Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Le Mans preview (for dailysportscar.com)

By the time you read this, it will be June, and the focus, I suppose, of most readers of this will be on Le Mans, where yet another fascinating 24 hours is in prospect. There is no doubt that the battle for overall honours will once again be between the mighty (quiet) diesels from defending champion Peugeot and ‘only-beaten-twice-this-century’ Audi.

Regulation changes for this year’s race have centred on revised aero rules, and along with further reductions in the restrictor sizes for the diesels, we will see an increase in lap times compared with last year. By how much, remains to be seen, but bear in mind that changes to the regulations last year caused lap times to increase by three to four seconds a lap for the LMP1 cars, and I suspect we’ll see a similar increase this year. Don’t forget though, that in 2008 lap times improved by nearly eight seconds compared to 2007, so I suspect that we’ll not be far off the times seen three years ago, when Stéphane Sarrazin put the brand new Peugeot 908 on pole with a 3 min 26.344 secs.

I suspect that lap times for the LMP1 cars this year will be roughly the same as the times we saw in 2007, when Peugeot first arrived at Le Mans with the 908 HDi, and in which Stéphane Sarrazin set the first of his three consecutive pole positions in 3 mins 26.344 secs.

Theoretically, due to the way that the regulations have been altered this year, the petrol-powered cars should be closer to the diesels this year than they were last. However, my impression is that the challenge from the Aston Martin Racing cars is not as committed this year. As a result, I anticipate an excellent fight for ‘best of the rest’, between the Lolas of AMR and Rebellion, and the diesel-powered Kolles Audi R10s, possibly joined by the ORECA-AIM – and maybe even the Beechdean-Mansell Ginetta? Maybe not. But I would be surprised to see any of them as high up the order on Sunday afternoon as the Aston Martin was last year.

Another difference this year is that whereas last year’s timetable had Wednesday given over completely to free practice, this year there will be two hours of Qualifying on Wednesday night (from 10pm until midnight), following four hours of free practice between 4pm and 8pm, as well as the traditional four hours of qualifying on Thursday, between 7pm and midnight, with a break from 9pm until 10pm. This should provide a better opportunity for those who are minded to, to ‘go for it’, and could well give us an excellent fight for pole in all the classes.

In the LMP2 class, the Highcroft-entered Honda Performance Development car, with two former outright winners at the wheel, must start the race as favourite. However, I expect Danny Watts to put the similar Strakka-run car on the class pole. But speed is not always a recipe for success in this class, and Highcroft have less experience at Le Mans than any of their class competition. So RML, Quifel-ASM and the Kruse Schiller Motorsport entries must all be taken seriously as contenders for the class win by virtue simply of familiarity with the event, if nothing else.

Following the paucity in last years GT1 class, I am (guardedly) looking forward to seeing a race in the class this year. Although I would not be surprised to see the GT2 class winner finish ahead of the GT1 winner in the overall positions. The jury is still out as far as the future of GT1 is concerned; I think the ACO will need to re-evaluate what part the class has to play in the 2011 24 hour race after the dust has settled following this year’s race.

As ever, GT2 looks extremely competitive: perhaps even more so this year. The arrival of works teams from Corvette and BMW in the class, joining the vastly experienced ranks of Ferrari and Porsche entrants augurs for a very good race indeed.

So who will win? In terms of the individual classes, I will leave it to you to debate among yourselves. Along with the discussion of whether the Kolles Audis should be in class ‘LMP1-bis’, the name I coined a couple or three years ago for the ‘best non-works Audi / Peugeot’. Hopefully the ORECA Peugeot will be able to keep up with the works cars.

For the outright win, it really has to be one of the six works diesels though, doesn’t it? Audi or Peugeot? That is the question. The trouble is, that in answering the question, one only has the Spa 1,000 kms race where both teams raced against each other. And if you believe everything that was being published, even then the Peugeots were running in a Spa-specific set-up, whereas the Audis were in full Le Mans trim.

Certainly, when it was dry, and all other things were equal, the Peugeots were consistently quicker over the course of a lap. However, Allan McNish (who else?) in the no. 7 Audi set the fourth fastest lap of the race – behind two laps from Montagny in the no.2 Peugeot and one from Bourdais in the no. 3. If Peugeot were consistently so much quicker, I would have expected them to be more dominant than that.

Other points to note from looking at the lap times:
· Montagny was generally quicker than Sarrazin (note that Minassian did not drive no. 2)
· Davidson was generally quicker than Gene or Wurz
· Dumas was generally the quickest driver in no. 9
· Tréluyer and Lotterer were well-matched in no. 8
· The fastest laps of both Dumas and Tréluyer were quicker than Kristensen’s

But these are very general observations, and there may be good explanations for all of them.

Since I have the sector times from Spa, though, let me share some of them with you. Before I do, I should explain where the sectors begin and end.
· Sector 1: start line – La Source – Eau Rouge – Kemmel Straight
· Sector 2: Les Combes (pif-paf) – Rivage – Pouhon – Fagnes
· Sector 3: Stavelot – Blanchimont – Bus Stop – start line.

In sector 1, McNish again set the fourth fastest time, but this time it was behind two times from Davidson in no.1 and one from Lamy in no.3.

In sector 2, the best time from Dumas in no.9 was half-a-second quicker than the best that the no. 7 Audi could manage (in the hands of Capello). However, even the best that Dumas could manage was more than a second off the fastest Peugeot time through this sector.

And in sector 3, Dumas (in no.9), Lotterer (in no.8) and Capello (in no.7) were all quicker than any of the Peugeots. Interestingly though, McNish’s best time was nearly half a second slower than the car’s best – in the hands of Capello.

As I have mentioned in a previous column, at Spa, the ‘dress rehearsal’ developed into a ‘proper race’, and special circumstances (safety cars, power cuts, rain) mean that making predictions for 24 hours at Le Mans using the data of Spa is speculative and highly unreliable. And in any case, Spa is not Le Mans.

Whichever way you look at it though, it seems certain that, with the R15-plus, Audi has clawed back some of the advantage enjoyed by Peugeot at Le Mans last year. The race will be finely balanced indeed. In the end it will probably come down to the team that has the fewest incidents, whether they are of their own making or not.

My view? It’s too close to call. Lucky we don’t get ‘hung races’, like we get ‘hung parliaments’.

Paul Truswell

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