After a two year absence, the official Le Mans Test was reinstated for 2011. Unlike the most recent editions, which were held a fortnight before the race, this year's test scheduled again on its traditional April date. While not mandatory per se, drivers that have not raced at Le Mans in the last three years did need to complete 10 laps in order to qualify for participation for the event in June. Newly homologated cars were also required to complete at least ten laps.
It was a welcome return as extensive rule changes meant that a large number of brand new and heavily revised cars are entered in the 24-hour race. The biggest reshuffle was in the prototype ranks where the old P2 regulations effectively formed the basis for the new P1 class and a cost-capped P2 class was added. Displacement for the top prototypes has been cut by a third; 3.7 litre for turbo diesels, 3.4 litre for naturally aspirated petrol engines and 2 litre for turbos. For one season the old generation could still be used but with considerably smaller restrictors. Last year's top runners Audi, Peugeot and Aston Martin all developed new cars to meet the regulations. For P2, the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) have set strict cost limits to the chassis and engines to keep prototype racing affordable. In addition the engines have to be based on production units. Available to customers this year were BMW and Nissan V8s and a Honda twin-turbo V6.
As expected the GT1 class has been removed from the roster altogether and what was known as GT2 in 2010 is now GTE (Endurance). This category is further split up into the GTE Pro and GTE Am classes. The latter is open to gentleman drivers with one year old cars.
For the test only, the one-make Formula Le Mans class was invited to run alongside the 'big boys'.
Class of 2011
While Peugeot had run its new 908 already in the Sebring 12 Hours, Audi's R18 TDI made its public debut at the test and was very much the centre of attention. It is the German manufacturer's first closed car since ill-fated R8C of 1999. Like its more immediate predecessors, it features a diesel engine but this time a V6. One of the menacing looking machine's most unusual elements is the single exhaust. Although the name sounds and the overall design looks similar, the Peugeot 908 is also a clean-sheet design. The French manufacturer have opted for a diesel V8 to tackle this year's Le Mans. The most unconventional of the new LMP1 cars is without a doubt the Aston Martin AMR-One. For one it is powered by a turbocharged straight six engine; a configuration that has not been used on a top level prototype in several decades. With its very high sides the AMR-One's aerodynamic solutions are also distinctly different.
Further entries in the LMP1 class include the Toyota powered Rebellion Lolas and the hybrid-powered Hope Racing Oreca and Mik Corse Zytek.
The LMP2 class consists of mostly familiar cars but powered by the new cost-capped engines. In the early races of the year the Zytek developed Nissan V8 was very dominant but changes to the restrictors on the HPD Honda V6 will hopefully bring the twin-turbo engine back into contention.
In the GT2/GTE class the most important debutant was the Michelotto-developed Ferrari 458 GT. Based on Ferrari's latest V8 sports car, it has replaced the hugely successful F430 GTC. Making its first public appearance was the newly developed Lotus Evora entered by the Austrian Jetalliance team. Ahead of the official test the first example had clocked up just 1000 km during an extensive shakedown test. Although already a regular in the ALMS for many seasons, the Doran developed Ford GT Mk VII finally made it to Le Mans. Robertson racing brought both their cars although one is still on the reserve list. The new cars faced off against the seasoned Corvette, BMW M3, Porsche RSR and Aston Martin V8 Vantage.
Smoke and mirrors?
While the official test provided a rare opportunity to sample the cars' performance on the full Le Mans circuit, the top LMP1 teams were most likely careful not to show their absolute best. There is of course no reason to make the competition any wiser but there was also the risk of performance balancing between the diesel and petrol cars if the gap was too big. Accordingly 'Sandbagging' was a much heard word before the test but judging from the times set on Sunday, the Audi and Peugeot drivers really struggled to slow down. Tom Kristensen set the fastest time at a stunning 3:27.687. That is less than 8 seconds slower than last year's pole and again well under the 3:30 target time set by the ACO for a 'safe' lap around the 13.6 km track. The fastest Peugeot was just two tenths down, which hopefully indicates that the two big rivals are more closely matched than ever before. The fastest petrol car was Henri Pescarolo's 'grandfathered' V10 engined machine, which turned in a lap of 3:36.583. The two 'new rules' Rebellion Lolas were more than ten seconds down from the Audis and Peugeots, which will certainly raise new questions over the parity between the diesel and petrol cars.
For Aston Martin Racing it was all smoke as both of its cars suffered blown engines after just a few laps. Some have suggested that the semi-stressed straight six is simply not strong enough to bear the chassis loads, resulting in inevitable failures. Apparently the cause has been traced down and the AMR engineers are hard at work to fix the problems. What is certain is that Aston Martin can certainly not afford another outing this disastrous; the two cars together completed just 15 timed laps.
Judging from the top speeds alone, the increase in restrictor size for the HPD engines certainly seemed to have had the desired effect in the LMP2 class. The Nissan powered Orecas were nevertheless found at the sharp end of the table. The Nissan backed Signatech car was fastest by a fraction over the the works Oreca 03. The Judd/BMW engined Pecom Lola was the first non-Nissan engined machine in fourth and a full three seconds slower. The gap to the top runners for RML's HPD ARX-01d was still a worrying 5 seconds.
In the ever competitive GTE class, it was the new Ferrari that impressed the most. The Hankook shod 458 GT, driven by Dominik Farnbacher, Allan Simonsen and Leh Keen, was the only GTE machine to break the four-minute barrier. Next up was the AF Corse car and the quickest of the BMW M3s. The highest ranked Porsche was the IMSA Performance Matmut 2011-spec 997 GT3 RSR. It was just over two seconds off the fastest time in class. For the race, two very strong squads will also enter the fray; Le Mans Series regulars JMW with another 458 and the American Flying Lizard team with a Porsche. The two Evoras were faced with a plethora of small issues common to new cars and they ended the day well down the order with a 4:09.692 as the fastest time.
The result in the GTE Am class was a little deceptive as the top running Larbre Corvette was piloted by four works drivers for the occasion. Second was also for another Larbre entry; the #70 Porsche 997. Despite being driven by non-professionals for the most part, the GTE Am cars were sufficiently close to the ultimate GTE class pace.
If the official test is anything to go by, the 79th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans is stacking up to be an absolute thriller. Audi and Peugeot seem closer than ever before on outright pace but as last year made so painfully clear, pace is not enough. Hopefully Aston Martin Racing will get their act together but most likely the petrol engined prototypes will once again play second fiddle. With Ferrari, Porsche, BMW and Corvette very closely matched the race for the GTE honours should be equally tight.
Before the teams return to the 'Circuit de la Sarthe' early in June, most will compete in the Spa Six Hours, which is the joint second round of the Le Mans Series (LMS) and the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup (ILMC).
Our photographers also got the first taste of the Le Mans track this year and have returned with this 150-shot gallery
with both all the action on track and in the pitlane.