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2008 24 Hours of Le Mans Preview
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Click here to save all images   2008 24 Hours of Le Mans Preview
Click here to open the slideshowJune is here and for racing enthusiasts that means only one thing: Le Mans. The annual round-the-clock race ranks as one of the most important events on the motorsport calendar. For both participants and spectators it is so much more than a race or the ultimate test of durability. Each year over 250,000 fans from all over the world flock to Le Mans to experience this unique event. In recent years they were treated to a one man(ufacturer) show for the overall victory, but the arrival of Peugeot in 2007 has changed all that. There have been many other improvements made to make the race easier to follow for the fans like the leader lights system, which helps spectators keep track of the top three of each class at any time during the race. New for this year are the tiny Kangaroo TVs, enabling the spectators to watch what happens all around the track.
With a large majority of the track consisting of public road, the participants can not just come over to test in preparation for the race. The organizing Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) have tackled that problem with an official test day, held two weeks before the race. This is mandatory for each team and at least two of the drivers. Each driver that has not raced at Le Mans in at least one of the previous three editions of the race has to complete at least ten laps to qualify for the race. There are no exceptions, not even for previous winners; this year 2003 winner Guy Smith was the victim of many jokes as he had to complete his ‘rookie test.’
As in previous years we were trackside during the test day and captured all of the cars in their latest configuration and liveries. Sadly the test was dogged with bad weather and only rarely did the track get really dry. The times set are probably not an accurate reflection of the strengths of each entry. All the information gathered at Le Mans and over the last months has been compacted in the following class by class preview, a fully illustrated entry list and a 150-shots slideshow.

The current state of endurance racing is well illustrated by the size and depth of the premier prototype class. With 21 cars, it makes up for over a third of the field and includes only few relatively weak entries. Realistically only the six Works supported Audis and Peugeots will be fighting for top honours, but behind them there are more than half a dozen candidates for the best of the rest position. The Aston Martin engined Lola, one of the Pescarolos and one of the Courage-Orecas have all clinched a podium position each in the three Le Mans Series races this season. The Pescarolo team has not been off the podium at Le Mans for three years and their superb reliability, quick team of mechanics and vastly experienced drivers should get them closer to the top of the field with every hour that passes in the race. Especially in qualifying it will be interesting to keep an eye on the all new Dome S102 coupe. The manufacturer’s previous machines always proved blisteringly fast along the track’s long straights and the S102 is a clear improvement. We think it might be able to challenge the diesels over one lap, although the lack of (racing) mileage might prevent the stylish from making it to the finish.
Audi vs. Peugeot is the headline for Le Mans for the second year running. The French manufacturer has now also fielded a third car and expanded their driver line-up with ex-Formula 1 racers only, including 1998 Le Mans winner Alexander Wurz. The highly successful 908 also received updates. At Audi little seems to have changed with identical line-ups and only very minor changes were made to the car.
Peugeot has won all three Le Mans Series races, but Audi came close at each occasion and was robbed of at least one victory by sheer bad luck. At the end of the test Peugeot walked away as winners and losers; in a rare dry moment Wurz set a 3:22.222 (a whopping four seconds faster than last year’s pole and the fastest Audi), but only minutes later Marc Gene destroyed the #7 in a very violent accident that even took a chunk out of the wall. Gene is alright to race, but the French team is running worryingly low on spare parts. Despite Peugeot’s obvious pace advantage, it would still not surprise us if the R10 would score its third victory in a row at what many believe to be its final appearance at Le Mans. The Audi is more frugal and reliable than the Peugeot and the German mechanics’ efficiency in the pits is legendary. The #2 Audi with Capello, Kristensen and McNish is certainly the fastest of the three and is our best bet to cross the line first.

In the ALMS the LMP2 cars can rival their bigger brothers for overall glory, but with slightly different regulations (an additional 25 kg) and the long straights, we highly doubt that to happen at Le Mans. Causing most of those upsets in North America is the Porsche RS Spyder, which was campaigned there exclusively for two seasons. It has finally made it (back) to Europe in 2008 and two examples will race in the 24 Hours. Reminiscent of the days of old, Porsche has prepared a special low drag body for the high speed track. It looks almost identical to the standard configuration, yet increases the top speed by 15 km/h. With Formula 1 ace Jos Verstappen and A1GP / Porsche Cup star Jeroen Bleekemolen in one car and former Le Mans winner John Nielsen and Works driver Sacha Maassen in the other, the two RS Spyders are certainly the cars to beat. The only car we think that can come close to them is the Speedy Lola B08/80 Coupe. Especially on race pace, it has proven to be a match for the Porsches and has shown remarkable reliability. That is the key word in this class, which last year saw only two cars cross the line. Over long distance races the RS Spyder has only rarely had a trouble free run and the car is notoriously difficult to work on, so any problem could cause lengthy delays. If the fastest cars will hit trouble, the RML MG-Lola (class winner in 2005 and 2006), the Barazi-Epsilon Zytek or the Saulnier Pescarolo could also walk away with the silverware. LMP2 will come down to a simple question: Who will be the last man standing?

