Winter is finished and hibernation is over, whatever Punxatwany Phil has to say on the subject.
At least in my world that is. This week down in Spain the Grand Prix Circus set out their stall for 2010. In Florida the Rolex 24 has been and gone, next up is the beginning of the NASCAR season. Best of all is the news in from the city some 120 miles West of Paris, Le Mans. This week they have announced those lucky devils who have been invited to the 2010 edition of the French classic.
Andy B posted a link to the entry list itself, but I though I would share some observations and highlights.
First off 84 entries (and all those lovely entry fees) submitted for the race. 55 accepted and ten reserves. The field is divided into four classes, 21 in LMP1, 9 in LMP2, 8 in LMGT1 and 17 in LMGT2. Add to that 44 season entries for the Le Mans Series and it is evident that endurance racing, in Europe at least, is in a healthy position. ALMS or Grand Am would kill for those numbers……………
At first glance 2010 will be a bit "Groundhog Day". Despite tinkering with the rules to slow down the oil burners, no one expects outright victory to go anywhere except to one of the six factory cars from Audi and Peugeot. Driver line ups may have changed in both camps but from pole to podium the story will be the fight between the factories. The French have a back up in an extra 908 for ORECA, who will also run the car in the 2010 Le Mans Series. All that being said there are many news stories to come out of the press conference, televised on the Net for the first time. A welcome improvement, however much I like visiting Le Mans.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, and one most of us did not anticipate, was the return of Jaguar to La Sarthe. Ok it will not be in contention for outright victory, as this is a GT2 project. Paul Gentilozzi revealed his Jaguar XKRS to the world at last year's Petit Le Mans. The car then ran in the final round of the ALMS at Laguna Seca, so we all knew that the venture was real but it is a big ask to go from there to racing in the ultra competitive GT2 class at Le Mans.
Jaguar will celebrate its 75th Birthday this year so it is very appropriate that it goes back to the arena that it dominated in the 50's and late 80's. Anyone who attended the races from 1984, when Bob Tullius brought over the fabulous Group 44 XJR 5s to the final hurrah of TWR XJR 12s in 1991 will know of the fanatical support that the iconic brand enjoys. More fans through the turnstiles will be the ACO's conclusion.
Paul Gentilozzi is the nominated driver and it expected that Marc Goossens and Scott Pruett will join him in France. To be honest the GT2 category is as keenly contested as LMP1 and the levels of talent and ability runs deep so realistically the aim of the Jaguar must be to get to the finish, anything else will be a bonus.
Another famous brand making a return to the Le Mans 24 Hours, also in GT2 is BMW. The last time a factory car participated, back in 1999, it took overall victory.
After a successful debut season in the ALMS last year, the focus has shifted to Europe and Schnitzer has been pulled from WTCC duties to campaign at Le Mans, Le Mans Series and Nurburgring 24 Hours, it will keep them busy.
There are two BMW M3 GT2 entries in the field with the driving line up to be based round the ultra successful WTCC squad, including three time World Champion, Andy Priaulx. He is expected to be joined by Jorg Muller, Dirk Muller, Augusto Farfus, Dirk Werner and Uwe Alzen, a fabulous squad. Although this is the first attempt at the Le Mans GT2 crown, it would be foolish to discount the possibility of Schnitzer scoring another win.
Another newcomer to the La Sarthe GT2 mix is Corvette who also will have two C6.Rs on the grid. Like the BMW effort, the Pratt & Miller operation will be serious contenders for victory, they do nothing by half as their stellar record in GT1 over the past decade proves.
Leading the charge of the GT2 regulars will the two Ferrari F430 entries of Risi Competitzione, who took victory at all the endurance classics last year. That alone must make them favourites in the eyes of the bookies. They will face stiff opposition in the Ferrari camp with top line entries from AF Corse. Hankook Team Farnbacher and Modena Group,
And what would Le Mans be without Porsche in the mix? Confirming the ascendancy of the ALMS GT2 pack is the leading Porsche, that of Flying Lizard. Joining the aerial reptile are Porsches from BMS Scuderia Italia, ProSpeed Competition, IMSA Performance Matmut and Felbermayr Proton.
The remaining two invites in the GT2 class are for JMW Motorsport's Aston Martin Vantage and Dutch crowd pleasers Spyker. So a total of 17 GT2 cars will be on the grid in June. One or two omissions, no Ferraris from either CRS racing nor JMB. Neither were even on the reserve list so it must be presumed that they did not enter.
In the LM GT1 class there were 8 invites from the ACO to compete. Down for sure on the old days but as the category nearly perished last year it is weak but not finished. The ACO hopes to build on the re-invigorated GT1 World Championship for the future. Adding to the list of major brands that making a return to La Sarthe is Ford. The Matech developed Ford GT reminds all who see it of the GT40 that won so many times in the 60s for the Detroit giant. There will be two of these cars on duty in June.
