The 71st Le Mans 24 Hours
Hours 1 - 3

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We're starting here with an hour to go, the track is drying, the sky has brightened noticeably, and the pre-race formalities are nearly complete.

So before we get going, one or two post-qualifying / warm-up notes:
The Kondo Dome had a water leak after the warm-up, and the mechanics removed the Mugen V8, fixed the leak and replaced the engine, all in the space of two hours.
The Audis were apparently unable to make the Michelin 'one lap qualifiers' last a whole lap. They were faster in qualifying on harder qualifiers, and faster again on soft race tyres. This helps to explain the Audis' improved pace on Thursday - and also sets them up nicely for the race. The RfH Domes were able to make the 'one lap' tyres last a whole lap.
Prodrive report an unscheduled engine change this morning for the #88 550. The scheduled engine change pre race took place on Friday (both cars) but the team weren’t happy with the result with #88's. A change back to the V12 used in qualifying was completed by 12:30 – An area of potential weakness? – The team say absolutely not.
One potential niggle for the Audi runners in past years has been that in a wet race the flat floor of the R8 meant that the ride height had to be raised by a small amount (seven tenths of a millimetre) in order for water to be displaced effectively. For this year’s race however Michelin have brought a new rain tyre with the sidewalls increased in height by – guess what – seven tenths of a millimetre, a beautifully simple solution.
Graham Nash Motorsport report that the gearbox on the #64 Saleen was leaking oil after the warm-up session. The team have traced and fixed the problem and the car is “good to go”.
Jamie Campbell-Walter was in and around the paddock looking well, if a little disappointed, after his meeting ending 'off' in qualifying on Thursday.
Bentley mind games are circulating the paddock with ‘sources’ suggesting that the Speed 8s will be “absolutely fine for three stints, maybe four.” Informed opinion has always been that it will be a stretch for the car to manage even three, with any advantage that this brings being negated if the car has to pit for a driver change (can the drivers manage three?) – Strategy, Psychology and Propaganda – oh the fun and games of a factory motorsport programme!

They're all under way on their formation lap, except for the T2M Porsche, which will start from the pit lane - and the #25 WR, which looks to be in trouble. Significant starting drivers are Capello & Herbert, Lammers & Biela, Lehto & Magnussen, Gommendy & Goossens, Beretta & Cochet. Recipe for fireworks? The track is dry, the sun is out, and it's very hot.

Hour 1

The Bentley 1-2 surprised no one, but the gap between the pair and the Audis is noteworthy. Typically the Speed 8s are lapping three seconds a lap quicker than the R8s, but the green machines pitted noticeably sooner than the customer open cars (Herbert at 10 laps, Capello at 12). Lammers’ early charge ahead of the Audis was heartwarming, but his sudden - perhaps planned - retreat was disconcerting. The Audis are truly being Audis - all three of them, but little drama from any of them.

Many expected the 675 class to meltdown early, but it has actually been the GTS group with early problems. Most dramatic was the hard to diagnose troubles of Oliver Gavin’s Corvette. An early stop by Ron Fellows allowed the Veloqx Ferraris to surge ahead, but then a disjointed stop by Darren Turner threw more confusion into the class.The #53 car pitted roughly on schedule but the Goodyears were already looking rather the worse for wear with at least one having blistered badly. Despite this the #53 car retains second place in GTS at the hour mark, 21st overall. The #88 Prodrive Ferraris is making good its escape, Peter Kox at the wheel but the #80 car has been delayed so third place in GTS at 60 minutes is held by the third 550, the Luc Alphand Aventures car, Jerome Policand driving very well indeed.

The Porsche factory drivers are almost all by themselves in GT, with scarcely a paper width between them. It's actually a fourcar train of Luhr, Lieb, Bernhard and Robin Liddell, all four pushing very hard indeed throughout the 60 minutes with lap times regularly down in the 4:14s from all four.

The lead TVR is going very well indeed despite a brief spin at the second Mulsanne chicane, tenth in class.

Bad news however for #91 towards the end of the first hour the #91 TVR has a big accident in the Porsche Curves – Richard Stanton complains that he was hit from the rear, assailant unknown and a short distance further on was “spat off the track into the wall.” Stanton is trying to get the stricken T400R back to the pits but the prognosis does not look good at the moment.

The 30-minute standings told part of the story:

Overall
#7 (8 laps)
#8, -2 sec.
#5, -28 sec.
#10, -32 sec
#6, -38 sec
#15, -1 min.

675
#26
#27, -30 sec
#29, far behind

GTS
#88
#80, - 8 sec
#53, -27 sec

GT
#93
#87, - 3 sec
#81, -0.3 sec
#78, -2 sec.

