After a long and busy winter, the Le Mans Series kicks off its 2008 season this weekend at Barcelona. The five-round European endurance championship begins its season at the 4.655-km Circuit de Catalunya, home of the Spanish Grand Prix. This year's storylines include a diesel face-off in LM P1, a rejuvenated LM P2 grid, a four-way fight in LM GT1 and the iconic Ferrari vs. Porsche battle in LM GT2. With a bumper grid of 49 cars, action will be intense for all 1000kms (or six hours) of racing in the Spanish sun.
Now in its fifth season, the Le Mans Series has slowly gained momentum, attracting increased factory interest, thus boosting the overall quality of European teams. This is validated each year at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the crown jewel sports car race in the world.
Without a doubt, the headline in P1 this year comes from diesel giants Audi and Peugeot. We previewed their European face-off in an adjoining story, Audi, Peugeot battle moves on to Barcelona.
But there's still so much more to talk about in the top prototype division, as 12 other teams are vying to offset the diesel juggernaut.
French outfits Team Oreca Matmut and Pescarolo Sport hold the best chance. The Hugues de Chaunac-led team is no stranger to prototype racing, despite campaigning a Saleen in GT1 for the last two seasons. Oreca purchased Le Mans stalwart Courage Competition last year, and has entered modified versions of the LC70 chassis for 2008. Olivier Panis, Nicolas Lapierre, Stephane Ortelli and Soheil Ayari will pilot the two Judd-powered entries.
Pescarolo Sport hasn't been standing still during the off-season either. Henri Pescarolo's team has expanded its foundation as a manufacturer by linking up with Jacques Nicolet's Saulnier Racing. The team bearing the name of Peugeot team manager Serge Saulnier was originally his, before selling it to Nicolet in 2007. Now working as a satellite team, Saulnier Racing fields two cars - one in P1 and the other in P2. Pescarolo Sport returns with two P1 cars for Emmanuel Collard, Jean-Christophe Boullion, Harold Primat and Christophe Tinseau. Another Pescarolo will be in the hands of British team Rollcentre Racing. After racing in DTM for the last two years, Vanina Ickx is back in the LMS, paired with Joao Barbosa and team owner Martin Short.
Two new exciting P1 coupes come from Charouz Racing Systems and Epsilon Euskadi. The second-year Czech team has joined forces with Prodrive and Lola to create an Aston Martin-powered Lola B08/60 closed-top prototype. The GT1-based V12 powerplant is eligible thanks to a provision in the prototype regulations. Stefan Mucke and Jan Charouz will pilot the car. The Spanish Epsilon Euskadi ee1 Judd prototype is also closed-top and should be fast in the hands of Angel Burgueno and Miguel Angel de Castro. A second car from the Spanish team is expected later in the season.
Other teams to keep an eye on include Creation Autosportif, which has formed a partnership with new engine supplier AIM. The Japanese V10 Judd- based engines will power the team's two CA07s. Chamberlain Synergy Racing will have a husband-wife driver pairing this year, with Amanda Stretton joining husband Bob Berridge and Gareth Owens in the team's Lola B06/10 AER. Scuderia Lavaggi gained a spot on the entry list due to the withdrawal of the lone American entry, the Cytosport Lola Judd. The Monaco-based team run by former F1 driver Giovanni Lavaggi will use AER power this year in its self-built prototype.
The P2 category also received a boost this year with the arrival of Porsche's RS Spyder. The dominant car in the ALMS finally joins the fray in Europe, with three examples entered for the season. The RS Spyders join the already diverse field of machinery from Lola, Zytek, Radical, Pescarolo, WR, Embassy and Lucchini.
After campaigning a Lola B05/40 for the past few seasons, Horag Racing has purchased a RS Spyder. The car in the hands of Fredy Lienhard, Didier Theys and Jan Lammers made its debut at Sebring, finishing seventh overall in the March classic. The Swiss team will face stiff competition from two other RS Spyders in the field. Van Merksteijn Motorsport was the first team that committed to running the car in the series. The Dutch team has hired ex-F1 driver Jos Verstappen to lead its efforts, joined by team owner Peter Van Merksteijn. The third RS Spyder is in the hands of Team Essex, driven by Danes John Neilsen and Casper Elgaard.
Defending class champions RML return with its MG Lola EX265, featuring an upgraded engine package. Mike Newton and Tommy Erdos claimed two wins in 2007 but may face a tougher row to hoe this season. Quifel ASM Team is also back with its Lola B05/40 AER, joined by German outfit Kruse Schiller Motorsport with the ex-Fernandez Racing Lola, fitted with the AER-derived Mazda MZR-R engine. A very new and unique Lola will also be represented in the category. Speedy Racing Team Sebah has taken delivery of Lola's first- ever P2 coupe, the B08/80. This example is fitted with Judd's newest generation engine.
Zytek will have a busy season, supplying no less than five teams with engines in P2. That's on top of the two Zytek 07S chassis for Barazi- Epsilon and Trading Performance. Embassy Racing will have its two new WF01s on the grid at Barcelona, and Le Mans stalwarts WR return after a one-year hiatus, also using Zytek engines to power its new chassis.
Despite only five entries, the GT1 class also features an assorted field, with four manufacturers represented. Luc Alphand Aventures enters two Corvette C6.Rs, while French rival Larbre Competition will debut its ex- Oreca Saleen S7-R with Christophe Bouchut as lead driver.
Team Modena will also be a threat with its Aston Martin DBR9, especially with drivers Antonio Garcia and Tomas Enge behind the wheel. There will also be an Italian flare to GT1, with the IPB Spartak Racing Lamborghini Murcielago for Peter Kox and Roman Rusinov. While low in numbers, GT1 may be one of the fiercely fought categories this season.
GT2 features 13 entries, represented by Porsche, Ferrari, Spyker and Aston Martin. Six 997 GT3 RSRs have been entered to challenge the four F430 GTs, two C8 Laviolette GT2Rs and the brand-new Vantage GT2.
Defending champions Virgo Motorsport return with its Ferrari, with champ Rob Bell joined by Gianmaria Bruni this season. JMB Racing's two F430 GTs and a Farnbacher Racing entry round out the contingent of prancing horses that could be tough to beat.
Over at Porsche, IMSA Performance Matmut will lead the charge with two 997 GT3 RSRs. Defending French FFSA GT2 champions Richard Balandras and Michel Lecourt move to the LMS, joined by Jean-Philippe Belloc. The sister car will have team owner Raymond Narac and Porsche factory driver Richard Lietz at the wheel. Marc Lieb, another Porsche factory ace, and Alex Davison lead Team Felbermayr Proton's two-car effort, while Richard Westbook and Allan Simonsen will be at the helm of Farnbacher Racing's Porsche entry.
Snoras Spyker Squadron and sister outfit Speedy Racing Team could pose as challengers to the Ferraris and Porsches. Notables piloting the two cars include Peter Dumbreck, Ralf Kelleners and Benjamin Leuenberger.
In addition to its Porsche entry for Joel Camathias, Tim Sugden and Paul Daniels, James Watt Automotive will field the first-ever Aston Martin Vantage GT2. Drivers are yet to be confirmed for the Vantage.
Free practice at Barcelona begins on Friday, with qualifying on tap for Saturday. The 215-lap, or six-hour race gets underway Sunday at 11:35 CET.