After the two-day official practice organized as usual in early March, Le Mans Series is here again on Paul Ricard circuit for the first race of the 2010 championship. The circuit, located in Var region, few kilometres from the district of Bouches du Rhone, has always been considered one of the finest and most challenging track in the world, has hosted the debut of this category in French territory with a lengthened time with respect to the usual layout of 1000 km races so that to represent a suitable test bed in view of next 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Although the present economic situation hasn’t certainly favoured the presence of numerous teams, the quality of the entered cars has been excellent, thanks to the presence of, among others, Peugeot 908 HDi, Audi R15, Aston Martin and Acura for a total of 41 entered. Less pleasant side has been the absence of Henry Pescarolo and his prototypes, real institutions in the endurance race world: after buy-out made last year by Sora, the future of the team seems more and more uncertain and the presence of the cars of Le Mans is guaranteed by the only Oak Racing team, returned to Judd powering after Mazda interval, in category P2.
The fight so eagerly awaited between Peugeot and Audi has already started in the first day of the free practices that took place under a Spring sun and in nearly total lack of wind, weather conditions extremely rare in the area where the circuit has been built: at the end the best time was set by McNish, followed by Sarrazin only a few tenths of seconds, while Oreca, the first one of the following cars suffered a gap of 2 seconds from the top, because of an engine problem which prevented the car from running during the second session.
Audi leading position also lasted on Saturday morning session, with the Scottish driver able to have eight tenths of second lead over his direct rival, while official Aston Martin gained the third place at 1:400. Who also expected a P2 challenge between Acura and Ginetta had on the contrary to resign himself to the excessive power of the former, in a position to inflict heavy leads over the rival, moreover, also passed by the Lola-Hpd of Erdos.
The GT classes, behind the prototypes, boasted of alternate fortunes: while among GT2s, spectators watched a fight on hundredths of seconds against Porsche 997 Gt3 driven by Lietz ahead of a small group of nine cars closed in 350 thousands, in GT1 the only presence of Saleen of Larbre highlighted the crisis of this class.
As usual the first twenty minutes of qualification are devoted to GT cars, with Bleekemolen who, after having suffered for an under-steering throughout the morning, opens dances with a Spyker, in its new red and black livery, keeping its first position till mid-session, thanks to the only entry into the track of six cars. In the latest 10 minutes traffic increases considerably, with all GT2s on track managing to take advantage of the rubberized track: Bruni, in the first car of the Ferraris AF Corse, is immediately setting 1:57:946 best time, to improve, later on, on the next lap with 1:57:850, time that nobody will succeed in reaching. Behind him Lietz gets his own way, with a gap of 366 thousandths, ahead of Muller in Ferrari CRS, Vilander in the second Ferrari AF, an increasingly surprising Aston Martin with Bell and the third Ferrari AF with Russo, held in two tenths of second. Finally, we have to point out the general competitiveness of the 13 cars entered into this class: between the Ferrari driven by Bruni and the Bmw, a tail ender, the gap has only been of 1:743. Moreover, we have to mention that Saleen Larbre has recorded the best time of 1:57:085 which will allow it to start in the first position among the GT cars.
In the session devoted to prototypes, Audi and Peugeot Oreca, the two cars pretending to Pole, are making a choice between different strategies; while the former immediately goes into the track with Capello, the latter will wait till the last eight minutes to launch its own attack. At the end it will be Lapierre who will set the best time of 1:41:195 with a 437 thousandths’ lead over the Italian driver. Behind them Aston Martin driven by Mucke, one of the best drivers in the category, and Oreca driven by Duval, that minimize damages as for the gaps not exceeding one second and half. There is big trouble for the two Rebellions, which do not overcome the third row because of the low power of their engine which had the same name: at the end of the Mistral Straight the speed recorded by the Swiss cars was 25km/h less than the one of the leaders. From bad to worse it was for the Signature, in big trouble for the management of the Aston Martin, the last car among the P1s nearly at 4 seconds from the top.
Among the P2s, after a first supremacy of the Oak with Lahaye, third at the end, the appearance of Watts on the track at the wheel of Acura, stops play definitively: the English driver offers an unbelievable performance, stopping chronometers on 1:44:989 notwithstanding a top speed of 40 km/h less than the P1s, and setting the fourth total time in the middle third, at six tenths from Peugeot. To poor Pla was only left to ensure the second best time at over 2 seconds. Fourth time for Erdos, the last who held the gap under three seconds, while the cars of Lola Racing Box showing as years go by, ended in the last positions with heavy gaps. The second Pescarolo Oak didn’t take part in the qualifying tests; in fact the car had broken the engine in the morning as it happened to its twin car during Friday sessions.
