|LeMans pits at night|
Participating in the 24 Hours of Le Mans is more than filling out an entry form or accepting an invitation. To perform well at this famous event, teams and drivers often need up to a year to fully prepare for the challenge. For this year’s 79th edition of the celebrated endurance race, set for this Saturday 10 June, the battle looks to be between the teams of Audi and Peugeot, both of which began their preparations as early as last fall.
To succeed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans one needs a fast, reliable sports car, a team of skilled engineers who can set-up and run the many pit stops during the race and, of course, three dedicated drivers who are up to the challenge. Whether one participates in the GT class, like Corvette, Ferrari, BMW or Porsche, or in the LMP class like Peugeot or Audi, all preparations must have fallen into place by the Wednesday before the race; the day the sports cars start practice on the 13.629-kilometer Le Mans track. Peugeot’s sports director Olivier Quesnel: “Right after the 2010 edition of the race we started to work on the new car, which was built according to the new rules set by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest.” The French manufacturer had their new V6 Diesel-powered car ready late 2010 and began testing in the south of Europe. Peugeot’ challenger, Audi, did not have their car ready until early January. “Although we tested mid-January, we were not ready to race the 12 Hours of Sebring in March, so we ran the older R15Plus there,” said Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, director of Audi Sport. “Then we had another test with the new Audi R18 the week following the 12 hour race in Sebring.” Yet as helpful as private testing may be, whether in the south of Europe or in Florida, the best test is racing. “We had our new 908 ready for the Sebring race and although the track does not resemble the track in France, it gave us a lot of information,” said Alexander Wurz (AUT), one of the Peugeot works drivers. For the new Audi, the 12-hour race at Sebring, which also represented the first round in the newly created Intercontinental Le Mans Cup (ILMC) series, came too early. Rolex Testimonee Tom Kristensen (DNK), the record eight-time winner of the Le Mans race, found Sebring to be a good test. “Although we used the older car, we could test all race strategies and work on the pit stops.”
The drivers themselves did a lot of training as well. Audi even organizes a team-building week in the Bavarian Alps every winter. Kristensen, like his regular teammates McNish (MCO) and Capello (ITA), only participates in the long endurance races, while Mike Rockenfeller (DEU) and other Audi drivers participate in various select events over the year. Rockenfeller, the defending Le Mans winner – and winner of the 2010 Rolex 24 At Daytona – also participates in the German DTM Series. The Young German won his first race last month at Zandvoort in the Netherlands.
In May, the second round of the ILMC was run at the Belgian Spa-Francorchamps track, an event often considered to be the ultimate test for Le Mans for prototypes and GT teams. Marc Gené, the Spanish driver who was part of the winning Peugeot team at Spa-Francorchamps, was happy with Peugeot’s win in Belgium but said it was just a test for Le Mans: “We did a lot of testing in Spain and France and of course we ran in Sebring, but those are, just like Spa-Francorchamps, tests. Everything must be in perfect condition for Le Mans.”
Teams will arrive in Le Mans more than a week before race days. There was a technical inspection on Sunday 5 June and practice will start on Wednesday 8 June. Tom Kristensen is already in the spirit: “I love this race; as soon as I am on the highway to Le Mans and see the signs on the side of the road, I start getting excited. Le Mans is so special; you can not compare it with any other event.”
The 79th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans will start on Saturday 10 June at 15:00. It will be the third round of this year’s ILMC series. After Le Mans, races are scheduled at Imola in Italy in July, at Silverstone in England in September and at Road Atlanta in the USA in October. The season will have its final in Zhuhai, China, mid-November. Rolex is the official timekeeper of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup.