June……….each year it comes round and motorsport turns its focus to a small industrial city around 130 miles to the South West of Paris, otherwise known as Le Mans. For such an unassuming place an awful lot of significant mechanised milestones have happened in the Sarthe region. The first Grand Prix, French or otherwise, was held in June 1906 over a series of closed public roads to the East of the city. Ferenc Szisz in a Renault AK 90CV who completed 12 laps of the 64 mile circuit over two days became the first Grand Prix winner. Traces of the race still exist if you know where to look.
Two years later Wilbur Wright astonished his French hosts by making the first powered flight in Europe at the horse racing track, Les Hunaudieres, right in the middle of the current endurance track. The memorial and stone that was used as launch aid are still there, just off the Mulsanne Straight.
Then in 1923 the first Vingt Quatre Heures du Mans was run………………there must be something in the water or the wine………………
Which brings us full circle to this year's 24 Hours. As usual there are four classes, two prototype, two GT but in reality there are two classes that will capture everyone's attention. The Peugeot/Audi diesel battle will overshadow everything else in the proto group, petrol LMP1 cars stand as much chance of winning the race as do the LMP2 racers.
Even more eagerly anticipated by those of us toiling away in the business, is the four way factory GT2 battle which sees Ferrari, Porsche and Corvette duking it out with BMW. Thrown in Jaguar, Aston Martin and Spyker and the GT2 arena is easily the most compelling on the grid.
For those of you who are completists, Andy Blackmore will have his Spotters' Guide available, so that you can track the more obscure of the 56 cars invited to Scrutineering. Me? There is only one question that matters, who will win?
That question is answered differently depending who you ask. The majority of those supposedly in the know are fence sitters, motoring magazines for example don't want to either offend or be wrong so they equivocate. It might be Audi or on the other hand it might be Peugeot, then when the result is known that can claim to have been right all along.
The other experts divide into two camps. Those who have not been to the races, relying on interviews and logic, tend to favour Audi. Those of us who have attended Sebring, Le Castellet and Spa say Peugeot will do it. Why so? And who is right? Well it depends…………….
Peugeot's diesel LMP project is in its fourth season, commonsense dictates that the car will have reached its maximum development potential some time ago. Yet the ACO continually tinker with the rules trying to slow the cars down, keep them on the road or to mollify the disadvantaged petrol engine runners. These changes have given the Peugeot engineers targets to aim for, it is fine tuning but small margins make big differences in 24 hour races.
Perhaps the biggest gains that Peugeot have made in the course of the project are on the human side. In 2007 and 2008 they consistantly lost time in the pits against Audi, putting their drivers under enormous pressure back on the track. The result was a series of defeats by Audi's R10, a much inferior car in terms of performance on the track to the 908. The pain that this inflicted on Peugeot was immense. Whatever it took, they would do it to win.
So for 2009 a new boss was installed, Olivier Quisnel. He transformed the organisation bringing in his management style that brought so much success to Citroen on the World Rally Championship. There were changes in the composition of the management with Technical Director, Bruno Famin, taking a more hands on role. Pitstops became the outward focus of a change in culture. Allan McNish told me that he noticed a Peugeot film crew recoring all the Audi stops at Sebring 2009………….learn from the masters. They studied hard.
The driver line up was also changed with marketing led choices such as Jacques Villeneuve dumped in favour of more experienced endurance specialists like David Brabham. The result was victory at Le Mans and Peugeot taking on the crown held for the past ten years by Audi as endurance racing Top Dogs.
Audi, in contrast went backwards during 2009. Given false hope by a lucky victory at Sebring they were comprehensively outpaced and outraced at Le Mans by Peugeot. This is not a situation that could or would be tolerated by the Germans so 2010 would be different.
