Thursday, June 12, 2008

24 Hours of Le Mans - This Weekend

This Saturday marks the start of the 24 Hour race at Le Mans, a race run on the Circuit de la Sarthe through the beautiful French countryside outside of Rheims. The race winds almost 8 1/2 miles over very well prepared public roads and non-public roads dedicated to racing. Le Mans is the world's premier race for closed-wheel (non Formula) prototype and grand touring cars. The race starts at 3:00 Saturday afternoon local time and ends when the overall race leader crosses the start/finish line after 3:00 Sunday afternoon.

Here is a killer lap of the Cicuit de la Sarthe in a 1983 Porsche 956, which along with the longer wheel base 962 were world-beating race cars. The long straightaway, Mulsanne has been tamed with a chicane.

The race has four races within it, the four classes and their speed differences make for some dangerous racing, especially at night. The fastest class, Le Mans Prototype 1 (LMP1) has been dominated by Audi for years, initially the R8 (the race car not the new street car) and now the turbo-diesel R10 TDI, this year the Peugeot 908, another turbo-diesel aims to give Audi a run for their money. The Peugeot 908 is not to be confused the fantastic Porsche 908 of yore. The Porsche 908 had a racing career that astoundingly covered parts of three decades, the 1960s to the 1980s. Peugeot is favored and in fact they hold the pole position and the next two spots. What has been dubbed the battle of gasoline powered cars in LMP1 will likely be lead again by Pescarolo Sport, the team of local favorite son and former Le Mans winner Henri Pescarolo and their Pescarolo-Judds. The second prototype class LMP2 features heavier, less powerful cars and has been dominated by the Porsche RS Spyder (check out this video of a test drive), in America the Porsche has frequently beaten the Audi like a drum but the Le Mans course with it's 200+ mph sections and the fact that Roger Penske didn't enter his Porsches from the American Le Mans Series mean that barring problems with the entire LMP1 field the Porsches will not battle for the overall lead. The RS Spyder took the first two slots in LMP2 after qualifying.

Here is the circuit at night run by a Peugeot 908 and an Audi R10 in last year's race, the Audi is the, ah, convertible and the Peugeot is the hardtop.

The non-prototype, converted street car classes feature what should be the most intense races within the race, the Aston Martin DBR9* versus the Pratt & Miller prepared Corvettes in Grand Touring 1 (GT1). Classic America versus Europe, blue collar car versus the $160,000 car, on top of that toss in the American super-car the Saleen S7R which qualified second in class and you have a real shootout. This year like last year, Aston is considered the favorite but Corvette has the pole in that class. In GT2 it will be the Porsche GT3 RSR versus the Ferrari F430 GT, this is a class that was once so dominated by the Porsche Carrera (911) offshoot GT3 that they were sometimes the only cars entered in the class, the name GT3 is derived from name that this class once went by. Ever since they overcame reliability issues the Ferrari's eight cylinder engine has given the Ferrari F430 offshoot the F430 GT an edge over the Porsche and it's classic flat-six cylinder engine. This year's Porsche factory offering, the RSR can put up better lap times than the 430 GT but is out numbered 6 to 3 and the Ferraris probably have better drivers, although the Ferraris are favored the Porsches hold 3 of the first 5 spots on the grid, Virgo Motorsports slipped their Ferrari into third place.

Here is a video of the old circuit from 1969, the video notes say that it is from 1967, that is wrong. The great Vic Elford is interviewed and he compares the performance of the then world-beating Ford GT40 with the soon to be world-beating Porsche 917, there was not a single 917 on the planet until the spring of 1969 and the last year that the GT40 competed at Le Mans was 1969. I'm going with 1969 on this video.

So within the four classes three look to be very competitive, the Audi R10 versus the Peugeot 908 in LMP1, the Aston Martin DBR9 versus the Chevrolet Corvette versus the Saleen S7R in GT1 and the Ferrari F430 GT versus the Porsche GT3 RSR in GT2. Large portions of the race will be on Speed again this year.

Here is a video of the awesome Mazda 787B 4-Rotor Le Mans Prototype car. It can be intimidating to be near these cars on the track, even at lower speeds.

Here's a lap of Le Mans with the great Stirling Moss from 1968, probably driving a Ford GT40. Moss gives a fantastic running turn-by-turn dialogue of the circuit. The circuit has changed since those days, mostly for safety. I think that this is Part 1 of an old Castrol promo film.

Here is Part 2 of that Castrol video, it shows the April 1968 practice and the pre-race preparation on race day. The 1968 race was run in September rather than the usual June due to student unrest during that summer.

Here is Part 3, the 1968 race.

*Flying Debris commented on the 2006 Aston Martin effort here.

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