A legendary track
For the second round of the 2009 season the Le Mans Series visited the Spa Francorchamps track; a favorite for many drivers. Despite the various changes made to the layout over the years, the 7 km circuit still contains legendary corners like 'Eau Rouge' and 'Blanchimont' that separate the boys from the men. Adding to the excitement is the ever unpredictable and changeable weather of the Belgian Ardennes. The sun can shine on one side of the undulating track, while it rains at the other end. For this weekend a considerable amount of rain was predicted but fortunately only the very first practice was wet.
No fewer than four other series took to the track in between the Le Mans Series sessions. Among them was the new Formula Le Mans Cup; a one-make series for Corvette engined Oreca-Courage LMP2 cars. Headlining Saturday's schedule was the one-hour Classic Endurance Racing race for historic sports prototypes and GT cars of the 1960s and 1970s. The British and Belgian GT Championships also held a joint round with their GT3 and GT4 machinery. The weekend was so packed that the first cars took to the track on Thursday afternoon. All this and more can be found in the following report and this exclusive 200-shot slideshow
Additions and changes
No fewer than 51 cars were entered for the 1000 km race, which was eight up compared the season opener at Catalunya. Many of the additional entrants, like Peugeot Sport, Team Essex and Jetalliance, used the race as a final preparation for next month's 24 Hours of Le Mans. Regardless they not only lifted the numbers but also added even more quality to the field. Other notable new-comers to this year's LMS were the Team LNT with their Works LMP1 Ginetta-Zytek and Giovanni Lavaggi with his own LMP1 car.
Most eyes in the pit-lane were on the Oreca team. For the first time they fielded a prototype of their own, not surprisingly dubbed the Oreca 01. Although it still sported some elements of the Courage based designs used earlier, the AIM V10 engined Oreca features an all new tub and aero package. The cars continue to sport the Piet Mondriaan inspired livery, although the lines are no longer straight, which has considerably improved the paint-scheme.
Another new addition to the Le Mans Series was the Reiter prepared GT2 version of the Lamborghini Gallardo LP560. Hans Reiter has been quite successful with GT1 and GT3 versions of Lamborghini products, so the new GT2 car was highly anticipated. The introduction was officially planned for the pre-season test at Paul Ricard but development problems had postponed the debut for a few months. As with the earlier Lambo racing cars, the single biggest change is the conversion from four-wheel to rear-wheel drive.
The big surprise at Catalunya was Pescarolo's all new aero package that was fitted to the #16 car. At Spa, the second Pescarolo Sport car and one of Oak Racing's Mazda engined LMP2s also sported the new panels. We were told that the upgrade costs a steep 200,000 Euro. One of the Works Lola Aston Martins used a new 2009 tub. The accident at Paul Ricard had necessitated the use of a 2008 tub for the '009' car at Barcelona. There was also talk of a direct injection version of the V12 engine being used in one of the cars in preparation for Le Mans where both cars will have this more frugal powerplant.
The ACO also provided for the biggest news between the two Le Mans Series races by announcing further restrictions on the diesel engined cars. These included a 30 kg weight penalty and smaller diameter refueling pipes to increase the time spent in the pits. With Peugeot making an appearance at Spa, the effectiveness of the changes could immediately be tested. Making their Peugeot debut were Acura regulars David Brabham and Simon Pagenaud.
Practice and qualifying
In the past, the race weekend consisted of three one-hour practice sessions, one 20-minute qualifying session, a warm-up and of course the 1000 km or six-hour race. At Catalunya there were just two 90-minute practice sessions and here at Spa the second of these sessions was restricted to one hour. That makes little sense, particularly on a track this long. We were told that things will return to normal with three practice sessions at the next round.
Further complicating things was a small shower that dampened the track very early on in the first (and longest) practice session. The track was never really wet, so it was not very useful to gather wet weather data. All the fastest times were set before the rain came and were hardly indicative for the ultimate pace of the cars. Nevertheless a Peugeot and Oreca set the joint fastest times of the session.
