Motorsport is still dangerous
Everyone involved knows that “Motorsport is Dangerous” and just to make sure we are reminded of this on every entry ticket or pass. At this weekend’s Monza 1000 km we were given a grim reminder in the form of two massive accidents and two more close calls. Stephane Ortelli’s horrendous crash at the end of the long straight made world news and is definitely the worst in Le Mans Series history. Confirming the massive safety improvements made over the last decades, all drivers got away with relatively minor injuries.
The big accidents were part of a very eventful weekend, dominated by taps, collisions, flat tyres, stop-go penalties and a post-race disqualification. We had to divide our time between the Villa d’Este Concours and the Monza 1000 km, but nevertheless managed to capture most of the action in the following report and 100-shot slideshow
Practice and qualifying
The season opener race at Barcelona proved what most already expected; the Peugeot 908 is faster around tight tracks than the Audi R10, although the margin was somewhat surprising. The question that remained was how the two diesel engined machines would stack up at a high speed track like Le Mans. The second round of the Le Mans Series at Monza was ideal to get that answer. From the minute the cars hit the track, it was obvious that the Germans had their work cut out for them; in none of the timed sessions did the R10 come within a second of the 908’s fastest time. The #7 Peugeot of Marc Gene and Nicolas Minassian grabbed pole, a whopping three seconds faster than in 2007.
Not all that far behind the four factory backed machines, the colourful mix of petrol engined machined were in similar order as at Barcelona. The Oreca-Courage team now had enough of the 2008 aero panels to equip both cars with the new package, bringing the #6 car right up to the pace of the #5 car. Neither of the ‘art cars’ could match the pace of the closed cockpit Aston Martin engined Lola. Its impressive performance already had some (French) team managers wonder if the restrictor break for production engines is appropriate.
Adding more strength to the LMP1 field was a second Creation, entered for Robbie Kerr and Bruce Jouanny. Unfortunately the Creation team was down a car after the first major accident of the weekend during the Saturday afternoon qualifying. Jamie Campbell-Walter’s car suffered a mechanical failure going into the first chicane and was launched into the air at just shy of 300 km. While the car did not flip over, it did not loose much speed in mid air. Still at a terrifying speed JCW hit the barrier head on. Amazingly he managed to get out of the car himself, but was later found to have hairline fractures in four vertebrae. Hopefully he will get well and behind the wheel of a racing car soon. Needless to say, the severely mangled Creation was withdrawn from the race.
In the LMP2 class, the Porsches once again proved to be the superior machine. They were much further off the pace compared to the LMP1s, pretty much ruling out an absolute upset at Le Mans. Jos Verstappen was by far the fastest of the RS Spyder drivers, setting a qualifying time a full second ahead of the other two Porsches. They were closely followed by the Speedy Lola and the first of the Zyteks. Clearly having sorted the problems that dogged them at Barcelona, the two new Embasseys were much better on the pace. The same could be said of the Epsilon Euskadi in LMP1, which was now in striking distance of the competition. Again failing to impress was the all new WR with its unusual Platypus nose. The Zytek engined machine could not outrun two of the GT1 cars and did not even record a time in qualifying.
The GT1 class was already very small and is now down another car as Larbre announced their withdrawal to concentrate on the FFSA GT and the FIA GT championships. This left only two serious contenders for the class win; the #72 Luc Alphand Adventures Corvette and the Team Modena Aston Martin, with the final podium position to be fought over by the other LAA Corvette and the Lamborghini Murcielago. With talented drivers aboard both top runners, the fight was on. The Corvette got the better of its nemesis by a fraction.
The long straights of the Monza track clearly suited the Porsches better than the twistier Barcelona and they were right on the heels of the dominant Virgo Ferrari. The Dunlop shod machine is clearly the car to beat on any track and under any condition in the GT2 class. The relative lack of power of the Audi sourced Spyker engine was also apparent as the two Laviolettes struggled to keep up.
Under absolutely perfect conditions the cars lined up for the 1000 km race, which was expected to last for less than 5 hours. The #2 Audi hit trouble on its out lap to the grid and was towed back to the pit. A problem with the safety valve of the diesel fuel line had to be sorted out and the car was forced to start from the pit lane.
