Introduction - entry and support races
The 1000 Kilometres of Spa race, which was the second meeting of five-race Le Mans Series 2009, saw the largest ever entry since 1966, when the first 1000 km race was held here. The entry list included two manufacturer factory teams in the LMP1 class. All that despite current economic townturn and consequent problems hittingnumerous motoring championships. Le Mans Series is still rising and its organisers have already expressed their wish to make it an official World Championship in a horizon of five years. Despite some of teams disappeared due to the crisis before the season (Audi factory, Embassy Racing, Horag Lista to name a few), 51 present cars and five more on provisional list was something not seen in a true sports car race for ages outside Le Mans. The two mentioned manufacturers teams were Peugeot Sport, which won in Spa on both previous occasions here, and a new team Aston Martin Racing, which represents a true factory manufacturers, though running their cars under Lola banner after not being able to make an agreement. This may be a little funny to see their cars called Lola while, at least visually, completely different from anything Lola has done in the past, while at the same time last few years we saw a car officially homologated as MG but in fact identical to its sister Lola B05/40s. Last year Aston Martin raced GT1 cars of their own construction but really never featured in the Le Mans Series itself apart from some official test session presence. On the other side, after two years of full LMS commitment Peugeot has decided to enter this year only on race by race basis but fortunately they chose the Spa race as their final preparation for Le Mans. Unfortunately from originally three announced cars only two made a trip to Belgium.
Of the other guests racing in Spa we could mention an Essex Porsche which returned after full 2008 season to prepare for Le Mans just like Peugeot. In contrast an one-off Lavaggi, irregular, which appeared here as well, chose the Spa tract probably just because of team boss' preference, definitely with no prospect for any Le Mans entry now or later. But it was nice to see the car here back, similarly as the last two years in Spa, when Lavaggi even opted to skip his home italian race last year but still appeared here. This time the car looked better, meaning more reliable, but in the race the progress was not satifactory once again. Late start and a lot of long pitstops. But it was the first time the car crossed the finish line at the end of a LMS race.
Despite this year the Le Mans Series program was shortened to three days only and thus one free practice session was cut off, support races were strong so we had to arrive on Thursday early in the afternoon to catch all. Those were new Formula Le Mans and Ratel's national SRO Series practice sessions that were held that day to have only limited track time later. None of those two race brough an expected entry numbers and especially the SRO part was a big disappointed. Originally announced as a combined race of British, Belgian and new Dutch GT Championship expected 60 cars on the grid, at least per some reporters, speculations about possible starting procedures were held prior to the meeting but in the end Dutch cars stayed home and both British and home Belgian entrants appeared with only dosens of cars making it compared to LMS or still growing support Classic Endurance Racing (CER) more a less a joke. Moreover two cars disappeared after the Thursday session - a British Ford GT and a Belgian Ginetta, the only participant in so called Division 2. Fortunatelly both hit our camera and thus could be found in the photo gallery.
Both mentioned support races used that 2-race format, which is still more and more popular, though stealing an opportunity to have a big single winner on a single podium and thus lowering importance and historical significance of such effort but probably build tradition and strong name is out of intention at for these lesser but still important series. Can you immagine a value of win in Le Mans 24 Hours if we had two race for 12 hours, and one was won by Peugeot and the other by Audi? What would be the point? We thing nothing... For a common spectator it is also much easier to recognize and remember a winner of the main race or even a winner of the 1 hour CER support, which featured on Saturday afternoon, than to remember numerous winners of various disintegrated series. In case of FLM this situation was even less distinguishable because all cars were the same and especially in their first race the differences between performances of those 12 cars were really too big considering it was a race of identical cars. While this is a good idea by ACO and the cars looked great on the track, being quick enough, we would much prefer a championship like in the early 1970s, when European Championship for two-litre sports cars allowed teams to enter whatever car they wanted, either high production built Lolas or Chevrons, or to create something of their own. An argument that current formula is cheaper because more cars of the same type is built is not that true considering numbers of Lolas and Chevrons built during 1970-73. The trick was not in spec. formula but in a fact that the cars were elligible to run almost everywhere from the World Championship, through their own European series to many national races around the world, including Japan and America, and of course in hill climb racing. Today every series tends to have their own sets of rules which usually requires a low volume production cars and thus most of the series becomes spec. series making the races, at least for a true sports car fans used to large variety, a bit flat and boring.
