Entering its fifth season, the ACO sanctioned Le Mans Series kicked off the 2008 season at the Montmelo track just north of Barcelona. It was the third time the ‘Series’ traveled to Spain after previous visits to Jarama and Valencia. A full account of the developments building up to the race and of the events during the Catalunya 1000 km can be found below. It is well illustrated by an action packed 160-shot slideshow
New season, new chances
Europe’s answer to the popular American Le Mans Series, the ‘Series’ struggled to attract the attention of motor racing fans and major manufacturers during the first years. They missed some absolutely brilliant action on track, which were often filled to capacity with the latest GT and prototype racers.
All seemed to improve with the arrival of Peugeot last year, but the grandstands remained painfully empty. In fact the arrival of the diesel engined 908 coupe took away a bit from the Le Mans Series as a Peugeot victory was almost a given at every race. No more as Audi announced in November of 2007 that they would take on the French team with their R10. The entry of the seven-time Le Mans winner came with the condition that the ‘Le Mans Series’ would increase their effort to market the races. Not letting the chance of a high level battle slip, the organizers quickly signed a deal with Eurosport, who will broadcast parts of each race live in addition to several highlight programs. The rules were also slightly changed in favour of the petrol engined racers to bridge the massive gap between them and the two Works teams.
Another problem was that the 1000 km races were often hard to follow after the first pit stops and it was also difficult for non-insiders to distinguish one class from the other. This has also been addressed as hot on the heels of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Series have introduced the leader light system. Originally developed by IMSA for the ALMS, this system incorporates three lights on the side of the car, which are lit according to the car’s position in its class; three lights for third place, two for second and one for first. Each class has its colour of light and more importantly each car sports clear class stickers. This will greatly help the fans to see the significance of last hour chases and overtaking moves that have been so prominent in many of the recent races, but could only really be followed in the pit boxes and media centre.
In addition to the arrival of the Audi R10, 2008 also sees the European debut of the Porsche RS Spyder, which despite being an LMP2 machine regularly and at times successfully fought for overall victories in the ALMS. Joining these seasoned and well developed racers, a large number of brand new machines lined up at Barcelona. Most prominent of these were no doubt the Aston Martin Vantage GT2, the Aston Martin V12 engined Lola B08/60 Coupe and the fantastically liveried Oreca-Courage LC70. For many of the new machines the opening races of the season are welcome tests for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June; undeniably the most important race of the year.
Practice, qualifying and the warm-up
The cars first hit the track just before noon on Friday. Not all of them as several of the new machines suffered from minor bugs or were still being completed on site. Local favourites Epsilon Euskadi were one of the newcomers that struggled; balance problems caused the rear tires to overheat almost instantly. Unable to fix the issues on the track, the team used the remainder of the weekend to test their Judd engined coupe. The Audis, Peugeots and Porsche RS Spyders got off the mark much easier, setting fast laps almost immediately. The French team topped the leaderboard in every session. One of the biggest surprises was the pace of the Aston Martin engined Lola, which proved to be the fastest of the non diesel engined LMP1s and during qualifying actually beat one of the Audis. Clocking the fifth fastest time was one of many former F1-racers on the grid, Jos Verstappen in the Merksteijn RS Spyder. Further down the field there were familiar machines topping the GT classes with the Team Modena Aston Martin grabbing the GT1 pole. Last year’s champions Virgo Motorsport continued where they left off by clocking the fastest time in GT2 by quite a margin with the Dunlop sponsored Ferrari.
During the Sunday morning warm-up session the James Watt entered V8 Vantage suffered from major engine problems. After being pulled to the pit-lane, it was soon obvious that the weekend had become to a premature end for the Aston Martin that is still very much under development.
