2009 Winner: Corvette Racing – Chevrolet Corvette C6.R
Drivers – Johnny O'Connell/Jan Magnussen/Antonio Garcia – 342 laps completed
What to watch for in 2010
The future of LMGT1
Can any of them go the distance?
Twelve months ago, or even six months ago, it looked as though the LMGT1 category was either dead in Le Mans competition or would be kept alive artificially by a number of dedicated, yet unremarkable, privateers.
It looked as if the class that played host to the tight Aston Martin v Corvette battles would be allowed to shrivel, becoming a caricature of itself. Personally, especially after the departure of the works Corvettes I would rather hoping they perform the last rights on the class, and use the entries it freed up to boost the other classes.
That was an opinion I held until the first round of the FIA GT1 World Championship. The series, promoted by the SRO Motorsports Group has been one of the revelations of the racing year. There was plenty of criticism for the set-up the series at least encouraged, if not prescribed, to keep out the big works influenced teams.
The sort of works influenced teams that had made LMGT1 a Le Mans highlight for many years.
However, the new series has produced some of the best racing anywhere in the world, but translating a promising product from the series hour-long 'sprints' to 24 relentless hours around Le Mans is going to be a whole new test for the teams, drivers and equipment. These cars, effectively being the same as take to the FIA GT1 grid.
That the new cars and their 'tuner' support teams can't cope with an endurance race has been the last bastion of criticism for those sportscar racing fans against Stephane Ratel – the S and R of the SRO. However, even that argument found itself under attack after the 1000km of Spa when a small fleet of GT1 cars and teams travelled to Belgium, and most lasted the race – the Ford GT sweeping the podium in the hands of the teams, though not drivers, preparing for Le Mans. A car specifically designed for the new GT1 world championship had taken a win in bone fide endurance racing.
GT1's rejuvenation was underway.
However, under all this positivity it's hard to ignore the fact the class is clearly the smallest at La Sarthe. The numbers were dented when the Peka Racing Corvette withdrew after the intended chassis disappeared in flames, then smoke, then extinguisher foam, then into a wheelie bin (yes, really) at Silverstone.
It would have been nice if Maserati's all-conquering MC12 had finally made the visit to Le Mans, or even the Nissan GT-R, but the seven car class contains some of the biggest names and team from the GT1 series, as well as some names that will be more familiar with the Le Mans experience.
No.50 – Larbre Competition – Saleen S7R
Drivers – Roland Berville/Julien Canal/Gabriele Gardel
The Saleen is the only real old school LMGT1 car in the fied, but sadly as much as this brings undoubted pedigree when it comes to reliability it raises the question as to whether the American car is a little past it's best before date.
In fact, plain and simple reliability might be the only that the team can get anywhere near the podium, even if this class. The driving trio of two Frenchmen and a Swiss – Gardel – is highly unlikely to trouble much of the rest of the field when it comes to outright speed. However, Larbre are by far the most experienced team in the class which always counts for something in endurance racing.
Still, the team's performance at Spa, where they could only muster fourth – the last classified runner in class – shows that not even an experienced team and car so far past teething troubles it keeps false ones in jar at night. And the Spa performance was with a better driving line-up than will visit Le Mans.
No.52 – Young Driver AMR – Aston Martin DBR9
Drivers – Christoffer Nygaard/Tomas Enge/Peter Kox
The lone Aston Martin in the class, and a potential class winner. Effectively the works Aston team in GT1 (despite the SRO) the squad are run by the German Fischer Racing squad, who graduate to Le Mans after an apprenticeship in junior formulae and the SRO's GT3 championship. But how much Aston Martin assistance does the team take to Le Mans? Any 24 hours experience could help Young Driver though the tricky hours every team encounters.
The answer to that question could be in the driving line-up. Enge and Kox both appeared in Aston Martin's works LMP1 program last year, though Kox now drives for GT1 rivals Lamborghini. They join Nygaard – a Fischer Racing stalwart and the most fragile of the three, especially after he comprehensively remodelled the car on the Blanchimont tyre wall in their LMS Spa outing.
The Young Driver part may be a DNF, but the AMR part is a potential winner.
No.60 – Matech Competition – Ford GT
Drivers – Thomas Mutsch/Romain Grosjean/Jonathon Hirschi
Mutsch and Grosjean are the current leaders in the FIA GT1 championship, which obviously makes them an early favourite for class, especially after their second place in class at Spa. However, if the team's performances in the SRO series are taken as form then they could struggle at Le Mans.
The Ford is notoriously slow in a straight line. Grosjean described the car as being 14kmp/h slower than the Lamborghinis at Silverstone's high speed layout. And Le Mans is even faster, if the Ford finds itself disadvantaged on a 'normal' straight then a similar problem on the Mulsanne could all but end the team's challenge almost before it's begun.
