End of an era
The 78th 24 Hours of Le Mans effectively marked the end of the era of 'big banger' cars. Due to extensive rule changes the current generation of LMP1 cars will not return to the 'La Sarthe' track in 2011. One of the main reasons is the incredible speeds reached by the current machines, which are capable of consistently running much faster than the target lap-time of 3:30 minutes set by the event's organisers. For this year the dominant diesels were already pegged back considerably but nevertheless managed to run faster still than they did in 2009. For different reasons the GT1 cars were also raced at Le Mans for a final time this year. Next year there will be only one GT class and the top level prototype class will be virtually identical to the current LMP2 machinery. A big change will be the legalisation of hybrid systems and a fin on the rear deck will become mandatory to improve stability. A cost cap will be applied to the new LMP2 class to ensure that privateers can still play their part at Le Mans.
It was also the end of an era for Henri Pescarolo. The French Le Mans legend was not found on the entry list as a driver or entrant for the first time since the late 1960s. He did come to the track as a commentator for a television station and a French newspaper.
Old prototypes, new GTs
The imminent changes to the prototype regulations did mean that for this year there were relatively few changes, let alone new cars. Audi bucked that trend with their 'R15 plus' LMP1 car in an attempt to strengthen their opposition against the hugely potent and in 2009 superior Peugeots. Having been raced exclusively in the United States the last three seasons, the Acura / HPD LMP2 car finally made its debut at Le Mans this year. Highcroft and Strakka each fielded one of the blisteringly quick ARX-01cs. The only all new prototype was the Norma M200 but that was built with the upcoming LMP2 regulations in mind.
Quite in contrast there were plenty of new faces in the two GT classes. One of the best looking among them was the Ford GT built by Matech. Three were fielded in the GT1 class, facing two Corvettes, a Saleen, an Aston Martin and a Lamborghini, all of which were privately entered. The biggest changes were found in the hotly disputed GT2 class where BMW, Corvette and Jaguar all made their GT2 debut. They joined class regulars Porsche, Ferrari, Aston Martin and Spyker, making the slowest class also the class with the biggest manufacturer presence.
The traditional start of the Le Mans race week is the scruteneering or 'pesage' in the centre of the city. This year the location was slightly different and the proceedings got under way a day early. The event gives the public a chance to get a close look at the cars and drivers as they make their way through the various checks. It is also usually the first time, the teams are forced to show their latest developments. For reasons stated above there was very little to report on this time around. The only real prototype news was the first public appearance of the Norma.
In GT all eyes were on the #79 BMW M3, which was the German company's 17th 'art car'. The striking livery had been created by American artist Jeff Koons, who is best known for his giant sculptures. Also grabbing a lot of attention was the Jaguar XKR built by American Paul Gentilozzi with considerable works support. Coinciding with company's 75th anniversary celebrations, this was the first time since the mid 1990s that a Jaguar was entered at Le Mans.
Practice and qualifying
After two frantic days in town, everybody was treated to a quiet day on Tuesday before the cars hit the track for the first time on Wednesday afternoon. There was a single four-hour practice session and three two-hour qualifying sessions, two of which were held Thursday evening. With changeable weather predicted for Thursday, the Wednesday sessions were all about setting fast laps. They were also far from uneventful with Romain Grosjean crashing his Matech Ford GT heavily in free practice and Matias Russo writing off his Ferrari during Wednesday's evening session. The 430 GTC was damaged beyond repair, bringing the total number of cars down from 56 to 55.
At the head of the field, the Peugeots continued their dominance with Sebastien Bourdais recording a 3:19.711. That was over three seconds faster than last year's pole, despite running smaller restrictors, which should have shaved 60 bhp off the diesel engines' power. The revised Audis were now able to match their French rivals for top speed but that clearly came at the expense of cornering speeds. The R15s were fifth, sixth and seventh behind the three works Peugeots and Oreca's privately entered 908. The time set by Bourdais on Wednesday already proved enough for pole. The petrol engined Lola-Aston Martins were best of the rest with a best time of 3:26.7.
LMP2 proved very much to be a two-horse race with the two HPDs sweeping all before in class. Danny Watts was quickest in the Strakka fielded with a time of 3:33. The bright green 'Miles to Malaria' Highcroft ARX-01c was 1.5 seconds slower. Third was for the HPD engined RML Lola, which barely managed to break the 3:40 barrier. The other teams could really only hope for technical problems of the two HPDs, which had previously only raced for a maximum of 12 hours at Sebring.
