Spectacular finale in Zhuhai for the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup

There is no doubt that the concluding round of the trio of races that make up the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup 2010 was a historic event, and for many more reasons than just being the inaugural ‘Le Mans’ race on Chinese tarmac. Since the opening-up of China in the last two decades, the global significance of the car market in the People’s Republic has grown from scratch to be the biggest in the world. This has not gone un-noticed by manufacturers. For ‘western’ manufacturers having motorsport success is a route to market share, but racing in China is in it’s infancy, and that link still needs to be forged. It is no surprise that Audi have been pushing for some time to have an ACO sanctioned race there, but Peugeot also are in need of brand recognition. People always remember ‘firsts’, and the kudos of becoming the first winner of the first major endurance race in China is a valuable prize. It is with that in mind that the main protagonists of the ILMC arrived at the Zhuhai circuit last week.

Testing on Wednesday was dry, but all official practice sessions on Thursday and Friday were (like at Road Atlanta) under a deluge of rain. This is a sub-tropical climate after all. Peugeot were pretty much guaranteed the ILMC manufacturer and team titles, but if disaster struck both Peugeots and Audi finished first and second then it could still slip through their fingers. However the French team were not content with playing it safe. In the qualifying dash on Saturday, they were fortunate to make the right tyre choice and the times set early in the session proved impossible for Audi’s drivers to match. Thus as noon approached on Sunday, the two blue Peugeot 908 Hdi sat at the head of the grid as a traditional Chinese dragon dance came weaving down between the cars in the relative warmth of hazy sunshine. When the safety car peeled off, Franck Montagny had a blistering start and made off at a furious rate, leaving the rest of the pack in his wake; Bourdais in Peugeot #1 followed closely by Kristensen and Capello. The two Audis pitted first. Unlike the rest of the week, the track was bone dry, but after the rain, the surface was ‘green’ and abrasive to tyres. From the third stop, Audi began to single-stint tyres on the R15s while Peugeot continued to double stint the same set. That handed the advantage to Audi and after 3 hours and 40 minutes, Allan McNish managed to pass Montagny, while he was in the pits, then Pagenaud who was in trouble with tyres and brakes.

This reversal of fortune caused the Peugeot drivers to push harder. The #2 made a trip to a gravel trap shortly before 16:00hrs and Sebastien Bourdais made contact with a back marker, sending him to the pits for bodywork repair on the #1 908, and later a stop-and-go penalty that put an end to any chance of race victory. The brief intervention of the safety car after Bourdais’ misdemeanour allowed the Peugeot #2, to catch the leading Audi, and as pit strategy unwound, regained the lead. Fifteen minutes from the chequered flag, Sarrazin made his final stop for a splash. He emerged from the pit exit under the nose of Kristensen who had been held up by the second (now out of contention) Peugeot. Despite all his undisputed talent, ‘Mr Le Mans’ could not pass Sarrazin in the #2 908 which crossed the line to win the race and the series.

In GT, BMW had a perfect race. Jorg Muller and Dirk Werner’s BMW M3 took them to victory in exemplary style, but it was not enough to stop Ferrari winning the first constructors ILMC trophy. What was the most remarkable though was the relentless pace of the factory entered Porsche GT3 Hybrid of Messrs Bergmeister and Long. It was the first GT to take the chequered flag, but running essentially in its own class and ‘outside classification’ could not claim victory. It finished a creditable sixth place overall and made only four pit stops. Another reward for Porsche was the ILMC team title for GT2 thanks to the Felbmayr-Proton team. The consistency of Oak Racing and Larbre Competition gave ILMC titles to these in LM GT1 and LM P2. Oak also won the Michelin Green X Challenge for the best compromise between performance and fuel consumption.

Dave Davies