Heading into official test day at Le Mans, Peugeot had the upper hand over archrival Audi. After sweeping the first three Le Mans Series races, the French lions were not about to give in, especially heading into their biggest race of the year. And sure enough, Peugeot's momentum continued Sunday at Circuit de La Sarthe, as its 908 HDi-FAPs came out on top after eight soggy hours of testing. Despite showing the pace, the diesel contender suffered a dent in its armor as one of its cars suffered a major accident.
All 55 competitors took to the legendary 8.5-mile Circuit de La Sarthe, aiming to gain valuable data for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in two weeks time. However, on and off rain showers dampened track action for most of the day, leaving many teams with more questions than answers. What was learned today, though, was that Peugeot has the sheer speed advantage over its competition.
Early in the four-hour afternoon session, Stephane Sarrazin clocked a 3:22.222 lap time in his No. 8 Peugeot, taking advantage of the dry track conditions at the time. The Frenchman's lap held up as quickest of the day, and fastest time in over a decade on the famed circuit. Sarrazin's flier was over four seconds quicker than last year's pole and the fastest recorded on track since Philippe Alliot's pole-winning time in 1992, with a Peugeot 905.
"I took advantage of a clear lap with very little traffic," Sarrazin said after his run. "We have new, very high performance tires. We still have work to do on the car's balance."
Sarrazin and co-drivers Pedro Lamy and Alex Wurz in the No. 8 Team Peugeot Total entry completed 62 laps combined in the two sessions, but many of those were run under inclement weather. But this came as a good learning experience for Peugeot.
"We were let down by our lack of reactivity and strategy in last year's changing weather, so today was good practice for us," said Technical Director Bruno Famin. "We worked on finding the most effective set-ups for the different tire options."
The No. 9 Peugeot of Franck Montagny, Christian Klein and Ricardo Zonta wound up second quickest, four seconds adrift from Sarrazin's best. The car's 3:26.641 lap time edged out the leading Audi Sport North America Audi R10 TDI of Frank Biela, Emanuele Pirro and Marco Werner by 0.037 seconds.
While Peugeot enjoyed the limelight of placing all three of its 908s inside the top four overall, the No. 7 machine of Marc Gene, Nicolas Minassian and Jacques Villeneuve ended its day wreaked. One hour into the afternoon session, Gene suffered a major off in the Porsche Curves. The incident sent his Peugeot flying through the air before backing heavily into the barriers. Gene was taken to a local hospital for evaluation where he will stay overnight. The Spaniard suffered a bruised elbow and a dislocated toe, but this paled in comparison to the damage done to the car. Team officials say the car is totaled and now plan to build up a new chassis for the race.
"Everyone at Peugeot Sport has done a tremendous job, but we've still got lots of work on our hands, including a car to rebuild," said Michel Barge, Peugeot Sport Director. "But that's what Le Mans is all about, too: big ups and sometimes moments that are more difficult. Thankfully, Marc Gene came out of his crash with nothing more than a dislocated toe but Stphane Sarrazin gratified us with an excellent time during today's preliminary test. We are optimistic for the busy week ahead."
Audi, meanwhile, had a less eventful day with its three R10 TDIs, as the German outfit concentrated on split strategies for the race. The No. 1 car of defending winners Biela, Pirro and Werner tested various Michelin tire compounds while the No. 2 entry of Allan McNish, Dindo Capello and Tom Kristensen evaluated aerodynamic parts. Lucas Luhr, Mike Rockenfeller and Alexandre Premat in the No. 3 machine worked on long runs.
"Today was a productive day of testing for us because we were able to work out results in highly varied conditions," said Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, head of Audi Motorsport. "This means we've already got a basic setup for the race weekend for any type of condition. Today, it was only possible to set really good times for half an hour, which showed us the capabilities of our rivals. At the same time, we continued working on our programmes as planned."
The No. 3 entry wound up fifth quickest, while the No. 2 car was only able to muster 10th best overall. Piloting the No. 1 machine, Werner posted the quickest lap time of the three, a 3:26.678, slotting in third. Like Ullrich, Werner was disappointed by the weather conditions but knows that the prize is not awarded to the fastest cars in testing.
"Unfortunately, today wasn't exactly the kind of day we'd been wishing for," Werner said. "Although in the rain and in changing conditions we were able to sort and try many things, we'd have preferred driving on a dry track for a longer period of time. I think that the results we saw on the times monitor today do not truly reflect the situation yet. But, in any event, we've still got a lot of work to do during the race week."
Pescarolo Sport came away as the quickest gasoline-powered LM P1s, with the No. 17 Pescarolo Judd of Harold Primat, Christophe Tinseau and Benoit Treluyer setting a 3:33.939 lap time, 1.5 seconds quicker of the sister machine of Jean-Christophe Boullion, Emmanuel Collard and Romain Dumas.
"It's been a great day for Pescarolo Sport and for Harold, Christophe and Benoit," team principal Henri Pescarolo said. "All three did a very good job today and to be the top petrol car, and so far ahead of the other petrol cars, is very encouraging."
Indeed, as the No. 5 Team ORECA Matmut Courage-Oreca LC70 Judd of Soheil Ayari, Loic Duval and Laurent Groppi were over 2.325 seconds behind Tinseau's best time, setting eighth quickest time. The Two French teams are expected to face fierce competition from Charouz Racing System's Lola Aston Martin and Rollcentre Racing's Pescarolo for top gasoline-powered honors in the race.
