Bentley and Michelin triumph in Le Mans Two years after its return to endurance racing, Team Bentley recorded a triumphant grand slam in the 80th anniversary Le Mans 24 Hours by qualifying in pole position, recording the fastest race lap and ...
Bentley and Michelin triumph in Le Mans
Two years after its return to endurance racing, Team Bentley recorded a triumphant grand slam in the 80th anniversary Le Mans 24 Hours by qualifying in pole position, recording the fastest race lap and completing the distance with its two cars in first and second places. The result was also its 6th win in the French endurance classic, 79 years after its maiden success! The weekend was also extremely satisfying for the marque's tyre partner Michelin who secured its 12th Le Mans win (its sixth in a row) and victory in all five classes. In the wake of the Bentley-Michelins of Kristensen/Capello/Smith and Blundell/Brabham/Herbert, the Audi R8 of Lehto/Pirro/Johansson made it an all-VAG and all-Michelin podium, the French tyre firm also monopolising the top-ten positions overall at the chequered flag.
For Bentley and Michelin, one of the keys to this weekend's success was the association's ability to cover three stints with the same set of tyres, a first for the British outfit in the le Mans 24 Hours. In spite of ground temperatures of more than 40°C late Saturday afternoon, the Speed 8s triple- stinted from the start and kept it going all the way to the finish. More significantly still, Rinaldo Capello succeeded in running for four stints on the same set of tyres, a total of three hours and 700km behind the wheel, an exploit that has never previously been achieved in daylight!
After starting from pole position with the N°7 car thanks to Rinaldo Capello's storming lap in qualifying, the two Bentleys pulled clear of their chasers at a rate of 3 seconds per lap during the early phase of the race. In the end, with the exception of a few minutes during the first refuelling tops, the Kristensen/Capello/Smith car led practically from flag to flag. And although Tom Kristensen, who recorded his fifth Le Mans win this weekend, taking him level with the Derek Bell, succeeded in opening up a decisive gap over the sister machine of Blundell/Brabham/Herbert during the hours of darkness, the fastest lap of the weekend was the work of Johnny Herbert who recorded a 3m35s'529 (average speed: 227.997km/h) while the winning car completed 377 laps and a distance of 5146km.
The Audi R8-Michelins, racing this year in the hands of private teams, never looked like contesting the supremacy of the Bentleys. After the retirement of the N°10 car (Biela/Salo/McCarthy) when it ran out of fuel two hours into the race, the N°6 Audi-Michelin of Pirro/Lehto/Johansson moved into 3rd spot at the end of Saturday afternoon and maintained position to the finish line despite a slight mechanical scare near the finish (starter motor). The N°5 Audi-Michelin of Ara/Magnussen/Werner) lost all chance of finishing on the podium when it was slowed by sparkplug problems during the night.
The scrap for 5th place kept the 210,000 spectators on their toes for much of the latter part of the race with five cars, all running on Michelin tyres, battling for the honour of being the first non-VAG machine home. Dawn saw the N°15 Dome Judd leading the N°11 Panoz and the three Courages (N°s13, 17 and 18) but the situation evolved very quickly during the morning, the Dome Judd (Lammers/Bosch/Wallace) losing ground following a spin. At the start of the final lap, a mere 15 seconds split the N°11 Panoz and the N°13 Courage, the former successfully warding off the pressure to collect 5th ahead of the Dome Judd and the Courage Michelin of Cochet/Gounon/Grégoire.
Michelin took victory in the LMP 675 class thanks to the Reynard Lehmann of André/Maury Laribière/Pillon which took command on Saturday evening, while the Prodrive-run Ferrari 550 Maranello-Michelins proved the dominant force in the LM GTS category, stemming the recent successful spell of Corvette who were hoping for a third successive win in La Sarthe. The N°88 Ferrari of Kox/Enge/Davies led the class practically throughout, ultimately making sure of the trophy when its closest rival, car N°80, crashed out shortly after sunrise. In the LM GT category, the N°93 Porsche-Michelin of Luhr/Maassen/Collard looked untouchable for most of the race but suffered a scare when it pitted for 20 minutes early Sunday morning for repairs to its radiator. It quickly regained control however to stay clear of the similar car of Hindery/Baron/Lieb (N°87).
Of the 49 cars that started the race, 30 crossed the line and 27 were classified.
Mission (more than) accomplished. Matthieu Bonardel, Circuit Activities Manager, Michelin Competition: "One of the main objectives set when Bentley chose to switch to Michelin tyres for the 2003 season was to provide products that would enable the Speed 8s to cover triple stints at Le Mans for the first time. That objective was achieved during the preliminary practice day at the circuit in comparable weather last May, so we knew it wouldn't be a problem and the N°7 and N°8 cars effectively triple stinted from the start of the race.
"But better than that, even though the Bentleys (LMP GTP category) use slightly narrower tyres than the Audis (LMP 900), we looked at the tyres that came off the cars during the early phase of the race and decided it would be possible to go one step further: so, between 6 and 9 o'clock this morning, Rinaldo Capello actually completed four successive stints on a single set of tyres! We've achieved this before, but this is the first time a Michelin partner has done it in daylight, while track temperature was a warm 25°Cs."
Reactivity. Matthieu Bonardel again: "We are also delighted with the consistency and performance of the new tyre we developed for Team Bentley before the race based on data collected during May's preliminary practice day. This mid-temperature range product was validated during Wednesday evening's qualifying session and used by both cars for the start when conditions were reasonably cool after the pre-start shower."
Michelin's vital statistics. The win of the N°7 Bentley driven by Tom Kristensen, Rinaldo Capello and Guy Smith was Michelin's sixth consecutive success in the Le Mans 24 Hours and its twelfth win since the creation of the race in 1923.
Michelin runners led from start to finish and also took victory in all five categories: LM GTP (N°7 Bentley), LMP 900 (N°6 Audi), LM GTS (N°88 Ferrari), LMP 675 (N°29 Reynard Lehman) and GT (N°93 Porsche)
Fewer punctures. With over 50% of the field running on its products, Michelin tends to be in the spotlight when it comes to punctures at Le Mans. The principal causes are well documented: the sharp flint stones found in the gravel traps and carbon debris from damaged bodywork. However, there were fewer incidents in this year's race and that has certainly got something to do with the steps taken by the organisers to discourage drivers from cutting through those gravel traps located on the inside of corners. But when stones are dragged onto the track, a fair proportion of them are still sharp flint.
Time-loss and knock-on incidents relating to punctures were minimised in the case of those teams running on the pressure-loss detection systems developed by VAG, in conjunction with Michelin for Le Mans. This system alerts teams and drivers when a fall in pressure is detected and allows to car to pit for fresh tyres. Both the Bentley and Audi camps profited from the system to continue without loss of position following punctures.