Shimoda made an excellent start in 675, following up on his debut in the FIA SCC at Estoril. However, the car pulled into the garage at the end of the hour. Field also is running well in the MG, leading once the DBA made a long stop.. The no. 18 Courage had the honor of being the first car to make a routine stop, while the Norma was the first to change drivers. Boullion’s Courage also made a good run at the beginning before a long stop. Most of the cars expected to be slow and / or troubled have been so; including the Pagani and Pilbeam (multiple stops – gearbox overheating and a change needed), the Nasamax Reynard (gear selection cable stretched after this morning’s warm up troubles), and the TVR team.

One Hour
Overall

#7
#8 -0.6
#5 -54s
#6 -56s
#10 -61s
#15 = 118s
#16 - 128s

675
#27 (14th)
#31 (17th) -11s.


GTS
#88 (18th overall) 14 laps
#53 (21st overall) - 68 seconds
#72 (22nd overall) - 3 seconds

GT
#93 (26th overall)
#87 (27th overall) -1 second
#81 (28th overall) -1.5 seconds
#78 (29th overall) -2 seconds

Hour 2

The two Bentleys eased through the first part of the second hour, a minute and more ahead of the Audis, but going away less quickly. They pitted either side of 90 minutes (13 laps each), changed tyres for the first time, and Kristensen and Brabham took over.

Two laps after his scheduled stop, Davd Brabham pitted again, a quick consultation, and was sent straight out. Odd. Something was flapping dangerously in the cockpit. Brabham drops to fourth.

Meanwhile, the R&S had a huge spin at Indianapolis, after Marc Goossens suffered a left rear puncture: he shredded the bodywork on the way back to the pits - the bodywork with our stickers on!

Policand is pushing on in the #72 Ferrari, he passed Johnny O’Connell just after the hour mark and has pulled away a little. Peter Kox though has the legs on both of his pursuers, in #88.

17:25 Darren Turner is now back on terms with the leading trio in GTS just five seconds behind the #53 Corvette.

The #50 Corvette, now back in rude health, is making progress back through the field, in amongst the GT class midfield at 90 minutes

The Pagani has had a nightmare start to the race - a very early stop immediately followed by a second stop which continues at 90 minutes, just 10 laps completed by the Zonda so far. As the second hour draws to a close the Pagani’s retirement seems imminent, gearbox woes proving too much to bear for the Carsport Modena team.

Thomas Enge is still storming on in the #88 Ferrari, easily having the legs on his pursuers and posting a lap well into the 3:58s at the top of the hour.

Robin Liddell has hit trouble in the PK Sport Porsche, tumbling down the order at the 90 minute mark. The car has blown its drive belt which means lost drive to water pump, alternator and power steering pump and other components. In theory an engine-out job but the PK crew set to work with the crowbars to effect a quicker repair. It seems to work, the car rejoining within 18 minutes.

Sascha Maassen is conducting a GT Porsche driving masterclass in the lead of the class finding 4:12s where others seem to be struggling for 4:15s deep into hour two. With Leo Hindery now at the wheel of the Orbit car the lead battle has gone from a four car tussle to two, Jorg Bergmeister still on terms in the Racers Group 911 but almost 30 seconds down at 90 minutes. Third in class now is the Taisan Porsche, almost two minutes down on the GT leader.

The #91 TVR is still stranded out at the Porsche Curves with RSS mechanics despatched to provide instruction to Richard Stanton.

Better news though for #92, Mike Jordan up to sixth in class, 34th overall.

The #84 T2M Porsche, Bourdais at the wheel (Sebastian’s dad!) has a very gravelly time at the Ford Chicane. It is towed back out and should rejoin.

At 17:55 Hindery spins harmlessly at Dunlop as the already delayed #99 XL Ferrari 550 is very slow out on course. The spin from the Orbit Porsche allows the #92 TVR to close the gap for fifth place to less than five seconds.

Andy Barff (Rob's Dad) tells us that Richard Stanton is still working on the stricken #91 TVR. Richard is apparently attempting to lock the diff to get the car back on three wheels.

The Goh Audi made its second stop at 26 laps. No tyre change. Driver change to Marco Werner. Champion confirms its fuel mileage, JJ having stopped at 14 laps (plus parade laps) for the first stop for this R8, by stopping at 29 laps. Prior to that, he's almost matching Kristensen's (fuel heavy, new tyre) times, in second place - three seconds behind approaching 110 minutes.

Biela seemed to be on one lap more than that, as he runs out of fuel towards Indianapolis. That's it, all over for the #10 UK car. It limps a little way on the starter.....and is then a stopper. Biela won't make it four in a row. Can Kristensen or Pirro?

Change that: Biela gets the car going again....somehow? Had he walked more than 50 metres from the car? Then he stops again, before the Porsche Curves. That has to be it.

