Transition and tradition
This year's 24 Hours of Le Mans race both welcomes back long lost sons, but will also see the final lap of a legend. Livered in the metallic green used when David Brown was still in charge, Aston Martin is back on the track where it recorded the company's biggest motorsport success.
Due to rule changes the all-conquering Audi R8 will get one more go at the much coveted win. In a gradual process the top running prototype racers of the old LMP 675 and LMP 900 classes are phased out and replaced by new cars built to comply with the new LMP1 regulations. These are mainly aerodynamic alterations to increase the safety. This year the old cars are still allowed to run, but from next season onwards only 'hybrid' or full LMP1 designs are eligible. A 'hybrid' uses a tub of an old design, but other than that completely complies with the LMP1 regulations. To further encourage the construction of new racers, the old ones are handicapped by cutting the horsepower and adding weight. A number of the top runners took up the challenge, which will make the battle for the overall victory a lot less predictable as it has been in recent years.
New comers are not just found in the LMP1 class, but can be found throughout the field. In classes there is a fair chance that last year's winner will be successfully challenged by a new kid on the block. Based on the results of the official test day we compiled a run down of the classes, with our favourite of each class highlighted. A graphical impression of the test day can be found in our 150-shot slideshow
, and more info on the participating cars can be found by clicking the graphics in the text.
It is safe to say that the overall victory will go to one of the thirteen racers entered in the LMP1 class, which are reserved for the most advanced prototypes. The three Audis are obvious favourites, but with the new regulations and diminishing factory support the R8s might finally have to make way for the new generation. In the two last endurance races before the Le Mans showdown, the entered Audis were beaten; not by the new generation, but by a Zytek and MG/Lola built running with the same handicaps as the all mighty Audi. Ironically neither of these winners will line-up for the Le Mans race. On the French track it's up to new kids to take them on. Pescarolo, Dome and Courage have accepted challenge and showed up at the test day with the much anticipated hybrids.
Much to the delight of the spectators the top three places were filled by French cars; the two Pescarolos
followed by one of the Courages. More remarkably was the gap of over 6 seconds with the fastest R8. After clinching the pole for the Spa 1000 km race, this once more shows the stunning speed the Pescarolos are capable of. The Audi's fuel efficiency and incredible reliability record still make them contenders for the win, but they are no longer the top favourites.
The old LMP 900 and 675 classes were set up to be different ways to achieve the same speeds; one featured high powered heavyweights and the other less powerful, lighter racers. In the real world the smaller cars were often on the pace, but the reliability was rarely there. The all new LMP2 class is designed to complement the LMP1 class and not compete with it. It offers new teams a relatively affordable entry into prototype racing.
Last year only Courage fielded a proper LMP2 car, and these C65s still make up the bulk of the fourteen cars. Ready to take them on is the new for this season Lola B05/40, which already had a successful European debut at Spa. Three cars are entered; two powered by the AER four cylinder turbo engine and one under the MG Lola EX264
name, which features a Judd/MG V8 engine.
At the end of the nine hour session the top five consisted of the three Lolas and two Courages, with one of the AER Lolas just outpacing the MG.
The return of Aston Martin was probably the biggest story surrounding this year's edition of the 24 Hours. They are not in contention for the overall victory, but instead line up in the fastest of the two GT classes, which for this year was renamed from LM GTS to GT1. To ensure competitiveness Aston Martin teamed up with Prodrive; the same people that produced the Le Mans class winning Ferrari Maranellos. This year was intended to be a test year before customer versions of the DBR9 would be delivered in 2006, but with two victories in as many outings the anticipations for Le Mans were understandably high.
In recent years the class was dominated by the Corvette C5-R, and this year the American manufacturer lined up a new racer based on the latest C6 platform. In its first outing the C6.R suffered from some minor problems and was beaten by the Astons, but in the next two ALMS races the cars recorded a one-two finish.
Much to our surprise the DBR9s
set the pace throughout the session, beating the closest competitor by over three seconds. Even more surprisingly were the fourth and sixth spot of the Corvettes, which were sandwiched by the Prodrive built Maranellos.
Two words can be used to describe the LM GT / GT2 class; 'Porsche territory.' Various versions of the 996 GT3 have taken the victory in this class for six years running. In sprint races the Ferrari Modenas have sometimes challenged the Porsche superiority, but both the quantity and quality of the German racer have made it unbeatable in its class. Of the two new-comers the Panoz might be able to take on the GT3s. In a recent ALMS race, the American racer already scored it's maiden class victory.
Last year's winning GT3 RSR
of White Lightning Racing topped the field, but there was nothing to separate it from the fastest Panoz, which came in second. Further down the field the Spyker C8 GT2R showed promise with an eighth position in the fourteen car class.
A change of power
With the exception of the GT2 class, the reigning winners were all outpaced by new comers. For the first time in years the Audi boys will have a real fight on their hands in what promises to be the most exciting Le Mans race of this century so far.
For the complete results and live timing on race day we would like to refer to the official site at