With respect to what we expressed we could consider the CER race to be to second peak of the meeting and we really think so. The race attracted even more cars than the main Le Mans Series race and a variety was great featuring over 5 cars built since late 60s until 1979. We think that some of the cars were built later but official recognized those present as legal, so it was nice to see for example Moby Dick replica built by team Joest in 1981. Only two cars were built. After a short career at Joests one car was sold to Fitzpatrick and it was the one famous Rolf Stommelen was killed while the car was destroed and burnt to the bone, the other car went to Gianpiero Moretti, who was using it a little bit longer until end of 1983 before completely switching to GTP/C-style cars. It was really amazing how large overhangs some of those cars including Moby Dick silhouettes had back then. Another examples were very long Ferrari Berlinetta Boxers in Le Mans version from 1979, which usually used to race in IMSA GTX category. In their first visit to Spa we could see two examples. Porsche 936, the Joest built one for the 1980 Le Mans race, was another classic car with excellent design and look. It was nice to see much more other Porsche 935s, in shorter veriants and a number of very long-tile Lola T296/298 examples. It seems that true Can-Am cars are now allowed as well, so the race could be improved by a presence of Ferrari 712M. It was not the fastest in qualifying but its power was evident after the start when it, while starting from the second row, easily overtook two three-liters in front and took the lead. It was expected to lose it on the track the Ferrari easily kept the lead ahead those two quick 3-liters, Porsche 908/80, alias 936, and March 74S DFV, which was a new car of LMS regular Jacques Nicolet, who used a yellow Lola 2000 cc last year. Unfortunately one of numberless of safety car periods stopped this Ferrari effort. Running too slow behind the safety was probably too bad for this old and powerful engine. Just after the restart Luco in his Porsche 936 and Nicolet in the March passed the Ferrari by and after disappearing behind Eau Rouge it never found its way back to the start-finish straight. Porsche 936 then lead easily, especially after the mandatory pitstop series when the March was delayed. But then Nicolet showed a very quick comeback overtaking several 2-litre Group 6 cars, which found themselves ahead of him in the middle of the race, and near the end of the race, Nicolet was very close to the Porsche of Luco. There was no doubt he could overtake him but five minutes before the end of the one-hour race his March stopped at the end of Bus Stop chicane. It looked as a lost race but within next three minutes red flags were waved around the track and that helped Nicolet to be classified second behind Luco. Generally this race was very much manipulated by cautions and the final red flag because these old cars are not much reliable now and there was a lot of them. Unfortunately this year it was decided to call safety car or to stop a session for every little problem, just like it became common in Grand-Am and other US-based road races.
The weekend was really filled with a good races, three (or in fact five if counting double-races separately) would make it into the RSC archives and galleries, CER which we let to cover by our friends in www.Euromontagna.com was also on a top of our interest so only race we could have a rest, i.e. do some necessaty work in Media Centre were Radicals despite still being a true and nice prototype races. For a common spectator who likes sports cars it must have been a great pleasure to have the programme filled with so many interesting races. Gone are times when Formula Renault or ugly Peugeot Spyders circulated aroung the circuit for a couple of hours each day and we could take a break from taking photographs and care of other business, writing reports and data, or catching chassis numbers. This time it was very busy and the situation is going to be similar during our next planned trip to the Le Mans Series, which would be in Germany. At the Nürburgring the British and Belgian GT cars would be replaced by German ADAC GT cars but the rest could look pretty similar.
Friday - 8th May
Practice session 1
Only one LMS practice session was scheduled on Friday. Unfortunately not too long after it had started the ski darkened and rain started to make the track wet and slippery. The times did not improved since then, of course, and the positions based on early set times were like this: Peugeot, Oreca, Oreca, Pescarolo, Peugeot. In fact the time of best Peugeot and best Oreca were identical and various sheets showed variously both cars on the top. The times were some 6 seconds off the last year performance in the equivalent session but we must not keep in mind the weather conditions were much better then.
Saturday - 9th May
Practice session 2
The second and final practice session was on the programme on Saturday morning. This time the track and weather conditions were much closer to those of the last year but the cars were still almost 5 seconds off the last year speeds, despite improving from 2:06s to 2:03. The list was not surprisingly topped by Peugeots but by one of the factory Pescarolos ahead of three Lola Aston Martins and best of the private Audis. The Puegeots were 7th and 9th while Orecas 8th and 11th, all cars very close. A lone Porsche Spyder still outpaced Lola Coupe armada in LMP2 by more than a second. GT1s were headed by returning champion Luc Alphand Corvette ahead the only other two cars in the class, a Lamborghini and an Aston Martin. A fourth entered car, a Saleen from Slovakia, was raced in a local race in Hungary instead. In GT2 it was a Porsche and then a mix Ferraris and other Porsches on the top. The best of oddities was Aston Martin Vantage (6th), followed by Spyker (9th) and debuting Lamborghini Gallardo (15th in class).
