Le Mans 24 Hours 2011; LMP1 Preview

In the build up to this year’s race we are taking a detailed look at the cars and their drivers with Graham Goodwin from Dailysportscar.com

LMP1: Who can beat the diesels?

The overall winner of the Le Mans 24 Hours will come from within the 17 cars in the LMP1 class. Sadly though, unless we see a meltdown of both factory diesel teams, it’s almost unfeasible that the winner won’t come from either Audi or Peugeot. That is not to say that we won’t see a real wheel to wheel battle for the winl. What we won’t see, though, is a 10 or 12 car battle, and that’s a real shame because there is real strength in depth on display in this class.

Let’s start though, with a trio of cars that we expect are going to struggle. First up is the No.5 Hope Racing Oreca Swiss Hytech Hybrid, the first ever hybrid powered car to race at the Le Mans 24 Hours.We believe the car has now passed all the necessary tests that require the car to achieve 60mph and 400m on hybrid power only (a fault which emerged at the Le Mans Test requiring a new part which also prevented the team from competing at Spa). They are now on the entry list but only just and are an unproven and untested package at this level. However this car could be the shape of things to come at Le Mans.

We were due to see three factory backed petrol cars on the Le Mans grid this season, but with the late withdrawal of the Highcroft HPD we are left with just two; both from Aston Martin, and that effort has had more than its fair share of problems too. The No. 007 and No. 009 AMR-Ones have had a troubled genesis. Prodrive admit that the decision to give the green light to the programme came very late. That’s left Aston Martin Racing with a mountain to climb, with reports galore of engine issues from the very start. After a nightmare at the Le Mans Test Day, AMR Chairman David Richards revealed that the engine issues surrounded cylinder coating failures, and that a fix was in sight. That, though, meant that the team pulled out of the Spa 1000kms, opting to test in private instead. Optimists will be hoping to see one car coming home. Pessimists will be wondering whether they’ll make the race at all.

Next up, the mixed bag that is the grandfathered trio; and there is still further regulatory grumbling as the runners in 2011 spec machinery complain that they can’t overhaul the older 2010 cars, something the ACO initially said would not be allowed. First here is the last car added to the Le Mans 2011 entry – the Kronos Racing squad. This is good news for race fans who enjoy aural pleasure as the old Lola Aston Martin features the fabulous Aston V12. There’s only one thing that would make that package more popular still – a car full of Belgians. Vanina Ickx impressed aboard this same car when it raced in Signature Plus’s colours last year. She’s back for more and is joined by FIA GT1 Ford GT buddies Maxime Martin and Bas Leinders. This package should be both quick and reliable. If this car gets a clean run it might make a fight of things for the honour of the highest-finishing petrol fuelled runner. To achieve that, though, the No.22 car will surely have to go toe to toe with one of the other crowd favourites.

That car is the No.16 Pescarolo Team Pescarolo-Judd. Henri is back after a year away – indeed, 2010 was the only year he’s missed as an entrant in 40 years.The car is a familiar one, the same chassis that the team campaigned in 2009 with many of the same crew members and a familiar looking powerplant too; the Judd V10 (albeit in five litre form), their weapon of choice throughout their glory years in the Le Mans Series. Henri has assembled an impressive driver line up once again. Manu Collard and Christophe Tinseau are back on duty for their old boss and Julian Jousse adds some more youthful vim to the cocktail. All in all this should be, and thus far in 2011 has been, a reliable and fast package. Fast enough to win from the back of the grid at Paul Ricard.

The final grandfathered car has already won this year (at Sebring) and, in factory hands, has won overall at Le Mans too. The No.10 Team Oreca Matmut Peugeot 908 HDI FAP proved to be too reliable, and just a little too quick, to be beaten in the opening round of the ILMC, as Peugeot and Audi’s factory cars tripped over each other. Oreca say they are racing for the win in their own right and the driver line-up certainly has pace. The 2010 crew is reprised, with Panis, Lapierre and Duval back to avenge the defeat inflicted on them by Audi and a dodgy batch of con-rods. If the new cars falter, you would be foolhardy to look beyond this effort for a podium, or even better.

There are five petrol-fuelled cars left. The only one run as a single car team is the No.20 Quifel ASM Zytek. Here’s a team complying with the spirit of the new rulebook, carrying over its basic 2010 LMP2 package to the new LMP1 formula. The chassis and engine have been beefed up accordingly and there’s little doubt that there’s speed both in the car and in the driver squad, certainly when the mercurial Olivier Pla and the still rapid and reliable Warren Hughes are onboard. The confounding factor here is that the team have carried over their Pro-Am line-up to LMP1, too. Miguel Amaral is far from slow, very far indeed in fact. But in this company he’s perhaps not fast enough and has seemed of late to make more errors. This is an effort that deserves to succeed, but is unlikely to do so if the field stays reliable. A steady run to the flag might elicit a headline, but its unlikely to be the one that the team are looking for.

