The 71st Le Mans 24 Hours – LMP900 (&GTP) Preview
Anything Could Happen

The scene: midday, Le Mans, Sunday, 2000. “It’s like watching traffic go by on the autoroute,” said Janos Wimpffen. Audi were most of the way to blitzing the opposition, and the Pescarolo Courage had sealed fourth place. Those who’d been awake all night in the press room were as tired as almost anyone at the track, and cynicism was creeping in, understandably. The R8 [R] was creating its reputation as the greatest prototype, of the modern era at least, and no one else could get near them. Racing, or a demolition job?

Jump ahead to 2002: there’s a fantastic race going on for fifth place. Oreca Dallaras, the Goh Audi, Racing for Holland Dome, one of the Cadillacs and one of the Pescarolo Courages. It’s unfortunately overshadowed by the Audi one-two-three-Bentley group ahead.

Jump ahead another twelve months: uncertainty is back.

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Some would disagree of course. Some observers believe that the win is destined for Crewe (or at least Crewe am Rhein), and that a Bentley will take the honours at the third time of asking. It’s VW’s will that a Speed 8 wins, therefore it will.

Others go for one of the rock solid Audis. A small minority go for something else again – and this year, at last, there is the chance that something powered by other than a twin turbo V8 could win this thing. A romantic dream? Maybe, we’ll see.

Let’s put them in three groups – Should Win, Could Win and Competitors, the last comprising those present just for the hell of giving it their best shot, aiming first of all to cross the line at 16.00 on Sunday June 15.

Should Win
Bentley
and Audi. Who are you going for? Tom Kristensen made it absolutely clear to us on May 4. The Speed 8s have to be faster over a lap – every lap – than the Audis, because they’re likely to stop more often, use up their tyres more quickly and take longer to change drivers.

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How much faster over a lap? A second was the David Brabham estimate, which over 360 laps would give them a buffer of six minutes. That assumes of course that a Bentley or an Audi can go through the race absolutely trouble free. Can you imagine a situation where an Audi does so, but a Bentley has a slight delay? Kristensen or Herbert on a charge to the front – wouldn’t that be fun? The gap see-sawing as an Audi drones on, the Bentley edging closer, falling back after each stop, edging closer again. But hang on, what about the white lines issue? Won’t absolute pace introduce dangers of penalties?

Strategy. Great minds have presumably been pondering this issue. Will Team Bentley set their own agenda (lap times), or will they balance their pace according to that of the Audis? What is race pace going to be? The Test Day didn’t really resolve that question.

Have the Bentleys had their Test Day problems entirely eradicated? What’s been going on behind the scenes to make the latest Speed 8 into a supremely reliable Le Mans car? Can you imagine the resources being thrown at the Bentleys to turn them from Sebring hard chargers into Le Mans winners? How many components will have been improved in the last few weeks? A couple of separate suspension problems cropped up on May 4, but it’s hard to imagine that area being a problem again. Conservatively, the four litre, 2003 spec. V8 is producing 50 (perhaps 60) bhp more than the 2002 spec. 3.6 V8 in the R8s. Can Bentley win this time? Everything that has gone before seems to have been preparation for 2003. Will the programme stop on June 15, at 16.00? In glorious victory?

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Will the three customer Audis have a fair crack at the win? Some would argue that Bentley never did (when the Audis were supposed to win).

dailysportscar.comWhich of the three R8s is run by the most capable team? Why hasn’t Champion won a race yet? It would just sum up racing fortunes if they won this one, as their first. Kazumichi Goh and his squad got through their nightmare last year (Dalmas’ Qualifying crash) and finished well. Mike Earle’s Arena Motorsport ran the Gulf Audi in 2001, so there’s a similar level of R8-at-Le-Mans experience with the Audi Sport UK car (as with the Goh Audi), but Champion - here in 2001 too – are the ones with most R8 racing experience, by far. Add Johansson, Lehto, Pirro, plus the fact that they should have triumphed at Sebring……but hang on, Frank Biela is in the Audi Sport UK entry, and like Pirro, he hasn't lost here for three years. But Johansson and Lehto are former winners, Salo and McCarthy aren't.

dailysportscar.comBack and forth we go....

So Champion are top R8 dog, a Bentley is supposed to win, any one of the five could win, and there’s the potential for a five car dust up at the front. Is there a plan in place to prevent the V8 turbo cars thrashing themselves into oblivion (is that possible?)…leaving someone else to pick up the pieces? Or is confidence so high that five teams will go at it hammer and tongs, sure in the knowledge that at least four of them will finish? It’s unpredictable, isn’t it?

Could Win
R&S, Panoz, Courage Competition, Racing for Holland, Pescarolo Sport
If one of these eight entries wins, it will be a turn up for the books. Stranger things have happened though. Three Mercedes in ’91, Schumacher thrashed one to near extinction, and not even Mass and Schlesser could make the class of the field for 21 hours last for 24, even though it had a performance advantage over all other marques. Herbert and Mazda screamed their way home with an outsider, in a race that saw the formerly front-running Jaguars just too old (and too heavy)….a pointer to 2003’s race?

Could one of these eight outsiders run trouble free for 24 hours? No, don’t believe it? Did you give Mazda a dog’s chance 12 years ago? What about 15 years ago? Jaguar won because #2 (the only one of the five) had a perfect run, even finishing with a gearbox ready to fall apart as soon as the rear plate was removed. That run was the stuff of legends, a greater feat than the 1990 win. Who fancies one of the eight above to mimic the Lammers / Wallace / Dumfries run to glory? If it happened, it wouldn’t be from the front of course, but then the plan wasn’t for Lammers to take off like a hare 15 years ago. The car was so quick, he couldn’t hold it back.

