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24 Hours of Le Mans 2007

12th - 17th June 2007

Report by Julian Roberts

Intro and entry

Le vingt quatres heures de Mans – the 24 hours of Le Mans. This is still the greatest motor race in the world. Monte Carlo has more glamour, the Indy 500 is perhaps better attended, but NOTHING comes close to Le Mans and every manufacturer wants to win it.

Porsche have moved on, perhaps to return with their Spyder LMP2 car in 2008, Jaguar and more recently Bentley have won it and left motor racing completely. But in recent times the race has become the sole preserve of Audi, winning at will in their seemingly indestructible LMP1 prototypes. To add interest they unveiled their diesel cars in 2006 and the winning continued. High performance diesel cars are the future and frankly petrol cars cannot compete on a level playing field – ask Henri Pescarolo!

So, lets give Audi some competition, Peugeot have spent the last 2 years testing and developing their own diesel cars and having won the opening 2 races of the parallel Le Mans Series, they have assembled the cream of French endurance racing drivers plus Pedro Lamy and Le Mans debutant Jacques Villeneuve and are taking on Audi in what promises to be a titanic struggle. Let battle commence !

The largest entry in recent years (as a result of 5 additional garages being built for 2007) of 55 cars became 54 when the #10 Zytec 07S was withdrawn at the scrutineering stage as the car was not ready. Veteran Stefan Johannson was briefly without a drive until he negotiated a transfer to the #13 Courage-AER LC70 displacing Seiji Ara in the process. Following his enormous DTM accident the participation of 7 time winner Tom Kristensen was in doubt right to the last minute. However, a test during the Brands Hatch DTM race and a thorough medical examination proved Tom was fit to race.

Qualifying

Wednesday - 13th June

First two qualifying sessions

At the traditional time of 7pm the pitlane was opened and qualifying began, most cars completing their installation lap and returning to the pits. Premat’s #3Audi stayed out and on his first flying lap had a wild ride through the Ford chicane removing on of the bollars whilst sideways across the kerbs. No damage to the Audi and freedom for all others to cut the kerb !

Qualifying was interrupted by red flag period caused by enormous accident at the 1st chicane. Marco Apicella had gone off in the #53 JLOC GT1 Lamborghini, the car came to rest in flames following 2 hard impacts. The efficient emergency team quickly extinguished the fire and removed the driver to the Medical Centre. The car unfortunately was destroyed. 53 cars.

Clearing up operations took almost an hour and the ACO extended the 9pm finish time to 9:15. Heavy rain falling in the Indianapolis and Arnage area during the red flag period made fast times impossible when the session recommenced. The second session began on a partially wet track at 10pm By the end of the session at midnight, the #8 Peugeot driven by Sarrazin was half a second faster than the #2 Audi driven by McNish. Worryingly for the ‘petrol class’ the 5 diesels headed the timesheets with the #16 Pescarolo driven by Collard/Bouillion/Dumas some 7 seconds behind the fastest Audi.

Thursday - 14th June

Last two qualifying sessions

Thursday’s session was delayed by half an hour as during their qualifying session, one of the Le Mans Legends cars had left a trail of oil on the racing line all the way from Arnage to the pits. By the time the Sappeurs Pompiers had finished diligently hosing and sweeping the track, the heavens had opened and the entire track was awash. Most of those venturing out returned straight to the pits waiting for an improvement.

Within half an hour the rain had stopped and some very wet lappery ensued. With showers returning throughout the evening sessions no improvements could be achieved over Wednesdays times and Team Total Peugeot were on the Le Mans pole at the first attempt – the # 8 Lamy/Arrazin/Bourdais lapping in a time of 3:26:344, half a second faster than the #2 Audi.

Adrian Fernandez racing at Le Mans for the 1st time was very pleased to be on the LMP2 pole, particularly as he freely admits he is treating this race as a fact finding mission with a view to a full assault with the American Le Mans Series race winning Acura in 2008 – lets hope Penske take up the challenge and bring some Porsche Spyders in opposition. Le Mans veteran Yojeiro Tarada found a seat this year in the #29 T2M. Despite his wealth of experience in a career encompassing over 20 Le Mans appearances the car could only post a time of 4:53:983, the slowest of all the 53 competitors – almost 90 seconds slower than the pole sitting Peugeot.

