2009 Winners – Peugeot Total Sport – Peugeot 908
Drivers – David Brabham/Marc Gene/Alex Wurz – 382 laps completed
What to watch for in 2010
Peugeot versus Audi
The battle for best petrol
It's the big boys. Barring a momentous event the likes of which will never be seen again the overall winner is likely to come from one of the team outlined below. Barring a slightly less momentous event, though one that will still grab headlines for years to come, the overall winner is likely to come from one of seven teams.
Such is the power of the LMP1 diesel.
Once more this year the ACO have tried to bring the diesel cars in line with their petrol competitors and once more they appear to have failed, the phalanx of Peugeots and Audi R15s by far the class of the field, the fastest petrol car three seconds adrift of the slowest of the leading diesel group and a whopping seven seconds behind the pole sitter. While qualifying pace at Le Mans is no indication of race outcome – predicting a 24 hour race is like herding particularly energetic cats – such a gap is never going to disappear.
Of course the question is who is going to win – Peugeot or Audi.
Really, and this is a sizeable cop out, it's too early to tell. The new Audi R15 Plus won it's first race at the LMS round at Paul Ricard, before the works Peugeot won on it's 2010 European debut at Spa, with a full, three car, Audi works effort forced to make do with a best finish of third.
Of course, in a form of racing where the two big manufacturers seems to exchange thinly veiled barbs just as much as their F1 counterparts, you can argue about how much to read into any result. The Audi's were compromising on set-up at Spa compared to Peugeot, which saw them lose out more in the changing conditions. Audi also found themselves delayed in that race's numerous safety car periods.
One things is for sure, if recent years are anything to by the leading diesels will be relentless, and the race at the front competitive.
Also competitive will be the battle for the honour of being the top petrol runner – even if that is only an honour that exists in PR terms. There are maybe six petrol powered teams who, pre-race, can make claims to having genuine chances at taking the imaginary trophy home.
No.1 – Team Peugeot Total – Peugeot 908
Drivers – Anthony Davidson/Alex Wurz/Marc Gene
Former F1 driver Davidson joins two-thirds of the reigning overall champions in the no.1 car. Davidson is by no means a Le Mans rookie, having driven for Prodrive in the GT classes before being part of the works Aston Martin LMP1 team last year.
The trio are reunited again, having already raced together twice since Davidson's arrival, winning the 12 Hours of Sebring in March to start 2010 in the best possible way. The once-around-the-clock race is perhaps the best preparation for Le Mans, with the Floridian track's reputation as a car breaker, but in a pitifully shallow LMP1 field all the victory proved was the longevity of the car and drivers, rather than speed, with cynics pointing out that they were almost handed the victory by a suspiciously inconvenient pitstop for their teammates.
On paper – and despite their winning CVs – the car remains the weakest Peugeot on paper. However, the same was largely true of Gene and Wurz's charge last year. And we know how that ended.
No.2 – Team Peugeot Total – Peugeot 908
Drivers – Nicolas Minassian/Stephane Sarrazin/Franck Montagny
This is where picking the diesel teams apart gets harder. The car is, obviously, tried, tested and decidedly rapid. The three drivers are drawn from some of the finest modern sportscar driving talent, each capable of turning around a deficit inside of a single stint of racing.
But that is the level of talent you expect from the biggest teams in any form of racing, the Le Mans 24 Hours is no difference. That of course means you can find similar levels of promise in at least three other cars within the two powerhouse teams. Which one wins is likely to come down to the smallest errors. The kind of errors that not even Mayans can predict. The kind of errors that make the race compulsive viewing.
No.3 – Team Peugeot Total – Peugeot 908
Drivers – Sebastien Bourdais/Pedro Lamy/Simon Pagenaud
The team that goes into the race as the de facto favourites, Bourdais' lap of 3:19.711 putting the car on pole after Thursday night's final qualifying session. The multiple Champ Car champions, who hails from Le Mans, has found a new lease of life in sportscars, and in the few years since first joining Peugeot has cemented himself as one of the teams' fastest drivers.
