Defying the dire state of the economy, the 24 Hours of Le Mans was once again well oversubscribed. Unlike any other major racing series/event, the annual 24-hour marathon has seen no major players withdraw. In fact the high profile LMP1 class has actually been further enriched compared to recent years. Overall the 55-car field boasts with quality and there are only very few weak links. Of course all eyes will be on the third installment of the Audi vs. Peugeot battle for LMP1 and overall honors. The other three should also see plenty of close competition, including another run-in of age old rivals Porsche and Ferrari in GT2.
The one big change made to accommodate for the tighter times is the cancellation of the traditional test day. This has left the teams with just the wednesday and thursday evening sessions to setup the car, qualify the drivers and get a quick lap in. Rain is likely for at least the Wednesday session but not for the race, which may find the teams struggling to get a dry-weather setup.
LMP1: Prototypes, 700 bhp, 900kg (petrol) - 930kg (diesel)
The race's protagonists, Peugeot and Audi, are very well represented in the LMP1 class. The German manufacturer have replaced their three-time Le Mans winning R10 TDI with the all new R15 TDI. Very much a clean-sheet design, the new V10 engined nevertheless won first time out at Sebring in March. Since then it has not been raced but it showed up at Le Mans with many tweaks to its aero package. The objective was to shed downforce and drag to get near the top-speed of the Peugeots. Their 908 HDI Fap also appeared with some modifications compared to its most recent outings. The front end was revised with most of the holes covered by what appears like a shovel-nose. Presumably this was done to get some balance with the reduced rear-wing width mandatory for 2009. At Sebring the fastest Audi and Peugeot raced nose-to-tail for most of the 12 Hours and something similar for a lot longer seems very likely. If we were the betting type, our money would be on the all-French Peugeot with Franck Montagny, Stephane Sarrazin and Sebastien Bourdais in the driving seat.
Backing up the works efforts are two Audi R10s, entered by Colin Kolles and a single Peugeot 908 fielded by Le Mans legend Henri Pescarolo. The Kolles cars have not impressed in the season's opening races and we expect them to struggle in the midfield of the LMP1 class. There is some irony to Pescarolo fielding a Peugeot since he has always been very critical of their performance. Now that they have been slowed down considerably he has decided to join the diesel train. With his seasoned team and three highly talented drivers, it could be the dark-horse for the win. Pescarolo will also campaign one of their own, petrol engined prototypes. Extensively modified, it has already showed great form.
Aston Martin Racing is the third major works team in the LMP1 class and a newcomer to the class. Like the other big teams, they have a three-car entry. With the Gulf livery and howling engine, their Lola-Aston should be one of the crowd favorites and a strong contender for the unofficial petrol P1 class. Further competitors for that honor are two Ginetta-Zyteks and the two new Orecas.
LMP2: Prototypes, 485 bhp, 825 kg
The 'smaller' prototype class has been Porsche RS Spyder territory. At its Le Mans debut last year it scored an easy victory and no car has stepped up that could rival its combination of outright speed and reliability. It is also hugely expensive so it is not surprising that only two examples are fielded at Le Mans this year. The Team Essex car that finished second in class last year returned for another go in a new livery. The familiar metallic blue has been replaced by a very nice combination of white and green; the colors of the Michelin Green X Challenge. The winning car is also back but now entered by the Japanese Team Goh, which won the race outright with the Audi R8 back in 2005. Both cars have two seasoned drivers and a wild-card so it is hard to predict which of RS Spyders will win the race.
There are ten other LMP2 cars entered, which should have a nice scrap among themselves. The distinguishing factor may be the aspiration of the engine; the turbocharged cars have been down on power and proven very unreliable. This is down a problem with the quality of the fuel specified by the organizers. In that light, a strong contender to join the Porsches on the class podium is the Ginetta-Zytek fielded by the Quiffel-ASM team. A Zytek engine has never failed and the three man aboard the car are quick enough and capable of bringing the car home. Speaking of Zytek engines, we would have loved to see WR back at Le Mans, especially now that their Zytek V8 powered machine has shown some real pace.
GT1: Production cars, 650 bhp, 1,125 - 1325kg
With only six entries, the GT1 class is by far the smallest of the field. To be honest we actually expected 2008 to have been the last year of GT1 at Le Mans. Four teams proved us wrong, bringing four Corvette C.6Rs, a Lamborghini Murcielago and Aston Martin DBR9 to Le Mans. Last year we saw the fourth epic battle between Corvette Racing and Aston Martin Racing finish in favor the British team for the second time in a row. With the score at 2-2, Corvette Racing returned to settle things but found AMR had moved up to LMP1. Their biggest rivals are their Alphand Adventures customer team and a single DBR9 entered by JetAlliance who were FIA GT regulars. Although both teams are very competent, it is highly unlikely that they can challenge the mean machine that is the Corvette Racing Team. It will be the final outing for the works of the GT1 Corvette before it gets replaced by a GT2 car later in the season. It is a shame the C6.R won't get a proper scrap at its farewell race.
GT2: Production cars, 460 bhp, 1,145 - 1345kg
Porsche and Ferrari have gone head to head for over five decades. Their current battlefield of choice is the GT2 class. Ferrari's F430 GTC has been so quick that Porsche has had to further develop their 997 GT3 RSR for a second time over the winter. Recent results may suggest that it still was not quite enough but at Le Mans, Porsches always do very well. The RSRs sport new aerodynamic bits on the front fender, which should further improve airflow along the side of car. Last year's defeat to the Risi Ferrari had little to do with the ability of the Porsches but rather was result of an early coming together of the two quickest examples. If they keep the cars on the track, the Flying Lizard Motorsport, the IMSA Matmut and Felbermayr Porsches should all be able to challenge the half a dozen Ferraris.
In the Ferrari ranks all eyes will certainly be on Risi Competizione, who won here last year and have a very impressive track record as well as a fantastic driver line-up with Mika Salo, Jamie Melo and Pierre Kaffer. An equally strong pairing of drivers is found in the JMW Ferrari, which is the same car that was so successfully raced by Virgo Motorsport in recent years. Another Ferrari of interest is the Team Advanced Engineering, which has Patrick 'Dr McDreamy' Dempsey of 'Grey's Anatomy' fame. It is not likely to impress on the track but it should raise quite a bit for charity.
Completing the GT2 grid are a single Aston Martin V8 Vantage and a Spyker C8 Laviolette. Both machines have competent drivers but getting them to the finish will provide the biggest challenge.
With the first track session just a few hours away, the tension is certainly rising. There is some intrigue with teams protesting new bits on other cars but hopefully all that will get sorted shortly. If all goes well, we should have a cracker of a race on our hands. We feel it is Peugeot's to loose, possibly even more so than in 2008. More reports from the track will follow.