By: Tony DiZinno, Sports Car Correspondent
- Overall favorites, American teams draw heavy attention
- Rain holds off, crowd surges for Monday activity
With technical inspection complete free of drama, it’s game on for race week
Monday completed the two days of scrutineering for this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. Admittedly, it would be far easier to write about the Audi and Peugeot tussle for overall supremacy in this space. When you’re the kings of the court, as these two respective manufacturers are in sports car racing, spending a day out of the spotlight is a rare occasion.
Each had a planned moment in the sun today. Peugeot arrived to scrutineering following a 125 kilometer bike ride, while Audi’s defending champions Romain Dumas, Timo Bernhard and Mike Rockenfeller made their imprint in downtown Le Mans with their hands to commemorate their 2010 overall victory.
At scrutineering, these two teams were always going to draw the biggest crowds when they unloaded their cars. Mercifully, the weather gods played nice today in allowing the bulk of the field to go through technical inspection without any interruption or much of a delay.
Far more impressive was that the crowd, on a work day, actually was a much larger number than on Sunday. The weather and caliber of teams that were here today certainly helped, but seeing a Monday crowd this strong speaks volumes about the popularity of the race.
Two of the four American Le Mans Series teams received a rush of fans to their teams and cars when unloaded off their transporters: Corvette Racing and Flying Lizard Motorsports. The French love their own participants first, but it’s not a leap of faith to suggest Corvette ranks very highly on their list of favorites.
Corvette’s thundering V8 C6.R, now in GT2-specification as it was built for its late 2009 debut (the GT1-spec C6.R signed off at the 2009 24 Hours of Le Mans), rolled through without any drama. The team looks to avenge a disastrous 2010 race when one car had engine trouble and the other was eliminated from contention when Anthony Davidson made an ambitious, if over-exuberant passing maneuver of Emmanuel Collard past Porsche Curves. There wasn’t contact but Collard fell off the road and into the wall.
I will do things differently this year.
Peugeot’s Davidson says he’s learned a lot from the incident, the criticism he received, and hopes he wouldn’t have to encounter anything similar this time around.
“I learned a lot about the race, as I am really not that experienced about Le Mans and the race itself,” he said. “I will do things differently this year.”
Corvette’s 2011 features a few different elements. Some teams which have entered the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup for 2011 were assigned numbers 63 and 64, so Corvette’s usual Le Mans numbers have been changed to reflect that. Getting used to 73 and 74 might present a challenge to everyone involved.
The driver lineup has changed as well. Tommy Milner returns to Le Mans for the first time in four years while Richard Westbrook moves over from the BMS Scuderia Italia Porsche squad where he finished third in 2010, as third driver in the No. 74.
Corvette’s four full-season drivers (Milner, Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Jan Magnussen) all participated in April’s test day in the Larbre Competition-run Corvette C6.R. Magnussen has more than a race on his mind this week as his wife is expecting!
“Doing the test day was good to get acclimated with the car and the track,” Milner said. “The previous time I was here was in 2007 with LNT (in a Panoz Esperante). In 2006 was Multimatic (Panoz) and I ran out of fuel two hours in — so not the best.”
The spotlight shines on Britain’s Westbrook for somewhat different reasons. He was involved in a dust-up with Stefan Mücke in Sunday’s GT1 World Championship race at Silverstone, where following contact between the two, Mücke attempted a rebuttal but lost control of his own Aston Martin when trying to give Westbrook a not-so-friendly hand gesture. The video clip of the contretemps is on YouTube.
No such drama at Flying Lizard Porsche, where the twice-defending American Le Mans Series GT champions in the drivers’ and Michelin Green X Challenge standings have two cars entered at Le Mans for the first time.
Fans flocked to the “Lizards” in their dashing and utterly stunning Porsche tribute liveries as created by Troy Lee. Every driver that has won at Le Mans overall for Porsche has their name adorned on the 911s. The cars will pop even more in photographs from scrutineering than the team images released last week for the announcement.
Team-wise, the usual No. 45 in the ALMS won’t be split up for Le Mans as they have been the last five years. Jörg Bergmeister, Patrick Long and Lucas Luhr make up car No. 80 for Le Mans in the GTE Pro class, with Seth Neiman, Darren Law and Spencer Pumpelly in No. 81 in GTE Am.
“Having these guys makes for good continuity,” Bergmeister said. “This is the 45 crew (from ALMS). We feel we have a good chance. The last time the three of us drove together was in Sebring (in a Petersen/White Lightning Porsche in 2005) and we won!”
The last time the three of us drove together was in Sebring and we won!
Luhr and Pumpelly are both making their team debut for the “Lizards,” while this doubles as Pumpelly’s 24 Hours of Le Mans debut. Pumpelly already has one 24-hour race win in 2011 with TRG at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January and would no doubt be keen to add to that.
Keen isn’t just an ambition at Le Mans; it’s also a driver, and one of the tallest ones at that. Team Farnbacher’s Leh Keen joined Pumpelly, Law and BMW’s Joey Hand in late arriving to scrutineering after taking part in the Rolex Series’ Sahlen’s Six Hours at the Glen on Saturday afternoon. A host of others had other racing commitments that prevented their attendance earlier during scrutineering.
The crowds stood out the most today, and here were several other observations.
The location for the team group shots has changed three times in three years. In 2009 it was across the parking lot where the current scrutineering takes place, although that area has now been closed off and appears under construction. Last year the team shots took place with the cathedral in the backdrop; this year, it was in front of Plaza Jacobins in downtown Le Mans. Should be interesting to compare photos with this in play.
Opinions of drivers on the newly announced FIA World Endurance Championship have ranged from mostly positive to a “I just heard/read about it.” There seems a healthy amount of respect for the decision to institute a drivers’ championship alongside the constructors’ one, since the ILMC currently has teams and constructors but not one for drivers. Without further details announced yet before Thursday’s ACO press conference, anything else written here would be merely conjecture and an added dash of letters to pour into a hearty batch of alphabet soup.
Finally, I got the sense there are going to be a lot more fans rooting for another of the ALMS entrants, Robertson Racing, as the week goes on. The original threesome of David and Andrea Robertson with David Murry are back in their Doran Ford GT-R for the team’s Le Mans debut, and have such an infectious enthusiasm for the sport going back to when they grew up. Considering some teams are overly on edge in preparation, the Robertsons are here both to firmly soak up the experience and maximize the performance in the newly formed GTE Am class.
Tuesday is a very light day with no on-track activity and only a driver autograph session scheduled.