After facing off at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, LM P1 powerhouse teams Audi Sport Team Joest and Team Peugeot Total will begin their European seasons this weekend in Barcelona, for the Le Mans Series opening race at Circuit de Catalunya. The two diesel juggernauts vying for the crown at Le Mans will take their battle to Spain, in the first of six clashes on European soil.
At Sebring, Peugeot clearly had the pace to beat the Audis, but the lone 908 HDi FAP suffered mechanical gremlins. Hydraulic problems along with a wheel bearing failure and an air intake leak dashed any hopes of a top finish. But the team, making its North American debut, soldiered on to an 11th place finish overall, just missing the P1 podium.
"Our visit to Sebring was globally positive," Peugeot Sport Director Michel Barge said.
"Stephane [Sarrazin] posted the fastest lap in the shortened and ultimately cancelled qualifying session, Nicolas [Minassian] got off to a great start and was first through the opening corner, while Pedro [Lamy] recorded the fastest race lap. We were always amongst the fastest cars throughout the race which shows that the 908 HDi FAP certainly has the pace. Sebring also served as an excellent first outing this year for everyone in the squad. Between now and Le Mans, we will use the Le Mans Series races to validate modifications to the car and improve reliability, an area in which we still have plenty of work."
Audi faced its fair share of setbacks in the race as well, which opened the door for a P2 class Penske Porsche RS Spyder to take the overall victory. On-track incidents coupled with mechanical problems slowed the two R10 TDIs to third and sixth place finishes overall. With Sebring in the dust, both teams are now fully focused on the new challenges at hand in Barcelona.
Audi's arrival into the LMS comes as a major boost to the five-year-old series. With Peugeot running relatively uncontested last season, the French lions will now face stiffer competition in the form of two Reinhold Joest- entered R10 TDIs. Defending ALMS drivers' champions Allan McNish and Dindo Capello team in the No. 1 car while youngsters Mike Rockenfeller and Alexandre Premat will pilot the No. 2 entry.
Peugeot's driver lineup remains unchanged from last season, with Nicolas Minassian and Marc Gene in the No. 7 car and Stephane Sarrazin and Pedro Lamy piloting the No. 8 entry. Sarrazin and Lamy won the drivers' championship last year, and will be looking to put their bad luck at Sebring behind them as they pursue back-to-back championships.
"The car is quick and, although we encountered a problem with reliability at Sebring, I have total confidence in the work of Peugeot Sport and in the improvements to come," Lamy said. "We tested at Barcelona at the beginning of the year and I believe we should be competitive."
Gene is looking forward to racing in front of his home crowd. The Spaniard has enjoyed countless laps at the circuit, whether behind the wheel of a F1 car in testing, or racing in other open-wheel championships.
"Barcelona is a very special venue for me. It's the start of the championship and also home soil," Gene said. "I have to say that I'm really looking forward to racing there with Nicolas in the 908 HDi FAP. I hope there will be a big crowd because endurance cars are spectacular, fast and permit plenty of overtaking. They are by no means pale imitations of F1 cars. On the contrary! It will be very close."
Premat, like Gene, has had many laps around Circuit de Catalunya. The 25- year-old Frenchman has one start in the R10 TDI, coming last year at Le Mans. The GP2 and A1GP ace is hoping some of his past success at Barcelona translates into victory this weekend.
"Barcelona is a big challenge," Premat said. "The circuit is very fast and has some high-speed turns, which are good fun. At some places the tarmac is a bit bumpy, but that's not a problem. In the GP2 I won ahead of Lewis Hamilton there. Of course I'd like to repeat that in the LMS."
Audi not only faces the challenge of Peugeot this weekend, but also the task of competing on two different continents. The German manufacturer is also taking part in the ALMS race at St. Petersburg, under the Audi Sport North America banner.
"The weekend is a major challenge for Audi Sport, both in terms of logistics and the demands made on personnel, particularly as the 2008 DTM season presentation is taking place in Dusseldorf at the same time," says Head of Audi Motorsport Dr Wolfgang Ullrich. "Still, in St Petersburg as well as at Barcelona we want to leave a better impression than we did at the season opener at Sebring - although we're fully aware of the fact that we've got strong competition on either side of the Atlantic and are facing difficult tasks."
Despite making its LMS debut, Reinhold Joest's squad will be tough to beat. Audi was represented in the series for 2004 and 2005 with factory-supported efforts from Audi Sport UK Team Veloqx and Team Oreca. McNish raced for both teams, winning three races in all. The Scotsman returns to Europe in 2008 with unfinished business, as he and Capello will be looking to score their third consecutive title together.
"It's a new challenge," McNish said. "Dindo and I have been fortunate [to] win a lot of races [in the ALMS] in the last couple of years and two titles. It was the right time for us for a fresh challenge."
McNish not only sees Peugeot as a threat for the win, but challenges coming from two other French outfits as well. Pescarolo Sport and Team Oreca are two gasoline-powered teams that could come close to matching the pace of the diesels.
"There are also quite a lot of very high-end teams out there," McNish noted. "Oreca, for example, is one that we know very well from Audi as they ran our program from the French perspective. They've won Le Mans with the Viper for so many years. They basically ran the Mazdas when they won Le Mans. They'll be good, as well as the Pescarolos. That is quite an exciting prospect."