Two Hours
Overall
#7 32 laps
#8 -40
#6 -1m09s (notice that the gap to the Bentleys has hardly grown in the second hour)
#5 -1m24s
#15 -2m26s

675
#26 (15th)
#27 (17th)
#29 (20th)
#24 (28th)
#25 (39th)
#31 (44th)
#23 (46th)

GTS
#88 13th overall 29 laps
#72 15th overall -92 seconds
#80 17th overall -2:13
#53 19th overall -2:24

GT
#93 24th overall 27 laps
#81 25th -30 seconds
#77 28th -1 lap
#95 31st

Hour 3

Champion's long 15 lap stint was offset by not changing tyres. Stefan Johansson had to make an unscheduled stop for rubber - and dropped away from the first three.

So at two and a half hours, Marco Werner is racing hard with David Brabham, losing second place, then getting it back, as he's about to pit.

Around the same time, Gabbiani and the #50 Corvette collide at Arnage. Both continue after spinning. Norma has a left rear puncture and runs into the gravel at the First Mulsanne Chicane.

The DBA, after a swift run by Shimoda, is having its alternator changed, while the Intersport Lola is also in its pit, the engine apparently losing power. The latter rejoins. Correction: the MG-Lola had its starternator replaced.

Anthony Davidson has the hammer down in the third placed GTS car, lap times down in the 4 minute range pulling him closer to Policand who at around 2 and a half hours is 30 seconds ahead.

The recovering #50 Corvette continues to give chase to the GTS field now 29th overall and closing very fast on the Scorp Viper. That is until at 18:30 Collins fails to see the #16 Dome move up the inside at Arnage, there is contact, the Vette spins and the Dome stalls, Collins rejoins after a 25 second delay.

The GTS battle of the 550s is developing nicely, Anthony Davidson in #80 hunting down Alphand in #72. He passes the blue ferrari and pulls away.

Further back Tommy Erdos is going great guns in the GNM Saleen, closing fast on the #86 Larbre Viper ahead. As the end of the hour approaches he completes the pass and starts to close down the GT class leader, his next target 40 seconds ahead in 20th place overall.

Fiona Miller reports that the early delay for the #80 Prodrive Ferrari was as a result of a data download, Darren Turner having complained of an intermittent misfire, the team changed the engine mapping at the next routine stop and the problem seems to have been cured.

The #94 Risi Ferrari pulls straight into the garage leaving the #83 Seikel Porsche up to fourth in class before ceding the position to Johnny Mowlem in the #95 ACEMCO 360..

Peter Baron takes over the Orbit Porsche from seventh in class, the team add more downforce as Leo Hindery decamps. Hindery was not only struggling for traction but also with a non-functional cool suit on what is a very hot day.

The Spyker rejoins after a 40 minute stop back in 42nd position.

Tim Sugden is pressing on in the #92 TVR regularly into the 4:20s and sixth in class.

18:45 The GT leading #93 Alex Job Racing Porsche goes into the top 20 overall as the attrition rate grows – No chance of a repeat of the Rolex 24 here though surely!

As the third hour draws to a close the JMB Ferrari 360, Fabrizio de Simone at the wheel is having fun dicing with the normally aspirated WR, a car which in theory should leave the Ferrari for dead.

Overall
#7 48 laps (regular 16 per hour)
#8 -46 s
#5 -2m02s
#6 -2m24s
#15 47 laps
#11 46 laps
#13
#18

675
#29 17th
#24 32nd
#25 34th
#27 35th
#26 38th
#31 44th
#23 46th (just about to rejoin with a new gearbox)

GTS
#88 13th overall 44 laps
#80 14th overall 43 laps
#72 15th overall -5 seconds
#53 18th overall -2 mins

GT
#93 20th overall 41 laps
#81 23rd overall -3:15
#77 25th overall -1 Lap
#95 28th overall -2:15

Three Hour Summary
The unexpected retirement of the Audi UK entry reminds us that the field has begun to sort itself into halves and have-nots. Although the Bentleys have reestablished a strong lead, it is not really a position of dominance - yet. Even the no. 8 Speed 8 has had a slight bobble. There is little doubt that both of the surviving Audis have been trouble-free and waiting in the wings, as is a determined Andy Wallace. He relieved the true ironman of the opening hours, Jan Lammers in the main Dome.

The Panoz remains steady but not at all competitive. The works Courage has moved into a commanding position among the second tier of LMP 900 runners. The no. 18 Pescarolo Courage is similarly running well, while the sister Peugeot powered car has begun to hit problems. The second Dutch Dome had a moment with one of the Corvettes, while all the other 900s are in some sort of trouble, bar the still cleanly driven Durango.

There are really only three strong cars left in 675, where the leader is the no. 29 Reynard. GTS continues to be running untrue to form as it is now Ferrari 1-2-3. The Veloqx cars in the lead may not be a surprise, but Alphand third?! Depending upon your perspective, the Pagani was the first official announced retirement, although the GT class TVR actually stopped circulating earlier.

The 360 Modenas are beginning to hit a rash of electrical problems. The Orbit car’s spin has left the Job entry with a strong command of the GT class, the Racer’s Group car is moving up, while the Taisan 996 is more than equal to the task amongst the privateers. The PK and T2M Porsches are the only others of their clan to hit problems.

 

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