Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Anyone taking a casual glance at the results from the 2010 Le Mans 24 Hours and recalling the verdict way back in 2000, would conclude that the wise words of Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, from the mid 19th Century, still hold sway. We had the same result, an Audi clean sweep, from completely different circumstances.
And yet the Le Mans universe is a very different place from that of ten years ago. Then, as now, there were four classes, with factory entries aplenty but there the similarities end.
1998 and 1999 had seen high profile and high budget manufacturer projects at Le Mans from Toyota, Nissan, Mercedes Benz, BMW and Porsche, with Audi joining in with their twin pronged approach featuring both open and closed cars for the latter year.
I had a look at Audi efforts earlier: http://speedhunters.com/?p=1988
All of the above manufacturers left the House for 2000 but Audi took on board the lessons from their comparative failure (well by Audi's standards) to create a new car which would turn into the benchmark for endurance racing in the first years of the 21st Century, the Audi R8.
It appeared at Sebring in the 2000 edition of the 12 Hour classic and romped away to an easy victory, leaving rivals in no doubt as to the scale of the task they would face, come June, at La Sarthe.
Rivals? Ah yes, it was as if the ACO had issued a distress call across the Atlantic to replace the departing Japanese and German outfits. In 1999 the American Le Mans Series had been born and created a marketing opportunity for Detroit to match their products with the best. The opportunity was siezed with both hands, not since George Patton's Third Army had swung through Le Mans back in August 1944 had La Sarthe since such a range of American firepower. Cadillac, Corvette, Dodge, Chrysler and Panoz represented Motor City and like Patton they were chasing the Germans. That however was where the anaolgy ends. George S. caught his opponents………………
The rich history of Les Vingt Quatre Heures du Mans allows it to have all manner of anniversaries each year, saluting some past heroes and their heroics. In 1950 Briggs Cunningham stunned the French crowds by bringing two Cadillacs to La Sarthe, one a bog standard Coupe de Ville and the other a rebodied streamliner, dubbed "Le Monstre." For 2000 Cadillac produced a conventional, in reality too conventional, open prototype running in the LM P900 class. It was powered by a twin-turbo 4 litre V8, with Xtrac transmission and a chassis built by Riley & Scott. The aim of the project was to take an overall win in 2002 to co-incide with Cadillac's centenary. The whole project fitted in with GM's attempt to change the brand's perception of providing luxury barges to retired folk. That bit has, at least, happened, the 2002 plan did not.
A total of four Cadillac Northstar LMPs were entered, two for Team Cadillac which was founded by Wayne Taylor out of the Doyle Risi Team. Two cars were entrusted to the French DAMS outfit. However it was clear from the outset that these cars would not be competitive against the Audi squad, so expectations were managed down with "development year" talk. Marketing created a smokescreen with an infra red based camera system that was mounted in the car's lights but no one was fooled, the whole project was seriously undercooked and might have been competitive a few years earlier but the likes of Toyota, BMW and now Audi had moved the game on, massively.
Also with ambitions to win the 2002 Le Mans 24 Hours outright was Chrysler. As part of the journey to that destination they had enlisted their French racing partners, ORECA, who had run the succesful Viper programme for them. They had purchased two new Reynard 2KQ chassis and shoehorned the 6 litre V8 into the rear. No matter what was being said, this project stood little chance of success in the face of the Audi steamroller. The investment in new technology from Ingolstadt would dwarf the efforts from Detroit.
Ford were represented by proxy, in the shape of five Panoz LMP1 Roadsters with the rumbling 6 litre V8s and their unusual configuration, the driver sitting behind the engine. There were two factory cars for Panoz Motorsport managed by old lag, Dave Price.
There were two Roadsters from TV Asahi Team Dragon with Kazumichi Goh heading up the effort.
The final Panoz was that of Den Bla Avis, which was a regular runner in the Sports Racing World Cup.
Another American legend to come back to Le Mans, was Mario Andretti. At the age of 60 he was rolling the dice one last time to see if he could win the one major race that had eluded him in his long and distinguished career.
Also crossing the Atlantic was the Team Rafanelli Lola B2K/10 with Judd power. This was a factory supported effort and was expected to fast but possibly fragile.
Another fancied Lola was the Konrad Motorsport example for the Dutch trio, Jan Lammers, Peter Kox and Tom Coronel. From this entry has grown the huge Dutch support for Le Mans. The Racing for Holland team followed on with the Drinking for Holland close behind. Oaks from acorns.
Peugeot were also at Le Mans 10 years ago. Henri Pescarolo, a four time winner, had finally retired, so was now on the pitwall leading his Pescarolo Sport outfit running a Courage C52 powered by V6 turbo from the French manufacturer. A bit of a dark horse.
Keeping up the tradition of the privateer at the top table was Thomas Bscher's BMW V12 LM. The team and car had finished a fantastic 4th overall in 1999, so they were quietly confident of being around at 4.00pm on Sunday.
Matching the Panoz contingent was Reynard as there was also five examples of its prototype on the Le Mans grid.
Best of these was the Judd powered Johansson Matthews Racing example.
Two of the Reynards were entered in the fledgling LM P675 class with werks turbo engines from Volkswagen, they had limited opposition.
The main challenge in LM P675 was expected to be from the Multimatic Motorsport Lola powered by a V6 Nissan engine.
Which brings us neatly to the second part of the American Invasion. The LM GTS class would feature a titanic struggle between Le Mans returnees, (40 years previously, once again with Briggs Cunningham) Corvette Racing and the reigning champs, Viper Team ORECA.
The two camps had already gone toe to toe at the Daytona 24 Hours earlier in the year. Viper came out on top that time but their winning margin was just 30 seconds and they knew that it could have easily gone either way.
The three Vipers would be opposed by two Corvettes, real Detroit heavy metal, as 8 litre V10 battled 7 litre V8, Ali-Frasier-style, a classic Le Mans encounter.
The LM GT category was a Porsche monoploy, all 12 entries being the 996 GT3 R models. There were two examples that were head and shoulders above the rest, Labre Competition was, as ever, proudly flying the Tricolour.
American hopes rested on the Barbour Racing werks entry.
It was a scorching hot weekend, conditions that come to that part of France sometimes in June. Would the favourites win or as they often do, would they stumble along the road?