In GT1 the 'Young Drivers' Aston Martin just pipped two of the three Ford GTs for pole. The Luc Alphand Corvettes were fourth and fifth fastest ahead of the other Matech Ford and the Larbre Saleen. Slower than almost all GT2 cars, the JLOC Lamborghini was eighth 'fastest' in the GT1 class.
On Wednesday only the Risi Competizione Ferrari had managed to break the 4 minute barrier and that time was not bettered on Thursday. The two Corvettes came close and the fourth car to dive into the 3:59s was the sole surviving AF Corse Ferrari. Unfortunately the Risi car was stripped off its time after failing a tech inspection on Thursday. The culprit was a 'Gurney' that was 2 mm too short, which ironically had not been fitted on the car when the time was actually set. The car was nevertheless forced to start from the back. The slowest of all cars was the Jaguar XKRS, which struggled with all sorts of electrical issues.
After appearing in the support program for the first time two years ago, the hugely popular Group C cars were back again this year for a ten-lap race on Saturday morning. The 27 entrants had only a single one-hour practice/qualifying session on Thursday to get accustomed to the track. The weather complicated things further as it rained heavily throughout. Eventually 20 cars took to the track and quite a few only completed a handful of laps. Justin Law managed to set the fastest time in his Jaguar XJR8/9 beating Alex Buncombe in a similar machine by nearly three seconds.
The race itself was held on a virtually dry but rather 'green' track. In the first corner Bob Berridge spun his precious Sauber Mercedes C11 and was forced to claw back up the field. He did so quite commendably, repeatedly setting a new fastest lap, until the car broke down with four laps to go. At the head of the field it was also a race of attrition with punctures and technical issues affecting many of the fastest cars. Dutchman David Hart, who was also scheduled to drive a Corvette in the main race, saw his chance of victory spoiled by a back-marker who had awkwardly positioned himself in the middle of the track. Hart was forced to dive up the inside on one of the fastest part of the track and brushed the side of the slower Spice in his Porsche 962. This resulted in a puncture, which sent the yellow Porsche into the barriers. The last man standing was Justin Law, who repeated his 2008 victory, although in a different example of the hugely successful Jaguar Group C racers.
A race of attrition
At 3 pm on Saturday afternoon French Olympic triple skiing gold medalist Jean Claude Killy waved the French flag to signal the start the of the twice around the clock race. In the opening lap Allan McNish bravely challenged the Oreca Peugeot in his Audi R15 but Nicolas Lapierre held on to fourth. After that the Peugeots quickly built up a sizeable gap over the three Audis. One of the earliest retirements was the Jaguar XKRS with engine management issues. It was certainly not the 75th birthday party Jaguar had hoped for. The race also ended very early for Le Mans debutant and 1992 World Champion Nigel Mansell. He suffered a puncture on his Ginetta-Zytek on the very quick run to the Indianapolis corner and lost control. The blue prototype hit the barrier on both sides of the track and a thoroughly shaken Mansell needed help to get out of the car. After a brief stop in the medical centre, he was fortunately declared fit enough to go home. At about two and a half hours into the race Peugeot's challenge received a first blow when the leading #3 car limped back to the pits with what appeared to be a puncture. It proved to be far worse as one of the suspension pick-up points had been ripped from the tub, rendering the car too damaged to repair. The surviving Peugeots still filled the top three positions.
In the mean time Risi's Jaime Melo fought his way back up the field at a remarkable rate and within two hours, he was right on the tail of the class leading Corvettes. It would be the start of an epic battle between the #64 Corvette and the #82 Risi Ferrari, which lasted for several hours and saw several class lead changes. Sadly, the fight ended prematurely just after the sun had set due to gearbox issues for the Ferrari. Despite several attempts to rectify the problem, the Risi Ferrari eventually had to be retired. Throughout the night the 'Vettes held a commanding lead until the second placed example suffered an engine failure at 2/3 of the race. Shortly after the sister car went off in the high speed Porsche Curves while being passed by one of the Peugeots. The rear end was extensively damaged but the mechanics worked ferociously to get the #64 car back out. It proved all for naught as a few hours later the car's engine also expired. All these problems promoted the #77 Felbermayr Proton Porsche to the class lead. A very consistent run saw the works-backed team hold on and secure its first class win at Le Mans.
