Le Mans Notebook: Is Audi playing a game?

Le Mans Notebook: Is Audi playing a game?

Le Mans Notebook: Friday Is Audi playing hide and seek at Le Mans? Peugeot has overshadowed Audi in all practice sessions for the 24 Hours of Le Mans by being dominating in every session. This while Audi had built a completely new car over the...

Le Mans Notebook: Friday

Is Audi playing hide and seek at Le Mans?

Peugeot has overshadowed Audi in all practice sessions for the 24 Hours of Le Mans by being dominating in every session. This while Audi had built a completely new car over the winter with their only goal to recapture the Le Mans victory, which they missed in 2009 after five consecutive wins. Did Audi really miss the boat during the winter, or is it just qualifying speed that the Audi R15 Plus is missing?

#3 Peugeot Sport Total Peugeot 908: S?bastien Bourdais, Pedro Lamy, Simon Pagenaud.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.

At Peugeot's press conference on Friday afternoon it was pretty clear that they still were expecting Audi to be a tough competitor in next weekend's 24 hour race, especially after the gains the German car manufacture made in the final qualifying.

"Audi will for sure be closer in the race," Peugeot driver Simon Pagenaud said. "In qualifying they didn't had a lot of luck with the weather. Even though the track was yesterday slower than Wednesday, they (Audi) still managed to improve their lap times a lot. I think they were running with more downforce, which seemed to work very well for them."

After losing the Le Mans title in 2009 to Peugeot, Audi was motivated more than ever before to reconquer the title. The 8-time Le Mans winning manufacturer updated their Audi R15 to Audi R15 Plus just to achieve this goal.

"It was a challenging development schedule," Audi Sport boss Wolfgang Ulrich said. "Our development plan went smoothly. We've had a lot of experience and we know how it works when it comes to developing the cars just-in-time. But it's extremely difficult to work with an open car versus a closed car at Le Mans."

Even though the R15 Plus is officially an update of the R15, it's in fact a completely different car. Except the monocoque and the gearbox, almost all parts in the car were redesigned, including the diesel-engine. Most visually is the new bodywork with the nose being removed and the sidepods being heavily revised to reduce drag.

"You can see visually that there's a lot of difference with this car," Audi driver Alan McNish explained. "The aero-package has been changed partly for performance and partly because of the changes in the rules. We changed the downforce and there's less drag so there's more speed on the straightaway. It's really about the whole package and hopefully it will give us what we need to fight Peugeot."

#7 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R15: Tom Kristensen, Rinaldo Capello, Allan McNish.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.

In Wednesday's qualifying Audi had a hard time following all four Peugeots. The 3.8 second gap between both competitors came as a big surprise to many. However, one day later Audi was able to close the gap to 2.2 seconds, even though the track was clearly slower than the day before.

"From January it was clear that we were going to focus on the race preparations at Le Mans and that qualifying was not going to be the focus," McNish continued. "We didn't think we would have gotten the pole if we had focused on it."

With qualifying not being the focus of Audi, the 78th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans might eventually still turn out to be the long expected fight between Peugeot and Audi, though Audi has to be seen as the underdog for the LMP1 win.

"It will be a tough, tough race," McNish's longtime team mate Rinaldo 'Dindo' Capello said. "It will be a battle from the start. At the end, the speeds will continue to be very high. We are ready to fight."

LMGT2 Pole changes hands

Not the No. 95 AF Corse SRL Ferrari, but the No. 64 Corvette will start Saturday the 24 Hours of Le Mans from the LMGT2 pole position. In the post qualifying technical inspection, the technical stewards found a irregularity on the Ferrari team's rear wing, with as result that the No. 95 Ferrari will start from the back of the grid.

RSR Jaguar is probably the only team on the paddock that knows this weekend's 24 Hour of Le Mans race will be an extremely bumpy ride. After just a 6-month development program the Jaguar XKR is still unreliable, while the team is still trying to learn the car to get it up to speed.

