Saturday
Jan212012

Six Hours Of Power

Silverstone has been a significant name in Grand Prix circles since the inaugural round of the Formula 1 World Championship was held there in July 1950, but its rise to prominence in the sportscar racing arena came later. In 1976, the British round of the World Sportscar Championship moved from its traditional home at Brands Hatch to the Northamptonshire airfield circuit, and an unbroken run of six-hour or 1,000km races was held there until 1988. There then followed a handful of shorter events in the early ’90s, as well as the third round of the American Le Mans Series in 2000, and since 2004, the annual six-hour/1,000km race tradition has been restored, with rounds of the European Le Mans Series and, latterly, the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup (ILMC).

 

2011 will go down in history as the only full season of the ILMC, as for 2012 it has transformed into a full-blown FIA World Endurance Championship, something not seen since 1992. But the recent sudden announcement of Peugeot’s immediate departure from endurance racing has dealt the reborn series a cruel blow before it has even begun. Although we didn’t know it at the time, last September’s Silverstone round of the ILMC would turn out to be the final occasion Peugot and Audi’s endurance teams did battle on European soil.

 

Despite Audi’s storied triumph at the Le Mans 24 Hours, the German squad headed into Silverstone looking to make up a 43-point deficit in the ILMC standings to Peugeot, following the French team’s strong showing at the fourth round of the series in Imola. Behind the works diesels, OAK Racing welcomed back their young charge Matthieu Lahaye,  recovered from injuries sustained at the Spa 1,000km in May. Also, the squad debuted a new driver in their second LMP1 car, former single-seater hopeful and Quifel ASM driver Olivier Pla joining team founder Jacques Nicolet and another French young gun, Alexandre Premat, in the #49 car. The Anglo-Swiss Rebellion Racing team was also present, with two cars – one of them locked in a Le Mans Series title duel with the French Pescarolo team.

 

Following the disappointment and embarrasment of Le Mans, the works Aston Martin team returned to LMP1 with a single example of the older Lola DBR1 car in an attempt to salvage some pride from a disastrous season. With the American Muscle Milk squad moving to a HPD in 2012, the closing events of 2011 were the last time the glorious noise of the Aston V12 could be heard emanating from a prototype chassis in an international sportscar event. The ill-fated AMR-ONE may have been the gravest of miscalculations, but it’s hard to look unkindly on a team that pours everything it has into fielding such an evocative car against vastly better funded opposition.

 

The ACO added an extra dimension to the Audi/Peugeot contest at Silverstone by introducing a new technical regulation concerning the ‘planks’ affixed to the bottom of the LMP1 and LMP2 cars. Their minimum permissable thickness was increased from 20 to 25mm, effectively forcing the cars to run higher ride heights, with a knock-on effect for aerodynamics. Despite debate over how this would affect the relative pace of Peugeot and Audi, Peugeot team boss Olivier Quesnel was largely nonplussed, saying: “The car is much the same, because we have a good advantage in the championship, so we don’t have to be too risky on the technical side. We just need to have the two cars still there at the end of the race. If there was more pressure and we had to win, maybe we’d have something new on the car, but we don’t have that pressure right now.”

 

His technical chief Bruno Famin was slightly more circumspect, however. “It forces us to raise the ride height by 5mm which means altering the mechanical and aerodynamic setup of our cars. It’s sensible to allow a margin of error to be sure of not dropping below the minimum threshold, to take account of wear and any damage caused as the cars cross the track’s rumble strips. This isn‘t going to be easy, especially as this year the race is six hours long, which in dry conditions equates to almost 20 percent more distance than the usual 1,000km.”

 

LMP2 is shaping up to be a bumper class in the 2012 WEC, but 2011 saw only a handful of full-season ILMC entrants in this category, and the Signatech-Oreca of Lucas Ordonez and Frank Mailleux proved the class of the small field. They were joined by endurance veteran Soheil Ayari in the early part of the season, but from the Silverstone round on, Peugeot’s reserve driver Jean-Karl Vernay stepped in. The 2010 Indy Lights champion looked set for a breakout year in 2012, as he would more than likely have stepped up to a full WEC race seat with Peugeot. Now, though, things are less certain, and it would be a shame to see his talent go to waste due to a lack of top-level seats. At Silverstone, he helped take Signatech a step closer to the ILMC LMP2 title they would eventually win with ease. But with 2011 LMS LMP2 champions Greaves Motorsport stepping up to the WEC for 2012, not to mention a host of other strong contenders who have announced programmes in the past few weeks, Signatech may not be in for such an easy ride this year.

 

Peugeot topped the timing screens in both of Friday’s free practice sessions, although only four tenths of a second covered the top four cars. The sessions passed without incident, but shortly after the cars took the track for the third and final warm-up the next morning, Maximo Cortes in the #23 Zytek hybrid suffered a severe fire that would put an early end to the MIK Corse squad’s weekend. Rain arrived later in the afternoon, and, as predicted, the Peugeots were unstoppable in damp conditions. Simon Pagenaud, deputising for an injured Anthony Davidson and driving at Silverstone for the first time, streaked to pole position with a time off 1:43.924. Allan McNish split the Peugeots with his second-place lap, so it was all to play for on Sunday.

 

GTE Pro promised the closest battle of the Silverstone weekend, with Ferrari and BMW duking it out for both manufacturers and teams title honours. The AF Corse Ferraris showed well in practice, but BMW held the upper hand after qualifying. In the race, a furious battle saw seven cars on the lead lap as the race drew to a close, with AF Corse (Fisichella and Bruni) and Luxury Racing (Makowiecki and Ortelli) making it a Ferrari one-two. GTE Am would be a more settled affair, with the Larbre Competition Corvette of Julien Canal, Gabriele Gardel and Patrick Bornhauser securing third place behind a pair of Porsches to contine its progress to the title.

 

Contact with backmarkers was a recurring theme in 2011, and the Silverstone ILMC race was no different. Before the first hour had passed, Audi and Peugeot had seen a car apiece remove itself from victory contention. First, the #8 Peugeot with Franck Montagny at the wheel made contact with the #99 Formula Le Mans entry. The car ended up in the gravel, but managed to rejoin and return to the pits. But with a broken wishbone and other front-end damage, extensive repairs were required and any chance of a win was wiped out. Audi didn’t have a clean run through the first hour, either, with Allan McNish coming together with a GTE Ferrari at the exit of Becketts corner. The remaining Audi overhauled the Pagenaud/Bourdais Peugeot for the lead in the third hour, and for a while it was anyone’s race, but damage to the Bernhard/Fassler Audi necessitated a rear bodywork change – this procedure put the car almost a minute down and handed victory to the #7 Peugeot.

 

Close, back-and-forth battles like this are the main reason Peugeot will be sorely missed from this year’s World Endurance Championship. No-one doubts the ultimate potential of a totally focused Toyota team, but to expect an all-new car running a part-season as a prelude to a full campaign in 2013 to mount any kind of a challenge to Audi’s 12 years of prototype racing experience is asking too much. No doubt the petrol and hybrid battles will be intriguing, but having the overall outcome of every race being close to a foregone conclusion is a bitter pill to swallow.
« Enduring Appeal | Main | Test Drive: Porsche 911 GTS Cabriolet »