Endurance racing is going through a revival around the world, although in this day and age it becomes more difficult to market. Sprint races, push to pass buttons and mandatory pit-stops seem to be the necessary ingredients for motorsport. Fortunately the sport’s governing bodies have not made any compromises and the 2007 season looks set to become one of the most exciting yet. This is in no small part due to the growing interest of major manufacturers with Honda/Acura entering LMP2 in the United States and Peugeot joining LMP1 in Europe for the Le Mans Series and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. They may not necessarily increase the on-track excitement, but are vital to give the races the promotion they deserve. After all, what good is success on the track if nobody knows about it? To make the victories count, serious competition is of course required and that’s taken care off by the privateers and low volume manufacturers. There is no short supply of them in Europe and in its fourth season, the Le Mans Series was forced to turn entrants down for the first time. A large number of the accepted entrants turned up for the annual official pre-season test on the Paul Ricard High Tech Test Track in the south of France. The results of the test form the basis of our preview for the upcoming Le Mans Series season. It was as much a test for our photographers as well as they were out with some new equipment. The exclusive 150-shot slideshow
shows it was a successful test indeed.
GT2: Porsche fight back
Last year saw an abrupt end to Porsche’s long standing domination of the smaller of the two GT classes. Especially the newly launched Ferrari F430 GTC outpaced the 996 RSRs and most of the times matched the old Porsche’s reliability. Thanks to a very consistent performance, the Autorlando team did manage to win the championship with their 996. The Ferrari teams never made the most of their performance advantage and were also beaten by both Team LNT Panoz Esperantes. One of these orange rumblers also took the GT2 win at Le Mans, the first non Porsche since 1998.
It will not be this easy for the Ferraris and Panoz this season as Porsche unleashed the 997 GT3 RSR. The new car was already in various events last year, but did not receive its homologation until early this year. At Sebring the epic battle between Porsche and Ferrari was decided in the Italians’ favour, but only by 2 tenths. At Paul Ricard four cars managed to break the 2 minutes barrier and three of them were the new 997s. The Imsa Performance Matmut example was the fastest, just 3-tenths ahead of the Virgo Ferrari. ‘Best of the rest’ was the semi-works Speedy Racing Team Spyker, finishing the test days in seventh position. Paul Ricard was not a happy place for the three Esperantes present; one of the LNT cars barely turned a wheel before the engine went, while the Chad Peninsula example failed to get up to pace. Making its debut at the High Tech Test Track was the GT2 version of the Corvette Z06. A regular in the GT1 class, the virtually stock looking GT2 Corvette did not get anywhere near the top runners times. Hopefully some development work will get the yellow racer up to speed. GT2 in 2007 is set to become a new chapter in the already very large Porsche vs Ferrari book, with the Esparantes and Spykers being the out-siders.
GT1: French Fest
GT1 is the only class that does not feature new cars and with seven entrants (five of which are French) it is also the smallest class. That was the case last year as well, but in most races it was the most closely disputed of all classes. The Paul Ricard times suggest that there is more close racing to come with the Saleens, Corvettes and Aston Martins clocking times barely 6 tenths apart. The DBR9s and especially the Corvettes have shown their endurance qualities last year by winning Sebring and Le Mans last year. The Saleen S7R has a far worse reputation and in preparation for the 24 Hours in June, one of the Oreca Saleens was tested throughout the night and eventually covered almost 750 laps / 4300 km. Despite some small hiccups on the second day, the Oreca should look back at a very successful test session, which saw both their cars clock the fastest GT1 times. This one really is too close to call with at least six of the seven entrants having the potential to win races. The Italian Racing Box team was not able to match the pace of the competition just yet with their newly acquired Saleen.
LMP2: New versus old
After a three year transition period the old prototype cars and their hybrid offspring have finally made way for cars complying to LMP1/2 regulations only. Although the number of new machines is not quite as big in LMP2 as it is in LMP1, we can look forward to some interesting novelties. Literally completed in the pit box, the all new Zytek 07S of Barazi Epsilon was the most impressive new comer. Livered in the legendary Gulf blue and orange, it clocked the second fastest LMP2 time. They were bettered only by the Works Radical SR9, which was less than three seconds off the LMP1 pace on the high speed track. Hopefully the small British manufacturer has sorted out the reliability issues that plagued the SR9 last year. There were no visible problems at Ricard. Equipped with a revised aero-package, the Portuguese Lola B05/40 also proved blisteringly fast. RML have yet to buy Lola’s new bits and pieces, but their pace in the test might convince them that it is a worthwhile investment. The other new machine that took to the track was the Courage LC75, which recorded the fifth time. At the Monza season opener these cars will be joined by brand new Pescarolo and Dome LMP2 racers. The top favourites here are still the RML team, with the other Lolas, the Zytek and the Radical a very close and joined second.
LMP1: French lion roars
The Paul Ricard tests were more eagerly awaited than ever, as it saw the public debut of Peugeot’s 908 HDi FAP. The diesel engined and coupe bodied prototype is expected to be Audis biggest rival at Le Mans this year and the outright Le Mans Series favourites. Being a large company and former Le Mans winner, Peugeot have a reputation to uphold and the tests suggest there is more work to be done. The half painted racer did record the fastest time, but it spent more time in the heavily guarded pit box than out on the track. Rumour has it that they had to change the engine overnight, but information from the team is pretty scarce. Closely behind the single 908 present, little separated the two Pescarolos and two Lolas. None had exactly the same spec, but all clocked times less than 6 tenths apart. It was clearly a great debut for the two Pescarolos and Rollcentre’s Martin Short told us he was chuffed that he now had a car that was both fast and reliable. His Dunlop shot ‘Pesca’ was ‘best of the rest’ and only 3 tenths slower than the oil-burner.
After a disappointing year with the fragile Mugen engines, the Works Courage team switched to AER power, which looked very reliable on the first day. A crack in a pipe forced the team to switch engines during the night, but as dawn broke the car was out on track again. Racing for Holland’s brand new Dome also completed the car’s very first kilometers at Paul Ricard and like the LMP2 Zytek proved fast right out of the box. Monza will see the debut of the new LMP1 Zytek and most interestingly the Swiss Spirit Lola B07/10. This car is powered by Audi’s direct injection V8 turbo engine that propelled the R8 to its many Le Mans wins. The German manufacturer will give plenty of support, not in the least part to show that the rules really do not favour diesel engines. There is also talk that Audi considers entering the R10 after Le Mans.
The Peugeot looks set to be the fastest car, but there are more than a handful of cars ready to take the ‘Lions’ on; Peugeot wins are most certainly not a foregone conclusion.
There will be six rounds this season with five 1000 km races in Europe completed with the Mil Milhas in Brazil at the end of the year. All the European rounds will have the same three support series; the Classic Endurance Racing championship, the Radical World Cup and the new Peugeot Spider cup. This will no doubt increase the Le Mans Series’ appeal even further. Peugeot’s entry should ensure that the Le Mans Series will receive plenty of attention and maybe it will be the final step to get endurance racing completely back into the limelight. We will again do what we can.