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LMES - Silverstone - Preview
The Le Mans Cars Are Back

Silverstone race-goers looking for a flavour of the Le Mans 24 Hours have had to wait over 50 months since a field like this raced on the Grand Prix circuit in Northamptonshire. The previous Le Mans-type field assembled here on a balmy evening in May 2000, for a round of the ALMS, a race which featured factory teams from BMW, Audi, Courage and Panoz, plus semi-works entries from ORECA (the invincible Vipers) and DAMS (two Cadillacs).

That race was also held on the Saturday, but was run in May as a warm-up for Le Mans. It had a very obvious American feel to it, the US-based drivers loving their first experience of Silverstone, and the wide expanses of tarmac were perfectly suited to a field comprising four classes. The names might have changed since then, and the cars certainly have, but the concept is just as appropriate now as it was in 2000.

The long wait means that no one will have any experience of the Grand Prix track in their current cars. The Lola B2K / 10 was the only prototype running in 2000 that still races now, and the small matter of a diesel engine in the back of the Taurus entry means that this team will be starting afresh, just like everybody else.

Some things don’t change though – such as some of the drivers. Sascha Maassen won the GT Class here in 2000, partnering the legendary Bob Wollek in a Porsche 911 GT3-R: six weeks ago, Sascha Maassen won the GT Class at the Nurburgring 1000 Km, partnering the slightly less well known (for now) Adam Jones, in a Porsche 911 GT3-RSR.

Some other familiar names from 50 months ago include McNish, Capello, Collard, Ortelli, Kaufmann, Konrad, Mowlem and Bouchut. We do like our continuity – but we do like our new names too (see below).

So we’ve got 195 laps in store, starting at 14.00 on Saturday afternoon – and the pattern of the first two LMES races tells us that almost anything could happen. LMP1 has seen two absolute thrillers: just look at the goings-on at the Nurburgring, during a 24 lap period in the second hour of the race (according to the Audi Sport UK Team Veloqx race facts):

L33 1st #8 (PK) 2nd #88 (JH)
L39 2nd #88 (JH), pits for fuel+wet tyres (30secs), resumes in 3rd
L41 2nd #88 (JH)
L42 1st #8 (PK) straight on @ Turn 1, pulled out of gravel track by course car
L43 1st #88 (JH) inherits lead
L43 3rd #8 (PK), pits for fuel+wet tyres (28secs), resumes in 5th
L44 1st #88 (JH), +0.5secs, 2nd #3
L48 (int. ¼dist): 1st #88 (JH), 2nd #3, 3rd #5, 4th #7, 5th #8 (PK)
L49 4th #8 (PK)
L54 (110mins) 1st #88 (JH), pits for fuel+dry tyres (31secs), resumes in 2nd
L55 4th #8 (PK), pits for fuel+dry tyres (34secs), resumes in 5th
L56 (114mins) 1st #3 spins @ Turn 1, pulled out of gravel track by course car
L57 1st #88 (JH), +30.7secs, 2nd #5, 3rd #7, 4th #3, 5th #8 (PK).

The weather was a very significant factor as the dramas above unfolded, but in the dry periods of both the Monza and Nurburgring races, the events were both (at least building up to be) classics in their own right anyway – although the rain came just one hour into the German event. Minassian leads away from pole in Germany, below.

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dailysportscar.comBoth races ended up as Audi Sport UK Team Veloqx one-twos, but each was far from straightforward in its evolution: at Monza it was the factory Zytek that produced the main challenge, while at the ‘Ring, up stepped Nic Minassian and the DBA-Zytek. Together with the Goh Audi, these five should be the main contenders at the front of the field.

The racing among these five is likely to be outstanding. Look at the hard chargers involved: McNish, Herbert, Kaffer, Davies, Capello, Ara, Minassian, JC-W… and now Kerr and Dyson. McNish, Herbert (particularly so) and Minassian are all big race winners at Silverstone already. Is it time for another former F3 star (Robbie Kerr) to join the elite? He was both very quick and very consistent in testing last week. “One of Hinckley’s finest,” as a certain photographer would say… This is Stefan Johansson at the wheel, at Monza.

