The 77th 24 Hours of Le Mans
Any sporting event benefits greatly from a proper rivalry. This 24 Hours of Le Mans saw two of those played out at both ends of the field. Up front Audi faced Peugeot for the third year in a row while in GT2 Porsches and Ferraris once again battled for class honors. The duels were fought both on and off the track with various protests being issued but more about that later. The other two classes were not quite as balanced as in LMP2 the two Porsche RS Spyders were the clear favorites and in GT1 Corvette Racing no longer faced their arch-rivals Aston Martin Racing. The Gulf Oil backed British team decided to move up to LMP1 this season.
With the traditional test day cancelled this year, the two two-hour qualifying sessions on Wednesday evening were replaced by one six-hour practice session. This was done to give the teams some more time to prepare and set their cars up for the race. Unfortunately the weather had other ideas and provided for damp and wet conditions throughout most of the session. With the prospect of a dry race, the chances of getting a useful setup were slim. All teams nevertheless ventured out to make the most of the limited track time. The rookie drivers needed the time to complete their mandatory ten laps to qualify and all 150 pilots had to get their three nighttime laps under their belt to be allowed to start the race. Due to the ever changing weather conditions the times set in the six-hour session had little meaning. Two of the new Audi R15 TDIs topped the ranks just ahead of three Peugeots. Among them was the Henri Pescarolo entered example with its striking Playstation livery.
Much of the talk on Wednesday was not about the practice session but instead about Peugeot's official protest against some elements of Audi's new R15. According to the French the nose of the radical R15 was illegal. They had already complained about this at Sebring but had hoped the ACO would ask Audi to change it before filing an official protest. The ACO decided to do nothing as they found all the controversial elements of the Audi complied with the regulations. Peugeot's suggestion that the nose was not in the spirit of the regulations was ironic because the same can be said about the 'doors' on their own 908 HDI Fap. The protest was rejected on Wednesday evening but Peugeot filed an appeal, which has yet to be addressed. Porsche had more success with their protest of the Ferraris. They correctly believed that too much of the tires was visible when looking from behind, forcing the F430s to be fitted with additional 'spats'. This requirement was part of the ACO's new emphasis on preventing debris, gravel and rubber from being rocketed at chasing cars.
In the four hours available Thursday evening the teams had to get a race setup and set a qualifying lap for a good position on the grid. With 54 other cars on track getting a clean lap is a hard thing to come by at Le Mans. Allan McNish managed to do so in the absolute dying seconds of the first two-hour session, setting a 3:23.650. That was faster than his qualifying time in 2008 despite running a narrower rear wing, smaller restrictors and a 30 kg weight penalty compared to last year. The #1 Audi then returned to its testing work, quadruple stinting one set of tires. It was not a good night for the other two Audis, which suffered delays in the pits missing out on much valuable track times. Peugeot did not seem to worry too much about McNish's time until the very end of qualifying. They sent out Stephane Sarrazin in the #8 on fresh rubber. He got severely held up on both of his laps and yet still managed to get within a few tenths of pole. Another set of Michelins were fitted on the 908 and now Sarrazin did manage to grab pole despite getting blocked again. It was the Frenchman's third Le Mans pole in a row, equaling Jacky Ickx' record. Interestingly the 3rd and 4th fastest times in qualifying were set by Sebastien Bourdais and Franck Montagny, who shared the #8 Peugeot with Sarrazin.
To a certain extent the 'best of the rest' was taken by the Pescarolo Sport team in 4th position with their 2008-spec Peugeot. The first petrol car and the real 'best of the rest' was the 007 Lola-Aston Martin qualified in seventh by Tomas Enge. He was just over four seconds off the pace of the fastest diesel. As predicted there was no stopping the Porsche RS Spyders in LMP2. The Team Essex car beat its Japanese Navi Team Goh rival by just 0.082s. The closest rival, the Speedy Racing Sebah Lola Judd, was a further four seconds adrift. Although not with such a big margin, the results in GT1 were similar with the two Corvette Racing C6.Rs clocking the fastest times. The third placed Aston Martin DBR9 fielded by Jetalliance was nearly two seconds slower. Porsche also put their stamp on the GT2 class with the two fastest GT3 RSRs only 0.030s apart. Class pole was for the American Flying Lizard Team with the Felbermayr Proton car hot on their heels. The fastest Ferrari was last year's winning Risi Competizione F430 GTC. Remarkably the slowest of all was the JLOC Lamborghini Murcielago, which set a time of 4:21.812 and completed just 19 laps.
