Wednesday - Practice Makes Perfect
The new Le Mans schedule for the week, first introduced in 2010, continues to meet with general approval. Scrutineering on Sunday and Monday does appear to encourage the crowds in the town centre, and then having a break on Tuesday gives the teams more time to prepare their cars for an extended Free Practice session on Wednesday, and then three Qualifying periods.
Plans to return Scrutineering to the Place des Jacobins, behind the site once occupied by the old Theatre, looks set to be put back by another couple of years. There had been hopes of completing work on the new Cultural Centre in time for the 24 Hours next year, 2012, but a major archeological discovery during deep excavations has effectively placed the project on hold. The latest assessment suggests that the work won't be finished for at least another three years.
The RML mechanics maintained their hectic workload on Tuesday. Because of the generally very tight deadlines they've had to meet over the last fortnight (or less!), the car is having to be rebuilt several times ahead of the race on Sunday. Once the replacement "tub" arrived at the end of May, the car was reconstructed in anticipation of the shakedown test at Snetterton. This included a number of major components that Phil Barker wanted to test and "run in" (not his term, but one that most people will understand!) before being used in the 24 Hours. He would rather those same vital components were not used in practice and qualifying, so that their "hours" are saved for the race itself. That meant taking the car to Scrutineering in race trim, as it arrived from Snetterton, and then rebuilding the car yesterday (Tuesday) using the components that will be used for the ten hours of practice and qualifying . . . before swapping everything back again on Friday in time for Warm-up and the Race on Saturday.
Obviously, had it been possible to fit in the usual shakedown well in advance of the deployment to France, this intense schedule might have been avoided, but the crew at RML is exceptionally experienced and most could probably rebuild the HPD wearing a blindfold.
The drivers had to be back at the track fairly early on Tuesday to attend the compulsory Drivers' Briefing, but with that out of the way, their only other duty was to take part in the official Autograph Session at five o'clock. The pitlane was opened to the general public, and after an initially quiet few minutes, soon filled out as spectators and fans filtered through to start collecting posters and cards.
Mike, Tommy and Ben spent an hour and a half outside the RML AD Group team garage, while the car was being rebuilt behind them.
Ben was also signing the occasional copy of his autobiography, which has just gone on sale in the ACO Boutique here at the circuit. It is one of the rare occasions when the ACO has offered to sell a book in their shop that isn't directly about the Le Mans 24 Hours, although it does include two chapters about Ben's experiences at Le Mans with Ascari in 2001 and 2002.
Ben will be doing another stint of book signing, for about an hour, on Friday afternoon in the Museum shop itself. Full details in PDF format here.
That wonderful chap Andy Blackmore has performed miracles yet again and his latest version of the Le Mans Spotters Guide is already available, including many liveries that incorporate last-minute detail changes that were only revealed during scrutineering on Sunday and Monday.
If you would like to take advantage of all Andy's hard work, then download your own copy of the 2011 Le Mans Spotters Guides by visiting his website at SpotterGuides.com. There are two A4 sheets - one for the LMP classes and a second for GTE.
Our thoughts turn to Japan
As a team with close links to Honda in Japan, our thoughts have frequently been with the people of north-east Japan for the last three months, since the earthquake and tsunami of 11th March. The final death toll from those combined tragedies has still not been confirmed - and may never be known for certain - but over 20,000 people are known to have lost their lives, and many thousands more may never be accounted for. In common with several major manufacturers, Honda's manufacturing plants in Japan also suffered considerably as a result of the disaster, and sourcing components has posed problems not only in Japan itself, but around the world.
The knock-on effects have had an impact in motorsport, and it is acknowledged that the recent decision by Highcroft Racing in the USA to break ties with Honda Performance Development (HPD) after a very successful partnership spanning three seasons in the ALMS had, in some measure, the tsunami at its heart. Many people here at Le Mans (perhaps with the exception of some of their direct competitors) are disappointed that the HPD ARX LMP1 will not be competing in the 24 Hours this year - especially after the very impressive debut it made in the Sebring 12 Hours in March. It has also brought into question the possible futures not only of RML's LMP2 chassis, but also Strakka Racing's own sportscar programme, which was widely expected top include a move into LMP1 next season.
The Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) had already planned to honour Japanese participation at Le Mans with a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Mazda's historic 1991 victory with the screaming rotary-engined 787B, but has today announced that various additional commemorations will also take place.
On Thursday, 9th June at 18:40 the recently restored Mazda 787B will take to the circuit once again for a series of special demonstration laps. It will be driven by American heart-throb actor Patrick Dempsey for the first run, and then Johnny Herbert will repeat the appearance on Saturday, June 11 at 12:30, before the teams take up their positions on the grid for the start of the race.
This year the starting flag will be waved by Jean Todt, President of the FIA and former team manager of Peugeot at Le Mans, when the squad achieved their first outright win in 1992. The flag has been - or will be - signed by all the drivers taking part in this year's 24 Hours, and will be handed over to the Japanese Automobile Federation after the event to be sold to at auction. Profits from the sale will be donated to the Japanese Red Cross.
