For the second year, Silverstone hosted a joint race for the Le Mans Series (LMS) and the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup (ILMC); the fourth and fifth rounds of the season respectively. This was also the final occasion as the two series will split from 2012 onwards with the ILMC morphing into the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC). Silverstone itself has also undergone a metamorphosis with substantial changes to the track and the facilities. During last year's race the new track was already used and now we were also treated to the cutting edge 'Wing' pit building. The facilities themselves are a major improvement but due to space restraints, parking and support paddocks are still at the old location. This makes for all sorts of logistics problems, especially for those competing in the support events, who had to move all their equipment halfway across the track for each session. The work has not been completed yet, so hopefully a solution will be found. A more subtle change was the switch from a 1000-km to a 6-hour race to make life a little easier for the television programmers.
Practice & Qualifying
With the 2011 season well under way, there only was limited news ahead of the Autosport 6 Hours of Silverstone. Among them was the return of the Italian entered Zytek 09SH, which for the first time featured a specifically developed racing hybrid system. Unfortunately, its weekend was cut short early in the third practice session when it collided with the barrier at the new pit-entry. The subsequent fire rendered the car beyond repair at the track. Fortunately the driver managed to get out of the Zytek unharmed. At the head of the field, the substitution of the injured Anthony Davidson by Simon Pagenaud in the #7 Peugeot 908 was the biggest news. Having raced predominantly in North America, this would be the Frenchman's debut at the Northamptonshire track.
What certainly remained unchanged at Silverstone are the unpredictable weather conditions at the track. Ahead of the weekend it looked like at least parts of Saturday and Sunday would be wet but courtesy of the very strong winds, a vast majority of the rain simply blew over. In the end only the prototype half of qualifying was affected by a slightly damp track.
Needless to say the ongoing rivalry between Audi and Peugeot at the very head of the field grabbed most people's attention. Both fielding two new-for-2011 machines, the German and French teams had been closer than in any of the previous four seasons and the 6 Hours of Silverstone proved no exception. Although Peugeot seemed to have a slide edge, the four cars were rarely more than a second apart in the three sessions. During the slightly damp qualifying practice, the #7 Peugeot was out at the right time and Pagenaud crowned a very impressive debut performance with a pole position. It was equally close in the petrol sub-division of the LMP1 class with six tenths separating the two Rebellion Lola Toyotas and the two Oak Racing Pescarolo Judds. Rebellion's Nicolas Prost was the quickest; his 1:47.684 was nearly four seconds of pole though. In LMP2, Danny Watts once again showcased his brilliance in the Strakka Racing HPD. He was the only driver to break the 1:50 barrier, beating the nearest rival by over a second. Later that day Strakka announced their plans to move into the WEC next year with a brand-new HPD ARX-03a, so perhaps he will then be able to challenge for outright poles.
The most competitive of the five classes was GTE Pro with eternal rivals Porsche and Ferrari joined by the likes of BMW, Aston Martin and Lotus. In the three practice sessions, the quick but fragile Ferrari 458 Italias seemed to have the edge, with the ageing Porsches struggling on pace. In the third session a new threat emerged in the form of the two BMWs, who clocked the second and third fastest times. During the 20-minute qualifying practice, the German team gambled and did not send the two cars out until the final laps. Fortunately BWM stalwarts Augusto Farfus and Andy Priaulx needed just one lap each to set the two fastest times in class. Priaulx was on a faster lap still but was blocked by a slower car and returned to the pit. Hampered by a yellow flag earlier in the session the rest of the field was nearly a second behind Farfus with third through thirteenth barely a second apart. In the GTE Am the Porsche was indeed still the car to have with Nicolas Armindo claiming pole ahead of Pat Long in a sister car. The four-car Formula Le Mans class was topped by the Neil Garner Motorsport Courage-Oreca despite a spectacular spin in Vale corner.
Classic Endurance Racing
Although no longer a set fixture at LMS rounds, the popular Classic Endurance Racing (CER) series headlined Saturday's action with a one-hour endurance race for 1960s and 1970s sports and GT racers of a type that competed at Le Mans in period. The 45-car strong field consisted of many familiar machines ranging from the legendary Ford GT40 to a full range of Lolas and late-1970s GT racers like the BMW M1 and Porsche 935. New to the series was the TOJ SC302, meticulously restored for owner/driver Kevin Wilkins over a two year period. The Cosworth DFV engined machine was one of the last and most competitive cars produced by Jorg Obermoser's small operation. Liveried in the ever striking Warsteiner colours, it proved a real threat to the much better funded Alfa Romeo works team during the 1977 World Championship. In the hands of seasoned racer Mike Catlow and Kevin Wilkins, the restored machine proved equally quick. Still getting to grips with the car and after a late spin, the pairing finished sixth in the race but Wilkins did manage to set the fastest lap in the race.
