2009 Winner: Team Essex – Porsche RS Spyder
Drivers – Emmanuel Collard/Kristian Poulsen/Casper Elgaard – 257 laps completed
LMP2 has gone through another change for this year.
The Porsche RS Spyders that have won the class the last two year have gone, taking their reliability – bullet proof by comparison to the other entries when they made their Le Mans debut in 2008 – with them.
With Team Essex not even mustering an entry for this year it means were (again) guaranteed new winners, and if form is anything to go by then they will likely be driving the RS Spyper natural successor – the HPD ARX-01. The car started life badged as an Acura in the ALMS in the hands of three teams – (Patron) Highcroft Racing, (Lowe's) Fernandez Racing and Andretti Green – with De Ferran joining the stable a little later.
However, with both marques now largely absent from prototype competition in the U.S. it was left to Acura to fill the void, and with both the LMP2 and LMP1 classes (with the short lived 02) last year.
Sadly now on Highcroft remain of the teams, having moved back LMP2 spec with the third generation of the 01, inexplicably rebranded as HPD (Honda Performance Development) the motorsports arm on Honda in the U.S.
Highcroft have picked up exactly where you expect, with two wins out of three in the ALMS, but new for this year HPD have made strides in Europe, with the old Fernandez chassis and Strakka Racing. The British team were the class of the, well, class at Paul Ricard, seemingly able to lap comfortably faster than anyone else on their way to a class win. It was a performance they looked well capable of repeating at Spa, again out-qualifying their closest competitors – RML, incidentally using an HPD engine – by a margin of several seconds. However, several incidents saw the team's spare parts bin running low, bring a premature end to the Belgian challenge.
There are, despite all that the HPDs may dominate headlines, several other cars that have been part of LMP2's move towards actual race, rather than mechanical battle of attriction. OAK Racing again, bring two well appointed Pescarolos to the race (now the only examples of the chassis in the race) to try and continue their run of La Sarthe podiums. Another pair of Ginetta-Zytek's return, including class stalwarts Quifel-ASM aiming to avenge their DNF last year.
No.24 – OAK Racing – Pescarolo-Judd
Driver – Jacques Nicolet/Richard Hein/Jean-Francois Yvon
OAK Racing have switched to Judd power from Mazda (all three Mazda runners from last year's race have found themselves new powerplants for 2010), but manage to keep Mazda France's sponsorship money aboard their pink and black liveried cars.
Team owner Nicolet is joined by part-time racer Hein and Yvon, adding another start to his gargantuan Le Mans CV that stretches back to 1984 and losing to a man who now puts his name to the team's chassis.
This line-up and team were perhaps the surprise package, finishing third. However, in a field that again, has expanded with more quality entries they may find it a problem. The team are likely to fall foul to a problem that has begun to affect LMP2 as it has their LMGT2 counterparts – gentlemen drivers and tiny teams have been pushed out by massive, well backed, manufacturer supported efforts. Of course OAK are supported by Mazda, but when nothing on the car is from the manufacturer it renders any support they might more than a little lame.
That said, the car is has been almost flawless in its previous entries, and the driving trio have an ability to match the longevity of their car.
No.25 – RML – Lola HPD Coupe
Drivers – Mike Newton/Thomas Erdos/Andy Wallace
Another of the teams to abandon Zoom-Zoom power after a 2009 riddled with glitches and gremlins. Previous class winners in 2005 and 2006 the team have an opportunity to add another trophy, though they may have to get past the other HPDs in the field first.
The change of engine has probably forced a change of driver upon the team, with Andy Wallace taking the third place on the team that was taken by Chris Dyson (a Mazda-powered driver in the U.S.) last year. However, bring Wallace back into the car recreates the trio that won their '06 class title, as well as an La Sarthe CV that includes some of best known and successful cars of the last two decades (McLaren F1GTR, Silk Cut Jaguar and Bentley Speed 8 anyone?) as well as recent years with RML. Erdos and Newton too are RML veterans, the latter another of dwindling number of gentlemen drivers in class, though arguable the fastest.
