Peugeot handing out around 40,000 free tickets. Although it does not sound like a healthy business model, all these spectators spent the day at the track and most certainly bought food, drinks and other merchandise. Hopefully we will see similar schemes at future races as full grandstands certainly add to the appeal for the Series.
We have captured the final and deciding round of the 2008 Le Mans Series in a spectacular 160-shot slideshow
, which will keep you warm until endurance racing in Europe will kick back into action in March of 2009.