Audi, Porsche, Saleen set the pace at Paul Ricard
The first day of the 2008 Le Mans Series heralded perfect weather conditions for the contenders who took part in the now traditional preseason test at the Paul Ricard High Tech Test facility in southern France.
For many teams it was the first time that they ran their new cars against their season-long competitors, and for some, it was the first time that the cars ran at all.
The majority of the teams worked through their test programmes without incident though, inevitably after eight hours of running, there were some teams that ran into problems.
One was the Trading Performance Zytek of Karim Ojjeh which spun and hit the barriers during the three hour morning session. The car was unable to complete any more running today and is not likely to run tomorrow, while the RML team of reigning champions Mike Newton and Tommy Erdos suffered a rare mechanical failure.
Audi breaks 1m40 barrier
Audi's Allan McNish broke the 1m40s barrier in the closing minutes of the afternoon session, which finished at 6pm just as the sun was beginning to dip towards the horizon. As others drove into the dusk, the Scotsman's best time of 1m39.705s put the number 1 Audi at the head of the field by more than a second over the sister car, driven by Mike Rockenfeller and Alexandre Premat. Third fastest was the Team ORECA Matmut car of Stephane Ortelli and Soheil Ayari which is due to run through the night in a full 24-hour race simulation.
Throughout the "LM" P1 field there was much interest, not least in the Aston Martin-powered Lola which concluded the afternoon session in sixth position in the hands of Jan Charouz and Stefan Mucke with a best time of 1m43.598s. That time was still an improvement over last year's fastest time overall, set by the Peugeot 908 HDI FAP or 1m43.705s at the start of its development phase.
The Chamberlain Synergy team was another to be in the spotlight as Amanda Stretton, partner of Bob Berridge, joined the team with Gareth Evans at the test. Further down the pit lane, the Rollcentre Pescarolo team was also testing drivers, including Vanina Ickx who drove for the team for two Le Mans Series seasons. Pierre Bruneau and Marc Rostan also had drives in the car.
Porsche leads into the night
Porsche teams finished their afternoon session heading the "LM" P2 class. The van Merksteijn Motorsport Porsche of Jos Verstappen, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Peter van Merksteijn set fastest time with a 1m44.246s, almost two seconds faster than last year's fastest lap set by the Bruichladdich Radical team. The Essex Racing Porsche RS Spyder of Casper Elgaard and John Nielsen was second quickest with a 1m45.738 and the Quifel -- ASM Team Lola was third, a further five tenths of a second behind. The Porsches were due to begin 1000km testing into the night, with Dutchman Jos Verstappen completing the majority of the running and increase his experience of driving at night.
The Speedy Racing team completed its first ever laps with the Juddpowered Lola Coupe, Robbie Kerr given the honour of completing the shake down.
The British driver worked his way down to a 'best' time of 1m52.434s before handing to co-drivers Steve Zacchia and Andrea Chiesa, who eventually set a 1m49.035s. "There is a lot more performance left in the car," said Kerr. "This was just a shakedown run and I will only push the car harder when I am told to do so. It was running well within its limits when I was driving."
Larbre returns to the top
The 2006 Le Mans Series winner Larbre Competition returned to the top of the time sheets with their Saleen S7R, which will be campaigned by David Hallyday, Dino Lunardi and Frederic Makowiecki this season. The car set a best time of 1m52.486s, nearly a second faster than the same car achieved at the test here in 2007.
Behind there was some tough competition, with Karl Wendlinger, Andrea Piccini and Antonio Garcia putting miles onto Aston Martin Racing's Le Mans challenger, the number 007 DBR9. Garcia is due to drive the Team Modena Aston Martin in the series this year, but took the opportunity to drive with the factory in the absence of the British team at the test.
Olivier Beretta joined Guillaume Moreau and Patrice Goueslard in the Luc Alphand Aventures Corvette which finished the session third fastest.
IMSA up front again
Richard Lietz and the IMSA Performance Matmut team again started the season by heading the "LM" GT2 category, ahead of the champion Virgo Motorsport Ferrari team. Lietz, who went on to score pole position at the opening two races, set a time of 1m58.439s, two hundredths of a second slower than last year's best but there is plenty more time for the Austrian to improve.
The Virgo team suffered a puncture with Rob Bell on board mid-afternoon which caused some minor bodywork damage and upset the team's testing plans.
Third fastest, in the hands of Marc Lieb and Australian Alex Davison, was the Team Felbermayr Proton Porsche, the second to be running the new update kit from Porsche. The pair finished the second session third fastest with a best time of 1m59.232s.
Darren Turner and Tomas Enge spent the day putting further miles on Aston Martin's new GT2 challenger, the V8-powered vantage and finished fourth fastest.