So for this season Audi completely revised the R15, making an R15+, as it is dubbed by the press. The basic aerodynamic principles on which the original R15 was based were fundamentally changed. Their testing programme was better structured and executed and included racing at Le Castellet and Spa. In the latter race three Audis came up against three Peugeots with the French coming out on top in a truncated race. It was an apples and oranges situation as Audi were running a low downforce Le Mans spec set up, Peugeot were optimised for Spa with its high downforce demands.
So less than a week away from the start of the Le Mans 24 Hours race. It would seem that Peugeot have the faster car but the gap flat out round the La Sarthe circuit is expected to be less than one second. In terms of fuel consumption in is thought that both the R15 and the 908 will get 12 laps out of a tank but this could be an area for strategy calls. Get one car to eak out the gas at the expense of ultimate performance to make less pit stops. The aim in 24 hour races is to cover the greatest distance not to be the fastest car, they are not always the same thing.
Tyres are another major factor. Peugeot can quadruple stint their tyres without too much trouble, will Audi be able to match that? Time spent in the pits can rarely be made up on track.
Further changes to the Peugeot driver line up have strengthened the French potential. Sebastian Bourdais is teamed up with Simon Pagenaud and Pedro Lamy who cope with the French star's penchant for understeering cars. The trio of Stephane Sarrazin, Nicolas Minassian and Franck Montagny is arguably the strongest in the field. They operate as a unit with Sarrazin taking the role of leader when it comes to setting up the car. The third 908 is also in safe hands with Alex Wurz, Marc Gene and Antony Davidson possibly to be the designated third car on a different fuel strategy. So the rumbles from the media pack is that Peugeot have two very strong cars with a very good back up.
There are many more questions to be answered when it comes to Audi. For sure until Qualifying comes round on Wednesday the lead car of Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello will take the fight to the French.
The R15+ seems to be almost on the pace of the Peugeot, have the Germans been sandbagging?
There is a consensus in the media room that for Audi to put pressure on Peugeot, the crew of #9, Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Mike Rockenfeller have to step up to the plate and get on the pace of the #7 trio. Then Audi will have a plan B if the Old Guard runs into problems.
As to the third Audi crew, there are mixed opinions amongst the media. Marcel Fassler is a known quantity and well regarded but Benoit Treluyer and Andre Lotterer, his team mates coming from Super GT, have a bit to prove. Lotterer spinning off on the pace lap at Spa did nothing to dispel these doubts…………….I hope that they prove us wrong.
So in conclusion, the fight for victory will be closer than the past two years, with Peugeot being narrow favourites but the result is likely to remain in doubt right up to the flag on Sunday afternoon. OK, OK, the fence DOES seem rather a comfortable place, move over Autosport et al.
The seventh diesel in the race is the 2010-spec Peugeot for Team ORECA Matmut, which will be in a reserve position to step in should anything happen to factory cars. They have been the lightning rod for any woes to strike the diesel crew. A change of fortune is overdue.
The LMP1 petrol brigade is led by Lola Aston Martin trio, though without the major factory support seen in 2009.
ORECA continue to develop their own chassis in preparation for the change in regulations for 2011.
Also at the sharp end of this group are the two Rebellion Racing Lolas. #12 features two famous sons, Marco Andretti and Nicolas Prost, together with Neel Jani.
An even stronger line up is running in #13 with Guy Smith joining regulars Andrea Belicchi and Jean-Christophe Bouillon.
Another famous name crops up in #5. Nigel Mansell is running with his two sons, Greg and Leo.
The LMP2 class is likely to be a three way fight with the Highcroft Racing HPD ARX 01 a clear favourite. David Brabham, Marino Franchitti and Marco Werner bring a combination of speed and experience that would be an asset to any entry. Assistance from Honda makes this a de facto werks car.
Another HPD ARX 01 entered by Strakka Racing will keep the Highcroft boys honest.
Quifel-ASM's Ginetta Zytek 09S is also likely to be rattling the Highcroft cage, especially when Olivier Pla is behind the wheel.
So Peugeot to win? The fence, yup that's the place for me……………………