The Saturday morning practice session was interrupted after just a few minutes by a big crash of the RML Lola Mazda, which called for a red flag. One of the rear wheels locked under braking, sending the car into the wall at a rather high speed. Fortunately driver Mike Newton was unharmed but the damage to the car was extensive. The repairs were not completed in time for qualification, forcing the team to start from the pitlane.
Once the track was cleared, the first 'dry' times could be set and the #16 Pescarolo impressed once more, beating the three Aston Martin engined Lolas. The fastest Peugeot could do no better than seventh, which left us wondering what the French word for 'sand-bagging' was. In the other classes there were few surprises with the Team Essex Porsche dominating the LMP2 times while the Alphand Corvette and Felbermayr Porsche set the fastest GT1 and GT2 times respectively.
Qualification was a repeat of the second practice session with red flags cutting runs short. First out were the GT cars, which had just twenty minutes to set their times. Fortunately during qualifying the clock was stopped as soon as the red flag came out. Amidst the mayhem Jetalliance Aston Martin DBR9 proved to be the fastest of the three GT1 cars. In GT2 the Porsches made the most of the power advantage over the lighter Ferraris. Felbermayr clinched the pole ahead of Imsa Matmut. The Team Modena Ferrari finished in third position but was removed from the results after scruteneering revealed the car was 1 kg underweight.
All of the prototypes went out immediately to set a quick lap before any incidents happened. Both Peugeots succeeded handsomely, clinching the front row with just one hot lap. Behind them the 007 Lola Aston Martin suffered an engine failure, which either caused Tomas Enge to spin in the La Source corner or was caused by the Czech's spin. He could not move the car and the session was suspended. Once resumed, the surviving cars went after the Peugeot times but nearly 1.5 seconds adrift, Darren Turner in the 009 Lola Aston was best of the rest. In LMP2 the Essex Porsche beat two of the Judd engined Lolas.
Classic Endurance Racing
With 51 entrants, the Le Mans Series was impressive but the Classic Endurance Racing (CER) guys did two better with a 53 car entry list. The appeal of Spa and a one-hour endurance race clearly had an effect on the new entrants. Many of them fielded very interesting cars like a Porsche 908 Coupe, Lola T70 Mk3 Coupe and a beautiful Jagermeister liveried Porsche 935 K3. They joined the regular exciting machinery from the likes of Ferrari, Chevron, Lola, BMW and Porsche.
Star of the race was Jacques Nicolet who seems to be getting quicker every outing with his 'new' Cosworth DFV engined March 74S. After early leader Paul Knapfield was forced to park his ferocious Ferrari 712 Can-Am in the pitlane, a battle developed between Nicolet and new leader Jean-Marc Luco in his Porsche 936. In the closing stages of the race Nicolet had caught the Swiss driver and eventually got by. Sadly his engine died just a few corners later but he was still classified second as the race was red-flagged shortly after.
Behind the two protagonists the rest of the field was involved in an equally exciting race. There were also some unfortunate incidents, mostly involving Lola T70s. Very early in the race one crashed badly, another lost a rear wheel and a third was forced to retire after the oil pressure went. The surviving cars provided for a great show with glorious powerslides, screaming V12s and fire belching exhausts. The CER race alone makes the weekend well worth a visit.
The Spa 1000 km
The weather played one final trick on Sunday morning; dense fog prevented the warm-up from being run. This was particularly inconvenient for the RML team, who now had no track-time to test the fully repaired Lola. The best they could do was get in a few laps once the pit-lane opened to form the grid.
Even before the race got under way at 12:50 local time, various cars hit trouble. The formation lap may well go into history as having the most incidents. First the was a small fire in the #24 Oak Racing Pescarolo Mazda that could be put out quickly but caused the first retirement. On the back straight one of the Racing Box Lolas had a close encounter with a Ferrari, causing the rear deck to fly off. After the first pit-stop the pit-lane marshals refused to let the car continue without its rear bodywork. Finally the Signature Plus Courage spun and got stuck on the curb-stones.