With Lamy and Pagenaud joining him Peugeot have created a racing dream team to rival the line-up in the no.2 car.
The car's position on pole raises the question as to the tactics the two works outfits will employ. Traditionally multi-car teams run one car quicker in the early hours – a hare – while others maintain a steadier pace – a tortoise, relatively. Pole position makes this an obvious hare candidate, but with Le Mans becoming more and more a supersized sprint race, such tactics may be becoming out-dated.
No.4 – Team ORECA Matmut – Peugeot 908
Drivers – Olivier Panis/Nicolas Lapierre/Loic Duval
The honour of running the customer Peugeot moves across the Le Mans technopark this year, from Pescarolo Sport (sadly absent this year) to ORECA. The car will run in the same 2010 spec as the works machines (where Pescarolo were handed a year-old car) and has a driving threesome that would not be out of place in the work's cars.
The team, with works driver Sarrazin instead of Duval, came off badly second best at Paul Ricard to the dominant Audi, though almost all the deficit could be accounted for by a single, distinctly teething-esque, problem early in the race. Aside from that the car was able to come close to matching the Audi's pace.
Spa, with Duval as part of the team for his competive debut in the car, was even more disaterous, the are being spun into the tyre wall at Eau Rouge after just four laps – an accident that no doubt dented their preparation.
Still the car, simply by the fact it's a diesel, must be counted as a dark horse for at least a podium, able to take advantage of others' problems, if it doesn't have problems itself.
No.5 – Beechdean Mansell – Ginetta Zytek
Drivers – Nigel Mansell/Greg Mansell/Leo Mansell
It might be nice to see a Mansell driver car adorned with the number five succeed once more, but the team will have a significant fight on their hand to even be in contention for petrol honours.
The Ginetta has not been blessed with the best reliability since it made its debut last year (the lead Ginetta whose mantle the Beechdean entry takes up exited the race last year as a rolling inferno) and with only one racing outing so far this year – Paul Ricard – seeing the team encounter problems it unfortunately seems the problems have not entirely gone away.
Nigel and Greg are also Le Mans rookies (Leo raced with Team Modena in LMGT2 last year), which comes with its own different set of pitfalls to place between the team and a competitive finish.
No.6 – AIM Team ORECA Matmut – ORECA-AIM
Drivers – Soheil Ayari/Didier Andre/Andy Meyrick
The first of the genuine contenders for the best petrol crown with ORECA returning with their own 01 chassis – the car that finished second in the unofficial class last year and third best petrol at Paul Ricard – only three laps behind after some minor problems, including a puncture in the final hour.
The driving line-up is intriguing. Ayari has long been an ORECA driver, though has never been able to show his best thanks to errors by himself, and others. New for this year is Andy Meyrick. The Brit drove for Colin Kolles' privateer Audi team last year and has moved up with drives for American team Dyson Racing as well as ORECA.
No.7 – Audi Sport Team Joest – Audi R15 'Plus'
Drivers – Allan McNish/Tom Kristensen/Dindo Capello
The most successful drivers and team of the modern era, and the car that those at Ingolstadt hope will bring the 24 hours title back to Germany.
Using an evolution of last year's car, redesigned for the altered aerodynamic regulations with a whole raft of internal changes aimed at making the car even more efficient and taking on drivers' recommendations.
Whether the changes have improved the car or not remains to be seen, with Peugeot and Audi doing everything they can to invalidate each other's victories. The can should be one to contest the win, but like the leading Peugeot's the smallest mistake could prove costly.
No. 8 – Audi Sport Team Joest – Audi R15 'Plus'
Drivers – Benoit Treluyer/Marcel Fassler/Andre Lotterer
The all new Audi driving trio for 2010 have some way to go if they are to be anything other than a third Audi team when it comes to strategy and tactics.
Being Audi, however, they have been able to recruit drivers from top teams throughout the grid. Treluyer was a long time Pescarolo pilot, last seen in a cartwheeling customer Peugeot last year, Fassler was a third driver with Corvette last year – just another name on CV that includes ORECA, the Swiss Spirit Le Mans team and several seasons in DTM (though none with Audi).
