While the attention of the SpeedHunters’ Tribe when focused on sportscar track action natuarlly gravitates towards the GT battles, witness the scale of coverage on this site, there is, of course, another side to that form of racing. The Prototypes. The contest is played out at the sharp end of the field and in the past few years the speeds have risen to all time record level. The winning Audi at Le Mans this June finally broke the distance record set by Gijs Van Lennep and Helmut Marko in the Porsche 917 back in 1971. Yes that Helmut Marko!.
Audi arrived with a brace of prototypes projects back in 1999 to a scene full of factory efforts, BMW, Mercedes Benz, Toyota, Nissan and Porsche were all around in force but as the century turned they all disappeared as fast as an Arctic summer. It was a golden era that did not last, the reasons for abandoning the endurance field were diverse but only Audi stuck around for the Naughties. Take a look at some of the Retrospectives that we have run on the site over that past few years.
When the ACO, organisers of the Le Mans 24 Hours, announced their intention to frame rules that would encourage diesel engines, it lured Peugeot into the arena for the 2007 race. They have stayed ever since to contest overall victory in the classic endurance races with their German rivals. After somehow losing everything in 2008, despite a superior car, Peugeot crushed Audi at Le Mans in 2009. 2010 was to be the last year for the current cars, so both factories concentrated on refinement rather than innovation, well that’s what they told us anyway. The stage was set for a titanic struggle.
There was something of a Phoney War at the start of the season when Audi skipped the 12 Hours at Sebring, declaring that their heavily revised R15+ was not ready to race. This confused those of us who saw the Audi truck parked up in the paddock waiting to complete race simulation runs that day after the 12 Hours had been run.
This is all par for the course when factories go head to head, sometimes in the heat of battle they lose sight of the original purpose behind the project in the scramble for some small competitive advantage.
Whatever, Peugeot showed up in Florida with two 908 HDi FAP cars and gave the boys in blue permission to race flat out and during the second half of the trip round the clock-face, they did just that.
In the first hour they had some spirited opposition from former Audi star, Emanuele Pirro, in Lord Drayson’s Lola but that was that as far any contest from outside for victory went.
The local challengers such a the Dyson Lola Mazda had a thin time of it.
The ALMS Champions, Highcroft, had a disappointing race by their high standards.
Leader of the petrol class was the Lola Aston Martin.
A 1-2 for the French got their 2010 campaign off to a good start, they looked strong.
There was a sense of purpose, of unity in the French camp, some of us thought that Audi would struggle to match this unless the revisions to the disappointing R15 were substantial.
The R15+ certainly was completely revised but would it be enough?
A few weeks later and the warm Floridian sunshine was exchanged for the bitter, wintry conditions of Le Castellet in the Provence region of France.
Even when the sun shone the Mistral ensured that the event was the antithesis of Sebring. No crowd of 120,000 revellers either, though some hardy spectators did filter up from the coastal strip, now that Bernie Ecclestone has sold the track to locals they are encouraged to do so once again.
But with no factory Peugeots on hand it was a continuation of the Phoney War. Audi won with time to spare, Spa would see the first proper confrontation.
Once the two factories met in the Ardennes for the Spa 1000 Kilometrers the result confirmed the observations of those who pound the endurance beat, Peugeot was quicker than the heavily revised Audi. In every department.
Advantages such as better strategy and slicker pitwork were no longer enough for the Germans as rule changes and Peugeot’s own improved performance nullified Audi’s experience.
It was all down to the cars and drivers. And there the French seemed to hold all the cards.
The French media, sensing blood, rallied to the cause. Nice shade of pink there……………….makes us look like grid girls.
The Peugeots ran away and hid during the race………….
I was out on the first part of the course during the second hour when the Red Flags were thrown. There had been a power failure in the region and the circuit generators had not kicked in (short of diesel some said) so with no timing and scoring and no communications the race was halted for an hour.
No matter when action resumed the Peugeots won with ease, if this continued in Le Mans the following month it would be a rout.
Audi stiffened its resolve, adopted a bloody minded attitude and hoped that the talents of their two great champions, Allan McNish and Tom Kristensen would carry them through, as had happened on so many occasions in the past.
Would it be enough at Le Mans? More tomorrow.
John Brooks December 2010.