Le Mans Legends
To warm the crowds up for the 24-hour race, a fine selection of classic Le Mans racers of the 1950s and '60s lined up for the Le Mans Legends race. Living legend Sir Stirling Moss joined the fun in an OSCA, which he shared with owner Roger Earl. The field was made up of a colorful variety of machinery, including several Aston Martins, Jaguar C and D-Types, Alfa Romeos and Ferraris. The fastest qualifying time was set by Neil Cunningham in a Jaguar E-Type ahead of Carlos Monteverde with his striking yellow Ferrari 250 LM and Justin Law in the unique Lister Jaguar Le Mans Coupe. In the race Cunningham could not keep up with Law and Monteverde and had to settle for third after he spun out. The Brazilian and Englishman spent most of the race in a highly entertaining fight, exchanging positions at many occasions. Law mustered all his talents to keep up with the better handling Ferrari. He nevertheless had to yield victory to Monteverde, who kept his head cool and the highly valuable Ferrari on the track. If this was a sign of things to come, we would be in for quite a race.
Warm Up and Grid notes
The Saturday morning warm up should serve as a final system check ahead of the race. This year the 45-minute session was nonetheless quite eventful. 'Mr Le Mans' Tom Kristensen ran wide in the run up to the Dunlop Chicane, sending his R15 through the kitty litter. The Audi engineers also had to clean out the #2 car after Ferrari driver Patrick 'Dr McDreamy' Dempsey had a close encounter with Marco Werner in the R15. Completing a single lap was the JLOC Lamborghini, which subsequently showed up on the grid with a flash-light taped to the door to illuminate the number at night. Reportedly the chassis was the same as was virtually destroyed by Marco Appicella in 2007 with some bits from another car welded in. How it made it through scrutineering remains a mystery. In the race it failed to complete a single lap, which made us feel sorry for all the serious entrants that were refused an entry into the race. Also interesting to note were the low-drag front wheels fitted on the #16 Pescarolo. Porsche had tried similar wheels on the RS Spyder at Petit Le Mans but chose not to race them as they did not provide enough cooling. A quick look through our pictures from the earlier sessions showed that Pescarolo had in fact run them before.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans
At 3pm Ferrari and Fiat President Luca de Montezemolo waved the French flag to signal the start of the race. It was very telling that McNish was unable to upset the Peugeots by diving up the inside on the first corner as had done so successfully last year and was looking forward to doing again. Instead he had to look in his mirrors as in quick succession the #7 and #8 Peugeots got by him. The Lamborghini was not the only victim of the first lap as the single DBR9 Aston Martin also failed to make it round. It looked like we were down to just four Corvettes in GT1 after just a few minutes but after a lengthy delay, the blue Aston did reemerge. In GT2 the Risi Competizione Ferrari had snatched first place from the Flying Lizard Porsche, leading a tight pack of half a dozen Ferraris and Porsches. Porsche's challenge quickly received the first blow when the Felbermayr car suffered from a puncture just after the pit-entrance. There was more tire related drama at the top of the field. In the pits, the #7 Peugeot was released too early and hit from the side by Pesca's Peugeot. The initial damage was minimal but the resulting puncture caused the tire to blow out destroying much of the left rear of the Peugeot. Audi was also down to two cars as Alexandre Premat had lost considerable time after an off at Indianapolis.
As the two Peugeots continued to set a very impressive pace, pulling 2 to 3 seconds per lap away from the fastest Audi, the race started to settle down. The two Porsche RS Spyders and two Corvette Racing C6.Rs not surprisingly dominated their respective classes. The most hotly disputed class remained GT2 where the quickest Porsches and Ferraris were still on the same lap. The first big on-track incident came early in the evening when the Bruichladdich Radical was pushed off the track at the pit-entry by Stuart Hall in the 009 Aston Martin Lola under lapping. The young Englishman suddenly veered across the track leaving the poor Radical nowhere to go. Despite the extensive damage, the SR9 did make it to the pits and eventually back out onto the track to retire not much later. Hall's action was not taken lightly and he was disqualified from the race, leaving 009 to be manned by only two drivers. There was further drama when the leading Peugeot #8 with its all-star French driver line-up had to make an unscheduled pit stop. It had lost drive to one of the wheels and the repairs saw it loose two laps. Audi made it an even battle again after Lukas Luhr lost it going into the Porsche Curves. The R15 hit the tire-wall at very high speed. The complete rear end was destroyed but the one wheel that was still attached could still be driven. Luhr's attempt to crawl back to the pits was understandably stopped by the marshals.
