Signature, a new team to the world of endurance racing, has been ramping up its efforts for a debut in the European-based Le Mans Series in 2009. The French squad, led by team principal Philippe Sinault, announced last month that it will enter the five-round championship, as well as the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June.
This week, Sinault made further news, naming Frenchmen Pierre Ragues and Franck Mailleux as the drivers of its Courage-Oreca LC70E Judd. Signature, which is branching out from its roots in the Formula 3 Euroseries, is the first customer of the 2008-spec chassis developed by the Hugues de Chaunac-led Oreca squad.
Ragues is no stranger to the Le Mans Series or to Circuit de La Sarthe, having driven a LM P2 Pescarolo Judd for Saulnier Racing in 2008. The 23-year-old scored a podium at Le Mans, followed by a fifth place finish in the Le Mans Series P2 drivers' standings. Ragues tested Signature's P1 entry for the first time earlier this month at Paul Ricard and immediately was on pace.
"This is a fantastic opportunity for me to graduate to the very top level of sportscar racing and I am very grateful to everyone who has worked so hard to make this happen," Ragues said. "This is a new ad venture for Signature and myself, but I completely trust the professionalism of the team, which was obvious from the moment that we first met."
Mailleux may be a name less familiar in the sportscar racing scene, but the 23-year-old has already proven himself on the open-wheel ranks. The winner of the 2006 British Formula Renault Winter Series, Mailleux jumped up to the F3 Euroseries in 2007, finishing second in the rookie rankings. Last season, the Frenchman scored a win at Brands Hatch as well as two podiums - all while driving for Signature. Now he makes the move into sportscars for the first time.
"I am very happy to stay with the Signature team for this new challenge," Mailleux said. "The world of sportscar racing is completely new to me though, so I will have a lot to learn. However, I'm fortunate to have a great time behind me and also a great teammate in Pierre Ragues. I am sure that he will be able to teach me a lot, so that we can hit the ground running from the very first race."
While the face of the P1 grid has yet to be fully determined, it's certain that Signature will have fierce competition. Peugeot has yet to confirm its program, but Team Oreca will return with a brace of AIM-powered Courage-Orecas, and Speedy Racing Team Sebah will campaign the ex-Charouz Lola B08/60 Aston Martin. Pescarolo Sport and Epsilon Euskadi are also expected to continue in the premier prototype category.
"Franck is very much a known quantity to us, and we have always appreciated his abilities and personality," Sinault said. "I'm very happy that we will continue to work together in 2009. In Franck and Pierre I think we have the perfect line-up with which to face our debut season in the Le Mans Series, which is sure to be a tough but very exciting challenge for everybody."
In other news, International GT Open and Italian GT competitor Edil Cris is looking to expand its program to include the Le Mans Series next year. The Italian team, which also took part in the FIA GT Championship in 2007, has campaigned Ferrari F430 GTs in each of the series.
Word has also been given that Trading Performance will return to the Le Mans Series grid in 2009, but under a new name. Team owner/driver Karim Ojjeh said the team will likely be now known as the GAC Racing Team, after securing the backing from the Gstaad Automobile Club. Ojjeh and Claude-Yves Gosselin will continue to steer the Zytek 07S, with a third driver to be named at a later date.