Lotterer is least La Sarthe experienced of the three, but was half responsible for one of the great driving displays of last year, driving a two-handed race with Charles Zwolsman after their teammates pitwall related malady.
The three together are an interesting prospect, but unlikely to trouble their more senior rivals on speed alone. They could be another pawn in the tactics of the early hours.
No.9 – Audi Sport North America – Audi R15 'Plus'
Drivers – Mike Rockenfeller/Romain Dumas/Timo Bernhard
Bernhard and Dumas, Porsche works drivers, are re-loaned to Audi to staff their third and final works entry together with Mike Rockenfeller, a man who has ascended the sportscar ladder from national Porsche series, through the GT classes and into one of the best teams in the field, with all the knowledge you expect from a man who already have five Le Mans starts.
Despite Dumas parking the car in the Porsche Curves tyrewall last year this team have begun to look like real challengers to the lead line-up of the no.7 car to be classed as the best Audi effort, and their position in qualifying as just that (two-tenths faster that the no.7) backs that up.
If that level of pace is indicative of what the three are really capable then the veterans team could have a fight on their hands to be top R15 this year, let alone overall winners.
No.11 – Drayson Racing – Lola-Judd Coupe
Drivers – Paul Drayson/Jonny Cocker/Emanuele Pirro
As a Brit you can't help but like Drayson Racing – perhaps it's the giant Union Jack on the engine cover, of the fact we made Drayson himself redundant at May's General Election (he was Science Minister, sitting in the House of Lords).
However, while reasons for driving are unquestionable, gentleman driver Drayson remains more of a hindrance than a help on track if the team want to be part of the petrol race. Cocker and Pirro have both shown speed in the car – Cocker in the wet at Petit Le Mans last year, Pirro in the opening stint of Sebring earlier this year, that saw the little green coupe battling spectacularly with the supposedly untouchable diesels.
Reliability and bad luck have followed the team and car. Big accidents and mechanical problems almost a constant in their American Le Mans Series campaigns. However, Cocker's pole in the Asian Le Mans Series last year show the team and car have the required pace to race with the rest of the field – it included ORECA, Aston Martin and Pescarolo. Le Mans would be the perfect place to do just that.
No.12 – Rebellion Racing – Lola-Rebellion Coupe
Drivers – Neel Jani/Nicolas Prost/Marco Andretti
Renamed from the Speedy Sebah sqad that straddled LMP1 and LMP2 last year with an all LMP1 challenge their is one potential glaring, American problem with this car.
I'm sure if you asked Marco he'd probably admit road racing wasn't forte. He made a brief foray into A1GP to try and improve that side of his racing but it had little effect on his Indycar fortunes. Despite previously having driven for his father's ALMS Acura team Marco is far from an accomplished road, or endurance racer – his qualifying spin the Rebellion car seemingly on serving to prove this fact.
Marco's race seat cements this car as the weaker of the Rebellion Lolas, however, the car remains one of the contenders for the class-within-a-class petrol battle.
No.13 – Rebellion Racing – Lola-Rebellion Coupe
Drivers – Andrea Belicchi/Jean-Christophe Boullion/Guy Smith
By far the stronger of the two cars the Swiss team bring to Le Mans, with three experienced drivers ready to take stints behind the wheel.
Belicchi carries on as a holdover from Speedy Sebah with Boullion as his new regular Le Mans Series teammate. However the capture of Le Mans wheel for hire Guy Smith has moved this car from 'just another LMP1' to my favourite to take the win for petrol powered cars.
The Rebellion cars proved largely reliable at Paul Ricard, where Boullion and Belicchi ran second petrol to Aston Martin, but paradoxically fragile in the shorter race at Spa, the pair delayed in the pits while their teammates were forced to retire with mechanical woes.
Prediction: Finisher (Best Petrol)
No.14 – Kolles – Audi R10
Drivers – Christophe Bouchut/Scott Tucker/Manuel Rodrigues
Colin Kolles' privateer team return for a second year in an even more unprepared state – the team have not run in either of the Le Mans Series events this year, suggesting that the team, and their three new drivers have little chance of making the finish.
