The European racing season usually ends in October, with the last Formula 1 race being the grand finale. This year’s season was stretched by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) for a few weeks. The venue was the short Bugatti section of the LeMans track and the event was the debut LeMans 1000 km. The unique race kick-started a series of 1000 km races in Europe, to be run in 2004. More importantly, the ACO chose to award the best finishers in the various classes an entry ticket for the 2004 24 Hours of LeMans, in which teams can enter by invitation only.
In order to provide you with the best coverage possible of this unique and important event, we traveled down to Le Mans to bring you all the action. November is known for its dismal rainy days and race day started off typically like that, with lots of rain. The preceding week however was sunny, providing the teams with dry practice and qualifying runs. To give you a good impression of the event we are proud to present a 75 shot slideshow
, packed full with action from the various qualifying and practice sessions and from the race.
Despite the awkward date in the racing calendar, over 35 teams signed up for the event in a quest to obtain the valuable entry tickets for next year’s 24 Hours race. The cars entered were split up in Prototype and GT classes. Only the Bentleys were absent from the June front-runners. “Team Goh” of Japan entering an Audi R8 and “Racing For Holland” entered a Dome S101. These two were considered the main competitors for the overall victory. Outsiders in the LMP 900 class included the Lister Storm and Courage C60 entered by “Pescarolo Sport.” Close competition was expected between the MG and Judd powered Lolas in the LMP 675 class.
One of the most interesting cars entered was the Panoz Esperante GTR, which formed the sole entry in the LM GTP class. The Porsches made up for the bulk of the entries in the regular GT classes. A last minute withdrawal of the Lamborghini Murcielago R-GT left just four cars fighting for the LM GTS class victory. The 24 Hours class winning Veloqx Ferraris were the favorite and faced a Saleen S7-R and a Dodge Viper GTS-R.
LM GT provided the most varied entry list with Ferraris, a Morgan, Porsches, TVRs and a Spyker. Porsche’s 996 GT3 RS proved a trustworthy and competitive car for many of the entrants. On speed it is only matched by the Ferrari 360 GT. Spyker was still faced with the weight and restrictor penalties, because it is not yet fully homologated, making it nothing more than a grid-filler, but an interesting one. One of the TVRs received more than its fair share of attention, originating by its all female drivers line-up.
As expected, the qualifying was dominated by the Goh Audi and the Dome. After writing off their car in the 24 Hours’ practice in June, Lister was back to set things straight. In qualifying they definitely did so by securing a third spot on the grid. The performance of the Pescarolo Courage was disappointing despite the driver’s best efforts. The Panoz qualified in the top-ten and the MG Lola took fifth overall and first in class. No real surprises in GT and GTS qualifying either, with the Ferraris taking first in both classes.
On Sunday morning, the teams were faced with a completely different situation. The weather had turned from all clear to rain overnight. No changes in the weather were expected and everybody used the warm-up to change the cars’ setup for the 1000 km race. The grandstands filled up nicely, with the crowd being entertained by historic F1 racers running in the Euroboss GP series.
To complicate setups further, the drizzle stopped right before the start. At noon exactly it was Tom Kristensen piloted Team Goh Audi reaching the first corner in the lead. He was followed closely by the Dome, Lister and Courage. Benefiting from the rainy conditions best was Stephane Sarrazin in the Courage, who managed to pass both the Lister and the Dome in the opening laps. He caught up to the leading Audi when Kristensen spun off, but couldn’t pass the Dane before he recomposed himself in front of the Courage.
Another car taking advantage of the wet conditions was the Viper with Bouchut at the wheel. He overtook Kox in the Ferrari, but the LeMans class-winner regained the class lead shortly after. In LM GT, the Porsches proved quicker in the rain than the Ferrari 360 GTs and were running 1-2 after an hour.
Both the Panoz and the Lister suffered from set-backs. Multiple off-track detours threw the Panoz back down the order and after three hours it was in 19th. Lister’s luck worsened; spending many valuable minutes in the pits after a rear wishbone suspension failure. With the weather drying up, the Intersport Lola Judd was fighting its way up the order, with Jon Field putting in some incredibly fast laps.
Gravel from the run-off areas gradually covered the track and eventually a full course yellow and safety car period was called to let the marshals clean the now completely dry track. After the safety car returned to the pits, things settled down. Amazingly after five hours into the race only three cars were officially out; the Riley & Scott with a clutch problem, RML’s MG Lola with a gearbox problem and the XL Ferrari 550 GT with transmission failure.
Although the event was supposed to run over the full 1000 km, the ACO decided to cut it short to six hours. Because of the wet start, the full race distance was not achieved when the flag fell at 6 pm. The winning Audi R8 of Ara and Kristensen did manage to cover close to 900 km, despite the weather. The win was yet another LeMans success for the Dane, who recorded a unique fourth consecutive 24 Hours win earlier this year. The Courage C65 JPX took the LMP 675 class victory, against fierce competition from the Lolas.
The GTS class was won by the two Ferrari Maranellos. The Viper's pace dropped off from the Ferraris as the track dried up. GT saw a close fight right down to the finish with the Cirtek Ferrari 360 GT taking class victory and a clean sweep for Ferrari in the GT-classes.
Although the event was a great success both for the spectators and the entrants, the ACO have already decided not to repeat the event next year. To get a closer look at the action we would like to refer you to our 75 shot slideshow