Beating several very quick Lolas and Paul Knapfield's thundering Ferrari 712 Can-Am, the pole position for the CER race was for Martin O'Connell in Sandy Watson's Chevron B36. The pairing were also entered in a Chevron B19 and a complicated driver change was contemplated but for the sake of the result, it was decided that O'Connell and Watson would drive one car each. That certainly paid off as O'Connell won the race that started on a slightly damp track outright and Watson won his class in the slightly older vintage Chevron. In the closing stages O'Connell lapped Watson, which enabled the two to cross the line together. The treacherous conditions early in the race caught out Knapfield and after a spin he pulled into the pits. It was quite the opposite for Roger Wills, who was out in his recently acquired Chevron B26 for the first time and managed to pass several cars in the opening stages. He eventually finished third beaten only by O'Connell and Dominique Guenat in a three-litre Lola. Sean and Michael McInerney dominated the GT2 class and finished 9th overall in their Group 4 BMW M1. GT1 honours went to Christopher Ball in his Ford GT40.
After a confusing start, which saw Allan McNish spin the #2 Audi and the pace car stay out for a second lap, the 47 cars managed to get through the opening laps unscathed. Recovered from his spin, McNish immediately challenged Sebastien Bourdais in the #7 Peugeot and the two swapped the lead several times. The first car to drop out of the four-way battle was Franck Montagny's #8 Peugeot after a nudge with a slower prototype saw it damaged and stranded in the gravel. Helped by several marshals, Montagny managed to lift the car's front-end, allowing him to drive out and return to the pits. With his front suspension repaired, he rejoined the race, eight laps off the lead. It would soon become a two-horse race as McNish hit a GTE car breaking his front suspension as well. An impressive recovery drive saw the #2 Audi and #8 Peugeot climb all the way up to 7th and 8th at the finish. These early incidents left the fight for victory between the Bourdais/Pagenaud Peugeot and the Timo Bernhard/Marcel Fassler Audi.
In the LMP2 class it was equally close with the pole-sitting Strakka car challenged hard by the Le Mans class winning Greaves Zytek-Nissan and the TDS Oreca-Nissan. Unfortunately a flat tyre dropped the Strakka car down the order and Jody Firth in the Oreca had a big crash on the main straight. Clearing the debris required the only safety car period of the race. Later in the race the Greaves team was challenged by the other two Oreca-Nissans but niggling reliability issues saw their challenges waver. Despite campaigning a six year old car, Greaves Motorsport added a fourth class victory to its season tally. The team is now only just two points away from clinching the LMS LMP2 championship. One lap down and second in class was the Race Performance Oreca-Judd, followed a further lap down by the Boutsen Energy Racing Oreca-Nissan.
As had been the case in earlier races this year, the BMW squad struggled to continue the pace shown during qualifying during the race. The two M3s gradually dropped down the order as the Ferraris emerged as the top runners. The 458s, however, continued to suffer from reliability issues, allowing the Porsches and indeed BMWs back into the race. Staying clear of trouble and problems, the #51 AF Corse Ferrari driven by Gianmaria Bruni and Giancarlo Fisichella clinched the class victory ahead of the sister Luxury Racing 458. That second place position came courtesy of a very strong drive by Fred Makowiecki, who passed several rivals in the closing stages of the race. Third was for last year's champions Marc Lieb and Richard Lietz in a two-year-old Porsche. The best M3 finished fourth after a close fight between BMW's Uwe Alzen and Marco Holzer in the Prospeed Porsche. Once again having a difficult time at it was the Jetalliance team with their new Lotus Evoras, which once again failed to be in contention in the competitive class suffering from both a lack of speed and reliability. The GTE Am class virtually finished as it started with the Armindo/Narac Porsche beating the Long/Roda Porsche by a lap. Third was for the CRS Racing Ferrari F430 with Tim Mullen passing the Larbre Corvette in the closing stages of the six-hour race.
Behind the leading pair in the LMP1 class, the petrol fueled machines had an equally close battle. Having their strongest race of the year, the two Oak Racing Pescarolos finished five laps in arrears of the leaders. On the same lap were one of the Rebellion cars and Henri Pescarolo's own Pescarolo. Eventually the tables turned into Oak's favours with the Alexandre Premat and Olivier Pla securing the final podium position. The nose to tail fight between the Audi and Peugeot was temporarily finished after a spin threw Bernhard down half a minute. A conservative drive from Pagenaud saw Fassler close the gap right down again and in fact jump into the lead. Pagenaud picked up the pace and the two cars were on each other's tails until the end of the fourth hour when damaged rear bodywork needed replacing on the Audi. This gave the Peugeot a one-minute advantage that it did not give up. Peugeot's third victory in four races has given the team a sizeable lead in the ILMC championship but unfortunately for the French squad that one defeat came at Le Mans.
The early problems of two of the protagonists may have robbed the 2011 6 Hours Silverstone from an epic battle, the race remained thrilling throughout. Many of the podium places were still disputed in the final minutes of the race, underlining that the event was very much a six-hour sprint to the finish. With more manufacturers set to join in the coming years 'endurance' is in a very strong position. Whether the WEC will be back at Silverstone may well depend on further improvements to the track's logistics; in an attempt to appease the Formula 1 powers that be, Silverstone is at risk of losing its appeal to other events.
For a closer look at the changes and the event, we would like to refer to our exclusive 240-shot gallery
with action from the 6 Hours of Silverstone and the Classic Endurance Racing race.