Team Peugeot Total once again flexed its muscle in qualifying, as Stephane Sarrazin claimed the overall pole for Sunday's Le Man Series season-ending Silverstone 1000km. Sarrazin turned a 1:30.359 lap time in his No. 8 Peugeot 908 HDi-FAP, narrowing edging out teammate Nicolas Minassian to make it another all-Peugeot front row.
Sarrazin rebounded following a crash in the morning practice by co-driver Pedro Lamy, who backed the diesel-powered LM P1 into the barriers in damp conditions. Luckily, the car was repairable in time for qualifying, and Sarrazin was able to clock his record-breaking lap time around the 5.14-km Silverstone Grand Prix circuit.
The No. 7 machine of Nicolas Minassian also had his fair share of drama, but his came during the qualifying run. The Frenchman collided with the Speedy Racing Team Sebah Lola B08/80 Judd of Xavier Pompidou early in the session. Despite suffering rear-end damage, Minassian was able to take the second starting position. A second place finish or better is all Minassian and co-driver Marc Gene will need tomorrow to clinch the drivers' championship.
Allan McNish may be out of the title hunt, but he sure made a serious impression in qualifying, putting his No. 1 Audi Sport Team Joest R10 TDI third on the grid. McNish's 1:31.020 lap time was only 0.661 seconds away from Sarrazin's pole-winning time. McNish and co-driver Dindo Capello have yet to visit the podium this season, could tomorrow be their day?
"It was difficult for everyone because we hardly got to drive in dry conditions," McNish said. "Our engineers did an outstanding job. I knew I'd only have two laps to get the maximum out of the tires. I managed two pretty good laps. My third lap was even a bit faster until I hit traffic. But I think everyone had to struggle with that. We're only six tenths behind Peugeot, so we're closer to them than ever. I'm sure that makes them a bit nervous because our race pace is very good."
Their focus, though, may be on helping teammates Mike Rockenfeller and Alexandre Premat score the drivers' championship. Audi's "youngsters" sit two points away from Minassian and Gene in the championship, meaning every point will count. The duo will be either hoping for a win, or wishing the leading Peugeot runs into trouble.
"We're still shooting for the championship," Premat said. "That means we've got to clinch as many points as possible. We're looking forward to the race because the car's got good balance. For the fast corners, we still need to fine-tune the front suspension a bit, after that everything should be right."
Audi has been on pace with Peugeot all weekend long, but some of that could have been due to the weather conditions. Rain soaked Friday's activities, while a damp circuit played host to Saturday morning's final practice - and the R10 TDIs topped the time sheets on both occasions. But with clear skies in the forecast for race day, Audi will surely be praying for rain.
"We shouldn't ignore the fact that Peugeot had a few problems in qualifying and that they ran out of time," said Ralf Juttner, Audi technical director. "Still, we're not too far apart from them with both cars, which is good. In the wet practice sessions we saw that we've got an advantage in wet conditions. That's why we're sort of hoping for changing weather conditions tomorrow. That could make for a really interesting race. In any event, both cars are prepared very well."
Stefan Mucke in the No. 10 Charouz Racing System Lola B08/60 Aston Martin was the quickest of the gasoline-powered P1s. The German, who shares the wheel with Jan Charouz, was nearly three seconds slower than Sarrazin's pole-winning time. The No. 6 Team Oreca Matmut Courage-Oreca LC70 Judd of Olivier Panis and Nicolas Lapiere will start in the sixth position overall.
Van Merksteijn Motorsport overcame a major setback on Friday to claim the LM P2 class pole, keeping their 100 percent pole record intact. Jos Verstappen turned a 1:34.212 lap time in qualifying, just hours after smashing his No. 34 Porsche RS Spyder into the barriers. The veteran Dutchman lost control of the car in damp conditions on Friday, but the Peter van Merksteijn-owned team repaired the car in time for today's action.
"I hit a wet patch and the car started aquaplaning, there was nothing for me to do." Verstappen explained. "When I went out again for free practice this morning, I immediately felt that the car was good. Finding the right set-up for qualifying was a bit of a gamble as we hadn't had that much track time, especially because the circuit was still damp this morning, but it was all right."
The No. 32 Barazi Epsilon Zytek 07S of Juan Barazi, Michael Vergers and Fernando Rees were second quickest, followed by the Speedy Racing Team Sebah Lola Judd of Pompidou, Andrea Belicchi and Steve Zacchia in third.
Peter Kox steered his no. 55 IPB Spartak Lamborghini Murcielago to the LM GT1 class pole position, setting a 1:45.327 lap time. The Dutchman and co-driver Roman Rusinov will start ahead of the No. 59 Team Modena Aston Martin DBR9 of Tomas Enge and Antonio Garcia, and champions-elect Guillaume Moreau and Patrice Goueslard in the No. 72 Luc Alphand Aventures Corvette C6.R.
In LM GT2, Rob Bell in the No. 96 Virgo Motorsport Ferrari F430 GT scored another class pole position. He and co-driver Jamie Melo will line up ahead of Richard Lietz and Raymond Narac in the No. 76 IMSA Performance Matmut Porsche 997 GT3 RSR. Farnbacher Racing's Porsche of Dirk Werner and Lars Erik Nielsen qualified third.
Forty-five cars took time, as the No. 20 Epsilon Euskadi ee01 Judd suffered a heavy crash in the morning practice session and did not make it out for a qualifying run. It's unknown if the car will start the race.
In addition to the ACO's press conference announcing the 2009 regulations, there were a number of other noteworthy news items today at Silverstone. Peugeot unveiled a hybrid version of its 908 prototype, dubbed the "908 HY." It utilizes the kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) that's being developed in Formula One, but this system also stores energy in lithium-ion batteries. A 60 kw electric motor cranks out additional boost from the batteries, an estimated 80 hp. The 908 HY can be run in three different modes, including electric-only when in pit lane.
"After innovating through the use of our HDi FAP technology in competition, running a hybrid car in endurance racing would give Peugeot a chance to gain extremely valuable experience that would benefit the development of production cars," said Michel Barge, Peugeot Sport director. "Whether we use this technology or not in 2009 will obviously depend on the details of the new regulations published by the Automobile Club de l'Ouest."
This system is very similar to Corsa Motorsports and Zytek's planned hybrid car for the American Le Mans Series in 2009. However, the ACO has now stated that hybrid cars can race next season, but will not be classified. This means Peugeot may have to wait to showcase their technology until 2010, when hybrids will be eligible to score points.
Veteran sports car racer Fredy Lienhard has decided to hang up the helmet following the conclusion of tomorrow's race. Lienhard will drive his No. 27 Horag Racing Porsche RS Spyder for the final time Sunday, which falls on his actual 61st birthday.
"Although it was not an easy decision to make, I know the time is right," Lienhard said. "I want to end my driving career on this top level, and be thankful for all the good times and special moments that I was privileged to live over all these years."
Lienhard and co-drivers Didier Theys and Jan Lammers will be looking for their first victory of the season Sunday, and now have a perfect reason to make it happen. Lienhard, who owns the Porsche RS Spyder Horag campaigns, will allow team owner Marks Hotz to use the car next year before it gets retired at Lienhard's new museum he's building in Switzerland.
The Le Mans Series season-finale gets underway Sunday at 11:20 a.m. (local time). The 195-lap endurance race will run for a maximum of six hours, or 1000km, whichever comes first.
Please see Dagys' story on the ACO press conference: ACO outlines plan for 2009 and beyond