Today's 8-hour race at Circuit Paul Ricard was not only the season opener for the 2010 Le Mans Series, it was also the opening skirmish in the Audi-Peugeot battle, building up to the Le Mans 24H in two months' time.
In the event, Team Joest, running the new Audi R15 "plus", drew first blood, taking victory with a combination of poise and speed. Rinaldo "Dindo" Capello took the chequered flag in the #7 Audi with a five-lap margin to his nearest challenger, the #009 Lola Aston Martin piloted by Adrian Fernandez.
"We have achieved three things," said Capello's co-driver Allan McNish. "First of all we gave the R15 plus its debut victory. This continues a tradition for Audi's debut wins of new LMP1 cars. We won the race, which for the team and the drivers was very important especially after our difficulties last year. And for the engineers and the drivers it was very good experience for Le Mans. I think we ticked all the boxes and achieved our goals for this one."
The Aston Martin suffered two punctures, one during the first stint and a second one during the final stint: not enough to have cost them a victory, and the team cleanly managed to hang onto the second place as well.
"I had a good final stint, but suffered a vibration at the back of the car towards the end but we took advantage of the gap we had built up during the race, so it didn't pose a problem," Fernandez explained. "The crew were brilliant and I have great team mates in Harold (Primat) and Stefan (Mucker). It's a whole joint effort so it's nice to get these results."
Andrea Belicchi, Jean-Christophe Boullion and Guy Smith took third for Rebellion Racing, bringing their Lola B10/60 Coupe home just over a minute behind the works Aston Martin entry.
"This was my first race for the Rebellion team who were debuting their own V10 engine and I've enjoyed working with the team," said Smith. "It's a great start and perfect preparation for Le Mans. I'm very excited for the race in June."
The pole-winning ORECA Peugeot 908 HDi FAP suffered from a rear air jack failure early on: the team lost nine laps while effecting repairs to get the car back on track.
The trio of Oliver Panis, Nicolas Lapierre and Stephane Sarrazin pushed hard to move back up the order, and Lapierre finally clinched fourth place in the dying laps by passing the team's sister car, the ORECA-AIM piloted by Soheil Ayari, Didier Andre and Loic Duval, after the latter suffered a puncture.
"very frustrating," said Lapierre. "We had the speed to take the fight to the Audi and the race confirmed that we're on the pace. We took advantage of the event to learn about the behavior of the Peugeot in these conditions, and the race has been very valuable in terms of information both for the team and for the drivers. It's good in view of the 24 Hours but it has a slightly bitter taste."
The gap between the Audi and the Peugeot was steady at 9-10 laps for much of the race, but dropped to 8 laps at the finish as the Capello eased off slightly in order to secure a victory for Joest and Audi.
In the LM P2 class, after qualifying it seemed like Strakka Racing's HPD (nee Acura) ARX-01c would run away and hide from its challengers, but as is so often the case in Le Mans racing, the unexpected can, and does happen.
In this case the team lost part of the rear bodywork just after the two-hour mark. After a black flag to force the car into the pits, the team replaced the rear bodywork, losing some nine minutes in the process.
By this time OAK Racing's Pescarolo-Judd had zipped by the pits four times to take a convinving lead in the class. Richard Hein and Guillaume Moreau worked hard to stay ahead, but in the end could not resist the speed of the HPD, and lost the class victory by 33.492 seconds.
For Strakka Racing's Nick Leventis, Danny Watts and Jonny Kane it was a satisfying European debut for the car. While it had shown its speed and reliability over several seasons in the American Le Mans Series, it was all new to Strakka and the trio of drivers, giving them an extra challenge.
RML took third in class with the Lola EX265C-MG. Tommy Erdos, Mike Newton and Andy Wallace shared driving duties, and finished one lap adrift of the Strakka Racing and OAK Racing entries.
In the highly competitive LM GT2 class, Marc Lieb and Richard Lietz took the honours for Team Felbermayr Proton, leading a 1-2 finish for Porsche 997 GT3 RSRs in the face of the Ferrari competition. The #77 Porsche finished 18th overall and two laps ahead of its sister car, the #88 driven by Martin Ragginger, Christian Reid and Patrick Long.
The race was a relative disappointment for the Ferrari contingent: in spite of six entries and a strong driver line-up, the Italian manufacturer had to settle for a third place in class, the subsequent fourth and fifth places being scant consolation.
That thrid place was claimed by AF Corse's #95 car, driven by F1 veterans Jean Alesi and Giancarlo Fisichella, and GT specialist Toni Vilander. The trio threatened for the class lead for a time, but in the ened Alesi, who drove the final stint, could not match the pace of Long in the #88 Porsche.
And the LM GT1 class? The lone GT1 entry was Larbre Competition's Saleen S7-R, and the car, piloted by Gabriele Gardel, Patrice Goueslard and Julien Canal, cruised around the track seeming on a Sundary afternoon drive, finishing 24th overall and behind five LM GT1 entries.
The important question for the race, though, was to be the relative performance of the works-supported ORECA and Joest squads, with a view to the 24H classic in June.
In spite of having missed the official test session at Paul Ricard in March, and still learning about the handling traits of the "plus", the Joest squad was able to easily lap at a pace similar to the Peugeots, something that the original R15 was not able to do at the 2009 Le Mans.
"We've seen this weekend as well that we still have to learn a lot with the car, and this was the purpose of this test race," said Ralf Juttner, Team Joest's technical director. "We've already completed a lot of kilometers with the R15 plus, but these have all been endurance tests. We just started to play with the car here at Le Castellet and this weekend has given us a lot of knowledge and a big step forward."
In this regard the race was surely a confidence-booster for Audi, even if much of the margin of victory was due to the Peugeot's mechanical problem.