Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Le Mans Preview Part 3: The Quick GT cars

Derived from real road cars, the GT classes at Le Mans tend to be a bit easier for the average Joe to understand, and this year both GT divisions feature some very strong entries. Today I'm going to take a look at the GT1 class, where the really elegant, really fast cars are to be found.

Leading the way are two factory teams, Corvette and Aston Martin. Corvette has had the upper hand in the American Le Mans Series lately, partly due to Aston's insistence on using Pirelli tyres which are, quite frankly, no good. For Le Mans, Aston switches back to Michelin. Corvette won at Le Mans last year with their C6R, so Aston will be desperate to win this time out. Corvette have arguably the better driver line up with Johnny O'Connell, Jan Magnussen, Max Papis, Ollie Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Ron Fellows. The stars in Aston's crew include Stephane Ortelli, Stephane Sarrazin, Tomas Enge and Darren Turner. Being British I can't help but root for the boys in green but I fear I may be disappointed again - Aston have the speed to win, but will probably fall down on reliability.

Behind the factory teams are some strong privateer efforts running Ferraris, Astons, a Corvette and a Saleen.

Russian Age Racing return with their Care Racing / Prodrive Ferrari 550, alongside a customer Aston Martin. British sportscar specialists Cirtek are running the team, although the mess of entities involved is confusing. The entries are in the name of Russian Age, since that's who was paying at the time entries opened. Since then, some of the Russian money has departed to the MenX team, allowing some room for British entrant Team Modena to take over the Russian Age Aston. Both cars are, and have always been, prepped and run by Cirtek. The bottom line is that Cirtek knows how to run an endurance race, the Ferrari has many years under its belt at Le Mans (this chassis, #3 of 10, has competed at Le Mans four times), and some of the drivers involved are very good indeed. The Aston looks strongest in this regard, with David Brabham, Nelson Piquet Jr. (son of the F1 legend) and top touring car driver Antonio Garcia.

The first Prodrive Ferrari 550, #1, was still being run, albeit not as competitively, until late last year by the Convers MenX team. For 2006 they've gotten hold of chassis #9, one of the newest 550s. This team is a combo of Convers Bank money that was with Russian Age last year, from Alexei Vasiliev, and Robert Pergl's Czech-sourced financing. It won't be a quick team, but it should make it to the end.

The third Ferrari in the field comes from French team Larbre. Already winners of the FIA GT championship in 2004 with this very car (chassis #8) and the Le Mans Series with an older 550, it was widely expected that they would enter their new Aston this year. Perhaps concerns over reliability convinced them to stick with the old Italian girl. They don't arrive with the strongest line-up, but should once again be there at the finish.

Larbre's main rival as top European GT1 privateer has always been BMS Scuderia Italia, who have also won the Le Mans series and the FIA GT championship. Unlike Larbre, BMS have opted to bring an Aston. They haven't performed particularly well in the first couple of FIA GT races of the season, and will find their Pirelli tyres a handicap. Luckily they have three extremely quick drivers: Christian Pescatori, Fabio Babini and Fabrizio Gollin. Expect retirement during the night...

The third Corvette in the field is an older C5R, from Luc Alphand Aventures. Luc is a former downhill skiing champ, and won the Dakar Rally this year - talk about an over-achiever! The C5 is actually better suited to Le Mans than the newer C6 due to its longer wheelbase and more aerodynamic body, but Luc will not be able to match the pace of the factory cars. He'll probably end up fighting for scraps with Larbre, BMS, Cirtek and......

Saleen! Finally we get to see a Saleen S7R back at Le Mans after two years without them. The ACEMCO team from the US might be the outside bet for a win in GT1. Saleens have already won their class in the Le Mans series this year, as well as an overall win in FIA GT, with the Oreca and Zakspeed teams respectively. If ACEMCO have access to the development parts that those two teams have, this will be one damn quick motor. As if a quick car isn't enough, they have one of the strongest driver rosters in the class including sportscar hotshots Terry Borcheller and Johnny Mowlem and a Fittipaldi, in this case Christian.

The lame duck entry in the class is the Japanese Lamborghini Owners Club entry, who bring one of the Murcielagos that they run in the Japanese Super GT championship. It's had its choking restrictors removed, and aero changed to conform to ACO regs, but has yet to run for 24 hours. Although Lambos are seen more frequently in GT racing these days, they still aren't even close in reliability in order to finish Le Mans. However, it does look the dogs bo***cks!!!

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