#81 Jaguar RSR Jaguar XKRS: Paul Gentilozzi, Ryan Dalziel, Marc Goossens.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.

"Our ultimate goal is to finish this race," RSR driver Ryan Dalziel said. "It doesn't matter how long we'll have to be in the pit for repairs, we just want to finish. We feel we've already improved the car and there is a lot more potential, but this weekend is not about our pace, it's about our reliability. I think it's good that we've come here without any expectations, but at the same time we're representing a winning brand and also want to perform for all Jaguar fans worldwide."

Jaguar has a long and successful history at Le Mans. Between 1951 and 1990 the British brand has won the legendary race seven times. After a 15 year absence, Jaguar will return this year in the world's biggest endurance race.

"When I was a child, I was already playing with a Silk Cut Jaguar model car, that won at Le Mans in 1988 and 1990," Dalziel concluded. "To me, Jaguar has really become like a statement, so it's an honor to drive for Jaguar. This year is all about trial and error, we have to figure a lot of things out, not just with the car, but also within our crew. Right now I've only got a one year deal, but if Paul (Gentilozzi) and Jaguar want me back, I'd be happy to return."

The teams expectations became already true in the first practice on Wednesday. The No. 81 car lost a lot of track time due to a clutch problem, with as consequence that the team could only drive 17 laps on Wednesday. On Thursday the team had a more successful day and could not only improve their fastest time but it was also able to turn 37 laps. Nevertheless, the car still was the slowest car on track.

LMP1 Diesel versus non-Diesel engines

The worst start of the weekend was made by Rebellion Racing's No. 12 car. The car driven by Nicolas Prost, Neel Jani and Marco Andretti suffered halfway during the first practice a suspension problem, which the team wasn't able to repaid before the end of the first qualifying. The Rebellion Racing Lola was the only car not to set a time in qualifying.

#12 Rebellion Racing Lola Rebellion Coupe: Nicolas Prost, Neel Jani, Marco Andretti.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.

"Wednesday was for sure not a good way to start," Andretti said. "Halfway during the first practice we suffered a suspension problem, which brought a very early end to our first day. I think that's part of racing, those things happen. We know there is no way to beat the diesels for the overall victory. If we can push in the race all night, we should be able to beat the Aston Martins to finish as highest ranked petrol fueled car."

For Andretti it's the first time to race at Le Mans and the first time to actually race in the Rebellion car. The American had already tested for two days at Paul Ricard. With grandfather Mario Andretti as personal coach at the track, Andretti came up to speed very quickly. Also at Le Mans the 23 year old driver quickly knew his way around the 13,6km track to post quick lap times in Thursday qualifying.

"Getting used to the car wasn't really a big deal," Andretti continued. "I've raced the Acura for my father's team and to be honest, a races car is a race car. With the LMP2 car I've learned how to drive sports cars and with the P1 car I've got what every driver wants to have: more speed!"

Neel Jani is not happy by the way the ACO handled the regulations for the diesel cars. The diesel cars are nowadays clearly a class of its own, with a seven second gap between the fastest diesel car (the No. 3 Peugeot) and the fastest non-diesel car (the No. 007 Aston Martin).

"The ACO clearly underestimated the inventively of the teams and the possibilities of diesel engines," Jani commented. "Just look at the fastest practice time, it's almost three seconds faster than last year's pole, while they changed the air restrictors to make the cars slower! As non- diesel car you just have no chance to beat the Diesels, so we're just fighting to become the fastest non-diesel."

S?bastien Bourdais.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.

Homeland drivers

If Sebastien Bourdais would win this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans race, it would not only be the first time in ten years that a French driver would win the LMP1 class, it would also the first time since Jean Rondeau in 1980 that a driver from Le Mans would win Le Mans.

Bourdais moved back to his homeland after having lived in the USA for five years, while driving in Champ Car. In 2008 the four-time Champ Car champion returned to Europe to drive in Formula One for Scuderia Toro Rosso, but was let go by the team halfway during the 2009 season.