LMGT1 was the usual battle between Aston Martin and Corvette, though somewhat surprisingly the Oreca Saleen S7R spoilt their party by splitting them up posting second fastest time.

In LMGT2 the # 87 Scuderia Ecosse fired the 1st shot in the Porsche / Ferarri battle claiming the class pole with a time of 4:04:185 just half a second faster than the # 76 IMSA Performance Porsche 997 GT3 RSR of Narac/Lietz/Long.

Personal impressions? The Audis and Peugeots are very very quiet and will probably frighten a few photographers in the pits (count me among them !), their pace is stunning though, Audi to win. Unfortunately, I cannot see a petrol engined car finishing in the top 3. Best of the rest? It has to be Pescarolo and perhaps the Charouz Lola. LMP2 is wide open with the 4 seconds covering the fastest 5 qualifiers. LMGT1? The most competitive class in the race. What a prospect with 3 manufacturers and 8 cars very capable of winning – it must be Aston Martin’s year at their 3rd attempt. LMGT2 the Porsches sound like proper Porsches once again having switched to the 997 from the ear spitting and harsh exhaust note of the 996. Ferrari seem to have them covered though and last years class winners Panoz are only 8th fastest. The Spykers may be in financial difficulties but their cars are beautifully turned out and sounding gorgeous. Ferrari, Porsche, Porsche does it for me.

A wet race is forecast, so although the changes to the track at Tertre Rouge have reduced the lap time by around 1.5 seconds, it is unlikely a new race distance record will be achieved. But as the track is changed the fastest lap will also be the new lap record.

The Race

Saturday - 16th June

First 6 hours

Race day dawned overcast, breezy with rainclouds everywhere. A walk along the grid brought a surprise in the form of the JLOC Lamborghini lining up on the final row. It seemed the team had appealed to the ACO asking whether they could run a replacement chassis, amazingly considering the usual inflexible stance of the ACO this was permitted. A truck was despatched to Paris to collect an ex FIA GT Championship chassis and much time was spent re-stickering it to resemble the crashed chassis. To the applause of the crowd and other teams it fired up to take the warm up lap and was away at the back of the queue.

At the start Sebastien Bourdais was trying hard – a little too hard and went wide at the Dunlop chicane losing 1st place. The Lamborghini team’s hopes were soon dashed as the Murcielago stopped on the Mulsanne straight on the opening lap and was soon showing as the 1st official retirement. It is unclear whether this was misfortune or was the car merely a start money special? We’ll probably never know.

The #21 Bruichladdich Radical was sounding rough but still circulating. By lap 16 it was all over too soon. Tim Greaves went off in the Porsche Curves and made it back to the pits were with glum faces the car was retired and the garage door pulled shut. A shame as this small British team had struggled in the face of seemingly unending problems and even had to resort running up and down the adjacent runway on Friday evening checking major engine works.

By now rain was falling all over the track and cars were spinning off all around the circuit. Jamie Campbell-Walter lost control of the #9 Creation under the safety car and hit the barriers at the Karting esses, he made it back to the pits for repairs.

Lap 22 brought the 1st major shock of the race, a hitherto indestructible Corvette was off at Arnage. Oliver Gavin driving the #64 car had broken a driveshaft. Gavin eventually managed to get the car going by means of the starter, but a rule book savvy marshal banged on his window and stopped him. Driving on under alternative (battery) power is not permitted – race over, car retired. Corvette’s 1st Le Mans retirement.

Now a real shock, Mike Rockenfeller had gone off at Tetre Rouge in the #3 Audi. He’d simply gone in too fast and backed in the Armco HARD. Would Audi’s phenomenal strength come to their rescue again? Time after time we’ve seen Audi’s thrown into the weeds only to be restarted and driven slowly back to the pits shedding bodywork and gravel, to emerge 15 or 20 minutes later looking none the worse. Not this time. The rear suspension was wrecked and the gearbox had taken a huge impact evidenced by the badly damaged barrier. He vainly tried to drive away but he only made smoke. The necessary barrier repairs brought out the safety car for the second time and the race was less than 2 hours old!