No.26 – Highcroft Racing – HPD ARX-01
Drivers – David Brabham/Marino Franchitti/Marco Werner
There's only one reason to disagree with the accepted wisdom that makes this car the favourite for the class – the team's lack of the Le Mans experience. The car has never completed a competitive 24 hours and the team will bring a brand new aerodynamic package of over 130 bespoke parts of the low drag set-up designed using CFD by Wirth Research – the men behind the Virgin Racing F1 car (honest, that's better than it sounds).
But what the car lacks in experience the team make up. Brabham was part of the Peugeot team that won the race overall, but has stuck with his regular employers for this year, and also has a batful of LMGT1 class wins. Werner, drafted in as the team's third when Simon Pagenaud couldn't turn down Peugeot, has three overall wins for Audi, while Franchitti is the relative baby of the team, though a baby with experience.
If the car lasts the 24 hours then the drivers and team will be good enough to at least be on the podium.
No.28 – Race Performance – Radical SR9-Judd
Drivers – Pierre Bruneau/Marc Rostan/Ralph Meichtry
When, a few weeks before the race, the ACO announced it was inviting and 56th team in was Bruneau's squad that got the call, unfortunately, they are unlikely to play any real part in the race, other than being a pub quiz question in the most specialised pub in the world.
The SR9 is one of the cars remaining from the era when LMP2 winners lasted longest rather than went fastest, and it has the reliability to match. The car has always been dogged by poor luck, including being taken out by an errant Aston Martin last year, and this year little is likely to change – and if the car finally manages a who race, it may be despite the drivers, rather than because of them.
It is undoubtedly Bruneau's money behind the team – he had his name on last year's Radical entry – with Rostan and Swiss Ralph Meichtry who's experience only previous racing experience seems to extend to various Renault series around central Europe.
No.29 – Racing Box – Lola Judd Coupe
Drivers – Luca Pirri/Marc Cioci/Piergiuseppe Perazzini
The bottom line is that the team may have the car challenge to the top runners, but simply lack the driving talent to keep up if the pace is anywhere near as relentless as in recent years.
The team, though Pirri was the only common driver, were solidly mid-class at Paul Ricard and their final race preparation at Spa last little more than a few corners before the white, yellow and blue car was smashed against the Radillion tyre wall. However, any transgressions are not due to a lack of experience, all three drivers having experience up and down the international sportscar would, in both prototype and GT classes.
No.35 – OAK Racing – Pescarolo-Judd
Drivers – Matthieu Lahaye/Guillaume Moreau/Jan Charouz
The second OAK car is by far the strongest. Layahe and Moreau are both veterans of last year's race with OAK, where their car – then shared with Karim Aljani – scored a DNF. But is in Aljani's replacement that the team really the cemented their chances of a top finish this year.
Charouz, is, arguably, one of the unsung heroes of modern prototype racing, and though he's gone turncoat and re-entered single-seaters (World Series by Renault and Auto GP) he's come back for Le Mans. Czech Charouz was part of the Aston Martin Racing team that won the Le Mans Series title last year, as well as taking top petrol honour around La Sarthe itself. In other words a formidable addition to an already impressive team with the two Frenchmen.
No.37 – Gerard Welter – WR-Zytek
Drivers – Philippe Salini/Stephane Salini/Tristam Gommendy
As the pictures from scrutineering and the early running have emerged, for it is already that time, the WR is one of the best looking cars on the gird in my opinion, with the air of experience that the Welter and WR name to the entry (though with a Zytek engine, where the team are – in my head at least almost synonymous with Peugeot).
The Salini's are just the latest divers to join the team, both of them (Philippe the older by eight years) making the rapid progression up from V de V club racing with the aid of a little money – how else would the car be normally be entered under a WR/Salini banner. In recent years the brothers' Salini and WR have made unspectacular appearances in the Le Mans series, with Gommendy a common visitor for the longer races, bring welcome professionalism to the team, with various single seater experience (he currently resides in Superleague Formula).