Finally let’s have a look at Formula Le Mans, with the Dams driven by Piscopo who has set the best time of 1:52:936, ahead of Beche in Hope Polevision and Zollinger in Applewood Seven.
A morning clear sky, which has accompanied the warm-up, surrenders to a blanket of threatening clouds just when the cars are running the pre-grid rounds, unequivocal sign that, as foreseen, the race will take place under a continuous risk of rain, however, it was only expected early in the afternoon. Thus, while the two-day tests have been characterized by spring like temperatures, the competition will take place at very low temperatures, so as to compel spectators to abandon the circuit before the checkered flag. At Audi paddocks we see Kristensen, off-race in this week end due to a torn heel tendon in the month of January during a Badminton match, however come to support his two team mates. We have to point out that during the warm-up Saleen has been bumped by a prototype causing damages that will affect the first part of the race, while Oak has decided to get Pescarolo with Moreau start from the last row of the line-up and not from pits.
At 11 am cars are running behind the safety car for the formation round, without showing any problems and a few minutes later the race began with McNish who starts well and attacks Sarrazin, who defending himself makes a mistake leaving an opening on the outside through which the Scottish driver threads his way; the two drivers, engaged in the fight, have a slight collision at St. Beaurne opening a chasm where Mucke may get into and thus he found himself first, a position that he will keep for the first two passages, before being overtaken on Mistral by the Audi on lap three and by Peugeot on lap four. Behind them Signature, started as a sling, holds out in fourth position for some laps, but soon it has to let two Rebellions pass, while Oreca is a protagonist of a puncture that forced it to go back to pits in advance. On lap 20 there is a new unexpected event with the Rebellion, driven by Jani, which complains the breakage of rear suspension forcing it to a double pit-stop, the second of which will last more than 20 minutes. After two laps also Aston Martin claims a puncture to the left front tyre which luckily will not compromise the race. After the first hour the two leading cars start stopping at pits, with a gap between them of no more than 10 seconds; when the Peugeot stops at pit-stop, mechanics have a bad surprise by discovering that the hydraulic system which permits to lift the car doesn’t want to hear any more about working. It takes less than 16 minutes to repair the damage, enough to let Audi cars have eight-lap’s lead over the direct rival. The remaining part of the race will represent a chronometric test for the German car, with drivers who, however, will go on running at fast times and ending by setting the lap best time at last hour of the race with Capello as a driver. This situation also favours Boullion who recovers the third place with one lap’s lead over the direct following car. In P2 the Acura, after running for the entire first hour after Mansell’s exhaust pipes and gaining a quite good lead over the duo Erdos-Pla, has to go back to pit-stop to have one part of the body repaired losing three laps and going back to the eight place in the class, just behind the Ginetta of Quifel which has also to go back for an unusual time of pit-stop. At mid-race here is the Lola RML in the lead among the P2s, followed by the two Pescarolo Oak and the Ginetta of Bruichladdich Team. In GT2 the fight is without quarter from the start, with Lietz who recovers, after a difficult start, till to take the leadership of the class which nobody will succeed in threatening. After the almost immediate withdrawal of Aston Martin with Bell, Spyker and Porsche ProSpeed and with Ferrari AF Corse of Melo, at first delayed because of a puncture and then retired when it was third, the fight for podium is restricted to Proton second crew and Ferrari drive by Alesi, with the French driver who lost the second place owing to a puncture further to a collision with a barchetta at fifteen minutes from the end.
Once finished the challenge between Audi and Peugeot and settled all the leading positions, the interest of spectators concentrates on the run-up of the 908HDi hunting for important scores and fighting among the P2s, which offers continuous unexpected events: the car of the lion will succeed just on the last laps in gaining an unhoped-for fourth place, helped by Oreca too that will stop once more at pits, while among the smallest prototypes Acura, driven by Watts, threateningly draws near the Pescarolo with Moreau, that found itself in the lead after having overtaken Lola RML, less competitive in Newton and Wallace’s hands. When it is an hour and a half to the end, the Ginetta Quifel retires definitively, with outstanding problems of direction and the last half-hour duels stir up again: Watts finished his run-up achieving the top of podium at Moreau’s expense, while Erdos, retakes the RML, and overtakes the other Pescarolo Oak scoring a bright third place.
Let’s have also a look at Formula Le Mans, with the Hope Polevision which has to yield the win to Applewood seven because of a very banal spoon in the final laps, when it started raining on the circuit. In the last laps, the rain-drops from sky convinced the Audi technicians to call Capello back to pits in order to mount the rain tires so as to run the last minutes without any worries.
A win, therefore, for the Audi with a five-lap’s lead over Austin Martin and Rebellion with Boullion, whose crews will unintentionally invert their position on podium.
The second appointment with Le Mans Series 2010 will take place at Spa on 7-9 May 2010, obviously in Connectingrod’s company.