With a little over a week until the Le Mans Test Day on Easter Sunday, the time is right to anticipate what we might glean from it. The bad news is that I won’t be there, as we booked a family holiday more than a year ago, so we shall be away in Italy while the eyes of the sports car world will be on Le Mans. However, I am hoping that data will be available, and that even if I can’t be there, I will at least be able to draw something out of the events of the weekend.
In any case, what we learn may well be limited, since the lap times recorded will not necessarily be an indication of potential race laps in June. Allan McNish said to me, following his four-day test of the Audi R18 at Sebring last month: “My guess is that we may not know until qualifying at Spa in May,” in answer to the question of where Audi would be in terms of pace and the opposition, “as we’ll all be on various programmes on the Le Mans test day. Even then, it could be raceday at Spa before a clear picture plays out.”
On the subject of the Sebring test, McNish revealed that the two R18 chassis had been on different programmes - one of which was an endurance test, but he didn’t say (wouldn’t say) what the other programme was. My guess would be that it was to do with fuel consumption on different engine maps, but that is pure speculation. Almost certainly there will be a car at Le Mans from both Audi and Peugeot looking specifically at fuel consumption and, more importantly, the number of laps that can be completed on a tank of diesel.
The fact that Peugeot has announced that they will be running only the three 908s at the test day - and not the hybrid car - is hardly a surprise. They have had a number of setbacks during their testing thus far and their focus must be on avenging the defeat last year in the 24 hours. Ultimately, it will be down to achieving top marks in two categories: pace and consistency. Perfection in the pits and reliability on the track will be essential.
I got the feeling from McNish - both when I spoke to him in person at Paul Ricard and in email discussion after Sebring - that Audi is optimistic. But for both Peugeot and Audi, the less powerful cars demanded by this year’s regulations means that for the first time since Peugeot and Audi have competed together at Le Mans, both manufacturers are at the same point in the development cycle.
McNish recognises the problem: “In reality we are still very much in the early learning stages and trying to understand what makes this car (the Audi R18) tick. It is a very different concept from the mechanical and engineering point of view, so we’re learning all of the time.”