However, despite Gommendy's best efforts the team are a long way short of the Welter's record breaking high point – topping 400kmph on the Mulsanne, before it was spoilt with chicanes.
No.38 – Pegasus Racing – Norma-Judd
Drivers – Julien Schell/Frederic da Rocha/David Zollinger
Pegasus are a curious beast (the team, as well as the mythical flying horse). A tiny, tiny team with a privateer chassis that they only finished shaking down a few weeks ago. Perhaps the mere fact they've made it Le Mans is a triumph.
The team, and all French driver line-up the type of which Le Mans often seems to be a haven for are a story of the small sportscar series that aim to feed the Le Mans Series. All three, like the Salini's, have done time in the V de V series – Schell oddly enough driving a Norma chassis – and Zollinger has moved up from the Formula Le Mans series introduced last year as a genuine ACO feeder series.
The drivers are one potential worry, the car is another. There was, apparently, a moment a few years ago when the entire front bodywork of a different privateer chassis parted company with the rest of the car leading to their exclusion. The Norma could be similarly disasterous.
No.39 – KSM – Lola-Judd
Drivers – Jean de Pourtales/Hideki Noda/Jonathan Kennard
One of the true LMP2 stalwarts, though lately without very much luck, with recent years only living long in the memory because of a clutch of accidents in qualifying, which can never help a team's preparation for the 24 Hours itself.
The two drivers to have taken the cars to the barriers (or the air in Noda's case) return, with young Briton Jonathan Kennard taking the third seat. As any rookie around the Circuit de la Sarthe, let alone with only a single race in the prototypes, you feel the doubt Kennard's ability to tame both Le Mans and the duration of the race.
The other concern is the car – like the Radical it is a remnant of old LMP2, which inevitably means it will break down.
No.40 – Quifel-ASM Team – Ginetta Zytek 09S
Drivers – Miguel Amaral/Olivier Pla/Warren Hughes
Another stalwart of the class, though one with a much newer car – the '09' should give you a clue there – and a much better driving line-up.
Amaral and Pla return to the team, despite being part of the team that only lasted, uncharacteristically, 46 laps. To the undoubted experience of Amaral and Pla the team add the undoubted experience of Warren Hughes. Currently running for one of the GT1 teams absent from the ACO entry list, Hughes has numerous Le Mans starts (and importantly finishes) under his belt with Embassy Racing, a previous stint with Quifel and a class win with RML.
Add that to an experienced team and a car that can hopefully go further than last year and you have another team that could easily be part of the podium battle.
No.41 – Team Bruichladdich – Ginetta Zytek 09S
Drivers – Karim Ojjeh/Tim Greaves/Gary Chalandon
Yet another LMP2 stalwart, making a step away from the aging Radical SR9 and therefore a step up the class pecking order with the Ginetta-Zytek, though again, that chassis will need to improve it's patchy reliability.
Despite the change of car Greaves remains with the team having been brought through their racing ladder by Radical before joining what was their works squad. He is joined by another experienced Le Mans racer, in something of a coup as they sign experienced Saudi Karim Ojjeh. The apir, with Dane Christian Ebbesvik completing the trio finished a commendable fourth at Paul Ricard before, like others, their Spa effort ended very early with a big crash.
With inexperienced Frenchman Chalandon taking the third seat for Le Mans, and the teams less that glittering past a finish would be an achievement.
No.42 – Strakka Racing – HPD ARX01
Drivers – Nick Leventis/Danny Watts/Jonny Kane
How to get become a serious contender for victory. Step down from LMP1, but a class winning car.
Danny Watts is simply, perhaps the most rapid driver in the class. However, one driver does not maketh a Le Mans class win. Jonny Kane is just as experienced, but perhaps slightly slower. Leventis is a weak link, though more in terms of outright pace than a propensity for stupid mistakes.
It is very possible that toe-to-toe with the Highcroft entry the drivers could decide the outcome as the cars run reliably. If so, then Leventis, and a gentlemen driver, could, ultimately, unfortunately, end up costing his team the win.