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We’re looking for the spectacular to begin in the two qualifying sessions on Friday, and continue throughout Saturday’s 195 laps, backed up by some very good LMP1 prototypes, and a fascinating array of LMP2s. Sam Hignett could well mix it with the above in qualifying, in the Jota Zytek.

dailysportscar.comMartin Short’s Rollcentre team is ultimately targeting the select group above, but another top six finish here would be achievement enough for now, while Laurence Pearce’s Lister has shown flashes of speed and some good reliability, and is driven here by young British stars Justin Keen and Rob Barff. They should be in the thick of the top six action, as should Tommy Erdos in the RML Lola. He was up to second place at the ‘Ring, the wet weather there favouring the nimble Lola and the talented Brazilian. Werner Lupberger, Romain Dumas and Robbie Stirling could spring a surprise with the Nasamax: Stowe could be an interesting viewing point, as the hybrid LMP1 with its unique fuel stretches its legs.

LMP2 is wide open. Two AER-powered Courages should be well suited to Silverstone – Gounon through Becketts with reduced downforce should be fun – but if the French entries slip up, look for one of the steadier cars to take advantage. This will be the debut of the K2 Pilbeam, but the likes of Simon Pullan and Ben Devlin will be pushing this car to the limit, while other teams will take a steadier approach to such a long race.

GTS is much more clear cut than GT: Pedro Lamy, Christophe Bouchut and Steve Zacchia have scored a maximum 20 points in the Larbre Competition Ferrari 550, their main opposition coming from the fastest Saleen in Europe, the Vitaphone Racing entry of Michael Bartels and Uwe Alzen. This entry excelled at Donington Park in late June, having started at the back of the FIA GT grid. Bartels and Alzen (joined by team owner Franz Konrad) are as tough as any out there, and their rivalry with Bouchut and Lamy has made for some superb racing in GTS in both LMES races so far. Reliability (for the Saleen) will be the key element in this battle.

Graham Nash’s Saleen finished third at the Nurburgring, former BTCC man Phil Bennett discovering that he and a seven litre Saleen are perfect partners. The main opposition to these three entries comes from the Dutch Barron Connor team, with its two Ferrari 575s. These chassis aren’t quite a match for the Ferrari 550 yet, but big Ferraris are spectacular cars in their own right. Look for the silvery-grey A-Level Porsche to mix it with the above.

dailysportscar.comAnd finally the GT Class. Four cars have featured strongly in both races so far: the Jones / Maassen Cirtek Porsche, the Freisinger Porsche of Ortelli and Dumas / Collard, the Japanese Choroq Porsche and the Ferrari 360 of the French JMB team. Stephane Daoudi has been flying the Ferrari flag with aplomb, always among the very fastest of GT drivers, and finishing a fine second at Monza. Ortelli and Dumas won the class there, despite losing time having an alternator replaced, but Ortelli and Collard ran out of luck (and fuel) at the Nurburgring – on the last lap – and Adam Jones took his first big win, for Cirtek.

Jordan Warnock Racing’s Porsche joins the above as potential winners (Johnny Mowlem sharing the car this time), while Hugh Hayden’s highly developed older version could well prove to be an ideal tool, again, over a longer distance. Look for Robin Liddell shining brightly in Kaneko’s T2M Porsche, plus Piers Masarati (Liddell and Masarati only just back from Mosport and the ALMS) looking for another result in Hugh Hayden's 911, while further British interest comes in the form of the three TVRs, one each from Racesports, RSR Racing and Chamberlain-Synergy. John Hartshorne’s yellow and black version will be seeking a good finish, while the distinctive purple one has none other than Johnny Kane and Warren Hughes at the wheel: TVR, in the guise of a private entrant, is stepping up its game in no uncertain terms. How will this beast compare with the standard, chameleon orange RSR T-400R?

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We’ll aim to bring as many stories from the whole grid as we can, beginning on Thursday. This is going to be spectacularly good: you’ll be kicking yourself if you miss this one (UK readers). Get yourself down to Stowe for five abreast under braking.

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