With just three finishers from eight starters, the GT1 cars did not shine on their final outing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The first victim was the Marc VDS Matech Ford, which spun off in the section between the Dunlop bridge and the Tertre Rouge corner and violently hit the barrier. The car did manage to limp back to the pits but the damage to the rear-end was too severe to be repaired. As the night fell, the first of the Matech entered Ford GTs caught fire at the Mulsanne straight. The other was forced to retire from the lead with an engine failure during the night. One of the Corvettes also suffered an engine failure, while the other was severely delayed with electrical issues. After completing not a single lap last year, the JLOC Lamborghini had a much better run this time round. It did spend much time in the pits and eventually did not reappear after completing 138 laps. The Young Driver Aston Martin lost time early on in the race due to a driveshaft failure and developed more problems toward the end. It did come back out to take the flag and it was classified third behind the sole surviving Luc Alphand Corvette. The misfortune of others allowed the Saleen S7-R entered by Larbre to take its first Le Mans class victory at its final appearance and nearly a decade after it debuted on the international racing tracks.
Two different strategies were employed by the Strakka and Highcroft teams with the latter choosing to run a slightly more conservative pace to preserve the car. The lap times were nevertheless fast enough to romp away from the other cars in class to make it a comfortable 1-2 lead for the two Courage based machines. Ironically it was the Highcroft HPD that was dogged by reliability issues when a water leak delayed the car. It was repaired but enough damage was done to the car to prevent it from returning to the race. The ARX-01c was fit enough to complete a few more laps and was brought back right at the end to at least be classified. The Strakka car had no such issues and lead the class from the start to finish with the exception of three laps right after a pit stop. In addition to winning its class, the HPD was also ranked fifth overall, which was the best ever result for an LMP2 car. Six laps down, the quicker of the two Oak Racing Pescarolos secured the second place. As a nice touch Henri Pescarolo was allowed to present the award to the Oak drivers. Third in class was for the HPD engined RML entered Lola B08/80 coupe. Remarkably, the fourth and fifth placed LMP2 cars were also found in the top ten overall.
Of the top runners, the #7 Audi was the next to hit problems when Tom Kristensen left the track in attempt to swerve around a slow running BMW. The R15 plus hit the barriers backwards and the 8-time Le Mans winner limped back to the pits to have a new rear wing fitted. It would turn out to be the last of Audi's qualms. Peugeot on the other hand was in for a very rough race. During the eighth hour, the #1 car came in for an unscheduled stop while leading the race. The alternator had to be replaced at the cost of three laps. The French manufacturer was down to only one leader halfway through the race after a driveshaft failed on the Oreca entered 908, dropping it back four laps. Early on Sunday morning the French nightmare was complete when a big flame erupted from the right hand side exhaust of the leading Peugeot, forcing it to retire and promoting the #9 Audi to the lead. The two surviving Peugeots gradually reeled in the Audis with incredibly fast lap times; Loic Duval recorded a fastest lap of 3:19, a full five seconds faster than last year's best. It was all in vain as in the final hours both 908s fell victim to seemingly the same engine problem as the #1 car. The Peugeot and Oreca teams were devastated and many of the key people were seen crying after the shocking display of unreliability. With all Peugeots out of the race, the Audis cruised to a surprise 1-2-3 victory with the #9 car of Timo Bernhard, Mike Rockenfeller and Romain Dumas taking the win. That was a better result than Audi could have ever hoped for ahead of the race. The German manufacturer revealed after the race that the victorious machine had been equipped with variable geometry turbos. As a small consolation for Oreca's Hughues de Chaunac, the team's Oreca 01 AIM finished fourth overall and first in the unofficial 'petrol' class.
Audi finished off the era of the big banger cars in great style by finally breaking the distance record set by the Porsche 917 back in 1971. The winning R15 plus completed 397 laps at a staggering 225 km/h. Peugeot will not have many fond memories of this year's Le Mans race. It was an embarrassing end to the fabulous 908 HDI Fap's career at Le Mans that deserved so much more than just a single victory. Peugeot was not the only team to struggle with reliability issues as just 27 of the 55 starters reached the end of this unusually gruelling race.
What the future will bring is still far from certain as the rules have still not been finalised yet. Peugeot has already vowed to return and we understand that Audi is also working on a new car to be dubbed the R18. Hopefully the possibility of running hybrid system will also attract additional (Japanese) manufacturers in the coming years.
Concluding this report, we would like to refer to our exclusive 270-shot gallery
with imagery from every session, and also from scrutineering and Friday evening parade through the city centre.