In LM P2, the two Porsche RS Spyders topped the time charts, with the Van Merksteijn Motorsport entry of Jos Verstappen, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Peter van Merksteijn quickest with a 3:42.191 lap time. The Dutch team completed 47 laps in their maiden run at Le Mans, hoping to keep momentum building after winning in two of the opening three rounds of the Le Mans Series season.
"It was really wonderful to be the fastest in class at my very first Le Mans outing," Verstappen said. "But I was lucky enough to be the only one in the team to go out on a dry track. All in all the track conditions today were difficult. Our plan was not to take any unnecessary risks in damaging the car. With all this rain, we weren't able to get as much practice in as we had hoped. But I'll stay calm because I know from the Le Mans Series that the RS Spyder is a true racer. I can't wait for my first ever Le Mans race!"
The No. 31 Team Essex RS Spyder of John Nielsen, Casper Elgaard and Porsche factory driver Sascha Maassen was second quickest, 1.545 seconds slower than the purple and white car. Both RS Spyders are sporting significant aerodynamic updates from Porsche, which are aimed at providing more straight-line speed.
However, fellow P2 competitors were right on the Porsches' back in the test day, possibly proving that the RS Spyders may not have as much of a distinct advantage as originally thought. The No. 32 Barazi-Epsilon Zytek 07S of Juan Barazi, Michael Vergers and Stuart Moseley was third quickest with a 3:43.920 lap time, just 0.184 seconds slower than the Team Essex entry.
Embassy Racing was not too far behind either, as the British team's WF01 Zytek clocked the fourth quickest time in class, ahead of the RML Lola MG and Saulnier Racing Pescarolo Judd in fifth.
The No. 009 Aston Martin Racing DBR9 of David Brabham and Antonio Garcia paced the LM GT1 category, setting a 3:53.531 lap time. The Prodrive effort will be looking for its second consecutive Le Mans crown after taking top honors here in 2007. This year's competition is shaping up to be even tougher with an even more determined Corvette Racing squad wanting to retake position number one.
"We weren't expecting any real surprises from the test day, and luckily that turned out to be the case," Brabham said. "I drove a lot of the race last year in the wet - including the very last stint - so it all felt quite familiar today! I think everyone's test programme was compromised by the weather today, but my personal goal was just to get used to the car again after a year out of it and I succeeded in that objective. Although we waited a bit I was still one of the first drivers out, so the track was extremely green and slippery - but it was all useful running."
It was a rather-surprising Larbre Competition Saleen that was second quickest in the test. Frenchman Christophe Bouchut pedaled the No. 50 Saleen S7R to a 3:55.383 lap time during one of the dry periods of the day. Fellow countrymen Patrick Bornhauser and David Smet (aka Hallyday) round out the driving strength in what could be a darkhorse for qualifying, at least.
"We set a good time on medium tires which were 10 laps old which is very encouraging," Bouchut said. "I was on a quicker lap, on a new set of tires, when the Peugeot went off. This car has the potential to scare the works teams and challenge for pole position during qualifying for the race."
Corvette Racing two Corvette C6.Rs were third and fourth quickest, with Max Papis turning a 3:55.520 in the No. 64 entry, the fastest of the Pratt & Miller cars. The team tested a range of Michelin tires and evaluated chassis and gearbox setups during the session. Despite the damp weather, Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan believes the team is off to its best start ever at Le Mans in terms of preparation.
"I think we maximized the opportunities that we had today," Fehan said. "It certainly wasn't the test plan we had laid out, but the conditions were the same for everybody. When it's all said and done, it may actually be to our advantage when a day like this happens because we're well prepared when we arrive, and more practice time tends to narrow the gap."
Two other familiar faces regularly seen in the American Le Mans Series paced the way in the LM GT2 category. The No. 82 Risi Competizione Ferrari F430 GT of Jamie Melo, Mika Salo and Gianmaria Bruni was quickest. Melo's 4:05.561 lap time was also set during one of the brief dry portions of the session, as the team elected to not go out in the very wet conditions.
"I like the circuit, it's very nice," said Bruni, who got his first taste of the circuit today. "Unfortunately it was damp, wet and dry on the track while I was out there so we didn't get a chance to push much, but it was okay. The track does feel very long, compared to what I'm used to, especially on the Mulsanne, but I'm getting accustomed to it!"
The No. 80 Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 RSR of Jorg Bergmeister, Johannes van Overbeek and Seth Neiman was second quickest, just 0.029 seconds behind the prancing horse's time. Ferraris occupied positions three through five, with the BMS Scuderia Italia example ahead of the Virgo Motorsport and AF Corse entries.
While Risi enjoyed a strong run with its No. 82 car atop the time sheets, the sister No. 83 Krohn Racing car suffered a setback when Tracy Krohn crashed the green Ferrari heavily at Maison Blanche. Krohn was taken to a nearby hospital for evaluation, and has been given a clean bill of health. The car, though, suffered heavy rear end damage and will need to be repaired.
"It was very disappointing for Tracy Krohn to have had the accident," said team owner Giuseppe Risi," but the team will pull together to have the car repaired and ready for presentation at scrutineering on Tuesday, June 10. We have heard from Tracy since he went to the hospital for a check up and he's feeling well, with no worrying aches and pains, and will be flying home tomorrow as planned."