For the fifth and final round of the 2009 season, the Le Mans Series traveled to the heart of British motorsport for the Autosport 1000 km of Silverstone. Going into the Silverstone race two of the four class championships were still up for grabs. By the previous race, the Nürburgring 1000 km, the Luc Alphand Adventures Corvette team had amassed enough points to be crowned champion in the GT1 class. The late withdrawal from the two Racing Box Lola Judds handed the LMP2 title to the Portuguese Quifel-ASM squad. After a promising start of the season the team had dominated the class in their newly Ginetta-Zytek in the previous two rounds, taking maximum points on both occasions. Still undecided ahead of the Silverstone race were the LMP1 and GT2 classes although the respective leaders, Aston Martin Racing and Team Felbermayr Proton, did hold a comfortable lead. The pretenders were the 2005 and 2006 LMP1 champions Pescarolo Sport and the JMW Motorsport team that had defending GT2 champion Robert Bell in their ranks.
The Le Mans Series also welcomed a well known newcomer; former F1 World Champion and crowd favourite Nigel Mansell. With team-owner Lawrence Tomlinson and his son Greg, he lined up in the LNT Ginetta-Zytek. For the occasion, the orange LMP1 racer sported the red 5, which Mansell used to score his greatest succession. His other son and Le Mans Series regular, Leo, was again found behind the wheel of the Team Modena Ferrari. In the Classic Endurance Racing (CER) support event Bobby Rahal, another racing legend, was found on the entry list with his Lola T290.
With unusually good weather predicted the Silversone round of the Le Mans Series once again had all the makings of a classic. Whether it was can be found in the following report and seen in our exclusive 160-shot gallery
Practice and qualifying
During the first of three practice sessions we welcomed back the WF01 Zytek that had not raced since Silverstone last year. In the hands of seasoned competitors Darren Manning and Warren Hughes and young Jody Firth the bare carbon-fibre LMP2 car was immediately competitive. Unfortunately, the session came to a premature end when Manning left the track and smashed the WF01 into the barriers. The damage was substantial but swift repairs meant the car was ready again for the Saturday morning session. The two 'rookie' Mansells were found in the mid-field of their LMP1 class where they would remain throughout the weekend. Nigel did mention that he felt very sorry for never taken part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, so maybe we will see him out more in sports car in the future.
Pescarolo Sport's Jean-Christophe Bouillon and Christophe Tinseau set the pace in the first two sessions but rivals Aston Martin racing topped the final session; there was very little that separated the two rivals for the championship. Quifel-ASM showed once again why they were the champions, placing the LMP2 Ginetta-Zytek inside the overall top five in the second and third session. Fellow champions Luc Alphand Adventures had elected to skip Friday altogether, leaving the GT1 class to be disputed by the Larbre Saleen and Le Mans Series debutant Gigawave with their Aston Martin DBR9. In GT2 the two championship candidates dominated.
More interestingly the Drayson Aston V8 Vantage and Snoras Spyker put in some very competitive lap times behind them.
First out for their 20-minute qualifying session were the GT cars. The best times of the three GT1 cars were a mere 0.134 seconds apart with Larbre taking the pole ahead of Gigawave and Alphand. The margin between the championship leading #77 Felbermayr Proton Porsche and its pretender in GT2 was only slightly bigger. The real upset came in the prototype session, which saw Bouillon make a rare mistake and spin off. This meant he had to start at the back of the field, which did not help Pescarolo's championship challenge. Confirming their recent leap of Performance, Team Oreca clinched their second pole of the season with Nicolas Lapierre beating the Lola Astons by nearly a second. The margin between first (ASM's Olivier Pla) and second (the Speedy Sebah Lola Judd) was even bigger. Pla later explained that he could have gone even faster.
CER: A visual and aural delight
Eclipsing the field of the feature race was the 51-car entry for the Classic Endurance Racing (CER) one-hour enduro. Open to sports and GT racers of the 1966 - 1980 era, the CER has been nothing shy of spectacular all season long. Joining the already impressive field of regulars were several very exciting additions. Rob Hall brought one of his clients glorious Matra MS670s. Its howling V12 engine was a true aural delight. As was the turbine in the unusual Howmet TX that had already been seen out the Nürburgring. Oliver Bryant's Lola T70 Mk III made its post restoration debut at Silverstone. It was the first time the car had seen action with its original coupe body since it was first raced at Fuji in Japan back in 1968. Making his CER debut was American racing legend Bobby Rahal. He brought the Lola T290 that he had originally raced in North America in 1973 and 1974. We talked to him before the race and a full feature on this very interesting enthusiast will follow later.
Ahead of the one-hour race, the drivers had 90 minutes of track time divided in three, thirty-minute sessions. The first of these was a free practice while the following two were timed qualifying sessions. Things did not start well for Kevin Wilkins and Mike Catlow as their Lola got damaged during the first few laps. Fortunately Wilkins had a Chevron B19 back at home that was also eligible. He picked it up overnight and managed to get it ready in time for a shakedown on Saturday morning. Soon into the session the track was covered in oil, making it even more difficult to get the Chevron ready. Despite all the problems, the two men started the race and finished in a highly commendable 13th.
In the few laps that the track was clean, Rob Hall set a stellar lap time that was more than enough to claim pole.
Making the most of the immensely powerful 7-litre V12 engine in his Ferrari 712, Paul Knapfield sped to the head of the field from during the rolling start. He held onto the lead for several laps but he was eventually reeled in by Hall and several others before the Ferrari expired. Behind the leaders, Rahal had gradually worked his way from his 9th starting position in the bright red Lola. He leapt into the lead when the Matra's left rear suspension failed, forcing Hall to retire. The American eventually crossed the line as the winner, 4 seconds ahead of John Burton in his Chevron B26. Burton drove for Chevron in period and has campaigned this B26 with great success for many years. Despite his retirement, Rob Hall still had a hand in the victory as Rahal's Lola was prepared by Hall & Hall.
The Autosport 1000 km of Silverstone
At the rather unusual time of 11:35 in the AM and in front of a 25,000 strong crowd, chief starter Terry Mullen released the forty-strong field for a 1000 km sprint around Silverstone. Blasting past round the outside #10 Oreca-Aim, the championship leading 007 Lola Aston took the lead going into the first corner. The leaders were almost halfway through the lap when Bouillon crossed the line to start the 1000 km race in his Pescarolo. The JMW Ferrari found itself in a similar position not much later, after Gianmaria Bruni had spun off at Priory while trying to take the lead in the GT2 class. Both fought back up the field and especially Bouillon's run was special. He had made up for his qualifying mistake within the hour, at times forcing his way past the competition in a very determined fashion. His inspiring mission was rudely interrupted by technical problems to the rear end just after the two-hour mark.
The Quifel-ASM's hopes for a third win in a row were smashed very early in the race. The team's Ginetta-Zytek grounded to a halt on the start-finish straight. Pla managed to get the car as far as Stowe but then had to give up. A fuel feed problem was the cause of the retirement. This promoted the Speedy Racing Lola Judd to first and the RML Lola Mazda to second. The white, red and blue Lola featured a heavily revised version of the Mazda engine that seemed to handle the ACO supplied fuel a lot better.
For the first time this season, the much plagued machine managed to reach the finish. The second place on the podium was a small consolation for all the engine failures RML suffered throughout the season. Despite the difficult start of the weekend, the Team WFR was heading to a podium until the alternator failed. They eventually finished fourth behind the #24 Oak Racing Pescarolo Mazda.
Despite an early lead over the Gigawave Aston, the Larbre Saleen had to settle for second in the GT1 class. Third was for the Alphand Adventures Corvette. This was most likely the final podium in the Le Mans Series for this type of GT1 machines. Wether the new generation of GT1 cars will appear in the Le Mans Series is still uncertain. The GT2 class has once again shown it can be a worthy replacement for their bigger brothers. As mentioned earlier the JMW Ferrari fought all the way back to the top and looked like it could upset the standings as the #77 Porsche suffered from technical problems. After several retirements, it finished 7th, which just enough to be crowned champion. The quirky Spyker once again made the most of the opponents' mistakes and finished a highly commendable second.
The Pescarolo returned to the track but it was so far down that it was out of contention for top spots. This left the fight for the win to two of the Lola Astons, Speedy Sebah's 2008 model Lola Aston and the pole-sitting Oreca. Although they had the championship in the bag, the Works Lola Astons did not have the pace to really make a challenge. Fortunes seemed to swing in Speedy's favour when the Oreca needed its damaged front fender louvres replaced during the final stop. These fragile pieces need to be in place to pass post-race scruteneering. The chance of the LMP1 and LMP2 victories both falling to the same team fell through when the Lola Aston also needed its louvres replaced with just a few laps to go. With an average speed of nearly 183 km/h Olivier Panis Nicolas Lapierre scored Oreca's first and well deserved victory.
The weekend's action came to a very bizarre and destructive end. After the class winning LMP Speedy Sebah Lola Judd had crossed the line Xavier Pompidou slowed down to greet and thank his mechanics. This must have gone unnoticed by Pierre Ragues in the Signature Plus Oreca as he ploughed into the back of the Lola. The LMP2 class winner was left stranded on the pit straight with most of its left rear corner destroyed.
Fortunately neither driver was injured. There is also plenty of time to repair the damage before the start of the next season.
Each year the Silverstone round of the Le Mans Series provides some of the season's best racing and this year was no exception. Bouillon's fight from last to first in just one hour was absolutely breathtaking and he certainly deserved the victory for his efforts. But so did Team Oreca, who saw many years of hard work rewarded. As the chequered flag fell over Silverstone, it also fell over the sixth season of the Le Mans Series. Despited the dire economic condition, all five races have featured packed grids. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come in the following years. The four different winners in five races underline that there the Series' strength is not just in numbers. Further adding to the appeal of the Le Mans Series is the Classic Endurance Racing that has seen truly spectacular grids this year.