This flag will also be on show when the traditional photograph of all this year's drivers is taken on the start line at 13:45 on Saturday, along with representatives of Mazda, Toyota and Nissan. Then, at 14:15, in a break from tradition, the ACO has stated that the Japanese anthem will be played just before the Marseillaise, and the massed crowds of spectators will be asked to join in a special minute of applause in memory of victims of the earthquake and tsunami.
Finally, the ACO will present the Spirit of Le Mans trophy on Thursday, June 9 at 10:00 to Professor Yoshimasa Hayashi from Tokai University. This award is presented by the ACO each year to a personality who is deemed to have best served the spirit of Le Mans in the last 12 months.
There are three Japanese manufacturers represented in the 24 Hours this year; Honda, Nissan and Toyota.
The first track action for the 79th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours began at 16:00 (CET) with a four-hour session of Free Practice.
The challenge for Tommy and the guys at RML was simply to establish an effective race set-up for the HPD ARX after precious little opportunity before today, especially with this particular chassis. Probably half the field had moved out onto the track before the pre-heated tyres were hustled out from the ovens and fitted to the #36 and Tommy could head out to join them.
The planned installation lap is normal, but on this occasion there was good cause for a return to the garage, as far as Tommy was concerned anyway. The brake pedal was just a little too "soft" for his liking, so the car was backed into the garage and the crew carried out a swift "bleed" so that he could go out again. "The brakes were much better after that, and improved progressively as we got more heat into them" said the Brazilian.
With that done, Tommy spent about an hour or more carrying out a series of short stints in the cockpit, broken by small tweaks to the settings as the team steadily improved the handling. Initially he'd been running fourth fastest in LMP2, but on part-worn tyres and a heavy tank (to simulate race conditions) it was never intended that he'd be setting quick times, and within half an hour others had started to post better times. On the half-hour, quickest in LMP2 was Ayari in the #26 Oreca Nissan, 9th overall with a time of 3:46.440, with Tom Kimber-Smith second best in the Greaves Zytek Nissan, 13th on 3:51.675. The other pacesetters in LMP2 were largely as predicted, with the #40 and #48 Oreca 03s fourth and fifth in class, bettered narrowly by the #49 Oak Pescarolo.
Tommy stayed in the HPD until half-six, two and a half hours into the session, and ended his stint with a best of 3:49.347. "The car actually felt very good," he said. "We managed to get a fairly good set-up quite early on, after we'd sorted the brakes, but we've been running on well-worn tyres and a full fuel load. Perhaps after the break (in the first qualifying session) we might have a go on new rubber with a lighter load." The only incident of note during Tommy's stint was a small fire that developed around the left rear wheel after he'd come in for a pit stop. It was easily extinguished, and was put down to a chance accumulation of spent rubber around the brakes.
Mike Newton took over driving duties, admitting before setting out that he'd be happy to set a best of around 3:58. In the end he managed to clock a 3:56, and emerged from the cockpit beaming broadly. "I'm very pleased with that," he admitted. After the accident at Spa he'd wanted to prove, to himself as much as anyone else, that he hadn't lost the edge. "If that's getting back on the horse, then all I can say is, the horse is well and truly saddled!"
Ben then saw the session through to the end, circulating in the low 3:50s as the light began to fade. The Strakka Racing HPD #42 had been marginally quicker than RML AD Group's example for most of the first two hours, with Danny Watts completing the installation work before handing over to Nick Leventis.The team owner then passed the car on to Jonny Kane, and the man from Northern Ireland steadily started to claw his way through the Oreca and Zytek Nissans. Initially he went third-fastest in LMP2, but with an hour to go posted a 3:42.863 to move to the top of the class.
In the battle for bragging rights in LMP1, top dog honours fell to Audi in the end, although the three works Peugeots had set the pace through most of the preceding four hours. In the final ten minutes it was Audi though that rose to the top of the pile, with Mike Rockenfeller setting the best time of the afternoon with a 3:27.986. The full times were as follows:
The image above is taken from the Live Timing website. Click the link if you want to use this facility.
The week's first qualifying session kicked off at 10:00, with the track almost in total darkness. That didn't deter some, however, and Mike Rockenfeller, fastest at the end of free practice, immediately threw down the gauntlet again on behalf of Audi and the #1 R18. His opening flyer of 3:27.949 was straight to the top, and would stay there for some time too.
In LMP2 Tommy Erdos was one of the first to get on the pace, and despite not managing to find a clear run, his early flyer of 3:47.308 was good for second quickest in LMP2. That was a position he held for almost a quarter of an hour, narrowly behind Harold Premat in the factory Oreca Nissan #48.