The threesome – two Frenchmen and an American – make this car something of sportscar. Bouchut will drive anything. This year he's in the FIA GT1 World Championship with the all.inkl.com Lamborghini squad and part of the Level 5 squad in the ALMS' LMP challenge effort. The rest of team seems like Bouchut's address book, despite the fact only a late driving change brought him into the car.
Tucker is one of his teammates at Level 5, while Rodrigues is a GT1 rival and was part of the GT2 team at Le Mans last year.
That team finished well down the order, and this team will likely be happy with a similar result.
No.15 – Kolles – Audi R10
Drivers – Christijan Albers/Christian Bakkerud/Oliver Jarvis
A proper Audi, with three drivers from the marques current of former drivers If the no.14 car is Bouchut's address book then this is Kolles' address book. The pair of Christi(j)ans are the only driver of the six from last year that survives for a second attempt, Albers is a former DTM driver and a veteran of Kolles's various stints in the F1 – Spyker in Albers' case.
Though Jarvis is a Le Mans rookie the car remains the stronger of the two R10s (a Albers/Bakkerud/Bouchut effort would have been a better choice for sheer pace) it stands little choice of running fast enough or reliably enough to keep up with the septet of 2010 diesels. In fact, as last year the cars and team may find themselves struggling to keep pace with the 2010 petrol cars.
No.19 Michael Lewis/Autocon – Lola AER
Drivers – Michael Lewis/Bryan Willman/Tony Burgess
This is the sort of entry that the ACO love. A privateer team that have stuck with their form of racing through thick and thin (mostly thin unfortunately) are often rewarded with a ticket to the biggest race of the year.
Sadly the team stand little chance of making the full duration if their ALMS efforts are any hint of what's to come, and the team have already have one mechanical failure this weekend that left the aging Lola stranded out on track during one the practice sessions.
No.007 – Aston Martin Racing – Lola Aston Martin
Drivers – Harold Primat/Stefan Mucke/Adrian Fernandez
A scaled back effort for Aston Martin sees only two works LMP1 cars (though with an addition of GT1 car that's a works effort in everything but name). As I said in the preview of Sebring for this site the driving line-up is good, but by no means the best that Aston Martin can put together, though they have shown themselves well at their American outings at Sebring and Long Beach, where the team only lost out of the far more successful Highcroft squad on the final lap, and a European run at Paul Ricard.
At the French race they finishes second, as the best petrol car behind the Audi. It is a spot, both they and their works teammates have a strong chance of returning to, however, they will face stronger competition for the honour here than at Ricard, despite many of the same teams being present.
No.008 – Signature Plus – Lola-Aston Martin
Drivers – Pierre Ragues/Vanina Ickx/Franck Mailleux
The French squad pick up the third Aston Martin, though it maintains its 'double-0' works numbering. That potentially shows a little works involvement – at least wanting to keep the manufacturers traditional identity alive. However, that is the only sign that this is anything other that a proper privateer effort.
The team become something of the villains in the LMS last year (with an old ORECA chassis) with Mailleux and Ragues more likely to be mentioned for random driving than good results. They ended 2009 by managing to crash after the end of the race, failing to avoid a car that had slowed in celebration.
At least they have managed to finish both races so far this year with little drama, doesn't stand much hope of continuing.
No.009 – Aston Martin Racing – Lola-Aston Martin
Drivers – Darren Turner/Juan Barazi/Sam Hancock
Like Kolles Aston Martin have passed up the chance of creating a very strong line-up – slot Turner somewhere into the no.007 car. Instead their two cars look very evenly matched, with experienced Turner and Barazi joined by Hancock for this year.
There can be no doubts about the first two drivers, both having driven at Le Mans in different classes through the year, but Hancock remains perhaps the least experienced driver in class launching straight out of the V de V series into a works effort. He will be very much the third driver for the team, and leaving him to run as little as possible may, unfortunately for him, be the best way of chasing petrol honours and keeping the car on the track.