Meanwhile with the rain falling harder and harder cars were going off behind the safety car. Other retirements in the opening hours of the race were the #81 GT2 LNT Panoz with gearbox problems and the #29 LMP2 T2M Dome was out – Terada San’s race over for another year.

Night hours

A wet afternoon had turned into a glorious evening, warm sun and no wind, the ghastly weather of earlier was just a memory at quarter distance. At the front of the race the #2 Capello/Kristensen /McNish was circulating at lap record pace and had established a 2 lap lead over #1 Audi, itself 4 laps ahead of the 3rd place #8 Peugeot. The #9 Creation was in trouble and eventually retired at 55 laps having been off track at least twice and spending a long time in the pits. Also and the #71 Siekel Motorsport GT2 Porsche became the 1st Porsche to fail at 68laps with electrical problems, followed 2 laps later by the #86 Spyker.

Next retirement was the #5 Audi engined Swiss Spirit Lola, stopping with gearbox problems out at Arnage and being retired on the spot. Next to fall was the #80 Troy Lee designed ‘art car’ Flying Lizard GT2 Porsche 997, having lost a door (a regular problem with 997s this year) it later retired with a cracked gearbox.

The Kruse Motorsport LMP2 Pescarolo had been suffering a variety of woes, including spinning and blocking the pit entry and a mechanic setting off the fire extinguisher, and eventually retired after 124 laps with a blown engine. Shortly afterwards Amaral crashed the #40 Quifel ASM Lola on 137 at the Porsche Curves into retirement. Unfortunately the other Spyker the #85 Chiesa,/Belicchi/Caffi entry retired on 145 laps with transmission issues ending the enthusiastic Dutch effort for another year – perhaps forever ?

After 13 hours Audi were still running 1, 2 with the #8 Peugeot now 7 laps adrift in 3rd place. Top petrol runner was the # 16 Pescarolo a further lap down. The #31 Binnie Motorsport Lola was leading LMP2 by 7 laps mainly by sticking to strict rules about not hitting kerbs – or other cars! It was paying off. With the factory Corvette effort down to 1 car, Aston Martin were showing them the way in GT1 with 4 cars the top 5 – Corvette 3rd. GT2 was a topsy turvy affair and the #97 Risi Competizione Ferrri 430 led by 2 laps from the #76 IMSA Competition Porsche.

Next out on lap 175 with a blown engine was the #13 LMP1 Courage entered by Courage Competition and the Noel Del Bello LMP2 Courage # 24 suffering with gearbox issues. The #15 Charouz Lola had a big off on the Mulsanne straight in the middle of the night and the car was brought in for extensive repairs, including front bodywork, right front suspension, right rear suspension, new floor, new exhausts, new rear wing and probably a lot more besides. The car was back on track in an hour and despite no fewer than 6 punctures carried on to the finish.

Sunday - 17th June

Morning hours

GT2 leaders and pre race favourites Risi Competizione were leading comfortably when Jaime Melo hit some oil at 6am and hit the barriers under braking. He made it back to the pits for repairs, but the car was soon retired on lap 223, the official cause being a broken water pump. This handed the class lead to another Ferrari 430, the #87 Scuderia Ecosse. Having started from the class pole, Mullen had a comfortable lead when a drive shaft failed on lap 241. Class lead handed to the IMSA Porsche.

On lap 224 by the #35 Saulnier Racing LMP2 Courage retired a broken engine – with the #20 Pilbeam having crashed our on lap 122, Bill Binnie was running out of opposition.

In GT1, Johnny Herbert’s 2007 Le Mans campaign started to unravel at 7am when he lost concentration and went across the gravel at the Porsche Curves. Repairs to the front splitter cost the #007 car 8 minutes and at last the see saw battle for the class lead was firmly in the safe hands of Turner/Rydell/Brabham in the #009 car.