Their main opposition will come from three Corvettes, two from Luc Alphand Adventures and one from Pekaracing. There are also single entries for Aston Martin (Young Driver AMR), Saleen (Labre Competition) and Lamborghini (JLOC).
In reality the story in GT1 is more about those who did not enter. The late cancellation of the Gigawave Motorsport programme must have disrupted Nissan's plans to race the GT-R at Le Mans. Perhaps they want another season of competition before they enter, perhaps it is just the financial situation.
More surprisingly was the absence of Maserati. The MC12 did not comply with ACO regulations until this year, so was prevented from running. That hurdle is now cleared but still no Trident. Answer there came none.
Which brings us to the prototypes. LMP2 features 9 cars, none more welcome than top US outfit, Highcroft Racing. With the team being led by David Brabham, who won outright in 2009 for Peugeot, much is expected of this team.
Let's hope that they bring Patron Tequila with them…………and the girls of course.
There will be a second Acura in the field as Strakka Racing purchased a chassis from the ALMS ranks during the close season.
There will two Lola coupes in the LMP2 mix, Racing Box and RML with a new Honda engine.
Zytek will also be represented by a brace of cars, LMS defending champions ASM and Bruichladdich.
There will be a return to Le Mans for the WR team. The final LMP2 spots were allocated to the Pescarolos of Oak Racing.
And so on to the fastest class and the source of the winners, LMP1. Lola have a total of seven chassis invited, two for the factory Lola Aston Martins that proved so popular last June. Rebellion Racing have a further two entries with Signature, Drayson and Autocon making up the balance. Will the Gulf liveried cars close the gap on the diesels and will they remain at the top of the petrol field? Or will Rebellion Racing snatch their crown?
There will be a pair of Pescarolos on hand, one for Pescarolo Sport and one for SORA both Judd powered.
Making a welcome return is the Dome Judd. This has been touted round the internet forums as a trojan horse for a Toyota Hybrid project for 2011. With all the problems that the Japanese giant is going through right now that might be a tad optimistic.
More headlines were generated by the entry of 1993 F1 World Champion, Nigel Mansell, who will line up with his two sons, Leo and Greg, in Zytek.
There are other entries for the ORECA AIM and two R10 Audis for Kolles but these are getting a bit long in the tooth now.
When all is said and done the attention will be rightly focused on the titanic struggle at the sharp end. This is not to denigrate the other competitors, Le Mans is a race like no other but the headlines will follow Peugeot and Audi.
The Audi R15 has undergone a substantial re-design, partly because of Peugeot and others feeling that the aerodynamic chassis was outside the rules. In any case it did not work at Le Mans last year and they do not do failure well in Ingolstadt. Although the expression "Excellence was expected" was applied to Porsche during their time at the top of racing, it could easily be said of Audi Sport.
Last year was the first defeat that Audi Sport has suffered at Le Mans since their debut back in 1999. They have set new standards for preparation and sheer race craft. Employing great drivers such as Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish has been the outward sign of the industry and discipline of every member of the team.
Peugeot tasted bitter defeat in 2007 and 2008. A new man at the top, Olivier Quesnel, took the French flair in the team and tempered it with the qualities seen in their opponents, Audi. It worked but expect Audi to be back.
There were other changes announced at the Press Conference. Scrutineering will move both in location, forced by building work at Les Jacobins. To increase attendance the process will happen on Sunday and Monday………….we were not told what is planned for Tuesday.
The ACO will also ramp up press, poster and TV advertising in the Paris region, the TGV can whisk you to Le Mans in under an hour. They are making a big marketing push to keep the race in its place as the greatest in the world.
There are other changes in terms of the practice and qualifying. To compensate for the loss of the Test Weekend, hours will be extended on Wedenesday. Free Practice will run from 16.00 to 20.00, then a two hour gap and then qualifying from 22.00 to 24.00. Thursday will retain the present arrangement of 19.00 to 21.00 Free Practice and then a hour in the pits and then the final two hours of Qualifying from 22.00 to 24.00. By which time all of working are completely knackered. And we still have not reached the race.
Friday will see that traditional drivers' parade with all the accessories necessary.
Leave it to a professional Sir…………….get yourself pictured with a star, gives an idea of the lack of formality of the whole event.
Head to head, Audi and Peugeot will go with no quarter asked or given.. Who will win? Well a clue might be found on 9th May at Spa Francorchamps. The classic Belgian track sees its annual 1000 Kilometre race, both factories will be there. So if you get a chance should you. Same applies in June.