First of the two car efforts is Rebellion Racing – another big crowd favourite and likely to attract even more attention than usual, thanks to the name on the engine covers of their pair of Lola Coupes. Toyota are back at Le Mans, courtesy of a customer engine deal brokered via Toyota Motorsport GmbH, the factory colossus’s ex F1 arm based in Cologne. It’s not just in the engine compartment that Rebellion have made major changes. They’ve invested heavily in a radical new aero package developed by Lola and made some key backroom changes too. They have nothing to worry about on the driver front. The No.12 car sees the familiar faces of Neel Jani and Nicolas Prost, both seemingly just getting faster, and they are joined here by Jeroen Bleekemolen – the ex A1 GP driver.

The No.13 car, meanwhile, sees Rebellion regulars Jean Christophe Bouillon and Andrea Belicchi joined once again by Guy Smith. Here’s a team that deserve success, but sadly it seems the ACO aren’t in agreement; the performance equalisation changes will still leave the 2011 cars short of puff to the factory diesels (they were ten seconds a lap slower at the Test Day) and, indeed, to the grandfathered cars, too. Rebellion have been rushing to equip their cars with the new gearing required to coax out the additional power they do gain as a result of the rebalancing process, but it may yet prove to be a double-edged sword; an untested component or two in a package that had been heading towards much better reliability. We hope not.

Finally amongst the petrol fuelled runners comes OAK Racing. They bring a pair of Pescarolo chassis with V8 Judd engined cars to the task, with a crowd-pleasing Gulf livery and factory development Dunlop rubber. The No.15 car briefly led at Sebring, albeit helped by the Safety Car, and the driver squad in the lead car looks strong. Guillaume Moreau is surely a future star and Pierre Ragues arrived from Signature Plus with a fine reputation too. There’s no Mathieu Lahaye, after his terrifyingly violent Spa shunt, but he’s replaced by ex F1, ex Oreca LMP1, and still current WTCC man, Tiago Monteiro. That’s a worthy line-up that should really be contending for petrol fuelled ‘honours’. Somehow, though, the car just hasn’t got there yet, despite apparently excellent standards of preparation and some clever aero tweaks too. That won’t be helped by the team having to build up both LMP1s on new tubs since the Le Mans Test Day, the No.15 car totalled after Lahaye’s Spa crash and the sister No.24 car after Richard Hein’s shunt at the Test Day. This is a gentleman driver squad in the finest traditions of the race and none the worse for that. Will they win? No, they won’t, but they have finished together on a class podium (2009 in LMP2) and a finish is far from out of reach.

So to the six cars that should include not only the overall winner, but also the other podium finishers. Peugeot first, and again there’s massive strength in depth here. Lessons have been learnt since their failure at Le Mans 2010 and the 2011 weapon has looks in a distinctively evolutionary fashion; the 2011 spec 908, though, is a totally different car, with barely a single part carried over. Replacing the sledgehammer V12 is a 3.7 litre twin turbo V8, which may have fewer ponies installed than its predecessor but is still a mightily impressive powerplant. Thus far, it seems, the 908 might have the edge on economy over its Audi rival. It didn’t really need it at Spa, where the Audis rather threw the race away to give Peugeot the first overall win for a new generation diesel, but Le Mans is an altogether different race.

The Le Mans 2010 driver squad is carried over to this season with all three featuring the same squads as last year. The No.7 crew features Anthony Davidson, Marc Gene and Alex Wurz. No shortage of talent and speed there and, it seems, Ant has learnt his lesson from the controversy last year and has added a little more control, blended with his undoubted blinding speed. The other two are already winners at Le Mans for Peugeot. Wurz has been impressive this season and provides real backbone here, while Gene isn’t a Ferrari F1 test driver for nothing. He may be the ‘quiet man’ of the three, but he’s as quick as either of his team-mates.

The No.8 car is the most Gallic of the trio, with Messrs Sarrazin, Montagny and Minassian having the best claim on the grid to the Three Musketeers tag. Sarrazin is one of the best sportscar drivers on the planet, blisteringly fast, utterly consistent and reliable; he’d be in anyone’s All Star team. Montagny is a good, old fashioned, racer – absolutely his own man, stunningly fast and a real fan favourite into the bargain. Nicolas Minassian is the most English Frenchman I know. He gives very little away indeed to his team-mates and is, into the bargain, a sportscar man to his very core. With the possible exception of Henri Pescarolo, there is no Frenchman that the tens of thousands of Brits at Le Mans would prefer to see on the top step more than “Quick Nic”.

The No.9 car blends one of the sport’s newest superstars, Simon Pagenaud, with Champcar legend Sebastian Bourdais and Pedro Lamy. Lamy has seemed slightly out of sorts of late – still very quick, but just a little too-prone perhaps to unforced errors. Bourdais is the Local Hero at Le Mans. He relished his pole position last year and was gutted when the car retired early on with suspension failure – he’ll be desperate for a full race tilt at it in 2011 (Perhaps just a little bit too desperate?). Pagenaud, by contrast, is a master of the art of controlled racing aggression; blindingly fast and hugely intelligent.