In GT2 the fight was now down to the #82 Risi Ferrari against the three fast Porsches. The first to drop out was the Felbermayr Porsche as a result of the reserve-tank switch failing, which saw the car run out of fuel. Both other Porsches lost time due to incidents on the track and subsequent repairs. The pole sitting Flying Lizard Porsche's race ended prematurely after a big crash at the second chicane in the hands of Darren Law. The German manufacturer's efforts faded completely when reliability problems dogged the Imsa Performance car. This left the top three to Ferrari with the Risi Competizione Ferrari winning ahead of the Scuderia BMS Ferrari and the other Risi Competizione car entered for Krohn Racing. Spyker managed to score their first ever finish in seven attempts, ending the race fifth in class. The otherwise predictable GT1 and LMP2 classes received an upset late in the race. First the #64 Corvette grounded to a halt with a gearbox failure, promoting the sole surviving Luc Alphand Corvette to second in class. This also meant that the Jetalliance DBR9, which had such a difficult start, was now on the podium. With little over an hour to go Seji Ara in the second placed Goh Porsche hit some oil left by another LMP2 car at the braking point for the first chicane on the Mulsanne straight. From there on he was a passenger and he hit the stacks of tires very violently. He was lucky to walk away unharmed. As always the P2 class had a very high level of attrition. The Team Essex man were joined on the podium by two of just three other surviving cars.
At just over 4 am we all got quite a scare when Benoit Treluyer crashed the Pescarolo entered Peugeot very heavily in the run up to Tertre Rouge. The Frenchman did not emerge from the car immediately and when the marshals started putting up screens to keep prying eyes away from the wreck, the worst was feared. Fortunately all of it was just a precaution and after a brief visit to the medical center, Treluyer was declared healthy. The only thing bruised was his pride as the big shunt could have cost the team a podium finish; the sole surviving Audi was losing time quickly due to frequent clean-ups of the radiators and a repair to the gear-shift linkage. The two leading Peugeots kept ticking off laps with Audi-like precision, while the #7 car managed to climb all the way back up to sixth. Bourdais, in the second placed car, gave the crowd a right scare when he slowed the car down dramatically in the final hour. Not much later it became clear he had done so to get the three Peugeots together for some parade laps but they certainly could have found more elegant solution. At 3 pm the 908s crossed the line three abreast, clinching the manufacturer's third Le Mans win and ending Audi's nine year reign at Le Mans. For Wurz, it was his second outright win but for Brabham and Gene the experience was all new. 'Brabs' can look back at a particularly strong run at Le Mans as he had won the GT1 class at the two previous editions with Aston Martin Racing. The 007 Lola-Aston Martin saw a very strong and steady run rewarded with a fourth behind the #1 Audi
This year's 24 Hours of Le Mans was certainly not the classic we all had hoped it would be. Peugeot finally managed to get the winning combination of the fastest car, flawless driving and swift team-work in the pits. The single mistake early in the race cost them a clean sweep of the podium. Although Audi's performance was slightly disappointing, it was also not surprising considering how radically different the new R15 is. With a greatly downsized budget, the car could not be tested sufficiently. The lack of miles on the R15 prevented Audi from executing their flawless race routine that had resulted in eight wins since 2000. For both manufacturers this result will be an incentive to continue racing and perhaps it will have convinced others that Audi can be beaten. The two giants will face off again later in the season at the two final ALMS races. In the other classes the race had also settled down after the first twelve hours. The events late in the race had little effect on the final result. Hopefully we will see an equally strong field, with the exception of that JLOC Lambo, line up in twelve months. Rounding off, we would like to refer to our exclusive 260-shot gallery
, which includes all the action from Monday's scrutineering to Sunday's podium ceremonies.