Quantity and quality
Since Audi snatched away all the 2008 Le Mans Series silverware from Peugeot at Silverstone, the world has changed dramatically. The automotive industry in general and motor racing in particular have taken huge hits. With its many privately funded teams, the Le Mans Series (LMS) is a notable exception. Sure, last year's protagonists, Audi and Peugeot have opted not to return but that is compensated by the arrival of Aston Martin Racing in LMP1 and two privately run Audi R10s entered by Colin Kolles. More importantly the LMS has attracted well over 40 full season entrants, more than half of which are prototypes. After some late withdrawals the final tally for the season opener at the Catalunya track in Barcelona was 43, which is very impressive especially compared to the 17 cars that lined up the St. Petersburg ALMS race the same weekend. The starting field for the Catalan race was not only notable for its size but the general level has also been further compared to earlier seasons.
Henri's rabbit and other news
While all eyes were on the new Lola built Aston Martin LMP1 machine, seasoned LMS competitor and racing legend Henri Pescarolo pulled one big rabbit out of his hat. Few believed he could even afford a hat let alone a brand new incarnation of the LMP1 car bearing his name. When it became clear that Pescarolo would field a Peugeot at Le Mans, it was seen as the end of Pescarolo as a racing car manufacturer. Instead a brand new aero-package was developed, in complete secrecy, that was a full 2 seconds quicker around the Spanish track than the existing design. The carbon fiber panels were so new that the team had not had time to paint them.
Despite Henri's best efforts, the Lola Aston Martin still grabbed the most attention. With a coupe body, evocative livery and a howling V12 engine, it has all the right ingredients to become a favorite with the fans. The car itself is a development of the Aston Martin engined Lola B08/60 that was entered in the previous season by Charouz Racing System. The most obvious change is the exterior design that includes some styling cues of the Aston Martin road cars. Hopefully this has not compromised the carefully shaped aerodynamics of Lola's original design.
In order to slow down the prototypes the aero regulations have been revised for the 2009 season. The biggest change is a reduction in rear wing width. This meant that all existing cars required modifications to continue being eligible.
How did they stack up?
Before the event the two Audis and the Lola Astons were expected to dice it out at the head of the field. The Gulf liveried machines were indeed right up there but the Audis were off the pace from the first session. The young and mostly inexperienced drivers clearly struggled with the car that even the likes of Allan McNish found difficult to drive. The Lola Astons were joined by the new Pescarolo and another newcomer, the Ginetta-Zytek of Strakka Racing.
The LMP2 class was always going to be a Lola, Ginetta-Zytek and to a lesser extent Pescarolo battle. No fewer than four Lola coupes lined up against two open Ginetta-Zyteks. Despite their different configurations, the cars were very similar on pace. The only team to struggle was RML, who continued to suffer from the low grade fuel supplied by the organizers. Although their new Mazda unit copes with it better than the old MG, they still had to detune the turbocharged engine, leaving them 40-50 bhp shy on the naturally aspirated competition.
Now in its final year, the current GT1 class still attracted four entries. With seasoned GT-racer Peter Kox in the driving seat the Reiter entered Lamborghini Murcielago R-GT was easily the quickest of the quartet.
In GT2 the eternal rivalry between Ferrari and Porsche continued. Ferrari had the strength in numbers but two of the three Porsches could count on highly successful drivers' line-ups. Porsche has also reworked the 997 GT3 RSR for a second time. This was done to apply with new airco-requirements but mostly to bridge the gap with the Ferraris. The work over the Winter was certainly not done in vain. In the first practice session, however, the single Spyker trumped them all with Tom Coronel surprisingly setting the fastest time.
Classic Endurance Racing
Respecting the rich heritage of the 1000 km events, the Le Mans Series once again features the Classic Endurance Racing (CER) as a support event. Open to GT and prototype racers of the 1960s and 1970s, the CER attracted over forty entrants. Joining the regulars were an impressive amount of new drivers and cars. It was great to see an increasing number of cars sporting their original liveries. This greatly adds to the appeal of the CER and perhaps should be made mandatory. Of the 'new' cars Kevin Wilkins' Lola T296, Yvan Mahe's Porsche 935J 'Moby Dick' and Jacques Nicolet's March 74S Cosworth DFV grabbed our attention.
During qualifying the pole was clinched by Marc Thilloy in his slightly modified Lola T298. Second was Jean-Marc Luco from Switzerland who tried both his Porsche 908/4 Turbo and Porsche 936. He eventually opted to race the later of his two Martini liveried machines. At the start the immense power of the Porsche flat-six engine got the better of Thilloy and Luco dove into the first corner as the leader. The red Lola was much better on the brakes than the Porsche and Thilloy managed to get by early in the one-hour race. He overdid it and was forced to retire with cooking brake fluid. From here on it was plain sailing for the Swiss driver, adding another CER win to his tally. There was last minute drama for Wilkins with his Lola and Paul Knapfield in the thundering Ferrari 712 Can-Am racer. Both were forced to retire in the dying stages of the race after a strong run. The fastest GT car was the lovely BMW M1 Group 4 driven by the McInerney family.
The hunt for pole
Although getting a pole at a 1000 km race is not all that important, the competitive nature of the teams and drivers is hard to suppress. There is of course great marketing value in clinching the pole at the season opener. So in all classes the qualifying was hotly contested.