Much may depend on what weights the cars run at Le Mans, the GT1 World Championship uses success ballast, as well as performance balancing, which changes after every event. When running at Spa in May the cars ran at the same weights as their inaugural race at Abu Dhabi, any change will doubtless hand one team an advantage over another, thanks to the constant over and under estimation of the performance balancing.
No.61 – Matech Competition – Ford GT
Drivers – Natacha Gachnang/Rahel Frey/Cyndie Allemann
The all-female driving squad was announced earlier this year, with the expected media circus and pseudo-glamour shots. But since then it's been a year to forget for the all Swiss line-up.
Gachnang suffered an enormous accident in the first round of the GT1 World Championship, breaking her leg and writing off the car. However, Gachnang – who raced at Le Sarthe last year in the Formula Le Mans support race – is still listed as a driver in the car, despite all indications being that her presence at Le Mans is still questionable. If Gachnang does race the car, Le Mans must be horrible place to return to the driving seat after an injury in a high speed crash.
Gachnang's crash had a knock on effect for Allemann. Obviously the car played no further part in Abu Dhabi, and the Icelandic ash cloud conspired to delay the rebuild so that the ladies also missed the next round at Silverstone. When Allemann and Frey finally made it onto track – at Spa, with third driver Yann Zimmer – they finished third in class. However, more worrying was their lack of pace at the subsequent (and more competitive) FIA GT1 round at Brno, when they the two women lacked anywhere near the pace of their teammates.
No.69 – JLOC – Lamborghini Murcielago
Drivers – Atsushi Yogo/Koji Tamanishi/Hiroyuki Iiri
To describe JLOC as a cult success at Le Mans is stretching the word 'success' to new lengths (to be honest 'cult' is probably a bit uncomfortable).
The Le Mans record of the Japanese Lamborghini Owners' Club (to give them their full title) is a short one. In their two recent appearances – 2007 and 2009 – the team have completed just two racing laps, one on each occasion (though in fairness, their '07 performance owed much to having to break in a totally new (under-spec) chassis following a massive practice accident).
However, to dub Le Mans 2010 as JLOC's quest for lap two is a little unfair. They arrive this year with added purpose, gaining their entry by winning the GT1 class of the Asian Le Mans Series. Whether, they can bring that form out of their home country is yet to be seen, no matter what happens it's probably going to be remembered for one reason or another – who knows, they might see the hours of darkness!
No.70 – Marc VDS Racing Team – Ford GT
Drivers – Eric de Doncker/Bas Leinders/Markus Paltalla
Technically the Belgian squad could be favourites to take the class win. They beat much of the same competition (though crucially not the Luc Alphand Corvettes) to class honours at Spa to take a surprise win.
However, Marc van de Straten's team have been some way off the FIA series' pace and come to Le Mans with three drivers largely untested in 24 hours combat, though all have at least some experience of sportscar racing before this year.
The team may also have another secret weapon ready to deploy in the race. They're showings in the rain have been a revelation. Though the wet stuff has yet to affect the GT1 race it has fallen on two practices – one each at Silverstone and Brno – both of which have been topped by the silver and burgundy Fords. If it rains at Le Mans we might get to see whether this pace is genuine.
No.72 – Luc Alphand Aventures – Chevrolet Corvette C6.R
Drivers – Stephan Gregoire/Jerome Policand/David Hart
Luc Alphand's team have become a fixture in LMGT1 in recent years and they return despite now being the only Corvette representatives and Alphand's own accident after competing at Le Mans last year.
Uber-experienced Gregoire remains from last year's effort, though his entry (with Alphand and Patrice Goueslard). This year he is joined by two more of the elder statesmen of sportcar racing. Policand is a veteran of dozens of C6.R races, while Hart's Le Man experience includes a part in the iconic Racing for Holland prototypes.
Together the three produce one of the more intriguing line-ups in the class. It has none of the headline names of some of the other teams in the class, but everything that's need for Le Mans.
No.73 – Luc Alphand Aventures – Chevrolet Corvette C6.R
Drivers – Julien Jousse/Xavier Maassen/Patrice Goueslard
Perhaps an even stronger Alphand car, still without the names that will grab headlines. Goueslard has two podiums with LAA, though his 2009 race ended with the car in the tyre wall. Jousse and Maassen combined with Yann Clairay to grab a runner-up spot last year.
This year the line-up is even stronger, with Jousse having another year's experience and Dutchman Maassen bringing extra Corvette experience from his campaign with the Mad Croc team in the GT1 World Championship.
If Le Sarthe has any sense of justice the trio will give Luc Alphand the class victory his persistence and commitment to LMGT1, Le Mans and Corvette.