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Look both ways before you cross the track

As a preview to this year’s Le Mans we begin by taking a look back down the track, into the history of this remarkable annual event, before considering the front-runners and key elements of the 24 Hours in 2009.

The Years Pass By

The whole concept of the classic “Le Mans Start” is so engrained in the legend of the 24 Hours that it’s almost hard to credit that it is exactly forty years since that mad dash across the track last took place.

It was the 14th June, just a day later in the calendar than this year’s start, when one man refused to take part in that headlong sprint towards his waiting car. In defiance of convention, and as a deliberate protest against what he believed to be a dangerous and unnecessary risk, Jacky Ickx walked sedately across the track, carefully tightening the binding on his gloves as he paced the tarmac. He climbed into the Ford GT40 and methodically fitted and adjusted the straps on his harness before firing up the car’s thunderous V8. By the time he pulled away from the herringbone formation, he was the last driver to head off up the rise towards the Dunlop Curve. He and his co-driver Jackie Oliver would, of course, go on to win the race. It would be the first of six such victories for the Belgian, but the last time anyone else sprinted for the start of a Le Mans 24 Hours race.

Ickx’s concerns were well founded, and the risks proven later on the opening lap, when John Woolfe’s Porsche 917 was involved in an accident at the old Maison Blanche kink. It was, by today’s standards, a relatively modest impact. Unfortunately, Woolfe’s eagerness to get ahead at the start had meant he’d devoted less time to securing himself into the cockpit than perhaps he should. Opinions differ. Some believe he hadn’t fitted his harness at all, while others say he’d never even closed the door properly. Either way, he was thrown from the car and died from his injuries.

The point where Woolfe’s Porsche struck the crash barriers was immortalised by Steve McQueen in a poignant moment during the opening minutes of the film Le Mans, when McQueen contemplates the repaired steelwork beside the track. The filming was done during the year following Woolfe’s accident, and released in 1971.

Names and Dates

That race in 1969 is peppered with the names of drivers who are remembered to this day – the likes of Mike Hailwood, Helmut Kelleners, Reinhold Joest, Gérard Larousse, Vic Elford, Bob Wollek, David Piper, Jo Siffert and Chris Amon, to pick out just a few.

One name you might expect to see in that list, but is conspicuously absent, is that of Henri Pescarolo. The Frenchman, who remains to this day a cult hero in French motorsport, should have been taking part in the race, but had crashed during the April test when the long-tailed Matra 640 he was driving took off along the Mulsanne. At that time the Straight was without the two chicanes and significantly the fastest part of the circuit. The car disintegrated on impact and erupted into a ball of fire. Although Henri was seriously burned, he did return to racing a few months later, but missed out on the Le Mans 24 Hours and has sported a beard ever since.

Henri Pescarolo is back at Le Mans again this year – not as a driver, but as a team owner and manager. From a record 33 starts he won the race four times, including the memorable 1972 victory co-driven with Graham Hill, but he has perhaps his best chance ever of adding to that impressive CV in 2009. Not only has he entered one of his own, very competitive chassis, but he has become the first customer for the Peugeot 908 HDi. He will hope that whilst his drivers can’t perhaps match the outright pace of the factory cars – Peugeot wouldn’t like that! – his experience will give them an edge over twenty-four hours.

Whilst on the subject of names, it will be interesting to record that this year’s 24 Hours includes those of three iconic stars from the glory days of Formula 1; Prost, Senna and Mansell. The associated forenames are not Alain, Ayrton or Nigel, of course, but Nicolas, Bruno (right) and Leo. Nicolas will share the Speedy Sebah LMP1 Lola Aston Martin; Bruno will be in the #10 Oreca Courage LMP1, and Leo will co-drive the Team Modena Ferrari F430 GT2. Of the three, perhaps Leo and his co-drivers have one of the most obvious chances of a class podium, having taken the GT2 win at Spa last month, but the other two cannot be excluded. Both are in very competitive cars.

Ickx is racing again too, but not Jacky. Although the six-times winner will almost certainly be at the circuit, he’ll be there to support his daughter Vanina, left. She is the only woman in this year’s race, but has ably demonstrated her pace over several years. This will be her fifth participation at Le Mans, having finished 11th overall last year. In 2009 she shares the Creation Autosportif entry in LMP1 with Briton Jamie Campbell Walter.

