More spectacular and easier to watch
Entering its fifth season, the ACO sanctioned Le Mans Series finally received a much missed ingredient; proper rivalry for overall glory. In the past two seasons there were absolutely fantastic fights throughout the field, except for first place with Pescarolo and then Peugeot winning every single race in the season. Reigning champions Peugeot will now face the seasoned and incredibly successful Audi team. The respective 908 HDi and R10 first went head to head at Le Mans last year; the first time the Germans were really challenged since their Le Mans stronghold on the legendary endurance race began back in 2000. Now with the French oil burner fully developed, we might finally see a pretender succeed.
There are other improvements that will make the Le Mans Series an altogether better prospect this year. Following the example set in the ALMS and at Le Mans, all cars will be fitted with position lights that will make the top three runners of each class more easily identifiable. Further assisting the punters on the grandstands are stickers on every car clearly showing the class. That will greatly help to distinguish LMP1 from LMP2 and GT1 from GT2 cars. One of Audi’s demands was better television coverage and subsequently a deal was struck with Eurosport, so viewers at home can once again follow the races. For 2008 the Le Mans Series offers an even better and most importantly an easier to watch spectacle.
As has become a tradition, the bulk of the Le Mans Series participants gathered at Bernie Ecclestone’s fantastic Paul Ricard High Tech Test Track on the French Cote d’Azur for a two day test session. For many of the new cars this was the first public appearance and it offers us the chance to assess each of the team’s prospects for the coming season. Our thoughts and impressions have been compressed in the following season class-by-class preview and sparkling 150-shot slideshow
GT2: an ancient rivalry
Ever since its inception in 1999, the smaller of the two ‘Gran Turismo’ classes had always been the home of Porsche and the few other manufacturers that tried, rarely managed to get a piece of the action. All that changed in 2006 with the introduction of the Ferrari F430 GTC. Porsche fielded a completely new car last year, but quite surprisingly (considering the company’s vast experience and support) that proved insufficient to match the Ferraris for outright speed. Porsche worked throughout the winter on upgraded version of the 997 GT3 RSR, but several of Weisach’s most loyal customers did not want to risk chasing Ferraris for another season and jumped ship. Paul Ricard was the first opportunity to see the ‘Evo’ version of the Porsche in action and it did top the time sheets, be it only marginally ahead of the fastest Ferrari. It does not seem unlikely that the ancient rivalry will be continued for yet another season.
The biggest GT2 news of the year was the addition of a brand new car from Aston Martin. Despite still being very much under development, the V8 Vantage GT2 test mule was brought to the French track to see how it would size up. Getting closer every session, the car finished the weekend in a credible fifth position, just over 2 seconds behind the quickest Porsche. We were told that there was still no definitive engine specification and that there definitely was still room to pull some extra horsepower from the V8 engine. The finished production cars will not be ready for another couple of months and in the mean time James Watt Automotive is expected to race the mule.
The only other manufacturer in GT2 is the Dutch Spyker, who will discard their quirky C8 Spyder and replace it with a similar, but fixed head C8 Laviolette, livered in a striking yellow and blue paint scheme. At Paul Ricard they tested new components on an old Spyder chassis until it was engulfed in flames after the fierce Mistral winds turned a small oil fire in an inferno, completely destroying the car, but sparing the driver. It seemed like an almost fitting finale for the C8 Spyder, which with its rumbling engine and flame spitting exhausts always provided for a great spectacle.
GT1: the last season?
Since 2005 no new GT1 car has hit the track and the upcoming rule changes will probably see to it that the Aston Martin DBR9 and Corvette C6.R really were the last cars built to the current regulations. 2008 might very well be the last season for this generation of GT1 racers. This apparently has not stopped Koenigsegg, who told us that they were still developing the C8 GT shown at Geneva last year. Currently they are looking for a team to race the car. By the time the team and car are ready, it could very well be too late. The uncertainty over the rules has also had an impact on entrants and several teams racing GT1 cars last year have moved to other classes. As a result only five cars have been given a season entry, making it by far the smallest class in the Le Mans Series. A single DBR9, Lamborghini Murcielago R-GT and Saleen S7-R will take on the two C6.Rs fielded by Luc Alphand. With some factory backing from the United States and a vast amount of experience, it will be hard for the other three to take on the two Corvettes.