For years this class has been the playing field of specialists Pratt & Miller (Corvette) and Prodrive (Ferrari and now Aston Martin), who have always put on a great show. With the GT-classes under discussion, this could be the last we see of these very quick machines at Le Mans. Last year an early and very rare problem put one of the Corvettes out, giving the edge to the Aston Martins. After a Ferrari win in 2003, it was only the second time Corvette got beaten since 2001. Needless to say the Corvette team has returned to reclaim the class victory and like Aston Martin Racing will field two cars. Neither team has had the best preparation with Corvette running solo in the ALMS and Aston Martin not racing at all this season. However both teams are well oiled machines and should be able to cope with any challenge thrown their way. The DBR9 is probably the faster car over one lap, but over 24 hours the roaring C6.R should have the edge.
Fighting for the best of the rest position behind the four Works cars will be a further two Aston Martins, two Corvettes, a Saleen and the howling Lamborghini Murcielago R-GT. The Team Modena DBR9, the #72 Alphand Corvettes and the Larbre Saleen have already proven to be very evenly matched in the Le Mans Series and could fight for position for the full 24 hours.

This used to be Porsche 911 territory and might still be, but the position is seriously challenged by the eternal rival Ferrari. One of the 911’s biggest strengths was in the number of examples entered, but this year only three 997 GT3 RSRs are present, compared to seven F430 GTCs. Last year the RSR was no match for the Ferrari, except at Le Mans where its superior reliability and some luck saved Porsche’s honour. Both cars have upgraded for 2008 and Porsche clearly made the biggest step forward. For the three Porsche teams, who do receive considerable factory support and drivers, it must be comforting to know that neither a 360 GT(C) or F430 GTC has ever come close to winning the GT/GT2 class at Le Mans. If a Ferrari will not win this year, then it’s doubtful they’ll ever; the 2007 FIA GT, ALMS and Le Mans Series champions are all present and are eager to clinch the Italian’s first class win at Le Mans for decades. Only the brave Spyker team continues to challenge the two behemoths with their quirky racers. This year they will field the brand new Laviolette GT2-Rs in a striking blue and yellow paintscheme. Engine problems during the test do not bode well for the race, but if reliability can be found a podium finish is not unfeasible.