It was the qualifying session where Peugeots finally showed their real pace. They were less than 1.5 seconds ahead of the next car, which was surviving Aston Martin LMP1. The other Aston Martin did not cover a competitive lap before its engine expired. Tomas Enge, who was chosen to set the time, was sad - not only they would have to start from the pitlane but under the new rules they would be awarded two negative points to the championship. This actually pretty stupid rule was introduced recently in order encourage teams running same engine in two consecutive races. This might be a nice idea if the car gets some points AFTER the engine was changed due to failure. But the rule is meant to be applied for all cars, even those that would retire. It really creates a situation that most of the teams that suffered engine failure would be motivated to stay in the garage and not to start in the race in which they can lose two points accumulated in different race. We could not originally believe Tomas that such thing could meant seriously but after seeing a point table of LMP2 class with several teams listed with minut 2 points, we realized what is now possible. Please, do not destroy this strong series, which is one of the very few top level international championships still left where the true sport prevails over artificial adjustments to keep the competitors performance equal whatever it costs just to make uninformed TV crowd happy. We understand this was established to keep the costs down but we could really imagine that teams like Randaccio would rather stay next time as non-starters in the pits than to lose another two points. This would be a sensible rule if applied only on points gathered in the race in which the changed engine was used. But the current incarnation of the rule may only leave some smaller teams which have miminal chances of finishing in top 5 in their class away from the race. What is the point for example in it that RML team, whose car was damaged in the accident on Saturday morning, worked hard to bring the car ready back for the race only to receive minus 2 point in the provisional point standings?
Sunday - 10th May
The team already started to line up for the session when they were told about a decision that the session was cancelled due to fog. Most of the LMS cars were already prepared out of their garage when officials made this announcement public. It was a shame especially for the teams with had to make some big changes and repairs since their last on-track time. For example Aston Martin 007 had a new engine, Lola of RML was repaired after Saturday's accident and those it was very important to complete several laps at full speed. At least team were allowed to circulate on the track a little longer just before the starting procedure.
The morning fog was really heavy and even the next race (SRO Series part 2) was started under safety car conditions till the situation improved.
All cars left the pits for the warm up laps just before the race. But not all took the start. Pescarolo number 24 retired even before the race was started. In fact official results do not show it, race facts in Media Centre shows the car starting with Jacques Nicolet in 12:50:00 and retiring with fire12:50:01. Since we were not at the start-finish line, we are not sure what exactly happened with the car. What is clear that Lavaggi after the warm up lap turned into the pits and appeared on track very late, just like in 2007. There were also 6 cars starting from the pits. It was strange how late they appeared through the Eau Rouge so we believe that the DailySportsCar.com sources suggesting that the first caution period was just to help these cars return to the race but generally safety cars were used very insensitively. In the first 25 minutes we have already two yellow SC periods, which meant three starts during less than half hour and it was always very dangerous, especially when some of slow GT2 cars were ahead of number of quick prototypes. In one such start we lost LMP2 leader, the Zytek no.40 of team ASM, it was crashed in a collision with a Ferrari, Despite it returned after the repair, still could not make better than the last classified finsiher. Aston Martins had a bad start too, one car starting from pitlane, the other car damage in the first corner after which it had to complete one slow lap to the pits. Only after the safety cars were called twice at the beginning that could return to the race.Another car hit by the early starts was Barcelona winning Racing Box Lola Coupe, which sufferent a damage of rear top bodywork. It meant a retirement after 7 laps when it was not allowed to continue without engine cover. For the small teamt his appeared to be an unsolvable problem and it became the very first retirement.
As expected just after the green lights were on both Peugeots 908 occupied the first two positions. For the race it was bad that both cars had different strategy, which mean that the car number 7 was always in the lead. It was a private Lola Aston Martin of team Speedy that originally ran behind them but the spot was soon taken by the Pescarolo number 16, which was in a nice battle with the best Oreca no.11. Those two then had a nce battle during most of the race. Behind them soon appeared the two recovering factory Aston Martins. The Speedy Lola LMP1 slowly disappeared from the lead lap as the race progress while both Audis were able to keep the pace and usually figured behind the Aston Martins.
A big moment came after 2 hours and 20 minutes when second factory Pescarolo driver lost control over the car while leaving Eau Rouge and hit the wall very seriously. The car was of course out of the race immediatelly but there was also second running Peugeot no.9 involved trying to avoid further contact with Pescarolo almost wend off the track on the other side. Not sure what exactly happened and what was the reason of Pescarolo crash but Peugeot had to go to the garage for repairs, it lost four laps and position - now running about 20th.