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And Lammers is in a tip top Dome, a developed Dome, a third time (like Jaguar in ‘88) at Le Mans Dome, with old mate Wallace, and John Bosch as the steady, but quick enough, third driver. There’s revised aerodynamics, a new paddle shift system (kinder to the gearbox?), a trusty Judd – and a car now so good that A. Wallace set a 3:45 on his first flying lap on May 4, even though he finished the lap with a puncture. Little Racing for Holland taking on mighty Bentley? Lammers did ‘sort out’ the 2002 Bentley in Qualifying…. but may choose to just concentrate on the race this year. Or he may not.

The second RfH Dome isn’t a potential winner, but it could be a strong finisher, as long as incidents are kept to a minimum.

Bill Riley: a man with a point to prove. A man who arrived at Sebring a week behind the game: a man who knew how close his car was to the ultimate pace, but who knew he wouldn’t find that pace in the few days available to him. This time he’ll be ready. And he builds a tough car.

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He’s got faith in that Yates V8. His car can survive the tough old grind that is Sebring. A car that may not be tailor made for Le Mans, but one that can be hauled out of a gravel trap – and can carry on regardless. Goossens and Tinseau – two talented Europeans to partner Jim Matthews. Watch this one.

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JML Team Panoz. They did it for John McLoughlin at Sebring, and Panoz the team deserves a very good run at Le Mans. Beretta might cause a surprise in Qualifying, and the Stump-Puller Type ll – like the R&S, not a natural car for Le Mans these days, may cause a turn up (on its last visit?). The seventh (OK sixth) year for the GTR-1 and its derivatives.

dailysportscar.comCourage Competition. Yves Courage lives for this race. He’s had more than his fair share of shortened races, often through pure ill fortune. Cochet, Gregoire and Derichebourg could be one of those unfancied trios that come through all the same. His C60 is still a visual and aural delight. He deserves a great finish. He deserves to have a manufacturer boosting his 2004 efforts. Come on French industrialists, get behind this man.

Pescarolo Sport. The driving line ups are very strong (Boullion / Lagorce / Sarrazin, Ayari / Helary / Minassian) – and very French. Henri’s two cars could both have steady races and be close enough at the end to emulate that fourth place in 2000 – or better. It all depends on what the others get up to. Pescarolo will set his own pace, not the quickest, but hopefully the steadiest. Perhaps still short of a top notch engine, but working wonders with what he has. If the retirement rate is high……

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Competitors
Lister, Kondo Racing, Team Nasamax, Durango, Norma

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He may not believe it, but the pressure could be off Laurence Pearce. He’s not expected to be at the front of the field in year one, development time has been short, the GT programme has been intensive recently, and he’s only scratching at the surface of what his car could achieve. Sebring was a disaster, but one that developed owing to an error hardly of the team’s making. Now if they could just have a good, reliable Wednesday, the same again on Thursday, the same again on Saturday and Sunday. The Lister-developed V8 should be one for the future – and its reputation could start building this month. JC-W is undoubtedly a prototype star in the making, but he doesn’t need to set the world alight this week. Just run and run. Nathan Kinch should be steady, Vincent Vosse takes over from Jean-Denis Deletraz. It could finish well.

dailysportscar.comKondo Dome. Ukyo Katayama in anything can be spectacular, and this car could literally be a dark horse. A 3:44 suddenly popped up on the screens at the Test Day. Wasn’t the 2002 version of the Mugen short on revs. And power? Have the Japanese quietly developed the perfect 24 hour engine here? The Kondo Dome at the Test Day didn’t have the 2003 bodywork fitted, but perhaps it will this month. And without the chequer board pattern, we might be able to focus on what the curves do…..camouflage, Dutch style, gives a very different look to black and red, Kondo style.

dailysportscar.comTeam Nasamax. The track will smell nicer with the green Reynard in the field. John McNeil’s adventurous team has put two dramas behind it already – an early retirement at Sebring, after running reliably for a week, and Bryan Herta’s big Mulsanne Corner moment at the Test Day – so they’re set up to run and smell sweetly for 32 Hours (two x four plus 24). Werner Lupberger is a great team man, as are Robbie Stirling and Romain Dumas. Pit stops are going to feature very regularly, to the extent that a good long run will see the mechanics up and down like yo yos, but if they can keep it running for 24 hours, a good finish is beckoning. The engine – any engine – might drink the bio-ethanol like a glutton, but it should enjoy the experience, and go roaring round hour after hour demanding more. There’s a rear end change all ready if necessary. Interestingly different.

dailysportscar.comDurango (below) and Norma. Norma’s sister Debora is too old for the party now, so younger, hardly more attractive, sister Norma (right) joins the fun for the first time. Will she behave and be invited back again? Will she be sick over the carpet (tarmac?). She’s a welcome addition, but she’s under pressure to perform strongly. Durango comes to party in France for the first time too, this one an infant of a few weeks, taking over from her similarly named, three year old twin. She won’t be racing with the big boys at the front, but she will be trying hard to be there at the end.

dailysportscar.comSo who are you going for? Let’s finish with another potential scenario. The two Bentleys perform faultlessly throughout Qualifying and the 24 Hours, and the Audis all hit problems, mainly minor, of one sort or another. And why will the Bentleys perform faultlessly? Because Reinhold Joest says so, of course. He’s unbeaten in years beginning with a 2, and so is Tom Kristensen…..but so are Frank Biela in #10 and Emanuele Pirro in #6!


You
choose the winner. What a shame Taurus aren't present though.
MC

 

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