Sunday, June 11, 2006

Le Mans Preview Part 1: Those fabulous LMP1 cars

Slow motorsport news weekend, so perhaps now is a good time for me to spew forth my thoughts on the upcoming 24 Heures du Mans. It's easiest to break it up into the different classes, so here goes...

In the Le Mans Prototype 1 (LM-P1) class, I think it's safe to say there are three groups of cars: the solid choices for winners, the cars that should do well, and those that have basically no chance whatsoever.

One of two teams should win it: either Audi with their new diesel-powered entries or Pescarolo with their constantly evolving cars that started life as Courage C60s. The Audis looked very fast at Sebring and grabbed the win. The eventual winner even started the race from pitlane. However, one of the two cars retired with engine problems, so they're not as bulletproof as Audi would have hoped. It has to be said that they didn't have such stiff competition there as they will have next weekend. It's the element of unpredictable reliability that Pescarolo are banking on. They've been refining their cars over the years, and go into the race with the fastest time at the test day under their belts. In addition, they have an extremely strong driver line-up and a great strategy. The 16 car will be driven by last year's pole winner, Emmanuel Collard, along with Erik Comas and the lightning-quick Nicolas Minassian. Minassian was supposed to be with British underdogs Creation Autosportif, but Pescarolo managed to pull off a last-minute poaching job and bring him back to the French team. This car will be the rabbit of the team, going out to set the pace (as well as take pole position) and force the Audis to go quick . Should the 16 have any problems (more likely with a higher pace) then the sister #17 car will be there to carry the hopes of the team. With WRC champ Seb Loeb, as well as current F1 driver Franck Montagny and former winner Eric Helary, it'll still be quick, but will be under instructions to run for reliability, not sheer pace.

Last year was said to be Pescarolo's best shot for the win, but with a question mark over the reliability of the Audis, it's definitely possible that the French team could take it this year. I for one hope so. It's a bit boring to see Audi always win.

The second group of cars, those that should run well but are unlikely to win, are all professionally-run outfits with quick cars. Best of this bunch should be the Creation team, who will now have Jamie Campbell-Walter back in the car, with the departure of Minassian to Pescarolo. Although not quite as fast as Nic, the fact that the other two drivers "bought" their places means that their overall potential has not significantly changed, and I'm sure that Henri Pescarolo paid Mike Jankowski, Creation's owner, a pretty penny to steal Nic away. Their car, an evolution of the old Reynard 02S, and a development of last year's car, now has a 5.0 litre Judd engine. The increased capacity means lower revs, less vibration and hopefully better reliability. Given that they've been to Le Mans before, they should do better than last year's 7th place. I'm going to say top 5.

Another car evolved from the old Reynard 02S is the Zytek 06S, entered by the factory and basically paid for by the Danish Essex Invest group. As such, all three drivers are Danish. Two of them, John Nielsen and Caspar Elgaard, are very quick indeed. The major points against this team are their choice of a 4.0 litre Judd, and the fact that the car has only run one race - it's VERY new. However, it is a spin-off of the older Zytek 04S, so there's some good experience there. If the car holds together, it should run consistent top-7 laps.

Jan Lammers' Racing for Holland team returns to Le Mans with his Dome prototype. Originally slated to have a Mugen engine, Jan decided at the last minute to switch to the 5.0 litre Judd. It meant he missed the last race at Spa, but he felt the risk was worth taking. It's not the newest version of the engine that Pescarolo and Creation have, but should still be on the pace. The biggest thing Racing for Holland have in their favour is the driver line-up: Jan himself, the hugely-experienced Stefan Johannsen (who my mother one met at a retreat here in California) and former F1 driver Alex Yoong from Malaysia. Traditionally the Domes have a poor record of reliability at Le Mans, so I reckon they'll end up with their usual result of something between 5th and 8th.

The French manufacturer Courage have a new car, built to full LMP1 spec (the Pescarolos, Creation, Dome and Zytek are all "hybrids" with tubs that don't conform to the new rule-set, but are eligible for this year only). The two Courages were very quick at Spa but still have some reliability issues to sort out. They also have Mugen engines which typically are less reliable than Judds, and are really the weak point of the cars. Of the two entries, the #13 should be fastest, with Jean-Marc Gounon, Shinji Nakano and Haruki Kurosawa on board.

Moving onto the three teams that really don't have a hope....

Lister are back again, with another new prototype, once again powered by a 6.0 litre Chevy. The car crashed at Spa, removing two corners, but it was rebuilt in time for the test day last weekend. Unfortunately Lister's prototypes are simply rubbish. 'Nuff said....

A new team, Swiss Spirit, arrive with another of the new Courages. Funnily enough, they've gone for the Judd engine, which in my opinion gives them an edge over the factory cars. However, their inexperience at Le Mans will probably mean they'll end up behind the other two Courages. Third place at Spa, and some quick drivers indicate some good pace, at least for 6 hours. I still chuckle at the concept of a Swiss racing team, given that motor racing is illegal in Switzerland!

Finally, the fantastic Hugh Chamberlain is back at Le Mans. Hugh really represents the spirit of Le Mans better than anyone else, and has such a great sense of humour. This year he has one of Lola's new LMP1 cars, the B06/10. His drivers are all steady and experienced, but as the Dyson team has shown here in the US, the turbocharged AER engine is a veritable grenade that will almost certainly go "bang" before 24 hours are up.

Tomorrow: LM-P2...

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