Just after the accident a safety car was called again but it once again proved how current use of safety car is unintelligent and also dangerous. Instead of having yellow flags in the place of incident and to keep the speeds down where the danger is, common practice of safety car periods is that almost all cars run very close to real racing speeds until catch the main stream of cars slowly circulating directly behind the safety car. All that with no regard to yellow flags because they are wabed everywhere. It is usually more or less acceptable, at least from the point of safety if the danger is clear seen from the long distance but this time the Pescarolo crashed on the horizon behind the Eau Rouge lelf various piece of the car on the track so that it was not easy to pass by easily. And we could see cars running very quickly down to the Eau Rouge only to stop near the Pescarolo but having bunch of other quick car approaching from behind... Fortunately all drivers managed to stop in time but it was very dangerous but in other situations it may not succeed that lucky. We still vote for a system that would require the cars running about 60-100 kph in the place of accidents and let the races on the rest of the track rather than this oval racing-imported schema, which is completely unsuitable for multiclass races, and not safe enough because it does not necessarily prevent the cars running quickly. Not only in LMP2 various SC periods made a major role in the battle for the lead when once Porsche appeared almost one lap ahead of best Lola Coupe only to reverse the situation next time out on the track. In the end the Essex Porsche won over Speedy Lola by less than a second but while it would take hours to build one minute lead, SC would manipulate this margin within a couple of laps making hours of racing before useless.
Another effect of the frequent SC periods was that we had six cars in the lead lap after more than three hours of racing, which may be nice for TV spectators but really does not reflect real performance on the track. Still the leading Peugeot had no problem to hold on and keep the lead as the race was coming to its closing stages. In the meantime Pescarolo no.16 and Oreca no.11 were swapping positions depending on their pitstops and also SC strategy. It was possible because Pescarolo no.16 had different schedule of refuelling after some early unplanned pitstop, so at times it even figured second overall even before the second Peugeot was damaged.
Audi no.15 running sixth in the middle of the race ahead its sister car no.14, which was one lap behind but after terrible pitstop strategy and some unplanned stop it dropped down a little. We could see the Audi no.15 running to the pits but the crew was not there, so the driver went away the pitlane to try it the second time. This was already strangle but what we could not understand that the same happened a lap later. Audi no.15, running through the pitlane, no mechanics, just one person behing the wall with a signalling panel and upset driver continuing through the pits to complete another lost lap. Fortunately the next lap he could turn to its pits and be served. It is clear that the endurance strategy of this new team with experience only from those short national touring car races cannot line up with the factory. Hopefully they would improve in Le Mans and additional LMS races. Some pressure from all good Audis would be nice for the LMS season.
As the race was in its final stages and the positions were almost settled, third running Oreca no.11 had a collision in the final hour requiring unscheduled pitstop for repairs. It moved it back behind the better of the Aston Martins, which was now number 007 driven by well known trio Enge/Mücke/Charouz. Oreca still managed to finish fourth but only a few meters ahead of the second Aston Martin. Behind them both Audis were lined up followed by already mentioned LMP2 leading duo. LMP1 Speedy Lola was classified 10th overall being among other delayed by a spun and some damage during a SC period. It was followed by a private Courage-Oreca of team Signature, which started almost last after some issues in the very first lap of the race but then improved well. Generally, Oreca did not have a good end of race. With less than a 30 minutes to go the other factory Oreca car, which started from the pitlane just like Aston Martin 007 and four other cars had a collision while driven by Bruno Senna, hit the rear of WR but then was destroyed hitting a wall in the Bus Stop chicane several times. Of course, for one more and final time the safety car was called on the track. Near the accident the track was very dirty so the cars had to use off track parts of the circuit to run through the critical place. Fortunately both drivers involved in the serious accidents were not injured.
There was a nice battle in the slim GT1 class, originally having a Lamborghini in a battle with an Aston Martin while the Alphand Corvette was much behind, later having Aston Martin suffering major problems losing more than 10 laps but then having the Lamborghini and Corvette swapped in the lead five times. In the end it was the Corvette that settled in the lead and won the class. In GT2 the Felbermayr Porsche no.77 lead initially for several hours until the team suffered puncture and lost some time by a slow lap and unscheduled pistop. Two other Ferraris then appeared in the class lead before the Porsche no.77 returned back. A problem was that after finishing first it was disqualified. However the team appealed and the results are still provisional at the time of writing this report.