Final thought
Le Mans style endurance racing is in better shape than it has been for many years and this year’s field for the 24 Hours is dripping with quality both in the car and driver department. All four classes will be closely disputed and if it remains dry the distance record set in 1971 might finally be broken. The race will be easier to follow than ever at track with the leader lights and Kangaroo TV and at home through live timing and Radio Le Mans. Enjoy! We sure will.
1 Audi Sport North America
Audi R10
Frank Biela
Emanuele Pirro
Marco Werner
2 Audi Sport North America
Audi R10
Rinaldo Capello
Tom Kristensen
Allan McNish
3 Audi Sport Team Joest
Audi R10
Lucas Luhr
Mike Rockenfeller
Alexandre Premat
4 Saulnier Racing
Pescarolo 01 LMP1 Judd
Jacques Nicolet
Richard Hein
Marc Faggionato
5 TEAM Oreca Matmut
Oreca-Courage LC70 Judd
Laurent Groppi
Soheil Ayari
Loic Duval
6 TEAM Oreca Matmut
Oreca-Courage LC70 Judd
Olivier Panis
Simon Pagenaud
Marcel Fässler
7 Team Peugeot Total
Peugeot 908 HDi FAP
Marc Gene
Nicolas Minassian
Jacques Villeneuve
8 Team Peugeot Total
Peugeot 908 HDi FAP
Pedro Lamy
Stephane Sarrazin
Alexander Wurz
9 Peugeot Sport Total
Peugeot 908 HDi FAP
Franck Montagny
Ricardo Zonta
Christian Klien
10 Charouz Racing System
Lola B08/60 Aston Martin
Stefan Mucke
Jan Charouz
Tomas Enge
11 Dome Racing Team
Dome S102 Judd
Daisuke Ito
Yugi Tachikawa
Tatsuya Kataoka
12 Charouz Racing System
Lola B07/10 Judd
Greg Picket
Klaus Graf
Jan Lammers
14 Creation Autosportif
Creation CA07 AIM
Stuart Hall
Marc Goossens
Johnny Mowlem
16 Pescarolo Sport
Pescarolo 01 LMP1 Judd
Emmanuel Collard
Jean Christophe Bouillon
Romain Dumas
17 Pescarolo Sport
Pescarolo 01 LMP1 Judd
Harold Primat
Christophe Tinseau
Benoit Treluyer
18 Rollcentre Racing
Pescarolo 01 LMP1 Judd
Jaoa Barbosa
Stephane Gregoire
Vanina Ickx
19 Chamberlain-Synergy
Lola B06/10 AER
Gareth Evans
Bob Berridge
Amanda Stretton
20 Epsilon Euskadi
Epsilon Euskadi ee1 Judd
Anger Burgueno
Miguel-Angel de Castro
Adrian Valles
22 Tokai University
Oreca-Courage LC70 YGK
Toshio Suzuki
Masami Kageyama
Haruki Kurosawa
23 Autocon
Creation CA07 Judd
Michael Lewis
Chris McMurry
Bryan Willman
24 Terramos
Courage LC70 Mugen
Yojiro Terada
Kasuho Takahashi
Hiroki Katoh
25 RML
MG Lola EX265 AER
Mike Newton
Tommy Erdos
Andy Wallace
26 Team Bruichladdich Radical
Radical SR9 AER
Marc Rostan
Ben Devlin
Gunnar Jeannette
30 Racing Box *
Lucchini LMP2 Judd
Andrea Ceccato
Filipe Francioni
Ferdinando Geri
31 Team Essex
Porsche RS Spyder
John Nielsen
Casper Elgaard
Sacha Maassen
32 Barazi Epsilon
Zytek 07S/2
Juan Barazi
Michael Vergers
Stuart Moseley
33 Speedy Racing Team Sebah
Lola B08/80 Judd
Xavier Pompidou
Andrea Belicchi
Steve Zacchia
34 Van Merksteijn Motorpsort
Porsche RS Spyder
Peter van Merksteijn
Jos Verstappen
Jeroen Bleekemolen
35 Saulnier Racing
Pescarolo 01 LMP2 Judd
Pierre Ragues
Mathieu Lahaye
Cong-Fu Cheng
40 Quiffel ASM-Team
Lola B05/40 AER
Miguel Amaral
Olivier Pla
Guy Smith
41 Trading Performance
Zytek 07S/2
Karim Ojjeh
Claude Yves Gosselin
Adam Sharpe
44 Kruse Schiller Motorsport
Lola B05/40 Mazda
Jean de Pourtales
Hideki Noda
Allan Simonsen
45 Embassy Racing
Embassy WF01 Zytek
Warren Hughes
Jonny Kane
Joey Foster
007 Aston Martin Racing
Aston Martin DBR9
Karl Wendlinger
Andrea Piccini
Heinz Harald Frentzen
009 Aston Martin Racing
AstonMartin DBR9
David Brabham
Antonio Garcia
Darren Turner
50 Larbre Competition
Saleen S7-R
Christophe Bouchut
Patrick Bornhauser
David Halliday
53 Vitaphone Racing Team
AstonMartin DBR9
Peter Hardman
Nick Leventis
Alexandre Negrao
55 Interprogressbank Spartak Racing
Lamborghini Murcielago R-GT
Peter Kox
Roman Rusinov
Mike Hezemans
59 Team Modena
Aston Martin DBR9
Jos Menten
Christian Fittipaldi
Terry Borcheller
63 Corvette Racing
Chevrolet Corvette C6.R
Ron Fellows
Johnny O'Connell
Jan Magnussen
64 Corvette Racing
Chevrolet Corvette C6.R
Oliver Gavin
Olivier Berettta
Max Papis
72 Luc Alphand Adventures
Chevrolet Corvette C6.R
Jerome Policand
Guillaume Moreau
Luc Alphand
73 Luc Alphand Adventures
Chevrolet Corvette C6.R
Patrice Goueslard
Jean Luc Blanchemain
Laurent Pasquali
76 IMSA Performance Matmut
Porsche 997 GT3 RSR
Raymond Narac
Richard Lietz
Pat Long
77 Team Felbermayr-Proton
Porsche 997 GT3 RSR
Anthony Davison
Wolf Henzler
Horst Felbermayr Snr.
78 AF Corse
Ferrari F430 GTC
Toni Vilander
Thomas Biagi
Christian Montanari
80 Flying Lizard Motorsports
Porsche 997 GT3 RSR
Johannes van Overbeek
Jorg Bergmeister
Seth Neiman
82 Risi Competizione
Ferrari F430 GTC
Mika Salo
Jamie Melo
Gianmaria Bruni
83 Risi Competizione
Ferrari F430 GTC
Tracy Krohn
Nic Jonsson
Eric van de Poele
85 Spyker Squadron
Spyker C8 Laviolette GT2-R
Peter Dumbreck
Ralf Kelleners
Alexei Vasiliev
90 Farnbacher Racing
Ferrari F430 GTC
Lars Erik Nielsen
Pierre Ehret
Pierre Kaffer
94 Spyker Squadron
Spyker C8 Laviolette GT2R
Andrea Chiesa
Benjamin Leuenberger
Iradj Alexander
96 Virgo Motorsport
Ferrari F430 GTC
Robert Bell
Tim Sugden
Tim Mullen
97 BMS Scuderia Italia
Ferrari F430 GTC
Paolo Ruberti
Matteo Malucelli
Fabio Babini
99 JMB Racing
Ferrari F430 GTC
Alain Ferte
Ben Aucott
Stephane Daoudi
*Withdrawn on the Tuesday before the race

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Report and images by Wouter Melissen for Ultimatecarpage.com.