Monday, June 12, 2006

Le Mans Preview Part 2: LMP2

Whilst it's true that the glamour cars of Le Mans are the big LMP1s, the LMP2 class always throws out some great racing and is often home to the "never say die" attitude. Last year's LMP2 winner, the RML MG-Lola, spent a LOT of time in the pits, but in typical LMP2 "last man standing" fashion still won the class.
Since attrition plays such a huge role in this class, picking a winner is tough. Having said that, a few teams appear to have a better chance.

Defending champions RML return with the same car as last year, a Lola with an AER turbo engine. This year they have a not-so-secret weapon in the form of veteran sportscar ace (and former winner) Andy Wallace. Of course, anyone who saw Wallace in action with Creation in the Discovery documentary series may question whether he's a help or a hinderance!

American team Intersport Racing did a terrific job to come second overall at Sebring and come into Le Mans as favourites to win their class. Father and son team of Jon and Clint field will be ably supported by the sole woman in the field, Liz Halliday. On their side is some good experience and a lot of 2006 race mileage.

The dark horse is the very quick new Radical SR9, run by Martin Short's Rollcentre team. Shorty did very well in his last two visits to Le Mans with aging Dallara LMP1s, but this time he's in with a shout for a class win. The Radical is undoubtedly the fastest LMP2 car out there, and with Joao Barbosa behind the wheel will almost certainly be fastest in qualifying. The question is whether the car will hold together for 24 hours. A recent article I read in Racecar Engineering indicates that Radical have been very conservative in their design, so it wouldn't surprise me if it does. I don't mind saying that I shall be cheering for Shorty and his team.

The remaining entrants in the class pretty much all have a similar chance, although Juan Barazi's Courage team might be "best of the rest". They did very well at the Istanbul 1000kms, and the Courage-AER package is now well-proven. The other teams running the Courage include the US-based Miracle team, Belgian team G-Force and Frenchman Paul Belmondo, who has two cars entered. Miracle will be handicapped by their Kumho tyres, no doubt a choice heavily influenced by money. G-Force have had to completely rebuild their car after a crash at Spa. Even the tub was replaced, with fellow competitors Kruse Motorsport providing the all-important piece. Paul Belmondo once again shows up with a strong team, but is not favoured in our household, after his false allegations and filthy mouth in 2004. Karma is a cruel mistress however, and Belmondo will not drive this year after breaking his arm a few weeks ago.

So that leaves four other teams...

Hugh Chamberlain will be supporting an LMP2 team run for ASM Racing, a Portugese outfit owned by a rich Portugese businessman. This is the same car that crashed last year, and unfortunately was crashed at the test day too, removing three corners. The tub was undamaged, so Hugh should have it rebuilt for his wealthy customers in time for the race.

Scottish-born American Bill Binnie brings another Lola to Le Mans, this time with a Zytek engine which is undoubtedly where the big question mark lies. Zytek are known mainly for their engines for single-seaters, such as the A1GP cars. They are designed for dramatically shorter lifespans, so I personally doubt that Bill and his crew will see the finish.

Finally, a pair of typically odd French teams round out the LMP2 grid: Pierre Bruneau and Gerard Welter. Both are fielding the only examples of their chosen chassis, a Pilbeam and a WR respectively, and both are likely to plod around near the back of the leaderboard. The funny thing is that I expect both to be there at the finish too...

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