The cars were nevertheless shown the green flag but had to line back up behind the safety car the very next lap. In that one 'green' lap there were more spins and taps; the formation lap had proven to be quite an indication for the race. The only ones free of trouble were the two Peugeots and the Speedy Racing Lola Aston Martin at the head of the field. It was absolute mayhem and from the trackside the race was virtually impossible to follow even with the leader-light system. We can only imagine what would have happened if the weather had been poor as well.
Thanks to the hard work of all the mechanics, there were few retirements considering the amount of debris scattered around the track. That did result in a large number of punctures. After an hour the number of cars unaffected by the mayhem was down to one; the #7 Peugeot at the head of the field. Despite several safety car situations, which cut down their lead time after time, they held a comfortable lead and could experiment with leaner settings to improve the economy of the V12 engine. At the end of the race the team held a seemingly small 27 second lead but they were never challenged on the track.
In the LMP2 class the mid-field carnage was felt the most with the early retirement of one of the Racing Box Lolas and bent front suspension on the Quiffel Ginetta-Zytek requiring lengthy delays. Another factor was the poor fuel once again causing problems for the turbocharged engines. The Team Essex Porsche dominated until a late safety car bunched the cars right up. At the flag the lead over the Speedy Racing Lola Judd was less than a second. The third placed #29 Racing Box Lola and two other LMP2 cars were excluded from the results after the race due to technical infringements.
With just three cars and driver line-ups of varying quality and experience, it was never going to be a close race in the GT1 class. Early on there nevertheless was some excitement when the Lamborghini and Corvette raced nose to tail. In the end the Corvette put a lap on the Murcielago, which effectively killed the tension. Really disappointing was the performance of the Jetalliance DBR9 Aston Martin. The drivers seemed to have big problems in keeping the car in one piece and on the road. They nevertheless managed to finish, 19 laps behind the class winning Corvette.
The second safety car period came at a very inconvenient time for most GT2 teams as the leading Peugeot had just gotten by them. The first four GT2 cars were still ahead and effectively gained a full lap on the competition. From the start, it was a close race between the two fast Porsches and the JMW Motorsport Ferrari. When the latter lost a lap due to a loose wheel-nut, it seemed like an easy victory for the pole-sitting Felbermayr Porsche but they also fell victim to post-race scruteneering. This promoted the Team Modena Ferrari to the top position despite having to start from the pitlane.
The second Peugeot suffered from suspension problems and received a 4-minute penalty after colliding with a LMP2 car, so they were out of the running. For a long time the fight for second was between the #16 Pescarolo and the #11 Oreca. That also ended due to an encounter with an LMP2 car, sending the Oreca into a spin. Towards the end of the race there was yet another Oreca-LMP2 encounter, which sent Bruno Senna into a very violent spin at the exit of Blanchimont. His #10 Oreca was destroyed but the young Brazilian fortunately got out of the car unscathed. This left the final two podium positions to the #16 Pescarolo and the 007 Lola Aston Martin.
What a race! There was excitement and tension from the start to finish in this very hard fought sports car race. By making no mistakes the Peugeot team made the victory seem easy but it was never a foregone conclusion. Even the second placed Pescarolo had far from a trouble free run as it had to start from the back of the field after a spin in the opening lap and lost some time in the pits for repairs. The ACO may have finally managed to level the playing field, although it will remain a mystery for now how hard the Peugeots have pushed. Come Le Mans we will know for sure but that may already be too late.
The disqualification of the Racing Box Lola and Felbermayr Porsche really do not sit right. According to most reports they have been excluded for missing body parts; a rear fender on the Porsche and the left rear light unit on the Lola. Both of which were the result of punctures and would have in the past lead to forced repairs in the pits at the most. The Racing Box exclusion is particularly cruel as the parts only got damaged in the very last laps of the race.
Rounding off this lengthy report, we would like to make some final observations; Peugeot is ready for Le Mans, Giovanni Lavaggi finally finished the race (sadly he did not cover enough laps to be classified), despite the economic problems seven more cars lined up than last year and a remarkable 36 of them survived the 1000 km demolition derby.