Clocking up the Decades

If it is forty years since the last time the drivers were made to run across the track to start the race, it is fifty since the one and only victory recorded by Aston Martin. For a marque so strongly associated with motorsport in general, and Le Mans in particular, it is hard to believe that the factory has won Le Mans just once from 32 starts, but in 1959 the DBR1 shared by American Carroll Shelby and Briton Roy Savadori beat the sister car co-driven by Paul Frère and Maurice Trintignant by one lap. That winning Aston Martin (below) will compete in this year’s Legends event, and is also scheduled to lead off the Driver’s Parade through the streets of Le Mans on the Friday evening. (The car would eventually fail to take part due to mechanical issues)

Hoping to mark that fiftieth anniversary with another outright win, Aston Martin has mounted perhaps its most credible and determined challenge for nearly two decades by entering three of their new Gulf-liveried Lola Aston Martins (below right). With a debut win in Barcelona, the car certainly has the potential, but last time out at Spa the differential which still exists between the diesel-powered Peugeots (and, potentially, the new Audi R15 as well) and the best of the petrol-engined cars appears as vast as it has ever been – and this despite efforts by the ACO to curtail the diesel’s advantages.

Totting up the Odds

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMCIn their official press releases, Aston Martin concedes that the odds are stacked against the three Lolas, but they cite the 1959 win as inspiration. On that occasion a third DBR1, driven by Stirling Moss and Jack Fairman, retired, but not until after it had set such a blistering pace during the early stages that it had also broken the back of the Ferrari challenge. The spirit and tactics of endurance racing have changed since then, and Ickx, starting from the back of the grid ten years later in 1969, could not realistically hope to win from the same position in 2009. Today’s Le Mans is a succession of sprint races interrupted by pitstops, and losing one lap can be enough to destroy all chances of victory, but the prediction remains that one of the three Astons will hare off into the distance, taking the race to the diesels, while the other two concentrate on reliability.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMCIn that capacity, Peugeot’s record is not a good one. The 908 is undeniably fast – the fastest prototype on the track, without a doubt – but it has also demonstrated fragility and an unforgiving nature. Minor driver errors have resulted in major accidents, and despite dominant performances in qualifying, the Peugeot has consistently missed out on the big prizes. The factory – and Henri Pescarolo – will be aiming to rectify that fault in 2009, but they’re up against another huge challenge from Audi.

The Audi R10 has been the dominant car at Le Mans for the last three years, but it won’t be in 2009. Well, not on recent performance anyway. The Kolles outfit has failed to impress this season, taking on the privateer mantle for the R10 in the Le Mans Series and, perhaps through the choice of drivers with little experience in endurance racing, looking surprisingly uncompetitive. By contrast the factory entered R15 TDi has appeared awesome.

Favourites . . . . again.

Photo: AudiBrand new, straight out of the box, the R15 TDi took a maiden win in the Sebring 12 Hours in March. In a situation not dissimilar to that witnessed in Formula 1 following Brawn & Button’s emphatic start to the 2009 season, others cried foul, pointing the finger and citing a string of minor technical infringements in the way the Audi was constructed. The mud flew, but nothing seems to have stuck, and Audi will embark upon an attempt to make it ten wins on the trot for the cars from Ingolstadt (allowing for a small discretionary tweak over Bentley’s win in 2003), and a fourth for the TDi diesel engine. There is no denying their status as favourites for the overall win.

So LMP1 boasts no less than five Audi diesels, three Peugeots and, including the Speedy Sebah entry, four Lola Aston Martins. The top step of the podium is widely expected to be occupied by a driver line-up from one of these twelve cars, but that’s not to rule out the other entries completely. The Ginetta-Zytek GZ09S has been entered by two teams; the factory in the form of Team LNT, and also Strakka Racing. Newcomers to the top class, Strakka impressed by taking pole in Barcelona, ahead of the Astons, and cannot be disregarded, while neither can the two Team Oreca Courages, nor Henri Pescarolo’s own Judd-engined chassis.

Not always the Bridesmaids

LMP2 has been seen, for some time, as the bridesmaids in the Le Mans 24 Hours. In the early days they were fast but fragile, often snapping at the heels of the big boys, but too often falling by the wayside. That has changed, and while regulations have dictated that they are no longer on a pace with the LMP1 cars, reliability and numbers work in their favour. RML notably won the LMP2 class two years in succession; in 2005 with the Judd-engined MG EX264, and then again in 2006 with an AER turbocharged unit. Front-runners again in both 2007 and 2008, the team’s charge ended in disappointment both times when engine or technical problems intervened.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMC

This season has not started well for the Wellingborough-based outfit, with two engine failures in the first two races, and this has contributed to a sense that others, including some on-track rivals, may have dismissed them as contenders in 2009. That might prove to be a risky oversight, and following late nights and diligent hard work over the past few weeks, the Snetterton shakedown test last Tuesday demonstrated that the issues that contributed to those engine failures may have been successfully addressed and a return to form could be within sight.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMCThat being the case, who are those rivals? Last year was dominated by the arrival of the Porsche RS Spyder in Le Mans Series races, and at Le Mans. However, despite being unbeaten all year, the Spyders are not back in numbers in 2009. The high cost of running the cars has deterred entrants in these difficult economic times, and only two LMP2 Porsches will compete this year.