Next to show was Tom Kimber-Smith in the #41 Greaves Motorsport Zytek Nissan, slotting in as fastest in class with a 3:43.814. Then, moments later, Tom was bringing the Zytek back down the pitlane with very evident signs of front-right contact; the wing above the wheel totally missing.
As Lotterer moved fastest overall in the #2 Audi R18, Mailleux moved through to demote Tommy's time to fourth in LMP2, and then Premat fired in an improvement for the #48 Oreca, reclaiming provisional pole with a new best of 3:43.654. Tommy, meanwhile, had already handed over to Mike Newton, with the CEO of AD Group keen to complete his minimum night-lap requirement as early in proceedings as possible. There is a forecast for rain tomorrow, so getting times set tonight in the dry could prove important.
So, with half an hour completed, it was an Audi 1-2-3, and little sign yet of any response from Peugeot. Pierre Kaffer had narrowly moved through ahead of Tommy's earlier time in LMP2, leaving Mike running fifth in the class, but with no definitive reaction yet from Kane in the Strakka HPD.
That situation was swiftly rectified as Kane swept through with a 3:45.510 to move into third, behind Premat and Kimber-Smith. He followed that with a 3:43.451 to take a second and a half away from Premat and make a first claim to pole for Strakka.
An hour and twenty remained on the clock. Mailleux then responded on behalf of the #26 Signatech Oreca Nissan, posting a 3:43.124 to snatch back the top slot, but for mere moments as Kane came through seconds later with a new best of 3:42.616. That left Tommy's early time holding fifth.
Quarter to eleven, and Ben Collins stepped aboard the RML HPD for his first stint in qualifying. Like Mike, he needed to complete his "night laps", but his plans were immediately dashed by a bizarre incident at Mulsanne Corner, where Goethe in the Gulf AMR GTE-Pro Aston Martin #60 appeared to be recovering from a spin when the #1 Audi R18 came round the bend. Dumas in the Audi was left with nowhere to go but into the side of the Aston. Both cars appeared to be badly damaged, and removing the Audi took the marshals several minutes. The session was red flagged for around ten minutes.
Ben had a punctured tyre replaced during the compulsory pitstop. The session resumed at a fraction before eleven. Danny Watts had used the pitstop to take over the Strakka HPD, inheriting Kane's provisional pole, with Ordonez (then in the #26) second from Hallyday in the #48 third, Lombard in the #41 fourth from Perez (#39) fifth and Ben in the RML AD Group HPD holding sixth, 18th overall.
The biggest disappointment of the evening was the performance of the two Aston Martin AMR-Ones. The two cars remained stuck on the second page of the timing screens, last of nearly all the LMP entries (both P1 and P2) and unable to break 3:56. The only prototypes to be further down the order were the #35 Oak, and the #33 Level 5 Lola, which remained in the garage for most of the session as the team tackled a major fuel leak.
Ben completed his stint at 11:27, having set times consistently around the 3:52 mark. The #39 had stopped on the Mulsanne, and then recovered to the pitlane. Meichtry in the #40 Oreca had moved to within eight one-hundredths of Tommy's original time, but the RML AD Group HPD was still holding sixth.
Just over half an hour to go, and the first sign of a fight-back from Peugeot in the form of a 3:27.033 from Sarrazin in the #8 908 to take the top slot from the Audis. At the same time, the #33 Level 5 Lola emerged from its garage, and Bouchut set a first flyer for the black Lola of 3:56.914 to split the two Aston AMR-Ones.
Having made his first move earlier in the session, Meichtry wasn't finished, and with 25 minutes to go, posted an improvement for the #40 Oreca, clocking 3:44.294 to move ahead of Tommy's time, and claim 5th in LMP2, ahead of both the #39 Lola and the RML HPD. Tommy, meanwhile, had taken over from Ben Collins, and Bouchut (#33) had moved ahead of the both the two Aston LMP1s.
Ten minutes before the chequered flag and the #88 Felbermayr Porsche pulled off at Mulsanne Corner with a suspected fire, quickly extinguished by the marshals. In LMP2, Danny Watts had handed over to Nick Leventis with a best for the Strakka HPD of 3:42.616, retaining a half-second advantage over the #26 Oreca for class pole.
One minute remained when there was a major accident for Nick Leventis in the Strakka HPD at the Dunlop Chicane. The whole rear-left of the car was ripped clean away, with additional damage to all four corners, almost as if the car had spun several revolutions. The initial impact appeared to be with the end of a tyre wall on the right, running up towards the left-right combination. Paul Evans, the team's Press Officer told the press room that Nick was alright - despite the language he was practicing over the radio, and apologising to the team for the damage to the HPD. Nick was taken away in an ambulance for the statutory check-up.
Following the action at Le Mans
Aside from logging in here from time to time to check our own updates, one of the best ways to follow the daily developments at Le Mans is to tune in to Radio Le Mans. John Hindhaugh and the crew will be offering live coverage
starting with the Free Practice session at 4:00pm on Wednesday afternoon.
Click the button below for access.