Shortly before 8am on Sunday morning disaster struck Audi. The leading #2 car driven by Dindo Capello lost a left rear wheel at Indianapolis and have the barrier a mightly thump – he was on the spot. Tom Kristensen’s campaign for an 8th win had ended. Alan McNish was devastated, he so wanted to win this race again outright, his previous win for Porsche in 1998 must seem like a very long time ago.

This instantly made Peugeot sit up and take notice, although their #8 car trailed by 7 laps, if 2 of the invincible Audi’s could be crashed and unlike previous years retired, could a third?

Into the finish...

The #25 RML Lola which had won LMP2 for the last 2 years had been experiencing every difficulty the race could throw at it. Initially the car stopped at the esses, Andy Wallace spoke to the team on the radio and with only drivers allowed to touch the car away from the pits took expert advice over the radio and transferred the auxiliary crank. That worked and Andy returned to the pits where his work was checked, passed fit and he re-entered the race. Later in the 4th hour Andy went off in the Porsche curves with a suspected puncture. The car was badly damaged front and rear and the driver feared the worst. However, as the car was deemed to be in a dangerous position, the marshals were able to tow it to a safer place whereupon the engine was refired and Andy returned to the pits, where some serious rebuilding ensued. A little over an hour later Mike Newton was able to rejoin the race. Steady progress was made through the night and morning, however disaster struck on Sunday morning with the car being retired for good with overheating problems after 251 laps. Still less competition for the Binnie team.

Almost on the same lap the #32 Barazi Zytek was crashed on the pit straight, leaving a visibly distraught Karim Ojjeh to ponder what might have been. Also retiring on 252 laps was the #83 GPC Sport Ferrari 430 GT2.

With 2 hours of the race left to run the heavens opened once again, with heavy and constant rain falling over the entire track. So bad were the conditions that a deputation of team managers approached the ACO calling for a safety car to be released. Initially their request was ignored, but eventually common sense prevailed and the race was neutralized.

The next drama was the retirement of the 3rd placed #7 Peugeot. The car spent time in the pits earlier and team are already notorious for being very ‘shy’ so the true reason may never be known. However the gossip in the paddock was that they didn’t want the car to fail on the track so they retired it in the pits. Audi #1 could now breathe just a little easier. The #8 Peugeot was 2nd 6 laps down and the petrol class leading #16 Pescarolo was a secure 3rd 11 laps ahead of the remarkable #18 Pescarolo customer car of Rollcentre Racing.

With about 20 minutes of the race left and will rain still falling heavily, the ACO called in the Safety car and the race was under green flags once again. Though the conditions were still as bad as at any stage through previous Safety car periods, the ACO didn't want their blue ribband event to been seen by millions of TV viewers from around the world finishing behind a safety car. They might just as well have left it out as the only battle for position, with potential to be resolved during the final hour was effectively ruined by the Safety car. So the race ran to it conclusion with no changes for position.

The results

Audi won as expected, but Peugeot gave notice for next year with a strong performance. Henri Pescarolo must have found cause for a little smile having a car on the podium and 3 in the top 6.

LMP2 was a case of he who finished wins, the #31 Binnie Lola finishing in 18th position, 1st in LMP2 and a massive 17 laps ahead of the only other class finisher the #33 Barazi Epsilon Zytek.

GT1 finally saw an Aston Martin on the top step much to the delight of the British Fans who always need a team to cheer on. The #009 winning by just a lap from the #63 Corvette. All 6 DBR9’s entered made the finish. Remarkably 3 of them in the top 10 overall.

GT2 went to Porsche and to France with the #76 IMSA Performance Porsche 997 finishing in 15th overall, 6 laps clear of the steadily driven #99 Krohn Racing (Risi) Ferrari and 11 laps clear of the #93 Autorlando Porsche. Special mention must be made to the 3 British amateur drivers Joe Macari. Ben Aucott and (F1 designer) Adrian Newey who brought home their #78 AF Corse Ferrari 430 home 4th in class.

Not a great race by any means, but a memorable one certainly. Audi had better watch their backs next June.

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