First out on track for the two twenty minute qualifying sessions were the two GT classes. Peter Kox once again proved his money's worth setting the white Lamborghini on pole. The Alphand Adventures Corvette and Larbre Saleen could not get within a second of the Dutchman's time. Kox was however stripped off his time after the Lamborghini failed the stall test (it did stall but not quick enough). In GT2 it was not over this quickly. Coronel could not repeat his performance on Friday as he struggled after a poor tyre choice. With the Drayson Aston also not a factor, it was really between Ferrari and Porsche. Last year's GT2 champion Bobby Bell managed to fight off the competition in the same Ferrari he had raced for the last three seasons, now entered by a new team (JMW Motorsport). Another new arrival to the GT2 class Team Modena with Antonio Garcia and Nigel Mansell's son Leo behind the wheel clinched a strong second. The two fastest Porsches were third and fourth.
Next out on track were the prototypes. Many of the top runners opted to wait to the end of the session. A notable exception was Danny Watts in the Strakka Ginetta-Zytek. He went out early and set a superb time; a full second faster than the Pescarolo in the final practice session. The gamble to wait almost backfired when the session was red-flagged after a Radical got stuck in the kitty-litter. Fortunately the clock was stopped, leaving ample of time to attack Watts' time. Amazingly despite their best efforts the two Aston Martin Racing cars failed to beat him. The two Pescarolos were clearly not as interested in pole and saved their tires. It was almost a Ginetta-Zytek prototype sweep as Olivier Pla lead the LMP2 class almost until the very end. One of the Judd-engined Racing Box Lolas eventually posted the best time in P2.
1000 km or six hours
Another change to regulations was a further restriction of team members that were allowed to work on the car during pit stops. Only two mechanics with one wheel-gun can now do the changes resulting in considerably longer and messier stops. The change was intended as a cost cutting measure but we have seen no sign that the teams showed up with less people. It also made it less likely for the 1000 km race to be completed within the six hour limit.
A few minutes after 11:30 am the lights turned from red to green and the 43-car field stormed to the first corner. Peter Hardman in the pole sitting Ginetta-Zytek made a mess of things and the competition stormed by left and right. It was a Lola-Aston one-two-three with last year's car, now entered by Speedy-Sebah, sandwiched by the two Works cars. Jean-Christophe Boullion in the updated Pescarolo also had a bad start and was forced to fight his way back up the field. He put in a valiant effort and was back into second before the first pit-stops. During the first stops it became clear that Pescarolo could double stint the tires and the Lola Astons could not. With the new regulations that is a big advantage. Bouillon emerged from the pit in the lead, closely followed by the slightly quicker Lola-Aston #007. It was the start of a duel that would continue throughout the race.
Olivier Pla shrugged off the disappointment of missing the pole as he stormed away in the LMP2 class. Unfortunately small problems in the pits and bad luck with a safety car saw the Ginetta-Zytek lose a lap on the leading Lolas. The Mazda engined Lola of RML made the most of the situation and grabbed the lead. Sadly the car slowed down, puffing white smoke shortly after owner Mike Newton had taken over from Tommy Erdos. One of the Racing Box inherited to top position in class, which it would not let go, clinching the first win for the Lola Coupe LMP2 car. The other Racing Box car finished third, behind the unfortunate Ginetta-Zytek.
Having to start from the back of the pack, Kox had his work cut out. He quickly discarded off the ailing Slovakian Saleen and soon after of the Larbre Saleen. It took a lot longer to get by the Alphand Corvette. The three quick cars then all suffered small problems on and off the track but eventually the Lamborghini came out on top. It was the first ever GT1 class win for the Murcielago in the Le Mans Series.
Spyker's weekend went from a remarkable high on Friday to a terrible low on Sunday; Coronel had to pilot the C8 Laviolette GT2-R back to the pits after just six laps with an oil leak. The car was retired so Coronel could start celebrating his birthday early. The mounting point of the oil-pump suffered a freak and unrepairable failure. At the head of the field, local hero Antonio Garcia grabbed the early lead ahead of the JMW Ferrari of Gianmaria Bruni and the two quick Porsches. It would take 11 lead changes before the GT2 class was decided. In the end it was the JMW Ferrari and the #77 Felbermayr Porsche that were left fighting for the hotly contested win. In the end the new Porsche proved the superior machine, enabling Richard Lietz and Marc Lieb to cross the line in first position, a whole lap ahead of the Bell/Bruni Ferrari.
Teething problems for two of the Aston Martin engined Lolas made it a two horse race at the head of the field between the #007 Lola-Aston and the 'new' Pescarolo. For the longest time it seemed the Pescarolo had the advantage by virtue of their shorter pit-stops, which just made up for the higher pace the Lola-Aston was able to run. A slow pit-stop and a late safety-car saw the once 50 second advantage vaporize into thin air. Christophe Tinseau in the Pescarolo then got blocked on the inside of turn three by two back-markers, leaving the door open around the outside for Stephan Mucke in the Lola-Aston. On fresh tires, Mucke managed to pull away from the Pescarolo on old rubber. The difference at the finish was just 15 seconds. The winning car completed 209 laps, which was 28 km shy of the 1000 km mark. A strong run saw the Bruno Senna / Stephane Ortelli Oreca Courage move all the way to third. The two Audis played no part in the race, suffering from a series of spins and eventually an unusual suspension failure on one of the cars. The pole sitting Ginetta-Zytek finished fifth.
Rounding off this report we would like to add some of our observations of the weekend: Bruno Senna raced Nicolas Prost, Lola scored its first major sportscar win in Europe since 1999, for the last Aston Martin win we have to back to 1959, the Aston Martin Racing post-race press release did not include the word 'Lola' and having a diesel engine is not the end-all many believed.
The Catalunya 1000 km lived up to the high expectations and the next Le Mans Series round at Spa promises to be even better. Pescarolo will have two of his 2009 spec cars as will Oreca, and Peugeot will drop in for their final Le Mans preparation. As many as fifty cars could line up at the legendary Belgian track. As a final note we would like to point you to our 180-shot gallery
wth mouthwatering action from the Classic Endurance Racing and Le Mans Series races.