"After Formula One, I didn't wanted to leave Le Mans again to move back to the USA because of my wife and two children," Bourdais explained. "It was truly a choice of life to stay in Europe, not a choice for my career. Besides racing for Peugeot, I'm also racing in Superleague Formula. Superleague Formula and the Le Mans Series are one of the few ways to get paid as a professional driver, so I was happy to get this chance."

Simon Pagenaud finds himself at Le Mans in a very unique situation. While driving this year for Peugeot at Le Mans, the Frenchmen is this week competing against the team he's fulltime racing for in the American Le Mans Series: Highcroft Racing.

The 26 year old driver is co-leader of the ALMS championship with two wins in only three races. Making the jump from the American Highcroft Racing to the French Peugeot team was for the driver on several levels a big adjustment.

"The biggest difference is the way the teams work, like the way you talk to people," Pagenaud explained. "It actually took me more time to learn the HPD car of Highcroft than to learn the Peugeot. Because of the large diesel engine, the Peugeot's rear is very heavy, but the engine produces a lot more power. The Peugeot is actually more like the Champ Car, I drove back in 2007."

Simon Pagenaud and teammate Pedro Lamy chatting while Sebastien Bourdais is qualifying.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.

With Thursday's announcement about big rule changes within the LMP1 class, teams need to develop new technologies to be able to fight for the Le Mans win in 2011. So far in this year's Le Mans race Peugeot clearly has had the upper hand in the fight with Audi, but this might change with the introduction of the new rules. It's not surprising that Pagenaud isn't a big supporter of the ACO's decision to make big rule changes for 2011.

"I'm not sure if the new rules for LMP1 are a good idea," Pagenaud continued. "In the current economy it's not easy to develop new cars and for example in IndyCar they're also pushing back a new car because of the current economic climate. I don't think it's the right time for new rules, but at the same time I love all initiatives for green developments."

The return of Jaguar

The second and third qualifying sessions for the Le Mans 24 Hours saw the JaguarRSR team make valuable improvements from Wednesday. Ryan Dalziel, Paul Gentilozzi and Marc Goossens had adequate time behind the wheel and gains were made in time. Le Mans rookie Dalziel recorded the #81 JaguarRSR XKR GT2's fastest lap of 4:12.431 minutes, putting it 15thin class.

"It has been a difficult couple of days for the entire JaguarRSR team," said Dalziel. 'I think that we are all happy to post a respectable time. We still have a couple of little issues that we are working on, but everyone has worked really hard and we have made some really great gains in XKR. We found a chunk of time on our second day, and we at least earned a window of where we need to be. Considering the experience of the cars in front of us, we are not too far off."

Friday is the calm before the storm. The team will be working hard preparing the car of the grueling 24-hour race, which starts on Saturday at 15h00/3:00 p.m. local time (CEST). The highlight of the day is the traditional driver parade in the town center of Le Mans at 18h00/6:00 p.m.

Saturday's green flag will mark the third start for Gentilozzi as a driver, but it is the first one for him as a team owner. "It has been quite the experience, and obviously we are pleased to be here, pleased to earn a position on the grid," Gentilozzi commented. "It is a long race, we have talented drivers that can go the distance and work the car. Anything can happen. We have a crew of truly dedicated and talented engineers and mechanics. We will be prepared for anything that can happen, and be focused on doing what it takes to make it to the checkered flag on Sunday."

See also: Provisional starting grid (REVISED)

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About this article
Series Le Mans
Drivers Ryan Dalziel , Rinaldo Capello , Tom Kristensen , Allan McNish , Marc Goossens , Pedro Lamy , Paul Gentilozzi , Mario Andretti , Sébastien Bourdais , Marco Andretti , Neel Jani , Eric Gilbert , Jean Rondeau , Simon Pagenaud , Nicolas Prost
Teams Toro Rosso , Team Joest , Rebellion Racing , AF Corse