The opening two days of the 2008 Le Mans Series saw perfect weather, a record number of media highlighting renewed interest in the series, a fantastic field of cars and scintillating speed in almost every category which points towards an extremely competitive season ahead.
Teams which attended the test at the Paul Ricard High Tech Test facility on the southern French coast used the opportunity to develop their cars for the five-race season ahead of them, starting in Barcelona on April 6, and for the Le Mans 24 hours on June 14/15. Using precisely the same circuit configuration as last year, the track length was 5.971km, the teams were able to use the full length of the Mistral Straight, which is ideal preparation for the rigours of Monza on April 27, and for Le Mans.
The medium speed corners in the first quarter of the lap at Paul Ricard suited the teams' preparation for Spa on May 11 and Silverstone on September 14, and the tight corners that end the lap suit the nature of the Nurburgring circuit in Germany on August 17.
Audi sets the pace
Allan McNish, the double American Le Mans Series champion, set the pace on the debut of the Audi R10 TDI in the series. The Scottish driver set fastest time of 1m39.705s on the first day of testing before the Audi team packed up on Sunday night and prepared to travel to Sebring for the 12-hour race in Florida on March 15.
Alexandre Premat and Mike Rockenfeller were second fastest in the sister Audi R10 TDI and in fifth place was the Charouz Racing System Aston Martin-powered Lola of Jan Charouz and Stefan Mucke, which set a best of 1m42.105s in the final session of the two-day test. It was the first time that the "LM" P1 coupe ran at the test and the team was delighted with the performance.
Jamie Campbell-Walter was third fastest in the Creation CA07-AIM, the team recovering from a clutch failure on Sunday morning and an over-rev on Monday.
Henri Pescarolo's team worked through a range of modifications in preparation for the season and did not concentrate on setting a time, ending the test sixth fastest. "We decided to test each evolution to try to find a configuration for each track that we go to," said the team owner.
The brand new Spanish Team Epsilon Euskadi finished the day tenth fastest in the "LM" P1 class. Angel Burgueno set a time of 1m45.351s on Monday after the team suffered two driveshaft failures and minor new car problems but never the less covered 36 laps on Monday. Porsche teams lead "LM" P2
The two Porsche RS Spyders headed the "LM" P2 category with Jos Verstappen setting fastest time of 1m43.829s, just one tenth of a second faster than the Essex Racing Porsche of John Nielsen and Casper Elgaard, but hot on their heels was the Quifel-ASM team of Olivier Pla and Miguel Amaral which set a best of 1m44.456s.
This is the category in which competition is expected to be the most fierce, though a true measure of the competition may not be seen until the reigning champion team RML have a trouble-free session and do better than their sixth fastest time would suggest. The British team had two engine problems which halted their test on Sunday, while the Speedy Racing Judd-powered Lola, driven by Robbie Kerr, stopped on Sunday with a water leak having set fifth fastest time.
The Trading Performance Zytek was crashed on Sunday as Karim Ojjeh was caught out on cold tyres, and was not recorded as having set a time.
Lamborghini closes the gap
The IPB Spartak Racing Lamborghini Murcielago emerged from the two day test fourth fastest in the "LM" GT1 category, Peter Kox setting a 1m53.668s lap late on Monday afternoon to move to within 1.2s of the Larbre Competition Saleen S7R which set second fastest time. The car is entered by the Spartak Moscow Ice Hockey team and IPB is the bank which owns the team.
American Le Mans Series champion Olivier Beretta was on hand to help the Luc Alphand Aventures team to set quickest time in the category in the Corvette C6R with a 1m52.326s lap and the competition is expected to remain tough betwen the manufacturers this season.
The Aston Martin Racing team ran through an extensive test programme with drivers Andrea Piccini, Antonio Garcia and Karl Wendlinger, who shared the driving with Tomas Enge and Darren Turner during the test. The Aston Martin finished third fastest while the Strakka Racing Aston Martin was sixth in the hands of Peter Hardman and Nick Laventis.
Porsche immediately fast
Porsche's new 997 GT3 RSR was fastest in the "LM" GT2 category with the IMSA Performance Matmut car of Richard Lietz setting quickest time, ahead of the reigning champion Virgo Motorsport team of Rob Bell and Gianmaria Bruni.
The Ferrari, running in new colours for the first time, did not have all the latest development features and ran at the test with a high-mileage engine, and so the team was delighted to come away from the test just one tenth of a second behind in second place.
The Team Felbermayr Porsche, which also ran the new 997 and was driven by Marc Lieb, who will share with Alex Davison, was third fastest ahead of the new Aston Martin V8 Vantage which ran through a successful test programme.
Bad news was in store for the Speedy Racing team whose Spyker C8 caught fire on Sunday afternoon with Andrea Chiesa aboard. The car was all but destroyed on its final outing before being put up for sale.