At Paul Ricard, the regular season entrants were joined by two additional Aston Martins, including the Gulf liveried Works car that was here only in preparation of their 24 Hours of Le Mans class title defense. Neither was able to match the pace of the fastest Corvette.
LMP2: Porsche versus the rest
After racing for over two years exclusively in the ALMS, Europe can finally welcome the Porsche RS Spyder. In North America the Porsche prototype racer has done nothing but impress, even scoring several scratch victories ahead of the LMP1 Audis. Three examples will be entered in the Le Mans Series and looking at the driver line-ups consisting mostly of highly successful single seater and sports car racers, like Le Mans winner John Nielsen and former F1 driver Jos Verstappen, they are expected to easily dominate the class. The two cars at Paul Ricard were quickest in class, but the seasoned Quiffel Lola was still in striking distance. Amazingly the three cars beat five of the twelve LMP1 cars. One of the Porsche drivers did suggest that there was quite a bit more left in the car.
Of the new cars to be raced in the LMP2 class only the Lola B08/80 Coupe was present. Fitted with the equally new ‘DB’ version of the Judd V8 engine, the car had not turned a wheel before it was shipped to France. The weekend was much more than a shake down and by the second morning, the coupe was less than 2.5 seconds behind the quickest of the Porsches. The test could not be completed as eventually the engine expired. Nevertheless it was a great start for Lola’s 60th anniversary celebrations.
LMP1: Quality throughout
As mentioned earlier, the LMP1 class will finally see some real competition, but not at Paul Ricard as only Audi attended. Despite only taking to the track on the first day, the two R10s topped the sheets. The 1.39.7 set by Allan McNish was a startling 4 seconds faster than the top time set by Peugeot last year. One of the other competitors told us that Peugeot had already dipped into the 1.37s during a private test earlier in the week. Even though this was later denied by Peugeot’s Michel Barge, it would not surprise us at all. As shown at Le Mans last year and more recently at Sebring, the 908 seems to have a small edge over the R10.
While most eyes will be on the big boys and their spectacular, but quiet shuffle, the rest of the LMP1 class should not be forgotten. In fact, it might very well be the strongest ever. Benefiting from considerable development over the winter, the 2006 champion Pescarolo might be the team to beat. Although with the entrance of Oreca and the amazing Aston Martin engined Lola coupe, Henri will face more competition than ever. Quite surprisingly the fastest car behind the Audis was the Creation CA07, now powered by the newly developed, AIM badged Judd engine. The Japanese support has clearly helped the popular team ahead as they set a 1.41.7 and achieved the highest top speed down the Mistral straight. The blue prototype race was closely followed by the fastest of the Oreca-Courages and the Aston engined Lola. Surprisingly, or maybe not, the quickest Pescarolo was a full second slower than the Creation; Henri knows like no other that it takes more than outright speed to succeed in endurance racing. A completely new name in sportscar racing was the Spanish/Basque Epsilon-Euskadi, which brought the first of the two Judd engined Coupes they will campaign this year. Absolutely breathtaking to look at, the mechanics were faced with many new car troubles, so it only received limited track time. Eventually it clocked a commendable 1.45.3 and if the appearance of the chassis and running gear is anything to go by, there should be plenty of room for improvement.
There is little doubt that this will be the most exciting Le Mans Series season yet. Hopefully the effort made by the organizers to make the races more accessible for spectators and TV-viewers will ensure that the excitement will not go by unnoticed. Due to conflicting schedules, we will not be able to attend every race this year, but we will make sure to keep you posted on the 2008 Le Mans Series and 24 Hours of Le Mans.