Now in its third season the Le Mans Series (formerly known as the Le Mans Endurance Series) is a fully matured championship with a field rivaled only by the 24 Hours of Le Mans race the LMS is branched from. While the similar American Le Mans Series (ALMS) has struggled for years to fill the grid, the 2006 LMS was oversubscribed months before the season started. It’s not just in the numbers that the entry list impresses, but particularly in the diversity. Last year the GT classes were pretty much one or two horse races, but with the advent of various Corvettes and two Aston Martins in the GT1 class, and full season entries from Spyker and Team LNT TVR in GT2 the outcome of the races is far from predictable. The gradual transition from the old LMP 900/675 regulations to the new LMP 1/2 regulations in the last few seasons made the prototype classes fairly difficult to follow, but the transition is almost complete now. This means that successful racers like the Audi R8, Zytek 04S and Lola B01/60 (MG EX257) are no longer eligible to race. In their place will come brand new cars from Lola, Courage and Radical. More importantly there will be a level playing field in the LMP1 class for the first time with all cars running under the same regulations and without additional weight or restrictor penalties.
After covering the inaugural Le Mans 1000 km in 2003, the Spa 1000 km in 2004 and the Spa and Monza 1000 kms in 2005, Ultimatecarpage.com will follow the complete 2006 Le Mans Series from start to finish. To get us all in the mood we visited the official LMS test weekend at Paul Ricard where many of the competitors took to the track to test their new material. We have captured our findings in a 170-shot slideshow
and a class by class preview for the upcoming season.
GT2: Serious new pretenders to the crown
For many years the GT2 class was an easy prey for the Porsche 911 GT3 and its derivatives, but class wins by TVR and Ferrari last season already showed that the tide is slowly turning. While there is no sign of a new GT3, a brand new Ferrari at Sebring earlier this month in a race won by a local Panoz. The GT3’s rock solid reliability did help the works backed 911 to score a podium finish, but it could no longer match the the V8 engined GTs on outright speed. Examples of the very quick Ferrari F430 and already successful Panoz will give the GT3s more competition than they ever had before. Even more colour is given to this class by two examples of the unusual open-topped Spykers and a single TVR. Both the Spyker and TVR showed good form last season with the first podium finishes and victory respectively, so they could very well challenge for victories as well. It is clearly too hard to guess the winner here, but a non-Porsche victory will no longer be a surprise.
GT1: Rumbling V8s vs Screaming V12s
The GT1 class was easily the least interesting last season; the question merely was which Prodrive 550 would take the checkered flag first. We got a glimmer of hope in Monza where the Peter Kox / Norman Simon driven Murcielago looked set to end the 550 stronghold. Sadly it all ended early in a big cloud of smoke. Certainly the memory of 2005 was quickly forgotten when we saw the GT1 entry list for this season, which contained six different models all capable of winning at the end of the day. Like the most recent Le Mans and Sebring races, it will most likely be a clash between the factory developed Corvettes and the Prodrive built DBR9s, but how the Corvettes will perform in private hands is still a big question. Saleen have commissioned French experts Oreca to further develop the S7R, which in recent years could not meet the high expectations by winning the Sebring 12 Hours first time out back in 2001. They expected the chassis in January, but did not take delivery until March and are hopelessly behind schedule. Oreca’s new direction in development is starting to pay off with a good showing at Paul Ricard, but the delay forced the team’s supremo Hugh de Chaunac to withdraw the S7R from the Istanbul LMS round and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. If Sebring is an indication, the battle in GT1 will not only be between cars, but always between tire manufacturers. Our pick has to be the Larbre Competition Aston Martin DBR9, which easily was the fastest package around Paul Ricard.
LMP2: Radical ruffle?
Although set up as an affordable entry level prototype class, the recent pace of the Porsche RS Spyder has seemingly proved the rule makers wrong. The Porsche’s reliability gremlins at Sebring also proved that Roger Penske is right to keep the car in North America for the shorter ALMS races for 2006. Obvious favourites in LMP2 are the Lolas and Courages that dominated this class last year, but there is a very interesting new-comer; the Radical SR9 designed by Peter Elleray of Bentley EXP Speed 8 fame. Best known for their lightweight motorcycle engined sportscar, Radical announced their interest in top level racing barely a year ago. Rollcentre Racing will field two Judd powered examples, backed up by one factory entered example. Literally with only a few hours to go the first car was completed and loaded up a truck for the trip to Paul Ricard where the SR9 had to show to have any chance of a Le Mans entry. Pilbeam and Lucchini racers round of the field and could very well surprise us, but last season’s performance does not bode well.
The speed of the RML and Chamberlain Synergy Lolas at Paul Ricard showed that Penske Porsches are not the only cars bridging the gap between LMP1 and LMP2. RML covered well over 2500 at Ricard without a single hick-up from the AER four cylinder engine; it took some time, but it finally seems reliable. Maybe even more impressive was the Rollcentre Radical, which after a dreadful first day managed to lap within 2 seconds of the well sorted Lolas on the second day. It was sufficient to impress the ACO who invited one Rollcentre Radical for Le Mans in June. While the Lolas are still the favourites in this class, we will be keeping a close eye on Elleray’s stunning SR9.
LMP1: Familiar faces; new equipment
Naturally most attention will be on the LMP1 teams, which will fight not only for class honour, but also for the overall victory. After the brave, but unsuccessful fight against the Audis at Le Mans, winning the LMP1 championship was somewhat of a consolation price for Pescarolo Sport, but nonetheless the French team’s performance was impressive throughout the season. They are back this year with a slightly upgraded version of their Courage derived racer and face a mix of upgraded and all-new cars headlined by a single Lola and three Courages. The remainder of the grid is made up of updated ‘hybrid’ cars; the last residue of the complicated transition of the prototype classes. At Paul Ricard the brand new Creation hybrid topped the charts, well ahead of Jan Lammers’ Mugen powered Dome hybrid and the Pescarolo. The new cars’ pace was impressive and the gap to the hybrid leaders could very well be bridged with some more setup and development work. From Spa onwards the works Zytek team will join the championship and after Le Mans Joest might join the fun as well with the diesel engined R10. As it stands there are no weak brothers in the LMP1 class with all entrants capable of challenging the reigning champions Pescarolo Sport.
If the Paul Ricard test is anything to go by, we picked a great year to follow the complete championship. With strong competition throughout classes and a colourful variety of racing machines the 2006 Le Mans Series has it all.
There was also some sad news as the organizers announced the cancellation of the Monza round due to new, stricter noise restrictions; just when the racing gets interesting the ‘tree huggers’ come and take it away from us. A replacement venue is expected to be announced at the opening round in Istanbul next week.
I for one can't wait to get to Turkey and capture the action!