Ahead of a relatively large crowd, the drivers were given the green flag at 11:35 for a race over 1000 km or six hours. From the second row Allan McNish in the #1 Audi R10 had the best start, clinching second position ahead of the #7 Peugeots and the Aston Lola. The #8 Peugeot quickly started to build up a gap, while the McNish defended his position for several laps. Just as the Peugeot got by the safety car was called out onto the track The Horag Porsche RS Spyder suffered a blown front tire and covered the track with debris. Most cars made their first pit stop and surprisingly McNish came out in front. Due to the many lead changes during the pit stops, the safety car took several laps to finally pick up the leader and set the cars free again. In the other classes there were again few surprises with the Merksteijn Porsche leading LMP2, the Team Modena Aston DBR9 heading GT1 and the Virgo Ferrari topping GT2.
About two hours into the race Tomas Enge in the leading GT1 Aston hit the back of the #8 Peugeot, extensively damaging the rear bodywork. The collision could well have been the result of a small ‘brake-test’ by McNish. The drama for the Peugeot seemed complete only a few laps later when a slower car forced the #7 car onto the cerbstones, literally launching it into the air. For a moment it looked like it might flip, but the latest aerodynamics regulations did their work and the car landed on the Barazi-Epsilon Zytek. With amazingly little damage, it could continue the race. The Zytek was not quite so well off as its radiator burst, forcing the car out with an overheated engine. Audi also had its share of problems as the #1 R10 needed emergency surgery after the alternator belt snapped. This handed the lead back to the airworthy Peugeot, followed at considerable distance by the #2 Audi and the Aston Lola. In LMP2 the Merksteijn RS Spyder lost some time and the lead to the similar car entered by Essex. Verstappen quickly rectified the situation regained the lead. That was short lived as he was called into the pits for a 10-second stop and go penalty. Only minutes later the Essex car also had to report to the stewards, but this time for a 3-minute penalty for exiting the pit under a red light. This pretty much settled the class and also lifted the other, Judd-engined Lola coupe to second in class. This was the only other LMP2 that was really capable of rivaling the Porsches. The Essex Porsche still managed to cross the line in third.
Hitting the Peugeot was just the beginning of a very difficult period for Enge. He left the track several times and eventually retired with what looked like a lack of fuel. The team was ready to receive him in the pits, but he never made it back. The Aston’s retirement handed the lead to the fastest of the Alphand Corvettes, followed by the Larbre Saleen, which had to start from the back of the grid and the sole Lamborghini.
The GT2 class showed similarities with a demolition derby and few of the cars managed to reach the finish undamaged. Especially the Porsches had a field day running into eachother and the faster cars. The Virgo Ferrari benefited most from the mishaps and despite delays early in the race secured an easy victory, followed by two of the Works bakced GT3 RSRs. Finishing a commendable fifth was one of the all-new Spykers, which had not turned a wheel before arriving at the track on Wednesday.
At the top of the field there were no changes in the final hours of the race. Audi was given a considerable blow as Peugeot’s Nic Minassion and local Marc Gene beat them for the first time. Peugeot’s pace already had the Germans worried, but now that they seem to have found reliability, the 908 Coupes will travel to Le Mans as the clear favourites. Equally impressive was the third place finish for the Aston Martin engined Lola driven by Stephan Mucke and Jan Charouz. The number of key Aston Martin personnel in the Charouz pit box and the presence of company supremo David Richards shows just how important this program is for the newly independent manufacturer. With a third in LMP1 and a second in LMP2, it was also a perfect weekend for Lola, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year.
Despite being a Grand Prix weekend, reportedly close to 30,000 fans flocked to the track, filling quite a few grandstands along the straight. During the race, they seem to have disappeared, but as the finish approached many returned to see Spaniard Marc Gene take the flag. It is obvious that major steps forward have been made and the improvements like the leaderlight system and activities in the paddock have certainly made things a lot more exciting for the fans at the track.
The efforts of the two new Lolas show that there is plenty of room to challenge the major manufacturers and it might convince others (Corvette!) to give prototypes a try. We certainly have not seen the last of neither the LMP1 nor LMP2 Lola coupe. These certainly are exciting times for sportscar racing, bringing back fond memories of the already legendary Group C era.