A Very Hot Warm-Up For Le Mans

The story of the 2011 Spa-Francorchamps 1000km race, the second round of the first full season of the ILMC (Intercontinental Le Mans Cup), was one of confounded expectations. Firstly, there was the weather. Not a drop of rain fell on the sun-baked Ardennes track for the duration of the three-day meeting, something quite at odds with the circuit’s renowned microclimate. And secondly, Peugeot won. In retrospect, perhaps this wasn’t that much of surprise: the blue and black cars have enjoyed a perfect record in Belgium since 2007, but they certainly didn’t have the aura of eventual victors around them on Thursday and Friday. For starters, there was Pedro Lamy’s coming-together with the RML Acura of Mike Newton that left both cars heavily damaged and ended the British team’s race weekend on the spot. With almost 60 cars entered, traffic problems had been expected to feature prominently, and so it proved, with multiple yellow and red flags in every session due to an outbreak of ‘two into one does not go’ driving. Then, a critical miscalculation in Friday’s qualifying session left the Peugeots unable to set a fast time after OAK Racing’s Mathieu Lahaye had a major accident that left the crash barriers out of commission and brought the session to a premature close. The French cars would start 13th, 18th and 50th, honour preserved once again by Oreca’s privately-run 908, which was the fastest car behind the Audi 1-2-3 lockout.

Peugeot had not been able to show its full hand, but wind back the clock a bit to the practice sessions, and nobody watching would not have expected qualifying to have produced a different result. It may have been making its race debut, but the closed-roof Audi R18 TDI looked visibly faster than anything else on track, especially through Spa’s most challenging high-speed corners, striking all the right Darth Vader/fighter jet/runaway freight train notes. In the press conference following the third practice session on Friday morning, neither Peugeot’s Sebastien Bourdais nor Audi’s Andre Lotter felt able to make a definite pronouncement on the relative pace of their two teams. They were joined by fellow elder statesmen Olivier Panis and Andy Priaulx, while the fresh face of OAK Racing’s 19-year-old LMP2 pilot Andrea Barlesi stood out, barely out of karting but already with a single-make Formula Le Mans (FLM) title under his belt. When quizzed about the rough-and-tumble nature of the GTE Pro class thus far this year, BMW’s Priaulx confessed to quite enjoying the robust nature of the battle with the Porsches and Ferraris. “GT racing is a sprint all the way these days,” he said, and few could be better equipped to deal with this than a multiple European and World Touring Car Champion. The GT-class physical combat manifested itself again in Saturday’s race, as category high fliers Giancarlo Fisichella and Marc Lieb clashed early in the race, scuppering the latter’s chances of a good result.

Back to Friday, and lunch hour saw the media decamp en masse to Audi’s ‘hospitality tent’ – in reality a steel-and-glass monolith that is the ultimate in paddock one-upmanship – to grab a word with the corps of drivers and senior management. The British press seemed nonplussed by the idea of letting anyone else get a word in edgeways with Allan McNish, so instead I grabbed Tom Kristensen for a brief chat, after a photo opportunity where he was presented with a hefty three-volume official history of the Le Mans 24 Hours. “The new regulations required a completely different car going into this year,” he said of the R18, “and obviously we have to use a smaller engine with a smaller restrictor. Audi chose to go aggressive with a V6, and we have pretty good driveability even thought it’s a single turbo – I expected there would be more lag. The smaller engine means we’ve been able to optmise the aero, and the lightweight technology has really been optimised on the car as well.” And what about Le Mans preparations? “Spa is a very fast track as well, but we run with a bit more aero here than at Le Mans. Last year we ran Le Mans setup here, but now we’re probably somewhere between what would be ideal for the two tracks, which is something we’re able to do thanks to the smaller engine. We are running very close to our Le Mans setup on the rest of the car, except the camber, where the nature of this track demands a little more. We want to do well, but it’s mainly a dress rehearsal for Le Mans.” That phrase was heard more than once in the Peugeot camp as well. Sporting Director Olivier Quesnel: “The ILMC is an important goal for us, however we are not going for the race win at any cost just a few weeks away from Le Mans.” His technical director Bruno Famin echoed the sentiment. “We are treating the Spa-Francorchamps round more like a dress rehearsal, geared towards fine-tuning the organisation and getting into a racing mindset.”

But the theme of confounded expectations returned once again when the green flag fell on Saturday afternoon and Peugeot suddenly looked very racy indeed. It only took a few corners for a near-miss between two Audis that Allan McNish would later admit was his fault, but it only took 20 minutes for the three Peugeots to carve their way expertly through the field without major incident – a far cry from the multiple foul-ups in practice and qualifying. Post-race, winning trio member Anthony Davidson spoke of ‘taking calculated risks through the traffic’ – they were definitely out for victory here, and willing to fight quite hard for it. During the rest of the race, the Bernhard/Dumas/Rockenfeller Audi would have a coming-together with an FLM car, the Fassler/Lotterer/Treluyer car would make a brief excursion into the gravel trap and Dindo Capello, sharing the third Audi with McNish and Kristensen, would accidentally hit the pit-lane speed limiter on the start/finish straight.

This string of mistakes perhaps suggested the Audi drivers had not been expecting to be put under such pressure by Peugeot. But put under pressure they were, and were it not for the #9 car suffering a worrying return of the reliability problems that crippled Peugeot’s Le Mans charge last year late in the race, the French works team would have locked out the podium. And despite what was eventually a comfortable victory for Peugeot, it seems unlikely they were engaged in pure sandbagging in practice and qualifying, and the consensus among the drivers in the post-race press conference was clear – there is no significant performance advantage for either team ahead of the La Sarthe classic in June, and the 2011 running could be one of the closest Le Mans 24 Hours ever.

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