Tuesday, June 10, 2008

All Day And All Of The Night

I've always meant to make the trip to Le Mans for the 24 Hour race, but somehow I never seem to have a free weekend for the trip in mid-June. Neil, at Fastest Lap, made it all the way over from the US to the race last year and It's something I really must put right someday. It won't be this year though. Once again real life has got in the way, this time in the form of a looming deadline at work which will probably see me chained to my desk over the weekend.

Le Mans is undoubtedly one of the three big motor races. It ranks alongside the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500 as an event whose name will mean something even to those whose interest in motorsport is no greater than mine in golf. For me, it is most special event of the three. While Monaco is really just another Grand Prix, and one where on-track overtaking is even less likely than usual, and the Indy 500 is only of many oval rounds of the Indy Racing League, albeit one with an absurdly long build-up and more press attention than that series can usually attract, Le Mans is a truly unique stand-alone race. Not merely one round of championship, it is simply the big sportscar endurance race of the season. I

It is not the only 24 hour race but it is far and away the most significant. The Daytona 24hr race always attracts a solid line-up of the best US driving talent but the circuit is not a patch on Le Mans and the cars are little more than spec-formula racers. The Nurburgring 24 hour race is held on a still more legendary circuit and attracts a huge entry, but is largely an amateur affair. The clincher, for me, it was also the subject of the only ever decent movie about the sport, Steve McQueen's atmospheric Le Mans.

When the sport first got its hooks into me, Le Mans was an annual epic battle between the likes of Porsche, Mercedes, Jaguar and Nissan with their fantastic looking Group C prototypes. It featured the longest straight in motorsport and was perhaps the one event which still retained something of the spirit and the danger of an earlier era. I can well recall the Porsche/Jaguar fight of 1988, Mercedes win in the final year before they broke up the Mulsanne with chicanes, and Mazda’s shock win for its rotary engined 787 in 1991, ahead of all the fancied runners.

In recent years though, the race itself has not been especially interesting Since 2000 the fastest LMP1 category has been not so much a race as a day-long advert for Audi, save in the year they put a roof on the Audi R8 and called it a Bentley in order to generate a bit of publicity for a different part of the Volkswagen-Audi Group. The efforts of such as the well organised but underfunded Courage team, the big-bucks but hopeless GM Cadillacs or Don Panoz' team with its front engined LMP1s never looked to be a serious threat. Jan Lammers' Racing for Holland Dome-Judd was an outside bet for pole in its early days but never stood a chance against Audi over 24 hours. Last year, Peugeot joined the party with their diesel engined and daftly named 908 FAP HDI coupe (has nobody told the team that fap is a slang term for masturbation?) but they stood little chance of coming out ahead of the all-conquering Audis at their first attempt.

This year, though, things look a little different. The early rounds of the Le Mans Endurance Series have demonstrated that Peugeot now have a car which has edged ahead of Audi's older R10. Audi, with sportscar veterans Joest Racing in charge of their team, have decades of experience running in this category of racing to call upon, and by now near bullet-proof reliability to call on. It's a battle being played out according to the oldest plot in racing. Outright speed against solidity and experience. If you're an Aesop man, you'd back Audi's tortoise, but if you're more inclined to take the advice of legendary sportswriter Damon Runyon and remember that "the race is not always to the swift... but that's the way to bet" you might back the French team. They do have form after all - their 1993 victory remains the fastest achieved by anyone at Le Mans since they put those pesky chicanes on the Mulsanne straight. Who knows, maybe Jacques Villeneuve can follow in the footsteps of Graham Hill and win the F1 title, the Indy 500 and Le Mans.

Behind them, there's plenty else to keep the enthusiast interested. The class-within-a-class battle to be fastest petrol engined car, and first non-manufacturer entry, home looks equally intriguing. It will probably come down to a fight between Hugues De Chaunac's ORECA Courages and Henri Pescarolo's Pescarolo Judds. On driver line-up, you'd have to back ORECA. who have a very solid line up of French guys like Duval and Grand Prix winner Olivier Panis at the wheel, but it would be a fool who would write off the Dumas/Boullion/Collard Pescarolo. An interesting wild-card comes in the form of Czech businessman Antonin Charouz's Lola-Aston Martin coupe. The only petrol engined car to have threatened the diesels on pace, it probably won't go the distance but you never know.

One of the wonderful things about sportscar racing is the sheer variety of equipment on display. Japanese chassis builder Dome is running its own car for a trio of little known Japanese drivers. Desperately short of mileage, it is unlikely to figure, but it is the most beautiful machine on the grid, at least to my eye. The Epsilon Euskadi Judd runs it close, and a line-up of three former Grand Prix drivers in the second car- Johannson, Nakano and Gounon should get some pace out of it, although I'd be surprised if it was still running at the end.

Sadly. the most competitive LMP2 teams, all of which are based Stateside, are giving Le Mans a miss, as the ACO's rules, unlike those of the ALMS, give them no serious chance of mixing it with the Audis and Peugeots. A shame, as the Penske and Dyson Porsche Spyders, and the Acuras would certainly make a race of it. As it is, the Porsche Spyders of Team Essex and Verschuur are likely to emerge victorious, if only because their customer Porsches are most likely to run trouble-free for 24 hours.

GT1, on the other hand, is almost a mirror-image of the Audi/Peugeot battle for overall honours. Works Aston Martins and Corvettes go head to head and predicting a winner is far from straightforward. Both teams have well-sorted, competitive cars, and both have put together serious, professional driver line-ups. Me? I'm hoping that the Astons win, though I must confess this is mainly because they are painted up in the same Gulf colours as those awesome Porsche 917s of the early 1970s. There's some decent private Astons and Corvettes in the field too, although there's little chance of them winning unless the works cars race each other into the ground.

GT2 I can't summon up much enthusiasm about, though it can often end up the closest fought of all the categories. The cars are just too slow. It will be interesting to see whether Ferrari can finally break Porsche's dominance of the category though, as a mere trio of 911s go up against 7 Ferrari 430s, several of which boast all-professional driver line ups.

Now, I've just got to work out how I can get away from my desk for long enough to keep up with the action. As for making the trip to La Sarthe. Maybe next year..

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Anonymous Peter White said...

I never knew 'fap' meant wank. As always I learn from your blog.

6:31 AM  

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