The always tricky first chicane was negotiated with great care and all 44 remaining cars got through the first laps without a scratch. The two Peugeots went off into the distance and there was little ‘Dindo’ Capello could do about it in his Audi. He was helped by the Bruichladdich Radical, which stopped on the track requiring the safety car to come out. Audi took a gamble and called Capello in for fresh tyres and a fill-up. It turned out to be a dramatic decision as the right rear tyre was damaged while Dindo fought his way back up the field. The subsequent blow-out caused the R10 to spin out of control hitting the barriers at least twice. With considerable suspension and body damage, the Audi limped back to the pits. In an incredible 19 minutes the German mechanics completely patched the car up and sent it out again in as-new condition. The chase of the other R10 saw it all the way up to 3rd and after the two Peugeots pitted to 1st within an hour. Things were evened out at the two hour mark when the leading Peugeot crawled to the pits, emerging again at the same lap as the patched up Audi.
In the other three classes the opening stages followed the qualifying results with the Van Merksteijn RS Spyder, the Luc Alphand Adventures Corvette and the Virgo Ferrari taking the lead. The Porsche and Ferrari had to give up their lead because of various incidents, while the Corvette diced it out throughout the race with the Team Modena Aston, eventually losing out by a mere 12 seconds. The first to (literally) hit trouble was the purple and white Porsche, which suffered rear bodywork damage after a bump from a Spyker. Many laps were lost in the pits, but a spirited drive from both the team owner and Verstappen saw them fight back to an impressive second in class. The British Ferrari was off far worse despite having gained a lap on the competition. Three punctures were too much for the F430 and eventually the reigning champions were forced to retire. Virgo was not the only team hit by punctures, which were probably caused by pieces of carbon shrapnel shattered all over the track due to the many taps and collisions. The problems promoted the quicker of the two IMSA Performance Matmut Porsches to the lead, followed by the Farnbacher Porsche and Ferrari. That was not the end of the drama as the IMSA Porsche failed the ‘stall test’ at post race scrutineering and was disqualified for a restrictor infringement.
The Van Merksteijn Porsche was not the only LMP2 car to hit trouble; all of the top runners had their share of mishaps. The eventual winning Essex Porsche was penalized a one minute stop-go penalty and the third placed Horag Porsche lost a lap in the gravel bed. Looking set for a podium finish, the Judd engined Speedy Lola and Pescarolo both lost much time in the pits. Fourth in class was for the RML MG Lola, which continues to struggle to get on the pace.
Even though the race was eventful enough the baulk of the drama happened in the final hour and a half. The first major accident involved Emmanuel Collard, who lost all brakes at the end of the straight. Amazingly he got away completely unharmed after his Pescarolo bounced between the barriers, eventually coming to stop beyond the first chicane. In a freakishly similar accident, Stephane Ortelli turned violently to the right at the start of the braking zone. After hitting the barrier the Oreca-Courage went straight towards the apex of the corner and subsequently getting launched over the rumble strip. He flew across the track right behind the Audi of Allan McNish and landed in the grass, which sent the car in violent series barrel-rolls completely shredding the car to pieces. With one wheel and just the engine attached to the tub, Ortelli stopped at almost the same spot as Collard. Naturally fearing the worst, onlookers were quickly comforted as Stephane was immediately moving and was on his way out of the car before being stopped by the doctor. He was rushed to the hospital, but fortunately only suffered a broken ankle and should be back behind the wheel at Le Mans.
Needless to say Ortelli’s crash brought out the safety-car and once it pulled off there were just a lap or 20 to go and the battles for third and first were still undecided. The trouble of all the other top runners left third for the second Works Pescarolo and the brand new Creation. Tinseau eventually got by the Creation in the very last lap, snatching the final podium place. Quick pit work helped Premat leapfrog Lamy in the Peugeot, so despite starting from the pitlane, the Audi was now in the lead. Lamy put in some very quick laps and eventually got a run on the Audi out of the Parabolica corner and the cars were side by side going into the first corner. The two touched and Lamy cut the chicane, taking the lead. Before he could yield his position, Lamy was given a stop-go penalty for passing a back-marker under yellow. With Lamy pulling off into the pitlane, Premat looked set to take a surprise victory. Unfortunately it was not to be as the coming together damaged a wheel on the R10, requiring another pit stop. Ironically Premat would have been in the clear had he not defended his position against Lamy. So 52 seconds shy of the five hour mark, Lamy took the flag in a most eventful race. The two delayed diesel cars finished an impressive fifth and sixth.
The 2008 Monza 1000 km will probably be remembered most for its massive shunts. The raised level of competition is clearly reflected by the many incidents, showing that all drivers are racing right on the line to achieve a good result. Again the race was held on a Grand Prix weekend and nevertheless the grandstands were well filled for the start. The Italians are clearly not used to endurance racing as only a few dozen were left to see the podium ceremonies.