Finally on to Audi. Their Le Mans record since 2000 is simply magnificent – eight out of ten races in the 21st century have fallen to the ‘R’ cars and four of the five in the diesel era have gone their way too. But 2011 sees an important change in the LMP1 equilibrium, and it’s the first time in Audi’s Le Mans racing history that they are challenged by a major factory team with a car at the same stage of development. The new R18 TDI is Audi’s first coupe since the underdeveloped R8C of 1999. The dorsal fin doesn’t help it’s looks, but is cleverly integrated. The car pulls off a real visual trick, too – stand next to it and it feels like the car is just as large as its predecessor, the R15; but see it on track next to a GT car and it looks tiny.

The Audi powerplant may not be tiny, but it’s a lot smaller than the R15’s big V10 diesel. A clever V6 single turbo provides comparable oomph to the Peugeot and, whilst it seems not to be quite as ultimately fast as the 908 in a straight line, it picks up time to the Peugeot through the faster twists and turns. The R18 was far faster, for instance, through the Porsche Curves at the Le Mans test day. The test day implied, though, that the Peugeot might be a tad more economical. The fuel load for the diesels has come down considerably from 2010 – from 81 to 65 litres – but could that be an area where the factory teams are trying to bluff their major opposition?

Audi have been the tactical masters during their impressive Le Mans reign, but there are real signs that Peugeot have closed a gap there and Peugeot have more experience of racing, servicing, and pit-stopping in a closed coupe. Could this be a race-deciding factor? Audi lost a proud record at Spa – up until then, every debuting LMP car since 2000 had won on its racing debut. The R18 didn’t and that stung all those at Audi. That may not be altogether good news for Peugeot – a motivated Audi Team is a very scary prospect.

As for the driver squads – like Peugeot, the Audi line-ups are unchanged and, let’s face it, why would you change when you have quality? The No.3 car is certainly one of sportscar racing history’s great line-ups. In years to come, we’ll look back and treasure the races we’ve watched with Kristensen, Capello and McNish racing together. There are few superlatives that do Kristensen’s Le Mans career justice – eight wins, six of them for Audi; and Tom has never finished off the podium at Le Mans when he finishes the race. He still has the speed and he’s still hungry for more, and the chemistry between this trio just spurs him on even more. If Kristensen is hungry, then Rinaldo ‘Dindo’ Capello is hungrier. He’s won the great race three times, a feat that tends to be forgotten alongside ‘Special K’s’ achievements. If the running rumour is correct, this might be the final season of Dindo’s LMP racing career with the factory team. If it does prove to be his last season, then we’ll be saying farewell to one of the very best of the modern era; and there’s no doubt that he’ll want to finish with a flourish. And then there’s the hungriest – in the small, but perfectly formed, shape of Allan McNish. If ever there was a former winner that wants more, it’s McNish – one win amongst the Audi glitterati was ridiculous, but two was never going to be enough. He’s right up there with the quickest of the lot, simply relishes the task in hand, and loves the big events. Put simply, there are no weak-links aboard the No.3 car.

The No.2 car could best be described as Audi’s pressure cooker – bring this lot to the boil and see how it tastes. Benoit Tréluyer sampled the old 908 with a run at Le Mans for Pescarolo Sport in 2009, before being snapped up by Audi. He’s quick and getting quicker, and he knows how to play the team game too. Marcel Fässler rocked up at Audi with a record of stunning pace in all conditions in GT1 cars. He’s fast and steady – exactly what’s needed at Le Mans – and there are very few mistakes, and fewer still that are unforced; the perfect anchor man, with a cool head on experienced shoulders. Andre Lotterer is cut from the same cloth. He’s fast, but there’s a passion within that sometimes bubbles up to the surface. That’s not always the best thing at this level, but it’s still good to see. If you were looking for a steadier but consistent pace to leave a car well positioned to strike later in the race, this lot are just about perfect.

And finally, the defending champions. The No.1 car again teams Romain Dumas and Timo Bernhard with Mike Rockenfeller – the joy on the faces of this team on the Le Mans 2010 podium was a sight to behold, and the 11 months since then have only seen confidence grow still further. Rockenfeller was always rated in his early days as a Porsche factory driver as something a bit special, even in that exalted company, and they were right. With the memories of major mistakes now firmly in the history books, he’s now grown in confidence again and it shows. Here’s Audi’s superstar driver for the next ten years. Bernhard is the quiet man of the crew – he does his talking behind the wheel and boy can he chatter. He’s blindingly quick and super consistent. The years with the fast but demanding Porsche Spyder are paying dividends; whatever the R18 has to give, Timo will find it. And then there’s Romain Dumas. If Rockenfeller is the Superstar of the future, then Dumas is the Superstar right here, right now. Sarrazin- and McNish-quick, his trademark bobbing head shows the controlled aggression he throws into the task. Only a fool would bet against Dumas ending his career as a multiple winner at Le Mans.

So, will it be Audi or Peugeot? The very best thing about Le Mans 2011 is that nobody knows – not even the teams themselves. Both believe we haven’t seen the best from their competitors, either in terms of pace or economy. Here are two teams, and two cars, that show once again just what clever people and factory resources can achieve when presented with a challenging new rule book – Game On!

Graham Goodwin
Graham is the editor of www.dailysportscar.com
Graham has also participated in the Radiolemans Audio previews with John Hindhaugh.