Team Essex competes in the Le Mans Series, finished second in LMP2 at Le Mans last year, and must be among the favourites for 2009, but the second Spyder, entered by Team Goh, is equally capable. The chassis is the same one that took the class last year, and Team Goh won overall with an Audi R8 in 2004.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMCImpressive in the first two rounds of the Le Mans Series have been the new Lola coupés. RML’s is one, of course, but the Judd-engined examples from Racing Box and Speedy Sebah Racing have also performed well, with the former winning in Barcelona (right), and the latter finishing second at Spa. Kruse Schiller had high hopes of revealing a new Mazda-powered coupé at Le Mans, but time and funds conspired against them, and they will field their open-topped version once again. If the coupé had made an appearance, it would have been the car’s debut and a hard place to carry out a first run.

The Lolas will face a tough challenge from the Zyteks. Team Quifel ASM (below), for so long a direct rival to RML with a similar Lola chassis, deserted the Huntingdon-based manufacturer this year in favour of the new Ginetta-Zytek GZ09S LMP2, and has demonstrated good pace and strong reliability. Two other teams; Barazi Epsilon and GAC (formerly Trading Performance) will field the slightly older 07S chassis, but have the same support and engine package.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMC

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMCLast year the Saulnier outfit was rarely worth a second glance, but a rebranding exercise over the winter, a smart livery and a new name; Oak Racing, seems to have worked wonders for the French team. Enthusiastic support from Mazda in France has generated extra media and public interest, and after strong showings at Barcelona and Spa, and in front of a home crowd, the two-car squad stands a fair chance of recording its best Le Mans result.

The full LMP2 entry is as follows:

(Click for an enlargement)
No Team &
Drivers Car Engine & Tyres

5 NAVI Team Goh
Seiji Ara
Keisuke Kunimoto
Sascha Maassen
Porsche RS Spyder 3396cc
Click to view an enlargement. All photos by Marcus Pots / CMC 24 Oak Racing
Jaques Nicolet
Richard Hein
Jean-François Yvon
Pescarolo Mazda 1995cc
Click to view an enlargement. All photos by Marcus Pots / CMC 25 RML AD Group
Great Britain
Mike Newton
Thomas Erdos
Chris Dyson
B08/86 Coupé
Click to view an enlargement. All photos by Marcus Pots / CMC 26 Team Bruichladdich Radical
Great Britain
Pierre Bruneau
Tim Greaves
Marc Rostan
Radical AER SR9 1995cc
Click to view an enlargement. All photos by Marcus Pots / CMC 30 Racing Box SRL
Andrea Piccini
Matteo Bobbi
Thomas Biagi
B08/80 Coupé
Click to view an enlargement. All photos by Marcus Pots / CMC 31 Team Essex
Casper Elgaard
Kristian Poulsen
Emmanuel Collard
Porsche RS Spyder 3396cc
Click to view an enlargement. All photos by Marcus Pots / CMC 32 Barazi Epsilon
Juan Barazi
Roland Berville
Stuart Moseley
Zytek 07S 3396cc
Click to view an enlargement. All photos by Marcus Pots / CMC 33 Speedy Racing Team Sebah
Xavier Pompidou
Jonny Kane
Benjamin Leuenberger
Lola- Judd
Click to view an enlargement. All photos by Marcus Pots / CMC 35 Oak Racing
Matthieu Lahaye
Karim Ajlani
Guillaume Moreau
Pescarolo Mazda 1995cc
Click to view an enlargement. All photos by Marcus Pots / CMC 39 Kruse Schiller Motorsport
Hideki Noda
Jean de Pourtales
Matthew Marsh
Click to view an enlargement. All photos by Marcus Pots / CMC 40 Quifel ASM
Miguel Amaral
Olivier Pla
Guy Smith
Ginetta-Zytek 09S 3396cc
Click to view an enlargement. All photos by Marcus Pots / CMC 41 G.A.C. Racing Team
Karim Oijeh
Claude-Yves Gosselin
Phillip Peter
Zytek 07S 3396cc

With the exception of the Team Goh Porsche RS Spyder, #5, you may click on any thumbnail to view an enlargement (all photos: Marcus Potts/CMC). Some details may be subject to change. * The image for KSM shows the open-topped Lola raced last month at Spa. The team hopes to have their new coupé ready for Le Mans, and a similar livery is expected, but if not, then the open-topped car will appear again. (It transpired that the KSM coupé would not appear in 2009, and the team persevered with the open-topped Lola.)

