Franck Montagny (Pescarolo-Michelin) sets the benchmark lap
Just one week after finishing an F1 Grand Prix for the first time, French driver Franck Montagny was today the fastest driver on the track during the official preliminary practice session for the 2006 Le Mans 24 Hours. The Frenchman finished ahead of an Audi R10-Michelin and the sister Team Pescarolo car, while Michelin tyres also dominated the LMP2, LMGT1 and LMGT2 categories with RML, Aston Martin Ferrari respectively.
Since last year, the official test day, which offers teams their only chance to test round the full Le Mans circuit prior to race week's qualifying practice, is organised just two weeks upstream of the great endurance classic itself. This time round, the 13.65km track has undergone a certain number of modifications, including a longer pit exit which means that pit-stops will be longer.
The green light to today's test session was given to the fifty invited entries at 9am and the new Audi R10-Michelins soon emerged at the top of the leaderboard thanks to Allan McNish and Marco Werner. Tangles and offs led to two interruptions and, after the re-start, it was the turn of the Pescarolo- Michelins to shine with Emmanuel Collard and Franck Montagny as lap times began to tumble as the end of the session approached.
A lap of 3m 32.697s enabled the seven-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen to swing the advantage back in favour of the German team before the traditionally hectic final hour during which the cooler temperatures (highs of 24C air/32-33C ground) saw times really begin to fall. Rinaldo Capello (Audi- Michelin) claimed a 3m 32.090s at 5.21pm, but four minuets later Franck Montagny (Pescarolo- Michelin) took observers by surprise with an extremely quick 3m 31.687s. Then, minutes before the chequered flag, the Frenchman went on to better his own time with a 3m 30.195s (new lap record). His team-mate Emmanuel Collard looked as though he was about to make it an honorary one-two for the Pescarolo squad but his final flying lap was thwarted by traffic. The day's events point to a thrilling showdown between Audi and Pescarolo when the event itself gets underway in two weeks time!
In the LMP2 category, the RML-run Lola-Michelin of Erdos/Newton/Wallace dominated the category with some blistering times, showing that the progress seen at Spa-Francorchamps last month was no flash in the pan. Meanwhile, the duel between Aston Martin and Corvette is shaping up nicely in LMGT1 which today saw the Michelin-shod Aston Martins lap more than 1.5 seconds quicker than last year's category winners.
Finally, Michelin runners also topped the LMGT2 timesheets with the new Ferrari F430 (Mullen/Kirkaldy/Niarchos) ahead of the N76 Porsche-Michelin with which Romain Dumas snatched 2nd place with only two minutes remaining.
Gerard Aussage (Michelin's Endurance Programme Operations Manager): "Everything went very well, with the exception of a few punctures due to debris on the track resulting from earlier tangles and visits to the gravel traps. We have four partners in the top four places overall and we dominated all four categories. In LMP1, the bigger diameter front tyres developed for the diesel-powered Audis worked very well on the other cars too, including the Pescarolos which set some very quick times. The Audis covered the equivalent of three stints without difficulty. In LMP2, we also had new dimension front tyres (wider). There were no particular problems there either and performance was good too. In LMGT1, the Aston Martins that run with a rival tyre manufacturer in the ALMS are competing on Michelins at Le Mans. They set the top two times of the day in their category, while the tyres developed for the new LMGT2 Ferrari 430 at the start of the season also showed good potential."
Matthieu Bonardel, Michelin's Circuit Activities Manager: "A high proportion of the teams were faster today than in 2005 even though all the cars were carrying 25kg of ballast (to compensate for not having air-conditioning) and despite changes to the Dunlop Curve which is a little slower. The cars have progressed, but so have the tyres!"