The Rest

With no works interest this year from Aston Martin, GT1 is a mere shadow of its former self, and 2009 looks like being both Swan Song and Benefit Match for Corvette Racing. With GM in such dire straits there’s unlikely to be another chance for the yellow Corvettes to make their mark at Le Mans, so expect a concerted effort to record a one-two for Detroit.

Of the six class entries, there are two more Corvettes, entered by Luc Alphand Adventures (both credible candidates for a podium), a Lamborghini Murcielago, and one Aston Martin DBR9 entered by JetAlliance.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMCBy contrast, GT2 offers plenty of likely contributors towards a good contest and every possibility of some entertaining competition.

The pride of five Porsche 997s takes on the glory of ten Ferrari F430s, with a single Spyker C8 Laviolette and the Drayson Racing Aston Martin Vantage GT2 making up the total of seventeen runners. Victory could fall to almost any one of these, although bookie’s favourites must include the Porsches of Team Felbermayr Proton and IMSA Performance, the Ferraris of JMW Motorsport and Team Modena, and the Drayson Aston. The latter has gathered a healthy following in the UK, thanks to the Vantage name and three high-profile drivers; Lord Drayson himself, Jonny Cocker (youngest ever winner of an FIA title), and Marino Franchitti, brother of Dario, but a champion in his own right too.

A Classic Year?

After passing through the doldrums during the mid-Nineties, and tending towards the rather processional in the early-Noughties, the Le Mans 24 Hours is widely seen as being on the point of a renaissance. Despite the worsening economic climate, the 77th running is being tipped for stardom, and one of the most riveting on-track battles for years is anticipated. Every class, perhaps save one, is finely balanced, with no outright favourites but many potential winners, and that’s the recipe for a classic endurance race. Qualifying on Thursday may offer up some pointers, but nothing is ever a foregone conclusion at Le Mans. Not until that chequered flag falls on Sunday afternoon.

Official ACO Poster for Le Mans 2009

TV and Radio

The best way for racegoers to keep tabs on what's happening, not only during the race but also in the days leading up to it, is to tune in to Radio Le Mans. The crew at RLM must be amongst the most knowledgeable in motor racing anywhere, and as well as anchor man John Hindhaugh's seemingly endless banter, the Man from up North will be joined by twinkle-toed pitlane reporter Graham Tyler (known as GT, no less), Joe Bradley, Nick Damon, Bruce Jones and Dailysportscar's Graham Goodwin. Tune in to 91.2 FM, or log on to This year the feed to the web won't be exactly the same as the live broadcasts, will the Internet offering access to some of the pre-recorded interviews as well as blow-by-blow action.

The RLM commentary will also be employed by the Kangaroo TV system. Introduced last year, the hand-held Kangaroo TV system blends the live TV feed with timing and English Language commentary via Radio Le Mans.

If you are unable to make it to La Sarthe this year, and want to follow the 24 Hours on TV, then coverage will be extensive in 2009, but only to those with access to satellite. Eurosport will be offering generous coverage of this year's race, with live coverage of some parts of free practice on Wednesday, all of Thursday qualifying, Sunday morning warm-up, the Legends race, then the start of the 24 Hours, and virtually the whole of the race itself, although you'll need to hop between channels 1 and 2 to get the most of it. Full details can be found here.

Photo: David Legangneux / DailysportscarThe Track

Rarely a year passes when something doesn't change at Le Mans, but since the race in 2008 there have been no major redevelopments, although work on the Village has now been completed.

The teams will discover one radical change to the pit wall, however, which has now been topped off with (we assume) bullet-proof glass instead of the old catch fencing and grill. The effect is very clean and 'new', and offers an enhanced appearance both ways. Those behind the wall will be able to see the cars passing more clearly, and the spectators on the opposite side will get a better view of what's happening in the pitlane. (Photo: David Legangneux / Dailysportscar)

For a general view of the circuit, we repeat the high-resolution images we created last year, based upon the excellent Google Earth mapping program.

Image: Google Earth

Image: Google EarthThe image above depicts the entire circuit, with the Bugatti Circuit almost hidden away in the bottom left. North is to the left, with the overall orientation being East to West, top to bottom. Your challenge is to find Silverstone circuit! *
The second image, on the left, is a close-up of the pit, paddock and Village area. Clicking the image will reveal a very close-up image that can be navigated using the slider bars to the right and base. It clearly shows the new profile of the Dunlop Chicane and through Dunlop Curve to La Chapelle and the Esses de la Forêt.

* As a hint, find the very centre of the image on your screen, then look slightly to the right.

The Le Mans 2009 gallery can be accessed here

Le Mans 24 Hours 2009

Circuit de la Sarthe, Le Mans, France
June 8th - 14th 2009
Event Preview